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Outside the Box: Author M. T. Anderson’s 2016 HBAS Keynote Speech

alcott_little-womenI can’t stand Little Women. Sure, I know Louisa May Alcott’s book is a classic of children’s literature; Henry James called her “the Thackeray, the Trollope, of the nursery and the school-room.” But as a romantic-hearted young teen, I couldn’t bear to watch the March girls’ sunny, youthful dreams squashed by fate and by the gloomy, smarmy Marmee. In particular, I was rooting hard for a gender-bending marriage between a girlish boy named Laurie and a boyish girl named Jo; so I could never reconcile myself to the necessity of Jo, that coltish, fiercely independent young author, ditching Laurie, her obvious mate, to marry a dry, scrofulous German pederast. Maturity and verismo be damned.

So imagine my delight when, as an adult, I discovered that Louisa May Alcott was not merely the author of this tale of Victorian realities grinding down the dreams of girls — she was also the author of a series of what she called “blood & thunder tales,” noir melodramas with punchy names like Pauline’s Passion and Punishment; A Modern Mephistopheles; and Behind a Mask; or, A Woman’s Power. These are stories filled with treacherous governesses, hidden treasure, and poisonous adventuresses on the make. She published them under a pseudonym, A. M. Barnard, but they were bound up and republished in the 1970s under her own name, suddenly casting a new light for many readers on the author of Little Women; or, One Dies and the Others Are Devoured by Motherhood.

I thought of Louisa May Alcott when I was asked to speak on writing “outside the box” and it was mentioned that I was selected partially because I wrote in a number of different genres. (Though mainly because I live within driving distance of Simmons College.) It struck me suddenly that, much more than in the world of literature for adults, writers for the young are often polymaths. It’s not uncommon for writers for children to leap from picture book to novel, to switch from mystery to science fiction to domestic realism.

Thinking of Alcott’s reach from YA to gothic thriller, for example, I think of contemporary writers like Kelly Link, whose writing — and circles of professional friendship — unite the spheres of experimental literature, horror, and YA lit. These are groups that did not see much overlap when I was young. Now figures like Kelly and like Margo Lanagan move between these worlds, or sit right on the seams between them, without comment. Kelly’s first book, Stranger Things Happen, though directed at adult readers, contained refracted images of Nancy Drew. Later, editor Sharyn November published a book of Kelly’s eerie, fabulist fiction for teens, Pretty Monsters, though some of those stories were originally published in literary journals for adults. Kelly’s most recent book, Get in Trouble, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the world of adult fiction. And yet she’s also deeply involved in a cluster of Central Massachusetts–based YA and children’s writers including Holly Black and Cassandra Clare. These connections make absolute logical sense, but were once considered indelicate to acknowledge; the last few decades have worn down the walls between the genres, and it’s no longer considered wildly unusual to cross over and write “outside the box.”

de la peña_last stop on market streetConsider Matt de la Peña. Known for intense, highly realistic YA novels about kids confronting the troubling scissions of race and class, Matt suddenly launched his own two-part “blood & thunder” tale, The Living and The Hunted, in which his gift for deft, nuanced characterization was served up with an apocalyptic cocktail of universal plague and corporate espionage, swizzled by an earth-shattering tsunami — a story that quite literally (gleefully!) jumps the shark. And while we were reeling from Matt springing that particular genre surprise, his gentle, quiet picture book, Last Stop on Market Street, won the Newbery Medal. Or consider the irritatingly multitalented Maggie Stiefvater, who draws beautifully, performs her own songs, and writes both supernatural YA novels (The Scorpio Races, the Raven Cycle) and articles on car racing for adult speedsters in a journal called Jalopnik. I’m sure you are all thinking of other examples of writers who cross the lines between genres. Clearly, this is a moment when boundaries are fluid in particular, between writing for young people and writing for adults.

*    *    *

Why is this?

Every six months or so, a writer for The Atlantic — or, if its docket is full, Harper’s — notices that there is YA literature, and reads a YA novel that a son/daughter leaves on the car seat, and then pens a seething jeremiad about how YA authors and readers are self-infantilizing freaks of nature who make Nabokov and Melville cry in Heaven. The gates of literature have been toppled! Everything is topsy-turvy!

