Saturday, 27 September 2014

Real literature

As children's literature scholars, we often hear colleagues and friends say: “And when are you going to write about real literature?” To explain that children's literature is real is pointless: the prejudice is too deeply rooted.

This summer I read four real books, all recommended to me, for which I am hugely grateful because I would probably not discovered them on my own: The Luminaries, The Name of the Wind and sequel The Wise Man's Fear, and The Goldfinch. As I was reading, in this order, I kept telling myself, This is the best book I have ever read... or at least the best book I have read in a long, long time... a book that I don't want to end (hopefully, there will we a third volume of The Name of the Wind). Contrary to the current studies, I don't get distracted when I read on screen as opposed to reading a printed book. If anything, I read slower and more concentrated. All the four books are slow reads because they demand attention and memory if you want to follow the plot, although, frankly, plot is the least interesting aspect in them. All the four are beautifully written so that I almost did what I claim I never do: read them outloud for myself.

As I was reading, I couldn't help asking myself why I was enjoying them so much, and my only explanation was – sorry, children's literature friends – that they were real books.

Except for The Luminaries, the books feature, wholly or partially, very young people, children. Then what makes them real books rather than children's books? My colleagues and I have been trying to answer this profound question for the past forty years: what makes a children's book a children's book; in what ways is children's literature different from real literature? (I will go on calling it real literature in this post, although I never do so in my academic studies). We have dismissed the ridiculous claims that children's literature is simple; and we have shown, convincingly I hope, that there are no themes and issues that cannot be treated in children's literature. Just the other day, I had an email from a journalist saying: I have discovered that there are some children's books depicting death, it must be very unusual. I replied, as I always do, that death is the most prominent theme in all children's literature. She didn't get back.

The four real books I read this summer are full of violent deaths, but this is not what makes them real books. They all have happy endings, which some scholars claim is the hallmark of children's books. It is not the young protagonists' budding sexuality (The Wise Man's Fears has some exquisite erotic scenes), because children's, or if you prefer, young adult books are seasoned with sex to saturation. What then? As a scholar, I might say something I argue in my clever academic books: children's literature has a particular narrative voice; it reflects uneven child/adult relationships; it speaks to the cognitive and emotional experience of a young person. Well, maybe the last aspect brings me closer. My real books speak to me as a grown up. But I cannot really explain how, and it is frustrating, because I have been paid for the last forty years to be able to explain.

As a reader, when I contemplate reading real books as opposed to children's books, I feel that the former are slow-paced. Contemporary children's books can be nine hundred pages long, but these nine hundred pages are filled to the brim with action; dialogue is used to propel the plot, characters' reflections are to consider the text step. (This is a crude generalisation, to be avoided in academic work). I want to finish a children's book because I am curious how the author will manage to round it up. That is, with good books, because with bad books, I am not even interested in that. I don't finish bad books these days, unless I must.

But with real books, I want them to go on forever, because real life typically goes on forever (as opposed to childhood that is finite), and I want to get to know the character because their lives tell me something about myself. Children's books can only tell me something about what I once was or wasn't or could have been. But then, children's books are not written for me. I only read them because it is my job.

Mind, I am not saying that children's books are inferior, which people outside the world of children’s literature scholarship might easily infer from my argument. My professional interest is to pin down the difference, the children's-literature-specific aesthetics, its specific social and psychological function. My interest as a reader, common reader, not professional reader, is to understand why reading real literature is on the whole a greater pleasure than reading children's literature. I guess the answer is, because it speaks to me as an adult. It doesn't mean that the four real books I read this summer won't speak to a young reader, but in a different way, as a projected future rather than past conditional.

PS. I do have some strong objections to The Goldfinch. A serious author should have asked a native speaker to check her Russian. I wonder whether the Dutch is all wrong as well.

1 comment:

Stroppy Author said...

I think you've pretty much nailed it in terms of 'speaking to you as an adult' and that that doesn't make them better but different. I wonder if there is a similarity with the diversity debate? That if you see your own preoccupations as a black person (for example) represented in a book that book is more meaningful and pleasurable for you, and so if you see your adult experience reflected it is more engaging than if you see childhood experience reflected? Although we have all been children, childhood concerns are no longer urgent and compelling for us.

Narrative speed is certainly a factor, too, as you say - children's books have to rush along with relatively little time for description, reflection and langourous passsages of character development. (This from the perspective of someone working at the coalface now, not necessarily developing arguments from the past canon as you are.)

My agent would say cultural complexity - not that there aren't complex children's books, but that an adult book can be written with a dependence on the reader 'getting' the complexity and a children's book can't rely on it. (You can read Northern Lights for the story and not worry about the allegory if you don't get it.) I outlined to her a book I was writing which she said she couldn't sell as a children's book because of the complexity of the ideas behind it which couldn't be imparted in the text. I'm not sure I agree with her, but there are certain things you can rely on an adult reader knowing that you can't rely on a child reader knowing. Many real books (to use your phrase) rely on cultural resonance and part of the delight we take in them is an intellectual pleasure and being 'in on it'. It's probably that bit you miss (if it's there) in children's literature. And I say 'if it's there' because the books aren't written by children so we writers aren't in on it either.