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Friday, June 06, 2014

Fracas! Ruckus! Brouhaha!

Vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins for Thaliad
Dear Slate,

What a lot of grief you are getting for publishing an article about how adults ought to be embarrassed to read children's books. ("Against YA" by Ruth Graham.) I guess maybe that was the point, as it is so often the point in these days. To get attention. To cause a commotion, a hullaballoo, a hoo-ha. To make a sort of paparazzi fuss, all lightbulbs and yelling and jeering. I'm a bit tired of the ruckus, you hear?

A long time ago C. S. Lewis told us that "A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest." Likewise, Maurice Sendak made it clear that it was whether books were good that mattered. And as to fantasy and fantasizing being for children, he said, "I believe there is no part of our lives, our adult as well as child life, when we're not fantasizing, but we prefer to relegate fantasy to children, as though it were some tomfoolery only fit for the immature minds of the young."

I agree with Lewis and Sendak. Ages and genres make no difference at all. Being packed with energy and life counts the most when it comes to a book, not some idea of audience age and kind or mode. I read the Alice books when I was five, and I am still reading them today. Stand where two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and take the way with the nooks for reading and the stones for skipping and the books without labels, without ages. Hey, it'll make all the difference.

Good cheer,

P. S. To somewhat change the subject, I don't like the idea that grownups desire to read weak, thin, smarmy books. And that's where the real criticism is hidden, I think--in the idea that some people are content with such books, whether they are written for toddlers, young adults, or grownups. And the writer assumes that children's books are, indeed, lesser, and that an adult could not have a rich experience reading them. Carroll. Sendak. L'Engle. Those are a few of many arguments against that thought.

P. S. So you don't think I'm being mean to her, here's another article by Ruth Graham--a highly sensible proposal that suggests that maybe we've dropped something we should pick up again, revised for our own day.

Notes on my recent books, no. 2

In THALIAD, Marly Youmans has written a powerful and beautiful saga of seven children who escape a fiery apocalypse----though "written" is hardly the word to use, as this extraordinary account seems rather "channeled" or dreamed or imparted in a vision, told in heroic poetry of the highest calibre. Amazing, mesmerizing, filled with pithy wisdom, THALIAD is a work of genius which also seems particularly relevant to our own time.  --Lee Smith


  1. Whatever the arguments against the Graham piece itself, the use of the Alice graphic is like an insult, an argument to never write for anything but my blog. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is, I say in certain moods, like the one I am in now, the greatest novel of the 19th century. Adults should be embarrassed not to read it.

    1. Oh, that's a wonderland thing to say! It has enriched my life in complicated, hard-to-assess ways, and is the work of fiction that has followed me most.

    2. Yes, and mine as well. I still think of the poems in Looking Glass as often as I do most mainstream canonical "adult" poetry!

    3. Oh, certainly! The poems are wonderful...

  2. What!? I LOVE childrens' books. Great response, Marly!

    If anything there are many adult books I do not like.

    1. I don't know--are most of these articles just tempests in a teacup? Are they straw men, set up to be attacked with rakes and hoes? Anything for a response?

      When it comes to contemporary books, I expect that many readers are confused by the torrent of new books. We have let the publishers choose our books for too long. Even our best critics (and critics are few these days, where once they were common and influential) are guided by the lead books on what to consider. One hopes bloggers will fill a gap, but there again I think we see the influence of publishers, who promote as lead books the ones they think will sell. It's very hard to cover the whole scene.

      As readers, we do our best to seek good books, not "adult" or puffed books...

    2. I'm sure she is protesting only because she is afraid to be seen inhaling the YA and children's books she really wants to read.
      What I love most about them is that they represent unabashed enjoyment of narrative, the equivalent of a wide expanse of lawn to a dog longing to roll in the grass.
      Aren't the reading experiences most of us remember most fondly just of this sort?

    3. I do often wish to have that wonderful, luxurious feeling of tumbling into another world that comes with childhood reading. And occasionally I still catch the feeling of it.