The charge of self-infantilization hurts, though at least in my case it is not entirely untrue. I would say (somewhat more charitably) that my generation and I live in a culture marked by what evolutionary biologists might call neoteny—an environment that rewards the retention of certain juvenile characteristics into adulthood. (A strictly zoological example of neoteny would be the human ability, alone among mammals, to digest milk as adults.) This cultural bias toward youth complicates my generation’s self-understanding and self-imaging as we age and as we deal with the rigors of parenthood. Absolutely, there are reprehensible and narcissistic elements to American neoteny — but frankly, throughout history there have been much more dangerous cultural modes of being an adult.

While this cultural moment lasts, the emphasis on the tastes of our youth sheds light on new areas of literary excellence. It allows us continued, unabashed emotional contact with a wide range of genres that once were thought unserious — not just YA, but science fiction, mystery, the sequential arts, and so on. And even better, it allows us to acknowledge the sometimes serious emotional impulses behind these once-trashed genres.

So literary barriers have come down in the last two decades. We can no longer envision Literature with a capital L, Literature dressed in white samite, hovering over the New Yorker offices or perhaps the Javits Center, wielding a golden quill and weighing us all for inclusion in the marble roll call of the chosen. This might feel destabilizing to some, but it’s tremendously important and democratizing. I remember attending a panel fifteen years ago on science fiction in which the speakers talked about different geeky subgenres. Even while they celebrated sci-fi as a literary form, they chuckled about Star Trek series books and said that they weren’t worthy of literary consideration because they “just aren’t emotionally moving.” My reaction was: emotionally moving to whom? Sure, perhaps I myself would rather serrate my tongue with pinking shears than read a book about an android named Data, but I wanted to protest: millions of people love those books. Millions of people are deeply moved by them, and return to them, and clearly find something of deep importance there. Those books emotionally move people. Ergo, statistically speaking, by definition, they are emotionally moving.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian NothingAt about the same time, literary authors like Michael Chabon began to celebrate openly the guilty pulp pleasures of their youth. One of our generation’s great prose stylists, Chabon paid homage first to comic books (in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay) and then, even more directly, to the barbarian novels of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber (in his Gentlemen of the Road, the working title of which was supposedly “Jews with Swords”). At the same time authors like Chabon and Kelly Link were chipping away at genre barriers from the literary, adult side, the Harry Potter phenomenon made YA publishing incredibly profitable for the first time since the invention of the term YA. And this is America: what makes a profit must be culturally important. The floodgates were open. Who could write “inside the box” anymore? Age ranges were being redefined. Now we know that more than half of “YA” books sell to adults. And that alters the genre. For example, I wrote my Octavian Nothing books and Symphony for the City of the Dead targeted at readers from ages sixteen to twenty-one or so — older than my other YA books. I’m not alone in writing for that previously transitional market, as age niches are redefined in a new model of childhood and the teenage years. The demographics of readership are changing; the way we understand youth and age are changing; and so the old divisions of genre are changing.

And this is the positive side of bringing more adults into the fold of writing for kids, in a culture where youth is important: many of us, as adults, contain each age we passed through folded up in our portmanteau hearts, and we want to write stories for them all. This cultural moment gives us permission to explore those earlier states, those half-remembered selves.

When I was working through six years of research for my Octavian Nothing saga — novels about race, science, and freedom in the age of the American Revolution — I would stop once or twice a year to write light adventure books for tweens. This was not just because I wanted to speak to kids of a different age for a while. It was because I wanted to be a different age for a while, too. I needed a vacation from research into bone buttons vs. bows vs. frogs, but even more, a relief from the daily gaze on Enlightenment brutality and the withering sense of hopelessness that infected me when I reviewed those old systems of oppression and watched the new ones that developed in their place. For a few weeks, I wanted to be a ten-year-old reader again — someone with hope in the human race and nothing but excitement about what might happen on the next page. I wrote comic adventure series partially to restore my own soul. As a vacation, I wrote books like the ones I had once read while on vacation — and which I hoped would feel like a vacation to read, free of constraints, filled with joy at all the world’s opportunities and pleasures.

Writing my most recent book — my first attempt at extended nonfiction, Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad — was a much more complicated departure for me. In fact, it passed through several genres before it took its final form.

