Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shannon Hale on Story

Shannon Hale is becoming one of my favorite writers. The YA fantasy writer (who has also written one book for adults, Austenland) continues to delight me with courageous coming-of-age tales. They're deeply satisfying stories and also contain beautifully crafted prose. I reviewed her 2006 Newbery award winning Princess Academy last year, and just recently finished reading and reviewing The Goose Girl, her first novel published in 2003.

I've also become a visitor to Hale's blog Squeetus, a refreshing place to visit. She not only shares with great enthusiasm about her life as a published author, but generously offers peeks into her creative process.

This week she posted a link to a piece she wrote for School Library Journal. Called "How Reader Girl Got Her Groove Back", it's an autobiographical essay in which she reflects on how being force fed the classics, then taught a completely analytical approach to studying literature in college, then taught how to write literary fiction in grad school, almost killed her love of reading. She speaks candidly of how she rediscovered the joyful "reader girl" inside her, the one that used to read with a light under the covers until her eyes gave out, and then fell asleep splayed over a book. (Been there, done that!)

I mention it here not only because it's worth reading in full, but because I found myself needing/wanting to muse aloud about some of what she wrote.

I resonated with much of what she says. I went through a long period of time where I felt like the reading and writing I loved most was always considered "secondary" or somehow less than profound, primarily because much of it could be found on children's or young adult's shelves. I got over that a while ago, especially after trying and failing to read (with any real engagement or passion) a number of contemporary "adult" novelists. I'm not saying that I couldn't find any contemporary novelists writing stories that gripped me, but the ones I usually loved either wrote some form of genre fiction (read: 'non-serious' or 'non-literary') or else straddled the worlds of adult and young adult or children's fiction -- writers like Madeleine L'Engle or Jon Hassler. In the case of the latter two, there were other red flags showing they wouldn't pass muster as "serious literature" in many colleges -- they were both steeped in faith-based worldviews and, in Madeleine's case at least, dabbled in fantasy.

For a long time I had difficulty putting my finger on why I didn't "fit in" with the MFA program I attended for two weeks the year I turned 24 (just several months before I got married). I had been accepted as a potential candidate: in other words, I was there on trial. And what a trial. Fresh out of college, at least a handful of years younger than the other students in the program, I went thinking I'd spend two weeks writing and reading and getting excited about stories with other people who loved stories too. There were pockets of that passion there, and I did learn, but mostly what I found were rather jaded literary type folks who liked to smoke, sip cocktails, network with published authors, write depressing stories, and talk about postmodernism, a concept that I had barely even heard of at the time (which is funny to think about now)! I still remember sitting dumbfounded through a workshop in which we analyzed a short story made up entirely of one sentence (one very, very long, rambling sentence). My faith life and the fact that I sometimes wrote stories with child protagonists didn't get me very far either. The mentor assigned to me seemed bored with my child-likeness. In my closing meeting with her, she simply urged me to find "my voice" and handed me a pre-printed list of all the things I should read if I ever seriously wanted to be a writer. I'd hardly read any of them.

I do think there can be a place for what's termed literary fiction. It can even be written well. But beautiful words that don't lead anywhere are, in the end, just beautiful words, no matter how nicely put together. I long ago realized those are not usually the stories that set my heart pounding, make me laugh or cry, or keep me turning pages, the kind of story worth reading again and again and again the way I kept returning to Alcott, Lewis, Lovelace and L'Engle as a child, the way I began to return also to Tolkien, Austen and others in my young adulthood.

Today I've simply come to accept the fact that most of the best contemporary literature is being written for children and young adults. Perhaps because the writers for those audiences know that the audiences still care deeply about story (take a look at my Epinions profile sometime if you want to see more of my musings on the subject) and expect a good one. And I'm profoundly grateful for writers like Hale who care passionately about delivering a good, cathartic story with a beginning, middle and end and yet also care passionately about beautiful language.

And YET...there always has to be an "and yet" doesn't there?

I am not ready to give up on classical literature. I believe passionately in the value of reading old books as well as new ones (I've imbibed too much Lewisian thought not to value that!). Although I'm sure that my daughter will gobble up many good, contemporary books on the children's and YA shelves as she grows older (and I'm compiling a list now of some of the best ones...Hale's on it) I don't want that to be her only fare. We need a good diet of old and new to nourish our hearts, minds and imaginations.

