Category Schmategory

I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. Paul Kincaid reviewed The Wild Girls by Pat Murphy:

Given the increasingly complex games with authorship that her most recent novels have played, and given how much non-fiction she has written for children, it was perhaps inevitable that Pat Murphy would write a young adult novel about writing. Which is precisely what The Wild Girls is, though if you expect anything of the subtlety or complexity of those novels you are going to be disappointed. This is writing reduced to a simple lesson in life, light, appealing and entertaining but very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects.

And literaticat responded:

* young adult novel about writing…: It isn’t a YA novel. It is very clearly a middle grade novel. And yes, there’s a difference. Consider how prickly many in the SF/F community get about people who are ignorant and dismissive about SF/F. Well, that’s how children’s book people feel when people are idiots about children’s books. GRR. I don’t understand why you would want to review a mainstream children’s book when that is so clearly NOT your forte, or why you would post it on an SF site… But moving on.

* …very definitely aimed at a younger audience by removing any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: Imagine, a children’s book aimed at children? Bust my buttons. As for doubts, hesitations or darker aspects: The dissolution of two families. The children’s struggle to cope with the emotional fallout of their parent’s disastrous marriages. Their finding their own voices in challenging times. Not doubty and dark enough? You were expecting the apocolypse, maybe?

I have issues with both these comments. To take the second comment first, I think literaticat has simply misread Paul. I do not think Paul was expressing surprise or disappointment at the fact that The Wild Girls is aimed at children, because I don’t see how you can unyoke that statement from the rest of the sentence. Paul may or may not be right that the book removes “any doubts, hesitations or darker aspects” (I haven’t read it), but it seems clear to me that it’s the concept of doing that as an approach to writing for children that he’s commenting on. And in fact, that’s the thrust of his judgement on the book — that it is “clearly written and very readable”, but that it is limited by its need to provide a lesson.

Having got that off my chest, I’m going to briefly return to my opening comment: I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a while. YA isn’t new, and YA sf isn’t new, but the visibility of and emphasis on YA as a category certainly seems to be greater now than it was only a few years ago; and hand in hand with a more clearly defined category come the readers with allegiance to that category, and comes a more clearly defined set of expectations for what is in that category. At the same time, over the last few years there have been a number of fairly high-profile examples of YA writers getting serious props from the main stream of genre criticism (Margo Lanagan, Ysabeau Wilce, Philip Reeve), and a number of well-regarded established sf writers turning their hand to YA (China Mieville, Stephen Baxter, Ellen Klages). All of which means that it’s not a surprise that a new YA novel by a writer who has previously committed sf picks up a review on a website devoted to sf (even though it is not, apparently, sf). At some point, given that despite what I said above most sf readers are not yet habitual YA readers, friction was probably inevitable.

But I’m not completely convinced that the situation is, as literaticat would have it, analagous to a non-sf writer reviewing an sf novel. In some ways, it is. If you’re reviewing something, you should try to be aware of that thing’s context — though I note that the definitions of YA in the US (where literaticat is) and UK (where Paul is and I am) seem to be somewhat different, to the point where I’m not even sure that “middle grade” exists as a separate shelf. (And I note that on her website, Pat Murphy merely describes the book as a children’s novel.) In a very interesting discussion at Gwenda’s place, Colleen Mondor says:

What I find sometimes reading so many MG and YA books is that there are those that seem to appeal regardless of the reader’s age (Cecil Castellucci’s work would fit in here or the KIki Strike book), some that seem to appeal more to adults that kids (I think “King Dork” is an example of this to a certain degree) and then those that adults might think are okay, but kids really go nuts over. But all of them are books for kids and for reviewers not used to wading around in these waters, it can get easy to mislabel or misread something.

This is surely true, and the inherent paradox of all reviews of children’s books, but I doubt Paul is unware of it, and I don’t think it makes sense of this specific case. Literaticat isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) saying that The Wild Girls is good because it appeals to its target audience, she’s saying that The Wild Girls is good, full stop — that it is not the simplified, reductive story that Paul paints it as. The problem is this: how can advocates of YA (or, in this case, middle grade) fiction claim, as they frequently do and implicitly do here, that YA is an arbitrary label, that YA does everything non-YA does, and that the books that bear the label are as worthwhile on their own merits as books that do not (see, for example, the reactions to Octavian Nothing last year), and yet also object to Paul’s review on the grounds that he isn’t sufficiently familiar with “middle grade” fiction?

It looks like trying to have your cake and eat it, too. If a book isn’t making concessions to its audience, or operating in category-specific ways, then I can’t see why you’d need to be familiar with the market for books aimed at that audience to review it fairly. (There is, of course, also the argument that any reader reaction is a fair reader reaction.) And I’d argue that this is different to the equivalent sf neurosis because “sf” as a marketing category not an arbitrary label; it is a description of content. Sf novels don’t do everything that mimetic novels do, just as mimetic novels don’t do everything that sf novels do, so when a reviewer approaches an sf novel expecting it to reward her in the ways a mimetic novel will (or vice versa), a disjunction can, and often does, result.

UPDATE, 21/10: Paul Kincaid has provided his own response, in the comments below and on his journal.