John Barnes speech from Printz Honor Award presentation for Tales of the Madman Underground
This is the text I read from; no promises that it's what I actually said. I don't recall suddenly screaming obscenities or fighting off hallucinations, but actually I was so stressed I don't recall anything. So here, more or less, is what I went to the podium planning to say, and what people who do remember seem to think I said before sitting down:
John Barnes – Printz Honor Speech 2010
I promised Sharyn November, my editor, that I would thank a lot of people and not say anything embarrassing, so I guess I'll start by thanking some people because I'm fairly sure I'll get that part right. So I'll begin by thanking the Printz Committee, YALSA, and the ALA, for choosing Tales of the Madman Underground as an honor book.
This is going to be something of a story and a bit of literary philosophy and a burble through the tulgey wood; I don't have much ability to talk about one thing at a time. But I'll thank a lot of people, and if I say something embarrassing, I'll cover it up by thanking some more people.
I want to thank the high school friends that no one knew were my friends, the original Madmen, who weren't very much like the ones in the book, of course, because life doesn't select our friends for dramatic purposes, nor does it array their problems to provide well-timed crises and comic relief.
I hope it's obvious why I cannot and never will name any of the other real-life Madmen. But they know who they are, and the ones who are still alive, amazingly to me, are mostly still in touch. Without them, I'd have survived my adolescence some other way – I'm not going to say anything as silly as "I'd never have made it," that phrase should be reserved for mountain rescue, surgeons, and combat buddies – but without them I'd have gone through those years in a different way, and I'd be some different person, who, if he wrote, would write different things. So more than anything else, the original Madmen are the people I couldn't have done it without.
After that, there are a couple of people in the dedication who did two vital things; first, they always let me talk, yet again, about the book that I really ought to write some day, about the strangeness of having been in a secret clique built around a therapy group in high school. Then when I had talked too much about it, which I inevitably did for more than a decade, and they decided it was time to shut me up on the subject, they always did so by urging me to write it. There is no better way to shut a writer up. So my thanks to Ashley Grayson, my agent of twenty-seven years, and to Jessica Tate, my research assistant for three years, and my friend forever.
So one day when I was dead sure my writing career was over – and had many good reasons to think so -- and really didn't believe that I could even deliver the one book I had left on any contract, I sat down and committed an act of complete irresponsibility (This is not an unusual thing for me): Ignoring bills, friends, and everything else, in about two months, I wrote a long first-person rant by a character named Karl Shoemaker.
Karl ranted his way through most of the story and characters as they stand now, but most of it wasn't in scenes, wasn't visualized, wasn't realized much at all. Sections of it, I thought, had pretty good voice, and chunks of it here and there were funny or possibly moving.
The experience had supplied me with a burst of energy and a feeling that I didn't actually hate my occupation quite so much; besides, for two months when Jes gave me a daily phone call and asked if I'd written anything, I could say yes. Then after that Ashley had a new book of mine to peddle. Neither of those things had been true in quite a while.
Then we come to the person who not only read it, but liked it, and called up Ashley and said she liked it so much that she wanted to force me to make it good – and that was Sharyn November. Sharyn really tolerated anything as long as it was good, but nothing second rate or just-get-it-done was acceptable. This drove me, eventually, and across years when it was still hard to write anything, to the point of just sitting down and thinking, moment to moment, all right, what would Karl say? What would Karl think? How would he decide? How would people react? Moment by moment and second by second, and the strange thing is that very little of the plot, of what happened in Tales of the Madman Underground, ever changed; it just got more detailed and real. Now that wasn't what Sharyn was telling me to do – it was what she was causing me to do. She was making me write just-a-novel.
By just-a-novel I mean a long story in which a thinking, perceiving consciousness witnesses things – including its own actions – and changes. The changes in the consciousness are the record, or the memory, of those actions – just the way that my memory of the original Madmen is recorded in the person I became because of what we went through together.
How that happens is the puzzle at the heart of the problem of any novel, and it seems to me that some of the best novels are just-a-novel because they aren't anything else – they are not games or intellectual puzzles or physics textbooks or self-help lectures or polemics or masturbatory aids or excuses to fantasize about violence – they are just-a-novel, meaning that the central thing they are doing is what Chekhov was talking about when he said that his real fascination was two people making small talk in a room while all the time they are deciding or causing their future happiness or ruin.
"Just-a-novel" means assembly of ordinary incidents that somehow, out of the simple craft of getting them down on paper as accurately as you can, come together into something huge and human and too complex for essays or slogans or trivia quiz answers.
Now, to achieve that, the novelist has to give up "I'm going to tell people how it ought to be" and pick up "I'm going to get this stuff down and it's about getting it down just right, not about what it is." It's Christopher Isherwood's credo: I am a camera.
