Colson Whitehead and the problem of categories

May 11, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Colson Whitehead’s on a tear. Okay, that may be overstating the case, but according to the blog A Lil’ Sumpin’ Sumpin’, the author of Apex Hides the Hurt and The Intuitionist became “huffy” when asked whether his new novel, Sag Harbor, could be considered a young adult book. The novel was described in the New York Times review as “a coming-of-age story about the Colsonesque 15-year-old Benji,” and is written in the first person. This would certainly seem to qualify it for YA accreditation. Nevertheless, when presented with this possibility, Whitehead apparently became rather defensive:

He had no idea who I was or why I was asking and probably didn’t even realize the New School, where he was speaking, had an MFA in Writing for Children, but he went right ahead and said something about how he wouldn’t let it be classified as Young Adult because it clearly isn’t for young adults and God help him if it was sold as such. Um, right, a coming of age story about a teenage boy, written in the first person, could never be considered Young Adult. Please. Get over yourself.

Responding to the charge of huffiness on Ed Champion’s Filthy Habits blog, Whitehead says that what got him exasperated was being questioned about the marketing of a book, which is not, according to him, what a writer should be talking about. He then goes on to say that labels “bug” him and that if he had his way “there wouldn’t be any categories at all.” Whitehead continues:

For me, it’s all just “writing.” Is The Colossus of New York non-fiction? Not strictly, but it has to go somewhere in the bookstore, and if it’s in Essays or in the About New York section, I don’t care. I’m just glad that it’s getting out there. But we need classifications, I guess, and this has to go here and that has to go there. If Sag Harbor is in YA tomorrow, I wouldn’t care, as long as people who want to read it can pick it up. In some bookstores, I’m in African American as opposed to Fiction; this is a category failure, but it’s out of my control and in the end I’m glad that I’m in the store at all, and hopefully the savvy consumer who is looking for me will find me. What I’m saying is that we write, and then the world categorizes us, and the next day we get up and start writing again.

While I am sympathetic to any writer’s desire not to be put into a box, particularly a box of someone else’s choosing, Whitehead’s comments seem a bit disingenuous. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction certainly seemed to matter to all those who got riled up by James Frey’s embellishments in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Moreover, it’s fine for an established writer to decry categorization, but a first-time author shopping around a manuscript had better have a solid answer to the question, “Where will this book sit in a bookstore?” It’s clichéd to point out the volume of books that gets published in a given year; in an environment where hundreds of different titles are competing for limited shelf space, publishers will inevitably want to know how to position a title before signing it. And yes, this is a marketing consideration, but it’s one that the aspiring author had best be well aware of.

Having said that, there is a certain arbitrariness to the distinction between YA and adult fiction. Many readers of books such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, and The Catcher in the Rye are young people, yet these books are routinely shelved in the adult fiction or literature sections of bookstores. Similarly, there’s much for an adult to appreciate in titles like Francis Chalifour’s funny and sensitive Call Me Mimi, a putatively “young adult” novel. (Following the runaway success of the Harry Potter novels, when publishers and authors alike realized there is a huge, and largely untapped, audience of young readers out there, a flurry of authors such as Joyce Carol Oates and Carl Hiassen began releasing YA novels.)

Notwithstanding his acknowledgement that there is a “need” for classification where literature is concerned, Whitehead’s stated desire for the wholesale elimination of categorization recapitulates John Gardner’s idea that every book is – or should be approached as being – sui generis. “The good reader never knows in advance what he wants from literature,” Gardner writes. “Nevertheless, categories help in art as in love, if only because, in seeing our neat, ordered boundaries break down, we learn new facts about the jungle they meant to make orderly.” While it is very clear that describing Whitehead as an African American novelist is an example of a category failure – how often do you hear John Updike described as a Caucasian novelist? – the use of generic categories such as mystery, chick lit, and, yes, even YA, is valuable as a rough guide for readers who use past experience as an indicator of potential future enjoyment, or for bookstore buyers, librarians, and others who need to make decisions about the suitablility of particular works for different groups of readers.

But generic categories should not be impermeable, and there remains a perceived stigma to being branded a young adult author – as though YA books are too lightweight or insubstantial to be considered capital-L Literature. Working to counteract this perception is helpful; arguing for the complete dissolution of categorization where writing is concerned is a recipe for chaos.