I think it's very true that being force-fed books you aren't ready for, or being taught to read classics primarily as a lesson in how to analyze and tear apart a story for symbols and themes can kill a love of reading. I don't want that to happen to my daughter: I want her "reader girl" personality to still be shining through at 10, 13, and 16, just as it shines through now at 6 when she trips excitedly into the kitchen to read me a Richard Scarry story while I'm loading the dishwasher. But I don't think it necessarily follows that being given the classics, even some of the so-called great books of the western canon, must dampen a reader's enthusiasm. (It's one reason I'm excited about John Granger's work with the English literary tradition and its influence/connection to JK Rowling's Harry Potter stories...John is truly excited about the idea that with Harry Potter as a "shared text," this generation has a unique and wonderful springboard into understanding and appreciating the great books in a new way.)

Of course I'm not saying Hale doesn't value old stories. That would be silly indeed, given the fact that her novel The Goose Girl, for instance, is based on the Grimm fairytale of the same name. What excites me no end is the way the best stories draw on the stories that come before them, continuing a conversation or engaging in a dance that started long before. So let's give our daughters Hale's marvelous novel, and then let's turn them loose (if they haven't encountered it already) with Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book. Old and new, together.

No, in this thoughtful essay, Hale is simply relating her own experiences regarding what helped bring her back to a passionate love of reading. I resonate with those experiences: in fact, they feel so familiar to me that I found myself inwardly nodding. But I would say that teachers and teaching methodology are often more at fault than the books any of us were given. Classics are, by definition, old, books that have stood the test of time. Most of them have stood the test of time for a reason, but the very fact of their age means that most of us don't find them easy reading, we need keys to help us unlock their joys. Not all classics are created equal (if it's true now that not every writer writes good stories, it's certainly always been true). But there are plenty of "old stories" that we can give to our children in ways that will help nourish that "reader girl" (or "reader boy") inside them. At least that's my hope!


Erin said...

Great essay, by her and by you! My college classes really kinda burned me out too. There were a few novels I loved - Huck Finn, Sense and Sensibility, Robinson Crusoe - but so much of it, especially the more modern books, left me feeling flat, and there were a couple of years when I pretty much stopped reading just for the fun of it. I also got tired of all the derisive undertones in class discussions about mainstream and genre fiction. I guess the main thing is to read what nourishes us, whether or not it's highly regarded by the literary elite. And there are so many wonderful books out there for children and young adults. I need to read one of Shannon Hale's books soon...

Beth said...

It's interesting, isn't it, how so much of contemporary literature in the modern era seemed to lose its way in terms of story-telling. I think there are real correlations between that and shifts in theological beliefs. We don't always connect the dots, but when people cease to feel certain about the authorship and purpose of their own lives, perhaps it's no wonder they begin to have a hard time seeing or creating stories with any pattern or structure that makes sense. Or that they don't know how to write about love in ways that feel real and resonate with our hearts. The health and vitality of children's and young adult literature (at least some of it) today gives me hope that people are recognizing their story hunger and looking for pattern and meaning again.

And how wise you are, Erin, about the importance of reading what nourishes us!

*Goose Girl* would be a great place to start with Hale. I couldn't find the next Bayern book at our library, but other libraries in the system had it, so I've put a hold request on it. I can always tell when I'm really "into" an author, because I'm so eager to go back into their fictional world again!

Becky N. said...

Thank you for coming by my blog and inviting me here!

What an insightful post! I didn't have a lot of education revolving around literature, but my reading preferences definitely seem to be in tune with yours. I was in a book club a couple years ago, but ultimately quit attending because of the way each book became analyzed to death. I would read the books - and enjoy them, but my brain just didn't want to pick them apart. I just wanted to talk about things I enjoyed/didn't enjoy. Analyzing a book kills the joy for me.

I will definitely go read the piece you linked to, "How Reader Girl Got Her Groove Back". It sounds like a great read.

Anyway, thanks again. I can't wait to read more of Shannon Hale's books, after "Book of a Thousand Days". I will definitely be coming to visit your blog in the future, I think! :)

Beth said...

Becky, thank you for stopping by! It was so funny yesterday...I was on a blog that had a link to the "giveaway" sites. I was scrolling through seeing what people were offering as giveaways and when I saw "Book of a Thousand Days" I think my pulse quickened! I thought "woo-hoo, could someone really be doing a giveaway with a Shannon Hale book?" and of course hopped right over to check! :-)

As a former English major, there's a part of me that does love to "analyze" books...but only if it's done in a way that really helps to open my eyes and give me a way to think about deeper meanings. If it's just "symbol chasing" -- well, I'd much rather just go back and read the story again, especially if it's one I love!

I do hope you'll come back and visit. I'm sure I'll be checking in at your blog again too! Blessings!