Sunday, January 2, 2011

Books That (Alas) I Shall Never Read - The Third in a Series

When I was growing up in the 1950's and 1960's, there was a quiet revolution taking place in the children's literature genre. American "juvenile" literature has a long and complex history, and each segment has its adherents and defenders. But with the appearance of J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring Trilogy in the mid-1950's, British fantasy literature took a big leap forward. Tolkien, of course, wasn't alone; he was part of a movement in Great Britain, a group of writers known as The Inklings, several of whom drew parallel inspiration from Medieval texts and history, to create a new kind of genre, juvenile-myth-quest narratives, in verse or prose, aimed fuzzily at the juvenile book audience (most kids wouldn't have been able to appreciate this stuff until they were at least, say, 12 or 13, since the language and plotting and imaginative tropes were quite elaborate). Some grown-ups found them as interesting as adult literature, though this appreciation was rather in the way of admiration than of fascinated seduction.

As a child, I grew up being read to relentlessly. I didn't warm to this regimen for several years. My parents knew I must become literate, at an early age, and they insisted that regular sessions of reading take place in the evenings. They supplied the texts, and I was put on the usual reading list for American children of that time (1950's). This was before the British juvenile revolution, so it didn't include knights and ladies and jousts and holy grails and woodsy copses and great stone castles with moats and dragons and sorcerers and monks and keltic rituals.

Aside from the preoccupation with Ancient and Medieval settings, the predominant characteristic of these stories was their "cuteness." In the decades since the phenomenal success of the Ring series, there have been many imitators--in fact, fantasy as a genre has exploded, and now occupies a significant segment of the select audience spectrum, both here and in England. Like Romance novels and the traditional Sci-Fi genres, the "quest" fantasy niche has become as predictable, and hackneyed as any of the dime-novel treatments of the last 150 years.

But it wasn't until the appearance of Joanne Rowling's Harry Potter series that the quest fantasy got its first real shot in the arm since Tolkien's arrival 40 years earlier. Authored by a newcomer with no previous publication history, the Potter series draws on a predictable set of clichéd children's literature tropes, combined with stock elements of fantasy and Medieval epic, and an English public school setting. The combination proved to be irresistible to the "juvenile" reading audience. Critics, who may have assumed that the "decline" in reading attributed to the television--and, later, computers--wouldn't permit such a phenomenon, were pleasantly surprised. Children were reading! Reading! Reading!! Did it matter what they were reading, as long as it wasn't Gothic punk porn???


Someone, maybe Edmund Wilson, who abhorred the Hobbit phenomenon, said that Tolkien's books were "too old for children, and too young for adults." That's a judgment I would second.

Children's books are a difficult genre. When children are first learning to read, almost any plotting or visual device can be effective in capturing their attention, in order to channel their minds into the language stream. Pop-up books are useful.

The fact is that children's minds grow so fast, that so-called "juvenile" literature, which is a form of deliberate condescension which quickly becomes irrelevant to a growing consciousness, can't "keep up with them." What this means in practical terms is that any child intelligent enough to read coherent sentences, and the patience to stick with a narrative lasting more than, say, 25 pages, overtakes and outdistances all pathetic attempts to mediate between the realization of adult comprehension, and the fake cartoon world of naive story-lines and irrational "dumb" behavior which is nearly their whole agenda.

Any child intelligent enough to read Beatrice Potter, or E.B. White, or J.K. Rowling, is already too mature to appreciate the condescension which is being perpetrated upon them, and what they perceive is that this condescension creates a predicament for which there is no solution: Namely, that they have entered a kind of twilight zone of "adolescence" in which they are to regard themselves, and their immature "society" as a restricted condition, bogusly "innocent," harmlessly sweet, powerless and oppressed. Someone once said that children are just "little adults" and this is no more true than for intelligent children who become effectively adolescent as early as age 7 or 8. For such children, the protected "play" of "secret," "cozy" fantasy provides a testing ground for their own vicarious aptitudes.

A child intelligent enough to comprehend the nonsense world of Joanne Rowling or J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, is already old enough for adult literature. The best children's literature is that which can be read and appreciated by adults, as if it were written for them, instead of as a form of condescension and contempt for innocence and immaturity. Fables and fairy tales "aimed" at children are almost always failures. The trick is in creating a structure of relationships and events which have the logic of forceful narrative, and direct description and dialogue, without proposing a fake universe in which children may postpone growing up in favor of a complex game of avoidance and illusion.

Those of us who couldn't wait to graduate out of the confinements of prolonged childhood pastimes, saw no attraction in such elaborate fantasies, aimed at "young adolescents." The cult frenzy practiced by obsessive late-blooming adults, focused on "magical" mazes of plot and gamesmanship, held no attraction. Charming old Oxford dons cooking up fascinating fruit-cake tales of elves, stuffed animals and supernatural wands and rings, as a diversion from the drudgery of academic research into Middle English codices and tending to graduates....

