Tuesday, May 19, 2015

#IReadYA Week: "Literary Merit"--Who Decides?

It’s #IReadYA week this week, and I’ve read a lot of tweets and posts about the general awesomeness of the YA genre, and that’s not surprising. Actually, what is surprising: given the brilliance of so many YA works, how is it that any of us still need to defend or explain YA—to anyone?

I write YA, but I’m also an English teacher; my students and I talk a lot about what constitutes a “serious” work of literature. On the AP Lit exam, there’s an “open” question—the third free response essay, which gives a fairly broad prompt, then suggests a list of works. Test-takers are directed to select one of these books OR “a work of similar literary merit.” We teachers learn in our training that more recent writers, and mostYA writers, are not considered by College Board to be of literary merit. This means, for example, that J.K. Rowling is not on the list. I always tell my students that she will be—if nothing else, age grants a work that status (consider a writer like Alexandre Dumas, whose work was not regarded as Serious Literature in its own time, but today, it is). 
How different, really, are The Catcher in the Rye and Looking for Alaska in terms of story and emotional resonance—and quality of writing? Yet my students can write about one on the AP exam, but not the other.
Who decides what’s “serious” literature anyway?--is one question my students always ask, and it’s a good one. Time is definitely part of the equation, but if we just look at books released in the past fifteen years, there’s definitely another layer of prejudice at work. Genre, for one: books set in the real world are often automatically viewed as more serious or literary. And the target audience is definitely another factor. Many adults dismiss books written for kids. Of course, many more do not. I have an annual pass to Universal Studios and I never get through the day without running into adults in full Harry Potter regalia. Maybe most YA is just too darn much fun for some folks?
There will always be people out there deciding what’s highbrow, what’s fancy, and what’s Serious Literature. And to me that’s part of what #IReadYA week is all about. It’s a time for those of us who get it—that it really doesn’t matter where a book is shelved—to share our love of not just YA but reading in general. I hope that someday we won't really need the hashtags anymore: #WeNeedDiverseBooks will be redundant, because we’ll already have loads of them. And like all good book nerds, I dream of a world when every day is simply #IRead day.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Does this Sock Spark Joy in Me? and Other Tough Questions About House Cleaning

A lot of folks have been posting lately about a book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The article I read called it “a mysterious Japanese organizational manual.” The subtext here, of course, as with most self-help books is that the way you currently organize your life, by the way, is wrong.  I’m sure this is true for me—first, there’s nothing either Japanese OR mysterious about my organizational system.

Also, I learned from this article that according to Marie Kondo, the author of this inspiring tome, I am also bad at throwing things out. The way you’re supposed to do it is, find everything of one kind in your house (like every piece of clothing, for example), then put it in a giant pile, sit down and go through every single item, one at a time, and ask—does this item spark joy in me?

What?? I think it would be faster to just keep my dog and that one pair of Lucky jeans from the late nineties that I’m convinced are labeled with the wrong size—because literally nothing else sparks actual, like, joy. I mean, she’s not asking, does this item make you happy, or content—nope, the litmus test here is JOY. That's a lot to expect from a t-shirt or a spaghetti strainer or a wall sconce.

The system gets weirder, though—this Kondo person also suggests that if you do give an item away, you should first thank it for the role it’s played in your life.

What I want to know is, when did we get so chatty with our material possessions? When did it become socially acceptable to start a dialogue with our sock drawer? Kondo also suggests socks be stored flat, because they work so hard for us while they’re on our feet. I’ll bet if socks do talk, she’s their number one hero. Finally!—the socks will say. Marie Kondo is the Sock Advocate we’ve been waiting for!

It seems to me that all this personification of stuff is likely to lead to more issues, not less. I’ve seen a few of those hoarding shows, and those folks always have these mysterious (there’s that word again) relationships with their stuff. Everyone around them is screaming that they should throw away those National Geographic magazines from 1975 already. But the hoarder woman says, like-- no, I need to keep them, because my father loved lizards, and there’s a great gecko article in the July issue, or some such. 

Here's the thing. It’s just stuff. You don’t have to apologize to your castoffs before putting them in the Goodwill bag. I’m also going to make the radical claim that you don’t actually need to feel joy when looking at your kitchen utensils or your upstairs closet. When I look at probably eighty percent of what I own I think, wow, I’d really like to buy a new one of those. And that’s okay. It’s aspirational, even—right? Instead of digging through my closet looking for joy, you can probably find me shopping, which, if you ask me, is where the magic really happens.