*    *    *

anderson_symphony for the city of the deadFor years, I had heard absolutely incredible stories about the composition of Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, the “Leningrad” Symphony. I had heard that it was written during the nearly nine-hundred-day German assault on the city of Leningrad, and that its frail composer started writing it while posted as a civilian fireman on the roof of the conservatory, watching for incendiary bombs. I’d heard that most people assumed that his “Leningrad” Symphony, with its relentless march, was about the inexorable tread of the invading German Wehrmacht — but that others believed it was actually supposed to depict the insidious rise of Joseph Stalin, Russia’s own terrifying dictator.

Liner notes and program notes also mentioned that the symphony had been heroically performed within the city of Leningrad itself by a starving orchestra, blackened with soot, fainting from hunger during rehearsals. It had been a gesture of defiance to Hitler and his Nazi ideologues who claimed the Slavs were an inferior race, fit only to serve their future Aryan masters as slaves. Here, in Russia’s famed city of the arts, reduced almost to rubble, where, throughout the winter, entrapped families had survived by eating their own dead, this emaciated orchestra played a work that described a future victory — a work that declared their humanity.

Years later, the conductor of that orchestra was approached by some German tourists. They told him that they had been on the other side, in the enemy trenches, and had heard the piece as it was broadcast toward them across no man’s land. We were there, they said, when you played the piece by Shostakovich. They told him: The night we heard the “Leningrad” Symphony was the night we knew we would never take the city of Leningrad.

I found that incredibly powerful. And yet, the final story I’d heard about this piece was the one that compelled me to write a book: supposedly, the score was put on microfilm and smuggled out of the country through the Middle East. It was flown to Tehran, then driven across the deserts to Cairo, then flown across Northern Africa, down to Brazil, and up to the United States — where it was performed on the radio as a way of engaging Americans in the Soviet cause.

The stories of suffering, heroism, and musical symbolism had caught my attention as an adult. But I have to admit that the story of the microfilm journey caught the attention of the teen I used to be. It reminded me of countless dippy sixties spy movies, and yet the microfilm contained not some kind of plan for a submarine or a German military complex experimenting with heavy water — it contained a symphony. And what about that itinerary? Russia, Tehran, Cairo, Brazil, New York — it sounded like a globetrotting episode out of Tintin.

As a teen, I loved stories in which truth was stranger than fiction, and boy, did this sound like one. I started to do some deeper reading and gather some basic facts about these stories, which up until then had just been single sentences I’d read in passing in the pages of Gramophone or the BBC Music magazine.

As I read, I tried to imagine in what genre I could write this story. For a long time, the major contender was the idea of doing a graphic novel. It could take place during the Siege, but with flashbacks to Shostakovich’s younger years, when he was declared an enemy of the people and hounded by the Stalin regime. I would have to make up dialogue, sure, but I would otherwise stick to the truth.

One of the benefits of doing a quasi-fictionalized graphic novel was that this would allow me to get around the great historiographic difficulty endemic to Soviet history: how do you reconstruct the history of a regime founded on lies? A dictator who actively destroys the truth? A composer who makes a career of not speaking, but singing without words? Nothing in Shostakovich criticism and biography is certain. But in a slightly fictionalized graphic novel, I could just ignore all of the contradiction and decide what was real.

Often, the material determines the genre. Sometimes a writer just has to sit and listen to what a story is saying to understand how it wants to be told. That was true in this case. As I read about the unthinkable carnage of Stalin’s Great Terror and the German invasion, I found myself astounded by the depth of human suffering — and unwilling to try to capture that suffering through something even mildly fictionalized. As an example: the number of Soviet citizens who died defending Leningrad is higher than the number of Americans who have died in all wars, ever, since the Revolution. That was a sobering reality — and I wanted the reader to experience it as one, without the mediation of made-up scenes and quirky talk.

The question of truth was actually such a powerful one in this story — seeing as these were people drowning in a constant flash-flood torrent of government lies, people being tortured so the truth would be hidden, people dying so the truth would be forever changed — that I decided the uncertainty of history would become central to the book. Instead of pretending that we can settle on one set of real events (which my graphic novel version would have had to do, in some respects), I would instead dramatize the doubt, the poisonous questioning, the lies.

There was a final objection to fictionalizing these events: the actual story of Shostakovich crushed between Stalin and Hitler was often so bizarre that I came to realize it would actually have less impact if I tried to write it as fiction. Take the scene, for example, where Shostakovich is called in for an interrogation by the NKVD — and is only saved from imprisonment and death by the fact that his interrogator is, himself, arrested…That would read as a cute invention in a novel or a graphic novel, not a terrifying absurdist reality.

