Writing Between Worlds: On the Differences Between Litfic and YA

Hi, this is me, taking a moment out of my busy day packing to comment on the latest controversy in the young adult community.

Grady Hendrix and Katie Crouch have done something unique even in the world of blogging in this slate.com article, which is to disparage the worlds of commercial and literary writing in one breath. I doubt this was their intention, but take a look at this paragraph:

Katie, having come out of an M.F.A. background where the rule was that good writing requires rumination, pain, and the slow loss of your best years, fought the craziness at first. But readers in Y.A. don’t care about rumination. They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story. In Y.A. you write two or three drafts of a chapter, not eight. When kids like one book, they want the next one. Now. You need to deliver.

So, see, they’re implying that readers of young adult literature don’t care about quality of prose. But they’re also implying that, LOL, literary writing is this sort of overwrought practice where you focus on trifling matters to the detriment of the story.

People are getting all up in a tweet about this, sending Ms. Crouch suggestions for lit-styled YA. That’s not a wrong-headed idea, because I’d say that this article shows a certain ignorance about the many writers who do care about quality of prose. Like my buddy Kirsten Hubbard, or Patrick Ness, or Meg Rosoff, all of whom, I’m sure, are quite capable of crafting a transcendent description of the Berber in their parents’ dens.

But I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had here, one buried beneath the breezy tone. Namely, there are differences between approaches to writing in the young adult and MFA writing worlds. I know, because I was once an MFA student, too, and now write for teens.

  • Length of time expected to produce a book – In my graduate program, writers were expected to produce one hundred and twenty pages (a novella, incomplete novel, or several short stories) over two years. In the young adult writing world, book contracts dictate that writers produce roughly one book a year. In the MFA world, if a book isn’t working, you’re expected to revise it until it does—for years, maybe. In the YA world, if a book isn’t working, you’re expected to write another.
  • Focus on the economics of the writing life—Most young adult writers I know (myself included) are aiming for the golden ring of “being a full time writer.” That means that you are contracted to write enough books, and are bringing in enough royalties from your backlist that you don’t need to do anything else to pay a living wage. In contrast, most of my cohort from my MFA program has focused their career life on teaching, taking on adjunct positions in the hopes that they might one day get a tenure track job that will let them teach creative writing classes, write, and take sabbaticals every few years for research purposes. This lifestyle, it’s hoped, is financially supportive enough that writers can take their time to produce books of high quality.

These are very real, practical differences between these two writing worlds, and of course they result in a variety of differences in actual books. For even those writers of impeccable prose ability in YA, there’s likely some focus on producing books that they’re sure will sell. Intrinsically, they have to consider the needs of their audience in order to earn a living.

In the literary world, these audience needs are largely considered secondary. Esteem is important; thematics are important; depth is important. But I’ve seen the primacy of audience demands within commercial writing dismissed. The writer is considered the authority, above and beyond the reader.

I think both models have their problems.

In the young adult world, it’s not unusual to meet writers who have been incredibly taxed by deadlines, absolutely exhausted by the demand that they produce and produce and produce after their first book sells. There’s a lot of insecurity around writing “fast enough.” Some authors draft in weeks, revise in a few small handfuls of months, and while I envy this, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t encountered a few books that felt rushed. The inevitable sophomore slump of trilogies—when the second book in a series is subpar because it was the first produced under a deadline after the writer might have taken years to polish the first—is a side-effect. Crouch and Hendrix are wrong that readers don’t notice these things. Teenagers are astute. A casual perusal of goodreads should have disabused them of any notion otherwise. The truth is, even commercial art takes some time to do well, and writers deserve the space to do their books justice without running themselves absolutely ragged.

Meanwhile, because of a flooded job market, not to mention the state of academia today (hint: it’s pretty terrible), MFA students of my generation are likely to have to work longer and harder to actually get that tenure track job, and they’re likely to be poorer while they’re working toward that goal. Years of compromised income (have you ever looked at a TA stipend? You might need a magnifying glass) and sometimes onerous debt load leaves many MFA graduates vulnerable to the James Freys of the world, who will promise some money—any money, very very little money—for any monkey who can write reasonably well. And because these students are desperate and no one’s told them why this is a bad idea, they take them up on these offers! I think that MFA programs are absolutely obligated to protect their students from sharks like Frey, and the way to do that is to begin talking about the financials of writing. Book contracts. Query letters. Agents. The truth is, the ability to write without ever caring about income from their words is a luxury that many students don’t have today. It’s time that MFA programs begin embracing Yog’s Law, an adage that’s been repeated in sci-fi circles for years: money flows toward the writer.

Neither the world of academic writing or the world of commercial writing is absolutely flawed—both have their strengths too, of course, be it beautiful prose or meaningful messages or addictive stories or entertaining ideas or passionate readerships. But, buried beneath a sea of condescension, I think Crouch and Hendrix are onto something: these are very different conceptions of the writer’s life, and I think most truly successful writers will ultimately have to craft a career that’s actually a bit of both.