Friday 28 March 2014

'Sure, the book is awful, but at least they're reading something.' - Clementine Beauvais

Is it better to read 'anything' rather than 'nothing'?

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 like 'reading' is a monolithic 'thing' that one 'should' do, that it is always good to do. It's like there's no other alternative. Reading instead of doing what?

If the other option is going around throwing puppies off cliffs, sure, I'd rather they be reading. If the alternative is watching reality TV, would I still prefer them to be reading? To be entirely honest, I wouldn't really care either way. Undemanding, unsophisticated TV is equivalent to undemanding, unsophisticated books in my mind. If the alternative is watching the latest Pixar film, I'd much rather they watched that. But comparing activities is, on the whole, a fairly fruitless debate.

The myth that all reading is good is associated to the myth of trashy reading as 'gateway' to better reading: 'But then they'll read more sophisticated books!'. I doubt it.  

Reading sophisticated, demanding books is not the 'next step' on the same literary ladder as trashy, unsophisticated fiction. It's a different kind of reading altogether. It follows the reading of sophisticated, demanding children's fiction, not the reading of undemanding, unsophisticated children's fiction. It's a type of reading which requires a specific, rather ascetic mindset, a mindset which cannot be a comfortable step away from trashy literature. A mindset which, I would argue, is in fact directly at odds with the one cultivated by trashy literature. 

However, it could be a sidestep, or a parallel step, to the watching of demanding, sophisticated films, or the playing of demanding, sophisticated video games.

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.

Oh, I'm aware, by the way, that all of the above makes me sound like a horrible snob. I'm also aware that it is a frequently-debated issue, and that people have very strong feelings about it.

It's important that we keep having this discussion. There are problematic ideological and economic reasons why so many well-meaning adults (who would never be content to see children swallow down huge quantities of junk food) just go 'Oh well!' and smile when they see them gulping down the literary equivalent of junk food.

The relativistic myth that obviously, 'all reading is good', followed by the idea that obviously, 'trashy reading will lead to better reading', is hugely convenient, in both financial and political terms, to a lot of people.

So let's keep talking about it, because in these benevolent sentences there are transparent values, much too 'obvious' to be benign.


Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter, a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.


Sue Bursztynski said...

I have heard this "at least they're reading" used as a perjorative, to imply that non fiction is inferior. "Oh, well, it's non fiction, but at least they're reading!" As a writer of very god non fiction for kids, I find that offensive, and as a librarian I have found myself angry when a teacher saps at a child with a non fiction book they might have enjoyed, "Put that down and get a novel!"

I know it's not quite what you were saying, but it's similarly annoying. And I have known a student who said she hadn't read anything before Year 5 tell me her very first book was Twilight. Popular, but not the best thing to read(I read it because that's what a librarian does, and found it dull, dull, dull). She was one of my most enthusiastic borrowers and a keen member of my book club. I bought a full set for the library when I saw students curled up with their own copies, excited about reading for the first time.
We have to accept that not everyone has the ability to read classics. So yes, sometimes we do have to say,"At least they're reading." :-)

Anonymous said...

"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.' ?"

When their child has an eating disorder. There have been times when I would have wept with joy if my child had eaten a cheeseburger and fries and not thrown it up. Sometimes eating is just a survival skill, and so is reading. If a child can't manage the mechanics of reading (or eating) it's good to get that grounding first. Enjoying avodaco and balsamic vinegar, or reading (say) Celia Rees books, can come later. Sometimes concentrating on one word after another (or one chip after another) is enough to start with, and the reward of an easy story keeps them making the steps. I write reluctant reader fiction, and I hope my books are not rubbish - they are carefully thought out and have challenging concepts behind them. But the readings steps - the words and sentences - are easy. They need to be. We can't write off the children who are intimidated by a fat book with small type and not enough full stops for them to get their breath.

And children are people, just small ones. It would be nice if all adults read Dostoyevsky instead of Fifty Shades, but they don't. Some children don't want to read 'good' books - they want to read an adventure about spacemen slaughtering aliens in their underpants. And it *is* a gateway. My nephew used to read only comics and then he read nothing. A week ago he bought a book. A proper, long book. Because he had kept up with the basic skill, he could - in his own time (at 20) - confidently tackle a 'real' book.

Children develop at different rates and like different things including, as Sue says, non-fiction. It's essential that we make good books available to them, encourage them to choose and read them, model reading good books. But they are not prisoners in childhood, they are little individuals. We provide them with tools and show them how to use them, and then stand back and let them have a go. There will be mistakes and false starts. But we rob them of the excitement of discovery if we cut out the path for them.

