Monday, 7 February 2011

On niceness

I don't like the word nice. In its original sense (neat), it's OK, but now it means a kind of shallow politeness or surface attractiveness. It's pretty dismissive.

However, it came to mind when I received a student complaint today. It's about Joanna Davies's Freshers (originally published as Ffreshars). The essence of the complaint is that books shouldn't be published if they contain swearing and immoral activity, particularly if it's set in Wales. (Oddly, the author seems to agree: the English version has 20,000 words extra, which she describes as adding the 'sauce').

Now, Matthew Arnold, critic and moralist, described culture as the 'best that is thought and known', and saw access to art as the solution to the bestiality of the underclass (he also thought the aristocracy was a degenerate flock of wastrels). But that was in the 19th Century.

So what do you think? Should I only be teaching 'nice' fiction that informs and uplifts the degenerate masses? What would that curriculum look like? Anne of Green Gables is out: the Pye family are horrible and there's a world war in the later books. Guns turn up in Blyton's Adventure series. Biggles is an appallingly violent man. William would earn as ASBO these days, as would Dennis the Menace. The Box of Delights features a scrounging machine for turning children into dogmeat, and it depicts the clergy in a very unflattering light. Come to think of it, all the good children's literature is deeply subversive (as Alison Lurie demonstrates).

What's left? Your suggestions please.

Meanwhile, if you prefer your Welsh literature with heroin, violence, resentment and crime, I refer you to the works of Niall Griffiths, especially Sheepshagger. It's an astonishingly brilliant piece of writing.

Oh yes: another thing occurred to me. If she doesn't like unpleasantness in literature, how does she cope in a world where governments torture and unspeakably evil acts go on every day? In particular, let's remind ourselves of the traditional Welsh medieval punishment, picked up from the Normans: gouging out each others' eyes, by hand. 


Ewarwoowar said...

You make a good point Vole - illustrated by the fact that I thought of a few children's books and they would all fall foul of those rules.

And let's face it, the Very Hungry Caterpillar isn't very hungry - he's the embodiment of capitalist greed.


The Plashing Vole said...

You're right - everything will offend someone.
I always saw The Very Hungry Caterpillar as anti-environmentalist fable: consume enough without regard for the world around you, and you'll end up beautiful. No, wait, is it an allegory for adolescence?

I give up. I've never read it (hangs head in shame). There's always the Wombles.

The Plashing Vole said...

A friend suggests Narnia. OK, it's unpleasant Christian propaganda with strong doses of misogyny and racism, but people like that never mind such things. They just don't like naughty words.

Zoot Horn said...

As anyone who hangs around little kids (in a good way) knows, learning swear words is a rite of passage.
Octavio Paz says that "Swearing is the poetry that is available to everyone". And I fuckin' agree. If you are an adult, and can't deal with profanity, you haven't learned the basic impulse of insurrection that is fundamental to all meaningful social life.
Thus Spake Gaga Thustra