And so I buckled down and realized that I was going to have to write in a genre I had never tried before: long-form nonfiction. That was what the story demanded. So I had to become a nonfiction author. (When I sold the book to my editor, I told her that it would be a dystopian novel — but one in which, as it turned out, every word was true.)

This was not easy. I had assumed that I would be writing a book for teens that just involved popularization — reading previous work on the composer and turning it into a digestible narrative for young people. But I quickly discovered, to my astonishment, that no one had ever asked any questions about the Seventh Symphony’s microfilm transfer. I assumed that somewhere there would be a footnote or an academic article explaining the story behind it, but there was nothing. If I was going to write about that astounding episode, I would have to do the research myself.

I’ll be frank. I waded into this more-hardcore research in the same way I inch my way into cold lakes in the summer: step by step, grimacing the whole way.

For years, my colleague Marc Aronson, as both writer and editor, has talked a lot about how nonfiction for young people has moved “out of the box” since the turn of the millennium: it used to be predigested and popularized, but more and more it includes original research. Marc’s words steeled me to the work of actually looking into the microfilm episode.

It took more than a year of effort. Eventually, I discovered a cache of letters and telegrams preserved in the personal files of a New York City musical agent, Eugene Weintraub, who had, in his own inimitable words, sold the American public this “hot baby of a Seventh Symphony.” There was the congratulatory telegram Shostakovich had sent when the piece was about to be performed on NBC radio. There was Weintraub’s reaction to a burlesque dancer who wrote to him asking for the rights to perform a striptease to the Shostakovich symphony’s first movement. (He refused, commenting, “What a movement that would have been!”) There was Weintraub’s admission that his coworker had almost lost the microfilm a few minutes after receiving it at the Soviet embassy, a scene that I would later use to begin the book. Most importantly, there were the memos Weintraub had written to the Russian culture and propaganda agency reviewing the microfilm transfer.

There was drama even in the physical state of those documents: some of those 1942 memos had been defaced, presumably in the anti-Communist 1950s. A patriotic duty to collaborate with the Soviets in the early forties had, by just a few years later, become a mark of the traitor and the pinko sympathizer. So in one case, someone (I assume Weintraub) had torn the addresses off a long memo, presumably to conceal that he’d been working closely with the Russians a decade before; in another case, the whole first page had been torn off, so it was impossible to tell whom the recipient was supposed to be. My suspicions were confirmed when we found the very same document, whole and untampered with, in the Russian archives in Moscow.

I hired a Ukrainian friend, Alina Ryabovolova, as a research assistant. She was going to be in Moscow anyway, and so we’d have Skype conversations in which I’d ask her to go to particular archives and look for correspondence between particular officials on particular dates…I’d give her the names, dates, and departments to search for; she’d head off into a labyrinth of moldy documents and narcoleptic, Soviet-era archivists. She’d write back a day or two later to tell me if anything was showing up in the folders.

We found some of Eugene Weintraub’s memos there, and also, link by link, we traced the Shostakovich microfilm across the deserts of the Middle East (finding what appears to be a financial wrangle about its couriers) and to the shores of the United States.

Now I was confronted with a new problem in genre: here I had the chance to make a real contribution to Shostakovich scholarship and to scholarship on Russo-American relations in the 1940s—but it would no longer fit well into the book. My teenage self only wanted to read a few paragraphs about this microfilm hoopla. He was not so interested in a detailed discussion of Lend-Lease. So how would I preserve all the steps of my research so they would be accessible to Shostakovich scholars and WWII buffs while not including, for example, a bulky and generally useless appendix?

Once again, I had to step “outside the box,” in terms of genre. If I wanted to formalize my findings, I had to write an academic paper separate from the book. This was not easy, and took me months. As a stopgap, given the timing of the book’s release, I published a version of the article online at Academia.edu as “The Flight of the Seventh: The Voyage of Dmitri Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony to the West.” This article will eventually be published in a musicological journal — but for the sake of younger writers here, let me confess something: this is an instance in which I have gotten cold feet about stepping “out of the box.” The journal’s editor sent me a few perfectly reasonable suggestions for further research six months ago. I did that research in the spring. All I need to do now is spend two or three days actually rewriting the piece. But it is so far outside my comfort zone that I’m suddenly procrastinating. Shostakovich scholarship is, weirdly enough, incredibly brutal and contentious. I find myself balking. I’m hoping that by admitting this in public, I’ll force myself to proceed deeper into these chilly waters, so eventually my body adapts and I find myself shivering less, and floating comfortably.