(Sorry to post anonymously, but I wouldn't mention my child's eating disorder in public.)

Anne Cassidy said...

I so disagree. My own experience as a reader is a case in point. When young I saw 'reading books' as boring, linked with school and study and writing. I was drawn to 'trashy' adults books of no merit except for one thing. They persuaded me that there was 'pleasure' to be had in reading. That I could chose what I wanted to read and no one could force me to read anything I didn't want to read. A dozen or so 'trashy' books later I was looking for something better and found it in tiny steps. You're so WRONG in this.

Catherine Butler said...

Another point worth remembering is that people (i.e. adults and children) don't read just one sort of book, or indeed eat one sort of food. If someone saw me tucking into a packet of pork scratchings they would be rash indeed into conclude that I was incapable of enjoying and appreciating a meal at Le Gavroche. (I am willing to put this to a practical test if someone will fund it.)

Might the same not apply to reading?

@storyvilled said...

I agree and disagree. Taking the food analogy further, sweets are fun and delicious but few parents would be happy if ALL their children ate were sweets. So I it's up to parents and teachers and librarians and booksellers and even publishers to encourage cajole (and sometimes OK, bribe) children to read the good stuff. But most 'readers' discover this for themselves, just like most children will self regulate their food intake pretty well if left to their own devices. (There are studies showing this which I can't find right now as rushing off on school run.)
And certainly genre literature, comics and graphic novels can be good. Excellent in fact.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

I don't think I'm wrong in captial letters; I might be wrong in lower case. Of course I accept that in certain cases it doesn't work like that.

The problem is, I too could give examples of children who were huge, voracious readers of pretty bad books, and who were expected to grow up to be voracious readers of good books, but just never did, because more sophisticated writing never appealed. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not. Maybe that's where I'm wrong (in lower case).

This platform is self-selecting - we're all authors and big readers, so there's survivorship bias in any personal experience.

As for the junk food analogy, I am truly sorry it caused offence. Additionally, this analogy can only go so far - which is why, Catherine, I'm not sure it's the same thing to say that you can eat barbecued ribs one day and Heston Blumenthal food the next (though some people would probably say that you can't...).

But no, I don't believe that there's an easy step or even a logical step from facile and undemanding reading to difficult and demanding reading. My main point anyway is to ask why we believe that reading anything is better than reading nothing. And perhaps more importantly, whose interests does this belief serve? Not the children and the adults who care about them, I think.

Just to clarify, I absolutely wouldn't categorise genre fiction, comics and non-fiction as trash! My goodness, that's absolutely not what I think. This isn't a matter of genre but of individual books.

catdownunder said...

I wonder whether children and adults sometimes go for what appears to be "trash" simply because they just want something easy and positive - like a boy-meets-girl romance or good-wins-over-bad western?
I have read a number of YA books lately and one of them was so negative that reading it was not a positive experience. That's not saying books have to always be about positive things, rather that negative things need to have some positive element - some hope for the future. Young people need that.

Nick Green said...

Catherine - I will fund the pork scratchings if someone else will pick up the Gavroche tab. (I like the ones that still have pig hairs in them.)

I see the point of this argument, though it depends on your definition of 'trash'. There are some kids' books that are so badly written that I fear it will put them off for life, once the appeal of the 'popular characters' has worn off. I speak up for 'quality' writing because I genuinely believe it's actually easier to read (as well as being far more rewarding).

Penny Dolan said...

I have a lot of sympathy with your views - also in lower case - Clementine. On primary school visits I sometimes ask children what books they are reading, and can't help feeling a bit disappointed about the overall level of the titles they name, esp in Years 5&6. And often, in Literacy, linked to the seeing of a film as study. (If it doesn't have a film, it isn't any good as a book, right?)
I DO worry that few teachers now have time or knowledge or resources (goodbye, local SLS!)to encourage a wider experience of children's literature, alongside trashier, "fun" reading.

Anne Cassidy said...

I'm sorry if my upper case comments have offended but a lot of Clementine's post was in bold. Not quite sure why. Making a comment is a quick thing and I just wanted to emphasis my disagreement.

Emma Barnes said...

I'd like to hear which books you are defining as "trash" - you seem to have been careful not to give any examples!

I don't agree with you, firstly because I think reading fluently is something that requires a lot of practice, and in those early, struggling stages formulaic, predictable reading is exactly what most children like. (Enid Blyton, Rainbow Fairies, Beast Quest and similar. And these are good books in their own way.) I think it's easy to forget that stage as a literate adult - it really brings it home watching children learn to read: very few of them are "natural" readers from the off. I think if they don't have the right books available for them at that stage (many of which I suspect you'd define as trash) then they won't get further.

