Tuesday, 7 June 2011

I'm definitely reading the wrong books

One of my interests - which might eventually lead to writing something - is children's and teen fiction, and I've got a lot of it on my shelves, from The Wind in the Willows to I Capture the Castle to Inkheart to Doing It and Philip Pullman, and everything inbetween.

So imagine my surprise when I read this:
 all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."
How dark is contemporary fiction for teens? Darker than when you were a child, my dear: So dark that kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings are now just part of the run of things in novels directed, broadly speaking, at children from the ages of 12 to 18. 
a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

Really? Yes, Burgess's Doing It and Lady: My Life as a Bitch are deliberately provocative (and moral), but if it's true that mainstream children's literature is a sink-hole of filth and depravity, then I've definitely missed out. The top dogs of teen fiction, Pullman and Rowling, don't do sex. They do love, and loss, and desire and the host of conflicting emotions which come with the ambiguous relationships of teen peer-groups, but there's no gratuitous - or recreational - sex.

The same is true of most children's literature. Browse any bookshop and you'll find that apart from the now-fading rash of vampire stuff (which was once truly sexual when aimed at adults but is now populated by abstinence-promoting conservative trash like Twilight), the vast majority of kids' books are about two things: emotional deprivation and environmental fears. The astonishing success of Jacqueline Wilson's books are testament to kids' desire for emotional bonds and their admiration for Tracy Beaker, the neglected, complex heroine coping with life in a children's home.

As for the rest - you'd be astonished how much post-apocalypse material there is for teens: floods and environmental collapse have replaced nuclear war as the trigger: Bloodsong: Burgess's speculative retelling of the Icelandic Volgsungsagas set in ruined London, Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series, Meg Rossoff's elegiac How I Live Now and many more.

Who would I recommend? Add to those listed above Neil Gaiman, Anne of Green Gables, Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor series, T. H. White's The Once and Future King, The Phantom Tollbooth, Alice of course, the Moomins, Tom's Midnight Garden, anything by Terry Pratchett, Molesworth, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner above anybody else, Bella Bathurst, Mervyn Peake, Joe Dunthorne (you may have seen the recent adaptation of Submarine). And if you think that escapist children's literature is somehow immune from 'issues', you haven't read Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the Grown-Ups.

So what is it with these reactionaries whinging about teen fiction? Their central claim - that there's nothing more than abuse and misery on the shelves - is laughable. Sweet and 'innocent' texts abound: I've mentioned some above, and could go on.

No, the subtext is a denial of one of the central teen experiences: the revelation that there's a complex world out there. Developing a moral and political personality is as important as sexual maturity. For me, acquiring, testing, discarding and sometimes keeping ideas and opinions as a teen defined me. From the magic words of my headmaster ('you're just a bloody Guardian reader' - which I hadn't been but quickly became), I accessed politics, philosophy, economics and everything else through the medium of books. The alternative was to take my learning from my religious parents and religious school, and from my narrow, rural middle-class background. Morality seems to simple to a teen. Things are just right, or wrong. Minor evils abounded, but it was only through reading that I became aware of the structural, systematic immorality of humanity.

To some extent, the secret to becoming a moral adult is to hold on to that feeling, while understanding (as Tolkien and C. S. Lewis didn't) that people believe, think or do immoral things not because they're irredeemably evil themselves, but because human society is structured in such a way that we do these things without thinking. Everything I'm wearing is made by a child for a pittance. So is the Mac on which I'm typing this. A well-read teen possesses the moral clarity to know this and has the leisure and powerlessness required for idealism: the jaded, lazy, busy adult I've become knows it too, but he also knows that we all like it this way as long as we don't have to think about it too much.

Underneath this howl of protest is a deeply reactionary, conservative political position, and it's one which is a huge, backhanded compliment to children's writers. It says, in essence, that children shouldn't know that the world is a complicated and often dark place. To clear the shelves of everything but the saccharine and anodyne is to deny children fundamental truths about ourselves.

The Guardian, Militant (my late-teen newspapers of choice) and Karl Marx didn't turn me into an armchair Trotskyist. Who did? Ratty and Mole. Hazel and Fiver. Mary Poppins. Mrs. Rochester. The Children of the New Forest (stuck-up gits, wish the Roundheads had executed them. Mrs. Frisby. Pink Rabbit. Molesworth and Jennings.

And let's not pretend that disturbing children's literature is somehow a product of 21st-century moral decline: have you ever read Perrault's stories, or Grimm, or Struwwelpeter and so on ad infinitum. The oldest, most popular stories are all about the grim consequences for children who meet adults or try to learn something about the outside world: abducted ('The Pied Piper of Hamelin') or even eaten ('Hansel and Gretel'). The Wind in the Willows makes light of car theft and lynch mobs. Little Red Riding Hood wasn't a heroine really: she was a naughty girl whose pubescence made her the victim of the Wolf because she strayed from the path. What this lazy journalist objects to isn't 'issues' in kids' books: it's a morality which doesn't depend on fear and repression. Her old favourites are designed to scare children into accepting the status quo: the new breed want to shake it up. Good for them.

Also: she's writing for the Wall Street Journal: the house magazine of naked capitalism. The books she objects to wouldn't exist if there wasn't a market demand for them. The society she helps create and maintain has produced these books, so she hasn't a leg to stand on.

Of course, there is an argument against giving teens miserable books about self-harm and so  on. It's that old chestnut 'effects':
Yet it is also possible—indeed, likely—that books focusing on pathologies help normalize them and, in the case of self-harm, may even spread their plausibility and likelihood to young people who might otherwise never have imagined such extreme measures.
It is, of course, unbelievably weak, which is why it features in the Daily Mail most days. Because Jamie Bulger's killers watched Child's Play, that must have made them kill a child. Sorry, it doesn't work. I read hundreds of books about dwarves and fairies killing demons and never believed in them (ditto the Gospels). I've read and watched enough murders to shame Goebbels, yet I've never killed anyone. Tortured bodies are not dumped on the streets every time ITV screens Saw. Children can distinguish between fiction and real life. The idea that unhappy kids start carving their own flesh because someone in a book did it (and no, I can't think of any books in which it's presented as a cool idea) is an insult to those who do self-harm.

Gurdon also objects to books like this:
the latest novel by "this generation's Judy Blume," otherwise known as Lauren Myracle, takes place in a small Southern town in the aftermath of an assault on a gay teenager. The boy has been savagely beaten and left tied up with a gas pump nozzle shoved down his throat, and he may not live.
The author makes free with language that can't be reprinted in a newspaper. 

Er… loosely based on an actual murder. If you don't want kids to know about what happens to isolated teens in redneck communities, don't blame the author: blame the society which allowed this to happen. And if your newspaper is scared of language as its spoken (even by its own readers!), it's a risible newspaper more concerned with pretence than reality.

The final word goes to one of Gurdon's prime targets, Jackie Morse Kessler:
"Issue novels ... are not simply 'relevant for the young'. They're urgent for the young, and for their parents. Ignoring issues such as self-injury or eating disorders or bullying doesn't make them go away. Covering our ears and shutting our eyes and going 'LA LA LA' as loud as we can doesn't make these problems magically disappear. The only things that go away if you ignore them are your teeth," she wrote.
Now let's hear Ms. Gurdon's recommendations for teens.

Rant over.


Michael Silver said...

There's books written to help the self injured. They do not cause the problem. I had an assistant put together this list of books for 2013. http://www.cuttingdepression.net/books-about-self-harm/

The Plashing Vole said...

Thanks Michael - I hope people find them useful.