      It is definitely true that some readers have turned to YA for story--and often for a story without the contemporary trappings of most novels.

  3. There are either good books or not-so-good (i.e., lousy) books. Whether they are written for or read by children or adults is beside the point. I endorse your defense via Lewis, Sendak, and Carroll. And if I anyone argues with you, I am going to throw a tantrum and then give myself a self-imposed time-out (during which I will hide away with my Nancy Drew book).

    1. Everybody is agreeing with me so prettily.

      Perhaps I should retire from blogging while I am ahead!

      RT, thanks for reading and for endorsing and for any future tantrums on my behalf! Much appreciated.

  4. I'll dissent a bit then, arguendo. Despite some of her sweeping statements, she's really not arguing that adults shouldn't read children's books; I imagine if you threw good examples at her, she'd clarify. Instead, she's objecting to adults who adore books that are just half a notch more sophisticated than Twilight, mass-market products that appear more sophisticated than they are because the subject matter (Abuse! Sex! Cancer!) is deemed serious indeed. And it is weird that 30-year-old women are reading products that have been deliberately tooled and focus-grouped and extruded for teenage use. The young woman who wrote the Slate piece has unknowingly stumbled into a much larger subject: the degradation and disappearance of adulthood.

    That said, what can one do? If 30-year-olds are reading books designed to trigger emotional reactions in much younger people, then the Slate writer yelling "Be more sophisticated, O peers of mine!" is futile. It's a complex, culture-wide failure of teachers, professors, publishers, and parents.

    How's that? :)

    1. Well, it's oddly agreeable of you to dissent when I complain that everyone is agreeing so prettily! And it's very good dissent, too.

      Yes, you are right. One would expect something more of a mature mind, though those of us with multiple children spend an awful lot of time reading to children, as a few like to be read to right on into the teen years. In fact, I feel a little sad that there's no more bedtime stories around here!

      After my year judging NBA children's books, I came to the conclusion that the majority of books published in a given year are not as good as we might wish, that there are many competent books, and that the very best of "children's books" can give "books for adults" some fairly strenuous competition. In fact, one of the best gave me doubts as to whether it was not a book for sober, sad, wise grownups.

      I have been writing a little series of sketches about fans and celebrity and have noodled around and looked at things that I was entirely innocent of before--fan magazines, fan blogs, etc. And I've been really startled by the way fans write.... If you've ever peeked, you know what I mean. The intensity, the bad grammar, the hope, the hatred, the passion! I'm fascinated by their vicarious (and fictitious) living through stars and by how they invent stories based on "clues," as they perceive it. It is intriguing how they make up a world and live in it, even though all their assumptions, facts, and stories may be completely wrong! And no matter how old they are, the comments or posts feel very young. More of that disappearance of adulthood...

      You could talk about the gaming community the same way, I imagine.

    2. I am nothing if not agreeable!

      And yeah, I have little desire to knock YA fiction, comics, games, et al., because that's the cultural territory of my birth, and because the passion and vitality you describe are real—but in recent years it's as if popular culture has expanded so rapidly and forcefully that it's squeezed all other forms of culture to the margins, to become about little else but itself.

      It's also created an odd...cultural ceiling, for lack of a better term. The other day, a friend of mine on Facebook praise the soundtrack to a recent X-Men movie. Not long ago, that soundtrack might have been a gateway to whole new worlds of classical music. Now it's just another way to immerse oneself in X-Men minutiae as if it were the Talmud. I don't much blame the fans, though; this is something we've collectively decided to do as a culture. I suspect we'll regret it.

    3. Exactly. Dana Gioia talks somewhere about how high culture and entertainment used to be understood as two things, and about how occasionally entertainment could rise to the level of high culture--and that was welcome. But now it does seem that there's little air space left for the arts, for people who aspire to make more than disposable pop-culture entertainment.

      I can see the steps by which we've done this--to me and you, terrible--thing. What I don't see is how we'll easily find a better state of being.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.