So it does sometimes require bravery to step outside the box, away from what we know. But the final thing I have to say is that it is also incredibly rewarding.

*    *    *

This project took me five years in all. Before that time, I had read only the typical college assortment of The Russians: Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and so on. When I started reading the writers Shostakovich admired, or those who were in his circle, I was astounded by names I’d never heard of, whole literary lineages we don’t know about here in the United States. The broken absurdist Daniil Kharms, the savage comedians Ilf and Petrov, the lyrical portraitist Boris Pilnyak, the reportorial Victor Serge, the meticulous realist Vasily Grossman…their concerns, their style, their characters, their understanding of psychology — everything about their work is surprising and unfamiliar. What a pleasure it was to open a book and have no idea—none!—where it would take me. I always get this feeling when I explore some strand of literary lineage from another nation, another culture: the startlement that our own sense of fiction is so bounded by national conventions we don’t even recognize. Whole histories have been going on without us even knowing. We suddenly touch on lives we couldn’t imagine. Then fiction seems full of infinite possibility again. It can go anywhere! As a reader, stepping out of the box of what is familiar to us is absolutely exhilarating.

And for the writer: there’s no question that working on a book about a history this brutal changed me forever, and not invariably for the better. I have a more sober sense of human hunger — and I don’t just mean the hunger of the belly, but the other hungers that drive us to hunt each other through the streets. But I have grown immeasurably. I’ve come to a much greater appreciation of our American freedoms, and even simply of the food I eat. I’ve learned to be grateful. I understand the world better than I would have if I’d remained sheltered in the genres I knew how to write.

Let me say to the writers out there: attempt something unknown. Attempt something that is dangerous to you. No, even more: attempt something impossible. After all, how do we expect our books to change the lives of our readers if they don’t change our own lives, first?

Of course, there is something to be said for those writers who perfect one form, one genre, eschewing dilettantism for concentration. But for today, let’s celebrate the risk-takers, the pioneers, the ones who show us things we never could have seen ourselves. Let’s notice how many writers working nowadays are actually taking those risks — quietly, determinedly, with purpose — and whether they succeed or fail, the world is a better place because of it.

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more on the 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, click on the tag BGHB16. This article is adapted from his keynote address at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, “Out of the Box,” on October 1, 2016. Read the author’s 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Award speech for Symphony for the City of the Dead here.

M. T. Anderson About M. T. Anderson

M. T. Anderson's latest book is Landscape with Invisible Hand. He is the winner of a 2016 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor for Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad; a 2009 BGHB Fiction Honor for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves; the 2007 BGHB Fiction Award for The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party; a 2003 BGHB Fiction Honor for Feed; and a 2002 BGHB Nonfiction Honor for Handel, Who Knew What He Liked (all Candlewick).

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Comments

  1. Dear Tobin, I’ve always felt the same as you do about Jo and Laurie; infuriated that Laurie wound up married to silly conceited Amy.. In LITTLE MEN my favorite character of course was Dan. and I was infuriated again when he went off into exile. The scene where Dan (or was it Nat?) was punished for wrong doing by being forced to slap his idol father Bhaer ( spelling) on the hand with a ruler… that was perfectly horrid. Three cheers for blood and thunder over sentimental hubris- and three cheers for the out of the box speech and article.

  2. My favorite sentence in this essay is “Every six months or so, a writer for The Atlantic — or, if its docket is full, Harper’s — notices that there is YA literature, and reads a YA novel that a son/daughter leaves on the car seat, and then pens a seething jeremiad about how YA authors and readers are self-infantilizing freaks of nature who make Nabokov and Melville cry in Heaven,” but mainly because it was so devilishly clever! I do appreciate your comments, Tobin, throughout the essay, and having read “Symphony for the City of the Dead”, I especially appreciate your going into detail on the way that came to be. Thank you.

  3. This is good in so many ways, and “many ways” is its subject. The only disappointing note is its opening, about disappointment with Little Women and disappointment in Little Women. Alcott has a method in that, as I suggest in a chapter of my book Audacious Kids. Disappointment comes from expectation, and the opposite of expectation is what this essay wonderfully celebrates.

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