restricted access Finding the Form: Toward a Poetics of Youth Literature
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Finding the Form:
Toward a Poetics of Youth Literature

I've been involved with literature and the young all my career, which extends to fifty years now. During that time, my understanding of what I call "youth literature"1 has evolved.

At the beginning I thought it was literature for the young—written for a known audience, taking into account whatever limitations and preferences of language, form, and subject it was generally supposed were appropriate for that readership. In the 1950s and 60s my primary occupation was as a teacher of teenagers who were not academically gifted, many of whom read very little. So my view of youth literature was shaped by concern for them. For fifteen years I read with their eyes. I searched for fiction they would read with desire and pleasure, and wrote and edited books produced for them.

After a while, this seemed inadequate. It implied that all young people are the same, whereas quite obviously they are not. They are as various as adults. So I began to talk about books written "on behalf of" young people, by which I meant literature that was on the side of youth, was empathetic with their point of view, their concerns, and their ways of life. A literature written for them only in the sense that they were not able to write it for themselves. There seemed nothing wrong with this. After all, most adults cannot write the literature they read for themselves, which can therefore be said to be written on their behalf.

But again after a while, this seemed insufficient, because it's still a reader-focused way of thought. The English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch divided writers into "journalists" and "serious writers." The French critic [End Page 267] Roland Barthes made the same distinction. I prefer to adopt his French etymology of the English words "writers" and "authors."

Writers shape what they write to suit a known audience. This doesn't apply only to newspapers, magazines, and information. Most novels are written like that.

Authors, on the other hand, are not concerned with the reader. At least, not while they are composing their books. Their intention is to produce a work of art. Which is to say, they are only interested in making an object called a poem or a novel or any of the other kinds of composition we call literature.

This evolution in my thinking occurred in the mid-1970s when I found myself writing a novel that was not driven by a desire to write for teenagers. I was not writing to please a readership, known or unknown. Nor was I writing on anyone's behalf. Even more important, I was certainly not engaged in an act of self-expression. I knew only that I was writing out of an urgent need, without reference to anyone else, not even to myself.

The resulting novel, published in 1978, is called Breaktime. The central characters are teenagers, and the point of view and main concerns are those of youth. But because it wasn't for, and wasn't on behalf of young readers, the only expression I could find that made any sense was to say it was a novel of youth.

While writing Breaktime I came across Wolfgang Iser's The Implied Reader, which gave me the intellectual tools to clarify in critical terms what had happened. Unconsciously I'd shifted from writing for a known readership to writing for "the reader in the book." In Breaktime the reader in the book is manifested as Morgan, a character in the story, the friend of Ditto, the story's protagonist and first-person focalizing narrator. Ditto writes for Morgan.

But that wasn't all. Iser gave me the concept of "the author in the book," sometimes expressed as the author's second self. In this construction, the author in the book and the reader in the book are as much characters as any of the characters in the story.

A novel written in that manner is a closed world, an object like a sculpture. It stands as an actuality in the world, just as David stands as an actuality in...


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