Thank god I got out of childhood without being seduced by any of this poppycoddle. I went straight from The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come into the historical novels of Kenneth Roberts; and from there to Dickens and Camus and T.S. Eliot and Frost and Irwin Shaw and John Cheever. I never read Tolkien and Rowling, and I never shall. Lucky me!


Addendum [1/6/11]:

I find the discussion at this point to be hung up on an issue that is really not the subject of this post (literary landmarks which I, yours truly, have scratched off my list of vital, essential "classics" of world literature). I find that my preference regarding so-called "juvenile" literature has much more complex roots than simple taste. I'm not saying that Tolkien or Rowling are unworthy, as much as I'm rejecting a whole segment of contemporary literary form. Why?

I think the answer comes from a view of childhood psychology--or, rather, contemporary attitudes about the meaning of "childhood" as a psychological precinct of existence, self-sufficient, timeless--which feeds off of imaginary childhood "cosmologies"--fake worlds which are constructed, like movie sets, out of the fragments of myth, familiar real places and situations, and fictionalized hybrid settings borrowed or stolen from straight literature (or other media). Children's literature functions primarily by putting before the immature mind a simplified set of conditions, within which two-dimensional characters move with freedom and ease. The world--the world we know as "adults"--is complete, and in its own way, quite difficult and mysterious and challenging. The idea that we should require an analogous cosmology or "inferior" parallel world (version) comes from the notion that children inhabit a different world from that of adults, that they either need an intermediate universe to live in (psychologically) or that the real world is too dangerous or too boring to (safely) gratify the curiosity and inquisitiveness of the childhood mind. I find this idea wrong.

A superior example of true successful children's literature would be Stuart Little [1945] E.B. White's "charming" fable of a mouse growing up in a human household, as if he were a sort of surrogate human hybrid offspring. The narrative balances the improbability of this bizarre variation of the growing up story, against the inspiring spirit of the mouse (Stuart), who in most respects is like a very precocious and dignified and courageous young man (or boy). There is no attempt to create a wholly worked out fantasy universe with magical qualities and mythical beings with supernatural powers. The world Stuart lives in bears a close resemblance to the world we all inhabit, and the challenges he faces are partly the result of his strange identity, and partly the result of the real problems every child faces in growing up.

Children who require such "alternative" universes seem to me to have an involuted consciousness. Tolkien's fascination with medieval trappings and complexities obviously grew out of his work in Middle English literature and philology. He fantasized wholly self-sufficient medieval societies and landscapes, even going so far as to provide maps and paintings and secondary texts to elaborate the central stories. This is rather like very sophisticated model building, or miniature train set building.

Children who require an "inner world" of this degree of complexity and density probably have a kind of deprived imaginative life in other ways, or are rejecting the real world they occupy, or are not furnished with an adequately interesting intellectual life devoted to, or derived from, actual events and situations. Children's fantasy literature--especially this hybrid quest fantasy stuff--can become a kind of addiction, accompanied by a cozy cult-like feeling of exclusivity, shared by the like-minded, and worn as a badge of precocious selection by children too insecure to participate fully in the world as it is. Such little cult-fans may perpetuate their interest well into adolescence and beyond, preferring the imaginary world (in all its elaborateness and detail) to reality. Rather than "outgrowing" it, they tend to cling to it, as if it might continue to occupy a place equal to adult literature. It has, of course, many of the same aspects of classic literature: It's set in a pre-industrial, pre-scientific cosmos which only "works" for children. This suspended state of childhood thus permits such readers to experience many of the aspects of straight narrative, without having to confront the irony of their own immature regard.

For those who prefer this kind of elaborate immaturity, juvenile medieval quest narratives furnish the perfect escape. They can return to or recreate a sense of childhood, without confronting the basic naivité the genre implies. Adults reading this stuff is almost as bad as children reading it. The level of condescension is as bad as their appetite for schlock. It's all so cute and cuddly and rounded and snug.


Kirby Olson said...

You're missing something rather amazing. I've read both, and still like them, as well as the movies.

Rowling has wild tricks up her sleeve and isn't merely derivative. She has power and intensity and well, magic.

Tolkien's books are very intense, too.

CS Lewis is probably the best of the three, but I've not read much. What I have read has been first rate.

You really should read a book if you're going to damn it, what.

Have you ever actually read the Bible, by the way? The letters of Paul are absolutely ripping. The Gospels are superb. The psalms are great.

Ginsberg and the others are constantly citing them. I do hope you have at least read that.

Conrad DiDiodato said...

