Saturday, November 14, 2009

Beginnings & Endings

Ten years ago my first book, Thirteen Shades of Black & White (Turnstone Press, 1999) came out. Let's just say it wasn't a best seller.

I don't often get asked about it, but I did last night, because I met a CEGEP professor from Montreal who recently taught two of my stories to 17 year olds.

Apparently, they quite liked them. And they didn't like the Margaret Atwood story included in the same course pack.

Now Atwood is going to be the first Canadian to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, so I don't mean this as a slag at her. What the professor wanted to know was what else I thought her kids might like. What else her kids, often from working-class backgrounds, might relate to.

I told her I would think about it and get back to her.

Upon reflection, I wondered again why Canadian literature isn't able to connect with the teenage audience. Why it doesn't even try. Why the publishing industry creates "teen-themed" books that startle in their naivete. Especially when compared to the subway advertising we're bombarded with daily. Plus the mass marketing machines of popular movies, music, magazines, iPods, cell phones, etc. Teens live in complicated worlds. Why is teen fiction still so Archie and Jughead-like?

The best readers of Thirteen Shades of Black and White have been teenage girls. Which is not something I could ever have predicted.

For example, "Beginnings & Endings" is the title of the story taught at that CEGEP. It's about a teenage girl runaway who crosses paths with a 30-something man in a coffee shop. They get to know each other a little. They both come away from the experience a little bit changed. Yet nothing much dramatic happens. It's a story about a subtle meeting of two people who are each damaged, each moving cautiously and gently through life.

Of course, there is also sexual tension in the story. Are they going to come together physically? They each have the potential to take advantage of the other, but they don't.

"Things come together, then the come part." This line appears in my new book The Lizard (Chaudiere Books, 2009). How things start and end is one of my narrative obsessions, appearing in various forms in high percentage of my stories.

I asked the professor if the girls understood the story better than the boys.

"Yes," she said. "But they are more mature at that age."

I'm not sure I agree, but I won't dispute this. All of the students, the professor told me, responded strongly to my stories. Why did I think that was?

On the one hand, I have no idea. On the other, this is the natural audience for the book. In many ways, I wrote the book I wanted to have read when I was a teenager.

I'm now 41, and the stories are still strangely finding new readers.



Jacob Russell said...

Hard to imagine a more confirming (? is that the word? 'reasuring' sure isn't...) ... I mean, I'd be speachless... what could be better? That readers who, in your better mind, would never have imagined liking what you wrote... and yet... the very ones, maybe a generation or so past, you really did have in mind?


Nurse it, dude! Probly don't get better!

Kerry said...

"I wondered again why Canadian literature isn't able to connect with the teenage audience"

I like this question. Good to think about.

Clare said...

I would argue that there's more than one kind of book published and marketed to teens. Much of it is manufactured and is vacuous, but there is also some fantastic literature. Tim Wynne-Jones, Martha Brooks, Kenneth Oppel, just to name a few, are authors that write books that are undoubtedly literature.

My own experience is that if teens come across the Canadian literature that is not marketed to them, they often do like it. My daughter and her friends love Atwood, Zoe Whittall, Cordelia Strube, and some others they've been exposed to. But they're not exposed to enough and they're often not connecting with the books taught them in their high school English classes (most of which are not Canadian).

I suppose what I'm saying is that I don't think the lit is the problem. There is great literature that is being marketed to and read by teens and there is great lit that is not, but it is mostly a matter of them not being aware of it.

Clare Hitchens
Eden Mills Writers' Festival
Young Adult Author Coordinator