A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Reading around the net the other day I came across an article on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure – which is a site set up and written by children’s authors.
Mostly, children’s authors are a peaceful and supportive bunch. However, this article caught my attention as much for the vehemence and crossness of some of the 72 – yes 72! – comments – as the content of the piece itself. What had got all these lovely people so hot under the collar I wondered.
Well here is her article: “Sure the book is awful but at least they’re reading something”
In this piece, writer Clementine Beauvais lets rip and savages the idea that reading trash can be a good thing. Here’s how she starts:
“Like most people interested in children’s literature, and like many authors, I like asking booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents what children and teenagers are currently reading a lot of. And like many children’s literature academics, I don’t conceal my disappointment and my judgement when they tell me that a lot of children are reading what I consider, subjectively of course, but still with (I hope) some good reasons, to be trash; bad literature; literature that is facile, bland, formulaic; literature that relies on easy responses from young readers; literature that doesn’t count on the intelligence of its readers to be understood.
In response, people often say, ‘Sure, I agree with you – these books are awful. But at least they’re reading.’ ‘At least’. At least they’re reading. This is such a minimal kind of success that it doesn’t, in my view, actually qualify as any kind of success. At least they’re reading! hallelujah… When do you ever hear people who care about children say: ‘Oh, they love fries and cheeseburgers. Sure, McDonalds food is awful, but at least they’re eating.’ ?”
It’s clear from the comments that Clementine knows she is being controversial – or even playing devil’s advocate. But the outpouring in the comments was something else. Nearly everyone disagreed with her. She was being elitist, snobbish – who was she to judge and say some books are better than others? Various others commented that they had read trash as a kid, some telling us how they had still ended up going to Oxford…you get the picture.
My immediate response was to side with the commenters. Surely we want kids reading? And surely reading for enjoyment is the most important thing of all? Don’t we have enough of people telling us we have to do x rather than y because it is “good for us”? Isn’t that the death of real engagement and enjoyment with reading? Plus the fact that I know some voracious child readers who consume huge amounts of books that many might consider “trash” but that doesn’t stop them, like ravaging locusts, consuming pretty well every other book for kids they can as well – including stuff that is considered difficult literature way beyond their years. Surely all that practice at reading is what makes a good reader in the first place? Perhaps the reading of trash is what enables them to tackle the “better stuff”. Whatever “better stuff” means (and how dare anyone pretend there IS such a thing…etc etc).
However, as I went on reading the comments, I began to wonder. If I turned this debate around onto something that’s as important to me – art and painting – would I see it the same way?
Don’t we have to be introduced to some of the “good stuff” early so that we can understand and acquire that language in the first place? If I saw nothing but Disney cartoons – would I be able to read the visual language of paint that now means so much to me?
When I think of what I get out of looking at the paintings that really speak to me, it is very hard to put into words. I can feel it like an intense interest, a pleasurable brain-melt and a punch in the gut all at once and a sense of something quite deep and calming that I cannot explain at all but that makes life seem bigger, fuller, more meaningful. There is almost nothing else that has that effect on me. I know a lot of people don’t have that feeling. Maybe because they don’t paint – perhaps it is something to do with my brain looking and incorporating the knowledge of the doing that adds something extra. Or maybe it is to do with simply being exposed to pictures from an early age. I am TERRIBLY opinionated about art. Just disgustingly know-it-all-ly opinionated. And of course I’m always right. It is value judgement. It is snobbery. It is elitist. I’m sure many would say so anyway. But it’s not just received wisdom – there are things in painting I look for and speak to me, there are things I find facile, easy, formulaic…and I reject. Just like Clementine does in books. But if noone bothers to be judgemental – how can those artworks be created, recognised, exist? What happens if we shrug our shoulders and say noone should make those judgements, be self-critical or really try to get beyond the facile and formulaic?
Vulpes Libris is a reviewing site. By our nature we review, we judge, we evaluate. And it is opinion. The kind of heated debate on Clementine’s piece was enlivening and thought-provoking. Why are we so squeamish of others slagging off our taste and our opinions? Why can’t we passionately debate what is good and what is bad in books, in art, in music, in everything? Isn’t there even something pleasurable about when we find something that others underrate but we know that it is actually brilliant…and it is our own personal discovery?
It seems to me that the sort of opinions demonstrated by Clementine are totally acceptable on many book sites for adult readers – but it was the fact it was expressed on a children’s authors site that made it quite so controversial. Why is this? Is it because we are so sensitive about getting kids to read anything – anything at all – that leads us to be squeamish about judgement? Or is it because we inherently feel kids are easy to influence or made to feel a failure and therefore there is a feeling that their reading material must never be criticised in any shape or form?