"The best children's literature is that which can be read and appreciated by adults, as if it were written for them, instead of as a form of condescension and contempt for innocence and immaturity."

I agree, and it's why I never tire of re-reading "The Hobbit".

I also agree with Kirby in regard to Tolkien: I recall the great satisfaction derived from reading the complete "Trilogy" in high school.

As for Rowling: I have a theory about her obscenely successful career for work that is little better than a lot of children's literature. There was a time in the 70s & 80s when the single mother was reviled in the UK: a symbol of a social welfare state rewarding laziness and moral irresponsibility (so the Thatcherite characterization goes). Rowling was a single mother. It's quite likely she fitted a kind of utopian hope (to be instantly realized) that success stories could be possible after all even in the social democratic state.

It's also why so many authors and works in a highly arts-subsidized country like Canada tend to get accolades/awards/more arts funding directly incommensurate with the quality of work produced.

J said...

Rowling's no Tolkien, but a cheap pop-version thereof, and very profitable version for that matter.

No Tolkien phase for Sir F.? That explains much. One grows out of it, but...Tolkien sword and sorcery offers kids (at least the WASP sorts) a certain....Weltanschaaung, if you will, sort of Camelotish, or a bit Wagnerian even--shouldn't they read of King Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin, and Lancelot, Sir F?? . They need Merlins....or even Gandalfs, ...maybe. At least the traditional sort--not the British or ho-wood sort. No? TS Eliot probably agreed....

Im against the ...witchy BS--especially the Rowling sort (ie Harry on a f-ing broom) but myth still has a certain force, at least as a change from a steady diet of realist sludge, or sunday school for that matter. Perseus and Andromeda 101

Curtis Faville said...

My distaste for these books is predominantly "generic" in that I've never been a fan of fantasy. I regard such "adult" fantasy books as a kind of hybrid--neither children's literature--nor adult--which occupy an uncertain zone betwixt the two. Their appeal has always struck me as suspect, as in my opinion no thinking adult would find them the least bit diverting, since their setting and context are juvenile. Whereas for the children, the "precocious" brats who like this stuff tend to be insufferable nerds who grow up to be repulsive adults.

The overbearing "cuteness" and mindless complexity drive me up a wall. Let the munchkins alone. Reality is much more interesting.

There's also another aspect which I find tedious, the obsessive groupie-ism associated with such crazes. Rather like Star-Trekkies or adherents of Rubix Cubes.

J said...

Sir F's correct insofar that Rowling-Co does produce something like nausea (as does the marketing of Tolkien, tho his books were not as cheesy as the recent flicks). It's a British thing, IMHE. Americans have been taught to accept all sorts of British-blimey crap since, what the Beatles. Or was it Shakespeare. As with like the regular PBS garbage fests, the witty fops and Sussex sluts, the endless Monty Python re-run, or Sherlock Holmes, the Jane Assten nostalgia fest, manor homes etc.

V2s were a start however un-PC

Kirby Olson said...

The Black Mountain Cult is equally an obsessive groupie-group, or so it seems to outsiders. Even the Eigneramuses strike me as cut from the same mold.

J said...

(not sure you got this initially)

Sir F's correct insofar that Rowling-Co does produce something like nausea (as does the marketing of Tolkien, tho his books were not as cheesy as the recent flicks). It's a British thing, IMHE. Americans have been taught to accept all sorts of British-blimey crap since, what the Beatles. Or was it Shakespeare. As with like the regular PBS garbage fests, the witty fops and Sussex sluts, the endless Monty Python re-run, or Sherlock Holmes, the Jane Assten nostalgia fest, manor homes etc.

V2s were a start however un-PC

Rowling has wild tricks up her sleeve and isn't merely derivative. She has power and intensity and well, magic.

What complete horsesh*t. Rowling's a cheap fantasy hack, if not...child panderer. They even teach her crap in Cal schools now. At least Tolkien, however trite at this stage, knew something about european myths and his writing was competent --
(and I wager Olson's preacher --lets get him online!--would agree as well.)

Kirby Olson said...

Write about what you know, right?

Curtis Faville said...


I guess one of the points I'm making about these books is that you don't have to read them in their entirety in order to understand what their overall effect is. There is a degree of familiarity which we acquire in any field in which we delve. One doesn't have to read thousands of children's books to know how the genre functions. One doesn't have to read 500 pages of Finnegans Wake to know how it's made. We know explicitly exactly what Rowling and Tolkien are doing, what they're making, without having to experience the total mass of material.

