I’ve just read my first Margo Lanagan books, two collections of short stories titled Red Spikes and Yellowcake. The colour theme is upheld through two other collections, Black Juice and White Time. The covers are also consistent, each showing a feminine figure in a mysterious landscape with totemic creature spirit: butterfly, beetle, spider. I mention this because marketing a writer with a consistent approach is one of the themes of my review; it intrigues me in Margo Lanagan’s case because it says much about the state of literature in this country.
Lanagan is a literary writer, a writer’s writer with a beautiful turn of phrase (drops of salt sorrow in its strands here and there like smooth-tumbled crystals in a cunning necklace – The Golden Shroud) and a rigorous style. The quality of her writing has been recognised with several World Fantasy Awards and Printz Honor Awards. What intrigues me is why has Lanagan’s work been corralled within the definition of Young Adult fiction? I am not suggesting there is anything lesser about YA fiction, nor do I know how Lanagan herself feels about this.
To me though, classifying Lanagan’s work as YA makes about as much sense as classifying Angela Carter, Italo Calvino, Jonathan Swift or Robert Louis Stevenson as YA writers. Just because some of her protagonists are young and just because there are fantasy elements in her stories do not seem valid reasons.
Lanagan’s subject matter is dark and adult, though I think teenagers should read it. They should read Carter, Calvino, Swift and Stevenson too. In Red Spikes, for example, there is a clever, brutal story, Monkeys Paternoster, about the overthrow of the alpha male of a monkey colony, told from the point of view of a young female. She sees baby monkeys butchered by aspiring bachelor males who then rape their mothers; her own rape is vividly described. In what sense is this story not adult?
The controversy that blew up in 2011 over Tender Morsels at the Bitch Media website originates partly in this confusion over what is/is not YA. The website published a list of 100 Young Adult books for the feminist reader. After a complaint accused the novel of failing to critique characters who used rape as a tool of vengeance, Tender Morsels was removed from the list, sparking furious debate.
In a reasoned defence of her work, Lanagan posted on her blog: ‘There is a lot of pressure from anxious adult carers of children and young adults to fill children’s and YA literature with explicit moral messages that can only be read one way, the ‘right’ way. This is not, I believe, the purpose of books and reading. Fiction is a means to make parts of the world visible in all its complexity and ambiguity, not cover up its nasty bits and hope they’ll go away. Fiction (particularly fantasy fiction) provides a safe place where uncertainties can be considered and explored.’
This is true but is a description of what adult literature does. If YA literature also does this, and I agree with Lanagan that it should, then I wonder if the distinction between YA and adult literature offers us anything useful? Lanagan herself articulated my concern about this. When asked about the effect of classifying books into genres, she noted that genre gives readers permission to ignore a lot of books.
Other Lanagan stories, such as Eyelids of the Dawn, in Yellowcake, about a shopping centre taking a cleansing dip in the morning sea, would be at home in an adult SF anthology. Lanagan’s work has of course been published in a number of anthologies for adults but that doesn’t seem to affect her status, in Australia at least, as a YA author.
Two possibilities suggest themselves, neither of them flattering to the literary gatekeepers of this country. The first is that virtually all contemporary writing with imaginative qualities in Australia risks being quarantined within YA fiction, as if the mere presence of imagination marks it as not serious.
This was not always the case. Think back to Peter Carey’s early collections of short stories, such as The Fat Man in History and War Crimes. His publisher, UQP, did not feel the need to label these stories as YA, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy or anything other than literary fiction. Secondly, I wonder if it’s Lanagan’s remarkable and still quite unusual privileging of concerns associated with women, particularly motherhood and sexual violence, that has led her to be categorised in this way.
What is it with Margo Lanagan and babies? wailed one reader on a book readers’ website. It’s true. In story after story we have babies at the centre: babies being delivered, dead babies, a sibling banished to another house because her mother has a baby coming, and so on. Lanagan takes fertility, babies, sexuality and the bonds between parents and their children seriously. This is one of the most exciting aspects of her work; motherhood is still fairly new territory for literature and is another reason I question her designation as a YA writer.
A good aspect of Lanagan as a YA writer, though, is that her stories break with some of the most irritating and limiting tropes of YA fiction, in particular that young characters are always orphans or their parents are missing or irrelevant and that this leads them to become powerful forgers of their own destiny.