A year and a half ago I signed a contract with Penguin to write a young adult novel. I chose to write the YA novel under a fake name so as to reserve my own illustrious name for the thousands of stories about sex, death, and misery that I planned to write for masochistic grownups in the future. My pseudonym—let’s call her W-2—has been trying to build a fan following in advance of her January 2015 debut by Tweeting about her boyfriend and responding warmly to teen bloggers who read the galley and pronounced it either “amazeballs” or “awesomesauce.” W-2 has sort of taken on a life of her own, which I guess is the point.
The author John Banville, who won the Man Booker Prize for his 2005 novel The Sea, also happens to write noir detective novels under the name of Benjamin Black. “If I’m Benjamin Black,” Banville once said, “I can write up to two and a half thousand words a day. As John Banville, if I write two hundred words a day I am very, very happy.” He prefers his crime fiction to his dense and poetic literary novels that tussle more with human consciousness than with bad guys. “My Banville books are attempts to be works of art,” he told The Guardian, “but because perfection can never be achieved they always ultimately fail. So when I look at my Banville books all I see are the flaws, the faults, the failures, places where I should have kept going to make a sentence better.” Literary fiction seems more about achieving an esoteric ideal (the Great American Novel, for instance), while genre fiction (crime, romance, YA) seems more about connecting with an audience. They’re almost different forms of media altogether.
In a 2011 Slate article, Katie Crouch and Grady Hendrix wrote about their experience co-authoring the YA novel The Magnolia League. “[R]eaders in Y.A. don’t care about rumination,” they wrote. “They don’t want you to pore over your sentences trying to find the perfect turn of phrase that evokes the exact color of the shag carpeting in your living room when your dad walked out on your mom one autumn afternoon in 1973. They want you to tell a story.” Crouch apparently had trouble letting go of her “M.F.A. background where the rule was that good writing requires rumination, pain, and the slow loss of your best years” and embracing the “insane pace” of writing YA. This was similar to my experience. I wrote three distinct drafts of my YA novel in nine months. That’s a book every three months, which is a timetable that even Grisham doesn’t maintain. Psychologically, it was grueling. By the end of the process I felt like the worst writer in the world. But that’s only because I was thinking about it all wrong.
For the past year, when I’m at a party or something and am asked what I do for a living, I say I’m a writer. Then my boyfriend (who two-times me with W-2—the bastard) usually pipes up that I wrote a YA novel and it comes out in January and it’s going to be a big deal, etc. Though I think it’s sweet that my cheating boyfriend likes to boast about me and my future millions (sometimes he even seems to think I have a movie deal on par with The Hunger Games), I always feel sheepish when my YA book is made public like this. I thought it was because I’m somewhat insecure and I tend to downplay my accomplishments. “It’s nothing,” I’d say to counter his brags. “Just some silly kids’ book I wrote under a pseudonym.” This response left me feeling that I was betraying my novel (and how hard I had worked), and that I needed to be a better advocate for myself.
But now I don’t think it was my dismal self-esteem making me respond in such a way. I actually like the story and the characters and the message of the book. A lot. The trouble is I didn’t write it. W-2 is entirely responsible. She’s more interested in things like plot, paragraphing, following an outline, hitting the right emotional beats at the right time, getting those pages turned, etc. She doesn’t tear her hair out when a cliche sneaks into her work. She’s cool and she’s crazy about teen readers and she’ll be positively thrilled to sign your copy of her book, come January. But if I try to identify with her, I start feeling low. My whole sense of self is called into question. Being a writer is integral to who I am. But I can’t write just anything and still own that sense of “being a writer.” I can only write the stuff that comes from that rock-bottom place that would make most teenagers (and many adults) say, “WTF?” It’s nice to have met my alter ego and I will enjoy tagging along with her on book tour, but it’s like Banville said about himself and Benjamin Black: “They are two completely different writers who have two completely different processes.” In order for me to conserve my sense of self as Some Kind of Artist, I have to divorce my meager talents from W-2’s. It’s not a question of highbrow versus lowbrow or young versus old or whatever. The categories are too fluid for that. It’s a matter of “THIS IS WHO I AM” versus “This is something I wrote.” Thinking in these absolutes seems to help me. Creative desolation only strikes when I don’t know who is writing.
So I’m going to keep doing what I do and maybe W-2 will keep doing what she does (or maybe she’ll take some time off to backpack Europe with my boyfriend), but never again will I confuse the two writers. Meanwhile I can learn a lesson from the teen audiences that W-2 wants to reach. As Crouch and Hendrix point out, these young readers are “still fresh and unjaded.” They’re loyal and excited and communicative and they just want something honest to hold onto. They’re the main reason Crouch turned from the elitist world of literary fiction to YA. But it seems to me that instead of writing YA in order to connect with that tremendous audience (and its allowance money), we intermittently sophisticated grownup authors who actually enjoy describing “the exact color of the shag carpeting” should strive to treat our own and each other’s work with a comparable level of freewheeling enthusiasm. Or at least that’s the only way I can foresee Hollywood turning my Great American Novel into a four-part movie trilogy. Fingers crossed.