Sunday, July 05, 2009

Reading, Writing, and Trust

We're going to be discussing Margo Lanagan's fascinating novel, Tender Morsels (a Printz Honor book) at the VCFA residency. Margo (who talks about the book on her blog) will be visiting as well--I can't wait to meet her.

Tender Morsels wasn't easy reading at first, not because of the dark subject matter but because the novel demanded a great deal of trust from me as a reader. To be honest, much more trust than I am accustomed to give to YA novels as a rule. I had to quit trying to create my own logic out of the unfolding story, and instead let the text carry me along, like the "smoke...cauliflowering out of the fireplace." I had to hold the easy judgments ("I like this" or "I don't") for later. Once I'd let go my need to make meaning immediately, something very interesting began to happen. The story started settling into place, and it was startling, disturbing, and very, very beautiful.

It left me with so many questions. Do we ask too little of readers when we try to place too much on the page? Isn't it necessary sometimes to leave dots unconnected, to define less, to leave more room for the emotional self to create meaning rather than the logical mind? Isn't that the only way that young people can really grow as readers, constructing the story for themselves in deep and meaningful ways that go beyond the plot steps of one event following from another ? Something that has to do with the very mind of the story, the deepest truths it can tell, the ones that drove the writer to craft it in the first place.

Writing is all about trust. Trusting the story enough to get myself out of its way. Trusting it enough to see when a rejection is simply a matter of taste, not a reason to put the work away and deem it worthless. Trusting my vision of it enough to know that when a reader says, "I don't understand this" the solution is not always to change the confusing parts, but to aim for a larger plausibility. Lanagan's book suggests all this and more.

Tender Morsels has apparently awakened controversy in the UK about its "appropriateness" for the young--note that it's not a "children's book" but one for "young adults" and older. When I grew up in the India of the 60's, my parents who were quite strict in lots of ways, nevertheless practiced a kind of benign negligence in the matter of my reading. That meant I scoured the shelves for everything there was, and read it, usually more than once. From that I learned one thing--the content I was unready for just wafted right over my busy head. Years later, I'd think, Oh, that's what that meant. When some things scared me, I just closed the book. When you trust the young, they learn to trust themselves.

12 comments:

  1. Thanks for an extremely insightful post, Uma. The best writers trust children to bring their hearts and minds to the story.

    ReplyDelete
  2. So true. And while reading for easy entertainment is fine, a book that trusts its readers and in turn demands their trust can be so worthwhile.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I had no problem floating along with Lanagan, for exactly the reasons you mention--enjoying the ride, loving the prose, trusting that it will all be explained. However, I do think the book isn't best for a teen audience because the themes, I suspect, resonate more with older readers. Teens in general haven't had enough life experience to fully appreciate the book's message.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sure, and those are decisions that play out in the marketplace, sometimes in very strange ways. Personally, I think that the definition of YA has been stretched to a younger and younger demographic over the years. I have lots more to say, but will wait until the residency, and maybe after we've had the real-time talk, those who want to can carry that conversation on here.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is very interesting. I had extreme reactions to the book, but the most interesting one was: I hope that my work stirs such strong reactions in people.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Yes indeed. It's fearless writing, and that's so difficult to do.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Uma - Just want to say quickly that TENDER MORSELS really got to me as a poet. When I hear the words "verse novel" I'm so often puzzled, but when I think about the writing Lanagan did for TM, I can see this work of fiction approximating poetry - in the letting go, in the mystery of the language, and in the trust she has that her readers will make meaning - the refusal to spell it all out. It's exciting for me to think that teens who get much of the same material through modern, conversational fiction can get it through this book in what feels to me like a much more primordial, fascinating way. It doesn't have to work for all young adults, but it will certainly work for some - and my bet is Lanagan wasn't going for the biggest audience possible. Just the ideal reader for the work. Poetry, too, has a smaller audience, and "stranges" things up a bit.

    Julie

    ReplyDelete
  8. Juie you say: It doesn't have to work for all young adults, but it will certainly work for some.

    Exactly. "...stranges things up." I love that! I think that in children's and YA literature, we're often overly conscious of our presumed audience, and that leads us to make assumptions (not always well founded) about who they are.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Sounds like a fascinating book. Young people need challenges, and I do think they appreciate it when someone trusts their ability to interpret and understand "difficult" text.

    ReplyDelete
  10. The book is excellent. This post is useful for me to think about, because I am often asked for more--to put more on the page. (If the readers would only be patient and wait.) So this book shows me effective ways of asking for the reader to be patient.

    I thought it was a YA book--for many, many reasons (upper YA); yet it is one that could have been published adult. It is a good crossover book.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I really, really struggle with this. It's hard to get the right balance. Thanks for a great post.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I struggle with this too, Vijaya. And I often can't tell what kind of balance I'm after until at least a few drafts into the story.

    ReplyDelete