IT IS WHAT IT IS: KID STUFF
... a MobyLives guest column
by Jackie Corley
22 November 2004 — When Caren Lissner's column about the lack of a Gen Y "literary spokesman" came out on MobyLives last December, a rabid little debate cropped up in the literary community. Why was there no definitive voice for these 20–year–olds? Should there be? What role could that inexperienced voice possibly serve?
As one of these odd–ball 20–somethings of the literary community, the debate hit close to home. Through my experience with my small press, Word Riot, I'd buddied up with a number of young lit–sters and, after college, was taking regular trips into New York to attend and participate in readings.
It was strangely fascinating: here were these fine creatures my age who had book deals, did press and interviews and didn't have day–jobs. Me? I had to sober up on the 12:37 a.m. train to Jersey to work my local–reporter beat the next day.
But I liked being on the periphery of this scene, of being a part of it without attempting to surrender my youth and my necessary growing pains and experiences to full–on professional writer status.
Publishing companies have taken to becoming youth fetishists as part of their half–cocked schemes of revitalizing fiction. Never mind that by dropping six–figures on a 20–something novelist — which any first–time novelist doesn't have a crack shot in the dark of making back in sales — you've effectively killed that writer's chances of a fulfilling long–term career. And never mind that the last thing anybody over 30 wants to read is an untried 20–something's treatise on his or her reality. Keep trying to plug away at that youth market. Keep dropping ads in Publisher's Weekly and Poets & Writers and expecting youth culture to jump all over a $25–a–pop hardcover. That trend is really going to catch on one of these days.
One of my friends, 21–year–old Marty Beckerman (Generation S.L.U.T.), teased me for my wariness about writers getting published young, my concern about what it does to your psyche and how it would effect your future writing. "I don't wanna read any Jackie Corley book before she's 30," he joked on my blog.
Maybe I was being too cynical about the "curse" of being published young. I asked 23–year–old Ned Vizzini (Be More Chill) what he had lost or gained by being published at such a young age. "What I've gained is a dunking into the professional (as opposed to the pseudo–intellectual/collegiate) world," Vizzini said. "What I've lost is the element of surprise. You only get one shot in this weird business of art and you only have one career to build on. If you build your career around youth, you're going to lose out very quickly. By being published young I've lost the luster of the unpublished."
Young writers are also inevitably beholden to whatever shtick or image they've launched their careers on. It seems like a minor enough burden to bear — whatever label has been stitched into your skin could easily be overcome by the substance of your work, couldn't it?
I never thought much about "projecting an image" until a New York Daily News gossip writer for Lloyd Grove's "Lowdown" column came tapping on my e–mail; he was contacting me regarding a reading I was doing with Vizzini and Beckerman called "Feed the Young Writers 2004." Some anonymous tipster imagined a literary feud between fellow–participant David Amsden (Important Things That Don't Matter) and me that had initially kept me off the reading.
So there I was, a Jersey nobody chain–smoking into a damp, sleepless night, paranoid that my first introduction into some more–esteemed social realm would be as "belligerent, unpublished young writer." And to be recognized for what — some non–existent tiff? The fact that something so inconsequential could wind up characterizing me before I'd even tried to make a jump into author–dom left my empty, nervous stomach churning.
The gossip story died on the vine, fortunately, but in one respect, it left me more determined. The kid novel, the one that had been eating away my time, energy and computer disk space — it was time to get that thing done. The only way to leave behind the recklessness, doubts and insecure self–absorption of the young writer and the kid novel would be to expunge that.
Worrying about a non–existent image? That was self–absorption. Watching other writers' lives — both young and old — as a means of honing my craft? That was reckless. Stalling on the kid novel for fear it would reflect the tone and tenor of my actual age? That was me choking on the doubt.
The kid novel, if worthless otherwise, is a practice field. Yes, I'll trip and stumble on an awkward paragraph. I'll probably reveal my own greenness with an unrealistic scene between two characters. But learning how to be a writer isn't so different from learning how to be an adult: you need to fail and fail often for the chance to fail better one day.
Does that mean every kid novel should be published or, at least, published at the rate that they have been these past years? I still don't believe so. Youthful "career" success — at an age when nobody in their right mind should refer to themselves as having a "career" — denies you the pretty essential feelings of failure, frustration and helplessness that come with first being ordained into the adult world. That type of success can be dangerous in the future, whatever "career path" you choose.
That's not to say that the kid novel shouldn't be written or even published; it just needs to be recognized for what it is: necessary preparation.
I'm confident that I have an adult novel in me — I have the workings of it weaving through my mind and the strange experiences to deal with it honestly one of these days. But any adult novel needs patience, self–reflection and an unselfish work ethic, and at 22–years–old and still living in my parents' house, I know I'm not there yet.
And until any 20–something writer is able to grow–up and deal with their own place in the world objectively and with humility, your 20s are a time of failure, practice and painful education, both in your writing and your life. In the mean time, you keep your eyes open: you watch, you work and you wait.
Jackie Corley is the proprietor Word Riot, a webzine, and the Word Riot Press, an independent publishing house. Her writing has appeared at SerialText.com, and is forthcoming in BOOM! For Real, and Better Non Sequiter. Corley was born in 1982 and lives outside Philadelphia.
©2004 Jackie Corely
Previous column; THE FICTION OF THE DEMISE OF THE WOMEN'S REVIEW OF BOOKS ... What's the significance of the demise of The Women's Review of Books? Former editor Lynn Walterick talks about it in a MobyLives guest column.
Previous column; MOODY IN SOLITUDE ... What happens when you ask Rick Moody to judge a fiction award contest? Our intrepid reporter goes down river to find out.
All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.