Melvin Burgess is considered one of the fore-bearers of the young adult genre. His 1996 handling of social issues in Junk, involving drugs and substance abuse, was groundbreaking for its time. In particular, the characters were written with sympathy. Burgess had written something truly special.
Skip forwards about two decades to 2019, and his newest authorial endeavour, The Lost Witch, has only recently hit the shelves. If you have read my take on it (or anyone else’s take on it, for that matter) you’ll know that he didn’t quite hit the target. In fact, I’d say that it went sailing rather a way past it.
So what happened? How does an author go from “father of the genre” to being so out of touch from it that he can’t even see the ground? And how easily might the same thing happen to any one of us?
The young adult book industry grows and evolves at an inexorable rate – possibly unlike anything seen before – and so people who once pioneered the genre see themselves being left behind by it. JK Rowling actually works as another example of this. One of the first “serious” big writers for young adults, she’s now considered by many to be a hack or a joke, a has-been who’s desperately trying to stay relevant by retroactively revamping aspect after aspect of her original books. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t like the memes; I love them.)
But it’s easy to forget, in such a blooming, flourishing industry, that she and Melvin Burgess both used to be right at the head of it.
To me, they represent people left behind by an industry; in an increasingly diverse genre the Harry Potter books came under increasing critique for their lack thereof and Rowling over-compensated for this by turning herself into a meme (the thing all young people really care about). They were the biggest books in the game and as such were open to the most criticism. Rowling tried to evolve, but she did so artificially and was roundly criticised for it.
With Burgess the story is slightly different. Whereas Rowling, it could be argued, made a genuine attempt to evolve, Burgess remained static, writing the same YA books he was writing back in the days when YA as a genre didn’t even have a name. In a way it’s admirable; to stick to your guns and not force yourself to change for the sake of keeping up with an ever-changing entity isn’t something everyone could do, but as a result of this his most recent effort, The Lost Witch, has been rightly panned as a childishly narrated (despite not being for younger readers), abuse-filled, out-of-touch waste of paper.
So maybe we can’t avoid the same thing happening to us as we get older; one day we will naturally fall behind, even if we try to keep up, and an industry that once belonged to us will become completely foreign, because what it takes for an author to fall out of touch is remarkably simple.
You can’t stay on top of the tide forever; ride it for months, years, but eventually it’ll take you under. How you handle going under, however, is totally up to you. Will you let time’s tide drown you, or will you hold your breath, kick your arms and legs, and make sure you wash up on the sandy shore, safe and sound?
That much is your decision.