Monday, 28 August 2017

Real Writing - Clémentine Beauvais

Every children’s author has, at least once, been asked if they were going to write ‘a real book, one day’, namely a book for adults. But there are unspoken hierarchies, too, I think, within children’s and YA literature, and domain-specific notions of what a ‘real’ book is there, too.

I realised this recently when I said to someone that I was currently writing an MG adaptation of a Greek myth, as well as working on a text for a picturebook, and the person replied, ‘but are you also making time for real writing?’.

At first I thought the person meant the usual, I.e. ‘writing for adults’, but that was not was she meant.

Then I thought she meant ‘real writing’ that comes ‘from the heart’ or some similar corny metaphor, as opposed to writing-to-order. The Greek mythology novel I was writing, from that viewpoint, was not ‘real’, since someone had asked me to write it. Anyone who’s ever written to order can testify that those books often turn out to be some of the most beautiful, controlled little gems they’ve ever produced. But in the eyes of many, it’s not 'real writing'.

Yet she didn’t even mean that - she actually meant, ‘are you making some time for writing another YA novel?'

This was in France, where, to be fair, I’m mostly known, if at all, for my YA writing. Yet, if we were to quantify things, I’ve written much more for a non-YA audience. Even in terms of quality, it would be unfair, I think, to dismiss my non-YA production as of lower merit - one of my most successful texts, both in terms of sales and in terms of awards, is a picturebook.

this one, since you're asking

For writers (for illustrators, of course, it’s different), the YA novel remains the épreuve reine, as we say in French - the queen discipline - of children’s and young adult literature overall. 

When people ask me, ‘And are you writing something new at the minute?’, I kind of instinctively know that they don’t mean another MG novel or another picturebook. They mean YA. And indeed, without even thinking about it, I tend to reply, ‘Oh, well, I’m working on this little picturebook and that little story - but as for a new YA one, well, I haven’t got a new idea yet’, etc. - spontaneously placing YA writing as the ‘real’ writing, and the rest, somehow, as filler.

It’s a no-brainer, of course, why people think that. A YA novel is as close to a ‘real’ (adult) novel children’s literature is going to get, so the work gets some of the glow from ‘real (adult) literature’. And there’s also a question of length, quite simply; to outsiders, it looks decidedly like more impressive work than writing a picturebook text.

But it’s surprising to realise how even we, people within the children’s literature world, have kind of internalised that hierarchy. In children’s literature courses I took at university, YA (at the time, teenage literature) and picturebooks were hugely overrepresented; YA as the supreme domain of the writerly, picturebooks as the realm par excellence of visual inventiveness. Contemporary MG literature was literally nowhere. In the Anglophone children’s literature world, we witnessed a few years ago a rise in recognition of the MG book, which is encouraging. In France, it’s not quite yet the case.

Even in a society that recognises the worth of everything not-YA, however, I think that the favourable prejudice towards YA continues, and I’d be curious to know if some of you who write across different age groups feel, too, that your YA production is the one that’s considered, by people inside and outside the ChildLitClan, as your ‘real writing.’


Clémentine Beauvais is a children's and young adult author in French and English, as well as a literary translator. Her latest YA novel, Piglettes, is out with Pushkin Press.


Hilary Hawkes said...

Really interesting. Thank you. You're right, this happens. It's a shame that authors internalise such views - I'm not sure it's healthy or helpful! As someone who probably hasn't written a real book yet, then :D (just non-fiction for grown-ups and children's MG) I'll read the comments with interest.

Catherine Butler said...

I think you're right that MG can be the neglected middle child of children's lit., neither the heir who's going to take over the family business nor the baby of the family with its winning antics. I find criticism too, especially where it has any kind of Freudian inflection, is often distressingly eager to move MG protagonists towards puberty (often said to be "oncoming", or "imminent", if they can't quite claim with a straight face that it's already arrived). Between the Oedipus Complex and adolescence there is nothing but the barren waste of the Latency Period, after all. Move along, nothing to see here...

Susan Price said...

I like your analysis, Catherine! And it's very odd, isn't it, since psychology has such nfluence today, and since it shows us quite clearly that it's the years of childhood where lifelong attitudes, loves and hates are formed. By adolescence many are already set and won't be changed without great self-awareness and struggle.

Lynne Benton said...

I agree - three cheers for MG fiction! Thank you, Clementine!

Stroppy Author said...

See how even less of a 'real' writer you are if you write non-fiction.... clearly no skill or imagination in that.