That is, to write just-a-novel, you have to do the sort of thing that Sharyn was pushing me to do when she kept insisting that things rang false, or didn't work, or were bothering other readers she brought in. It's what being a novelist is about, in my peculiar opinion: having nothing to say, nothing to advocate, no position -- and everything to perceive and record and structure.
I am happy to be here today, and to have found my way into the modern young adult novel, because nowadays, the young adult novel is the last refuge of just-a-novel. You can't do that kind of writing much in adult genre fiction because the adults who read it read for escape – this is just as true of the adults reading a deeply felt meaningful novel of a man's midlife crisis as it is of adults reading about the space marines blowing up the octopus people. They want you to build them a theme park, not show them how interesting the junk in their garage is. For the most part, adults who read fiction for pleasure are enjoying a brief time out of their difficult, unpredictable, pointless, mundane world and into a world where the rules and goals and everything else are simpler and more reliable. And considering what most lives are like, there's no reason to condemn that escape; C.S. Lewis rightly said that the only people who don't like escape are jailers.
In literary and academic fiction – the other major part of adult fiction – despite all the fine exceptions, it seems to me that for the most part you also can't do that trick of letting meaning just emerge from honest perception and rigorous recording in contemporary literary fiction, because today the high end of our literature is overwhelmingly the realm of bien pensant and idées reçues – notice the concepts are so threatening that we have to speak French to talk about them? You'd think we were doing something dirty here, and in fact bien pensant thoughts, and idées reçues, are things nearly all educated adults indulge in while pretending they don't, so perhaps leaving them in French really is something like spelling in front of the children.
What I mean is that much of adult literary fiction consists in taking the story material and linking it to a set of ideas that the reader uses to identify himself or herself as a superior reader. There is a set of attitudes and beliefs that doesn't change much from decade to decade, a marvelous feeling of enlightenment that people get by congratulating themselves on the fine things they consume, and the re-exercising of those attitudes, by relating them to fresh material, is what a great deal of published literary fiction is about.
But teenagers, bless their cranky independence, are different from adults. They read because they're stuck with nothing else to do and they're trying to figure the world out, and that means they want, some of the time, to get into the world, not escape it, and want to do the figuring and don't want to be told how to figure it.
For that kind of teen, a book that is a record of probing around where there might be an answer is infinitely more useful than a book that gives them the answer. It seems to me that good teen fiction is the place today where there is demand for writing "just-a-novel":
· Here's a collection of someone else's experiences, structured and ordered for your better perception.
· Here it is, what the writer could get down on paper, seen as accurately and recorded as clearly as ability allows.
· Take, look, see, explore, toss it aside if there's nothing there for you.
· Dig at the parts that you like.
· Figure it's one more picture from one more camera – the camera that the writer is.
· And maybe it'll help you see something you would not have otherwise.
So in getting me to write a good book for teenagers, Sharyn was bringing me back into the world of writing just-a-novel well, as opposed to producing words to sell.
And then after that there was the amazing, awesome experience of Viking's production and marketing people, who kept repeating to me that the book was good, and that it needed to be packaged and sold as well as it deserved, and who just pushed and pushed to make that happen. It had been a long time, not just my long period of not writing fiction much, but an even longer time within the publishing world, since someone acted like one of my books was good or deserved anything, and I can't begin to tell you the difference that made in how I experience my life as a writer; by the time the Printz Committee called, I was astonished and happy, but at least it was within my frame of reference that someone might like one of my books, and when the call came, I didn't hang up under the impression that some soon-to-be-former friend was playing an especially cruel practical joke. I'm writing regularly again and I kind of think I'll stick with it for a while, and I do think some of what is to come will be pretty good; in 2003 or 2004 I don't know if I could have said that and meant it.
Here I am at the end of the "thanking" stuff and I'm happy to see that by telling that part of the story at such length, I've left myself very little time in which to "not be embarrassing." So the final group of people I'd like to thank, via YALSA, is your real constituency: young adult readers. What I wish you could say to those readers on my behalf is that because they demand and keep alive a space in literature where writers are free to write just-a-novel; and because that turned out to be the thing I needed most; they are the ones who made me a writer, as opposed to an ex-writer. I'm glad people liked Tales of the Madman Underground and had space for it on their shelves, but I am grateful beyond words for the gift of a space in the world of fiction, in which to do the real work, and to write just-a-novel. That is something like the space those original Madmen created for me so long ago – a chance to do what I needed to do and be what I needed to be. Tell your teen readers that I can't possibly write anything good enough to pay you back completely, but thanks to your generosity, I get the chance to try, over and over. Thank you.