The Young Adult Novel & Eudora Welty’s Christmas Cake;
Or, A Question of Palate
In lieu of discussion questions, I would like to propose a single, small question that we might discuss. It is, as are all the best questions, one without an answer, but in the tradition of Amherst College, perhaps one worth asking all the same. It is a question of palate.
I spent yesterday in Jackson, Mississippi, wandering through Eudora Welty’s small brown-trimmed house, and wide magnolia gardens. There are, prominently displayed on the walls, words of Welty’s which compare a new book with a thick piece of “Christmas Cake,” and unsurprisingly, the couches and tables and beds and shelves of her home, like mine, are stacked with books. Among her four thousand books is a small bookcase holding her childhood favorites, including one full shelf of Twain. Though Twain might not run to the tastes of my own teens, in matters of cake, as in matters of books, who am I to give orders about the bakery?
Regarding issues of palates and the unpalatable, I believe my recent novel, Beautiful Creatures, co-written with Kami Garcia, is the first Young Adult novel that Amherst Reads has found palatable enough to profile, and for that I am honestly grateful. I offer Betsy, Lars, Liza, and of course, Barry, their own thick slices of Christmas Cake. I am also beholden to the talented Lauren Groff, ’01, another New York Times Bestselling alum, for the generous book review accompanying this profile, not only because it is very complimentary, but also because it brings to light a question facing my broader shelf in the library today. Ms. Groff concludes:
While Beautiful Creatures is nothing less than engrossing, it is clearly for a narrow audience of late tweens to early teens: the characters are simplistic, the world is split into binary good and evil, the love story is familiar and there is a somewhat unpalatable condescension toward some of the Southern characters who, to a soul, show their ignorance by dropping their terminal g’s. Such characteristics would be less acceptable in a book written for a more sophisticated audience…Beautiful Creatures succeeds in every aspect of what it was meant to be: a thoughtful, supernatural Southern love story targeted toward teenagers who feel lonely at the edges of their worlds and who would pick up a fat Gothic novel to find some company in their isolation. I know for sure that the 12-year-old I was, once upon a time, would have devoured the book in a couple of gulps, and agitated for more.
Today, after two weeks wandering from North Carolina to Mississippi, I am in fact dropping my g’s myself, but that’s not the salient point. As an Adult Writer, Ms. Groff means me no insult, and I do know that. It’s not a reflection on the Young Adult Writer that, beyond the “narrow audience of late tweens to early teens,” our characters become “somewhat unpalatable” to a “more sophisticated audience.” Ms. Groff generously blames our readers, positing (like perhaps MTV, Teen Vogue, and Pinkberry) our “target” as “teenagers who feel lonely at the edges of their worlds,” and perhaps kindliest of all, admits that, “once upon a time,” as a twelve-year-old, she too “would have devoured the book in a couple of gulps, and agitated for more.” Once upon a time, even to the Adult Writer, we would have been more than “palatable.” We would have been a nice, fat slice of Christmas Cake.
And so we return to the issue of palate. I mean the Adult Writer no offense; I’m in fact rather jealous that the Adult Writer is no longer a) “lonely” or b) “at the edges of her world.” I am a bit of both, most days. It’s a long-standing, broadly held tradition that Adult Writers dismiss Teen Writers. The New Yorker made that clear in an article famously contested by my YA contemporaries, not so long ago. Adult Writers write Literature. We write Something Else. But what is it exactly, then, that we are writing? And whom are we writing it for?
Whatever this is, this Something Else that we are writing, clearly Someone Else is reading it. I don’t mean that teens aren’t reading it; Ms. Groff is right. It was written for them – specifically seven of them, ranging in ages from 12 to 25. Six girls and one boy. But it wasn’t written down for them. It was written up for them. And it was also written for me, and I am 42. It was written for my writing partner, who is 39. It was written for our husbands and our parents and our friends and our families, our favorite librarians and teachers and yes, classmates. There is no shame in cake, not for anyone, not ever.
In the past two weeks, in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi, I have appeared at 26 public events, two live television programs, two radio shows and a podcast. An overwhelming percentage of readers attending our events are adults. Many of them are men, including a hunter in South Carolina, a DJ in Memphis, and a videogamer in Marietta, who came to listen two nights in a row. Many more are mothers. Some are grandmothers who originally purchased the book for their grandchild, only to keep it for themselves and return again to get another. In Alpharetta, GA, we had two cars that had driven four hours to the event: one car was full of teens, the other, an adult woman. At they event they laughed that they could have carpooled, because they were from the same town.
So goes the changing taste for cake.
Our ever-wise agent, Sarah Burnes, likes to recall C.S. Lewis, who said that some people write for children, some write down for children, and others just write what they will. This Something Else that I write is meant to be read, is free to be read, is out there to be read or even not read, by anyone, anytime. Once upon a time or not. I’m not an Adult Writer. I don’t expect you to be an Adult Reader. I don’t expect much of anything, I suppose. Except maybe an open mind and an open palate. A sweet tooth, and an abiding love of Christmas Cake.
Happy Holidays any day of the year, from Jackson, Mississippi, from Eudora, and from me.