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.
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