But how about we turn this on its head for a minute? If we don’t look at it from the point of view of criticising children, or childrens’ authors and their reading or writing choices, but asking questions about publishers, models, franchises and marketing – does it play any differently?
Are we happy that so many children’s books have celebrity names but are ghost written by others? Are we happy about the dominance of formulaic series? Are we happy about generic stories or gendered covers or stereotypical characterisations of princess and fairies for girls or beasts and monsters for boys? Are we happy about the closing of libraries, the lack of school libraries and the sacking of childrens’ librarians who might guide children’s reading towards exciting stories that they think they will enjoy but that also open other branches of life and knowledge for them?
Those children who devour everything – including bucketloads of “trash” (whatever your version of trash might be) – are they voracious readers because of the practice they get by reading so much trash or because they are kids who already have a lot of opportunities to read and a wide selection of books they can choose from?
What if kids have no choice but the “bad” stuff? Does it matter?
Clementine seemed to provoke a huge reaction when she questioned the whole value of reading in an end in itself, altogether, with the following statement (her bold):
“To me, there is no value, and I do mean zero value, in reading books which (most adults agree) are of low quality – lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing. It is dishonest, I think, to keep asserting that it is a good thing in itself. “
Is reading the be all and end all in itself? We are obsessed with literacy, but this important issue aside – is it better for children to read “trash”, than watch good television, for example? Or enjoy other media? Clementine argues that perhaps quality television or even quality computer games would be more of a gateway for better books, than trashy books.
And here is a strange admission for me. For, despite being an able and fluent reader from an early age, and, despite having written a lot from an early age, I have never been the voracious reader that – say – my sister was, that my niece now is, that many of the other bookfoxes – that some of my friends are.
I love words – but I enjoy them aurally as much as on the page. The visual arts are as important to me, more so, than novels. I read more plays than novels. I can get totally absorbed in essays even. Yet novels…? Perhaps, it is largely about the kinds of stories available in books. I can find it hard to find the sort of stories I want to read. Whilst there are books I have truly loved, it can be hard to put my finger on what it is that links them – what do Watership Down, Gormenghast, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Borderliners by Peter Hoeg and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy all have in common, for example? Perhaps I need a good librarian to analyse all of this and point me towards the kinds of things I might really enjoy.
So, I’m literate. But my choice of trash would possibly be more televisual – or internet-based – rather than book-shaped. Does this matter? Is reading in and of itself a desirable thing?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. As a child I read a lot more books and stories than I do now, but even at that age I was aware of a lack of active female characters to relate to and a lack of characters that I related to and was that interested in. When I became a teenager, this problem just seemed to get worse. I suspect that this sort of thing – characters and identity and worlds – is more important really when it comes to children engaging with reading – than the trash v good debate. But this is – perhaps – why what Clementine’s saying has a real point.
I don’t want to trash formula. There can be a comfort in formula that can sometimes be underrated. As a child, I read a vast amount of animal books, for example, of similar style and formula.What I wanted was a predictable supply of the kind of thing I liked – to cheer me up, to engage me in my interests. The animal books series I devoured were not great works of literature and not challenging in any way – although I wouldn’t call them trash either. But the fact I knew pretty much what I was getting was an important aspect. Kids, similar to adults, can have stresses and strains, worries about school maybe or anxieties. Reading a book can be just as important in that way – as a comfort read, escapism, or just to relax.
But we do need variety. We need to strive to create good stories, a good range of characters, good books – not just the bland, the repetitive, the formulaic – not just to encourage literacy, but to allow books and reading to do all that they can for children – introduce them to other worlds, other times, other people, different characters, different world-views and possibilities – and to stimulate imagination, engage empathy, allow them to discover themselves, think about issues and open their eyes to the world and all there is in it.
Is this achieved with the current obsession with genre and series and ghost-writing, pink covers and gender-conscious approaches or is it achieved by trying to widen all childrens’ access to a wide variety of books so they can find the kinds of books and stories that speak to them, engage them and widen horizons?
So rather than jumping on the likes of Clementine’s post, I think the fact it has stimulated such debate is a good thing and I’m glad there are people out there still flying the flag for quality – whether I agree with her definition of what quality is, or not.
Here’s a response to Clementine’s original article putting another point of view http://www.stroppyauthor.com/2014/04/books-without-lumps-or-are-some-books.html
Did you read trashy books as a child? Does it matter? Do you monitor your own kids’ books for quality? What do you define as quality in children’s books? Do you agree with Clementine’s definitions of low-quality (“lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing”)? Is reading in itself a good thing? Should we have less judgement and snobbery around children’s books? Please feel free to tell us your thoughts.