Also, I'm going through a process of sorting. As we get older, we may disregard the limits that time is gradually imposing upon our opportunities. When I was 30, I thought I'd get to everything; after all, all that time yawning out ahead, it seemed limitless. But now I know that's certainly not true. There's regret in this, too. It's not a celebration, but a judgment upon certain works, that they're not going to repay the effort involved in choosing them over other ones. As we get older, we better understand how to maximize our time and energy--we know what works for us, and what's likely to give us the most pleasure, the most knowledge, the greatest insight.

You mention the Bible. I feel often that the various books of the Bible are telling the same "story" in different guises. Little moral tales and unctuous sermons on conduct. All thousands of years before science and empirical regard. Also, it tends to be what we make of it. "This means...." And then everyone argues about what it means, and interpretations burgeon into infinity. What's the point? Ethics is a quagmire, especially when based on a "sacred" text which is supposed to be a standard upon which all right conduct and thought is based. I don't buy it.

J said...

Book-burnings en masse are not such a bad idea--Rowling-Co, up in smoke. Good books as well: Book of Revelation, brutthrreer, into the flaming fire...

Then, kinder, gentler gulags are not such a bad idea either....and most religious fundamentalists (christian, jew, muslim or otherwise) belong in there. Time for yr mellaril, Mr. Kirbly

Kirby Olson said...

If you're going to get rid of quest literature you might as well get rid of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Jason and the Argonauts, for starters. Toss in Canterbury Tales, and at least some of Shakespeare, such as As You Like It, and why not throw in On The Road while you're at it.

None of it is exactly scientific.

Let's just read Richard Dawkins.

Curtis Faville said...


I think you're just being argumentative here.

You know very well I'm not throwing out classical literature. What I'm proposing to exclude from my own canon of crucial texts is the cult of juvenile quest fantasy, as exemplified by Tolkien's Ring Trilogy and the Harry Potter books of J.K. Rowling.

Do you really think it's impossible to distinguish between this third-rate stuff and Homer? Between it and Chaucer? You think Chaucer is fantasy quest literature? Wow, that's really a stretch. Just for starters, let's compare Chaucer's language with Rowling's. Is there any comparison at all?????

Kirby Olson said...

Why not just throw out literature altogether and substitute science?

That's where you're tending. Go all the way and pay the postage.

Kirby Olson said...

What about the Wizard of Oz? Would you ban that, both movie and book?

Would you also ban the Obama Administration and Nancy Pelosi, with her fantasy quest of redistribution of money through stealthcare?

I just don't know what you're doing with this chop suey business.

I think you should read the books in question. They are delightful in their own way.

We are now 14 trillion dollars in debt. Would you ban any literature that issues from the CBO?

Curtis Faville said...

This is all rather typical of you, Kirby, if I may say so.

The OZ books are repetitive and tedious in the extreme. The only one worth reading is the first volume--the rest are derivative and exploitative.

Chop suey. No, I'm not saying what I like or don't like should be a guide for anyone else. I'm merely expressing an opinion. I'm not a critic, certainly not an official one.

Perhaps you're just being argumentative on principle. Since you still have children, perhaps you're leaning towards good parenting, supporting children's reading programs and literacy in general. Very good of you, I'm sure.

I heard Tavis Smiley last night, whose guest was the redoubtable Dennis Miller--erstwhile actor, frequent comedian, notorious rabid conservative. You'd have liked it.

14 trillion dollars in debt. What percentage, would you say, offhand, is attributable to Republican programs and planks? Certainly 75% by my estimation. We'll see how much of the Defense Budget the Republicans can stand to cut.

Of course, "we must address entitlements" (IOW, eliminate Social Security etc.). Even though the trust fund is healthy for another 20 years. But "we must address entitlements" even though the discretionary spending on wars and institutional banking chews up well over 80% of the non-dedicated budget.

Ah, so, saith the preacher.

Kirby Olson said...

How many copies of Eigner have sold thus far? No argument in this. I'm just curious. I find his writing very curious, and am fascinated by it.

J said...

Harry Potter, in the Adventure of the Mujahideen.
Oz banned, yes. Harry Potter banned, along with Unicorns, disco, astrology.. and mormonism.

The real problem with RowlingCo, which Sir F hints at but doesn't really flesh out izz this: Rowling's cheap little fantasies replace other, more valuable books, if not historical realism (and ....scientific thinking as well). Students will not likely read... Red Badge of Courage, or many other decent tales. Or American history--the great Depression. Or even Steinbeck's raw pulp. Maybe a few will in high school but the corporate fantasy of Rowling and Tolkein (and include the latest update of Star wars) ...reigns supreme. It's Orwellian--the earth's on the edge of chaos and millions of people are watching Harry Potter fly around a room like a witch. Or something. As Bertrand Russell once yapped, the literary business tends to mistake a Hamlet for a Napoleon--the belle-lettrists reify that sort of thinking. The map becomes the territory