I also think there's not necessarily anything wrong with "formulaic" which, after all, you have to be familiar with before you recognise it as "formula". And both children and adults like to "comfort read" - adults typically read crime fiction or romance, which are almost always "formulaic" to some extent (ie you know where they are going to end up) but that doesn't mean they are trash (Raymond Chandler? Jane Austen?) and the same is true for children's books. One of my all-time favourite children's authors is Antonia Forest, a very sophisticated stylist, who wrote girls' schools stories (a highly despised genre, which probably explains why she never got much recognition).

That said, Penny is right that sometimes there's so much focus on the same authors, and encouraging the so-called reluctant readers, that introducing new books to the more adventurous readers gets forgotten. But I think that has other root causes.

Liz Kessler said...

Sorry but I think that this blog post is not only snobbish but so discriminatory, offensive and full of assumptions that I'm not even sure where to start.

To compare reading 'trash' (which you have not only not given examples of, but seem to have assumed we all agree on as a term) with eating junk food is preposterous. If someone only ever read 'trash' for the rest of their lives, it wouldn't do them any harm. I think studies have been done that show that if someone lived exclusively on a diet of burgers and chips, this would be very damaging to their health. Moreover, as somebody else has commented, it is quite rare that such 'trash' would be the ONLY thing someone would read. It is very patronising to assume that this is any different for children.

I am quite happy to admit that I love to read a good old easy/cheesy thriller sometimes. Other times I might want to read something a bit more highbrow – but to be honest, I would normally choose a book with a gripping storyline over a book with beautiful language where nothing much happens. I passionately detest the attitudes I sometimes see of those who regard literary fiction as superior and look down on those who read – and write – more commercial books. And, to me, it looks like that is exactly what this blog is doing.

I happen to know that a lot of children have moved on from series fiction of the sort you are probably describing, to my books. I am always delighted to hear of a reader taking this step and I would not begrudge them whatever journey their reading took them on. Who are any of us to define what is trash and what is good reading?

Children often get told what they 'should' be reading and may feel guilty or inferior if they don't make the 'right' choices. I am a strong advocate of the view that anything that gets a child to develop a love of reading books and to feel good about themselves cannot be a bad thing. And that is regardless of whether I, you or anyone else thinks they should be reading something 'better'.

Apologies if this comes across as argumentative. It isn't intended to be - I just feel very strongly on this!

Best wishes,


Stroppy Author said...

I know many young people who enjoy reading formulaic series fiction and it's not doing them any harm. It's vital to remember that they are learning to read. And reading is a skill that is required to live in our world. It doesn't have to be exercised reading literary classics - few people will find opportunities closed to them because they haven't read Dickens or Shakespeare.

Reading is a core skill. Children (later, adults) need to be able to read instructions, contracts, text books, advertisements, comments on YouTube videos - lots and lots of stuff. If reading books that some people don't consider worthy in some way helps children achieve functional levels in a skill that is essential to life, then (quite apart from the enjoyment they get from the books!) they are performing a useful function.

As others have said, young readers often DO move on to more challenging and 'better' books. My older daughter read all the Animal Ark books, and they're pretty formulaic and limited, but her favourite book is Candide. A young man I know read only the tie-in comics that go with a computer game until a few weeks ago he told me - with great pride - that he'd bought a real book. Readers need time and space to grow at their own pace.

Katherine Langrish said...

I actually felt like cheering when I read this post. I didn't get from it that Clementine was being snobby at all. It's not about individual authors or titles, surely (and for the record, I admire enormously the books of all the authors who've left comments here so far!) but about encouraging omnivorous reading in children's lives. When i was kid, I read ALL the Enid Blytons and she was a darn good storyteller: but my mum made sure I also read books by the likes Alan Garner and Elizabeth Goudge, and Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books made much more of a difference to my life. As children's librarians around the country are disappearing, I think it's great to open a discussion about quality in children's fiction. 'Who cares what they're reading, so long as they read' is a pretty dismissive statement, but I've heard it used.

Katherine Langrish said...

I'll give an example: I spent World Book Day with Years 7 and 8 of a big Oxford private girls' school, with a wonderful, extensive library and a highly switched on, keen, knowledgeable librarian. Each term, apparently, she covers a big noticeboard outside the library with a themed display of titles & covers of books she thinks the girls might like, and holds discussions with them about genres: 'Gothic', or 'Dystopian', for example, and this enables her to throw in titles the girls wouldn't necessarily think of as part of that genre at all. So readers of the Twilight books get introduced to the Brontes, or gets readers keen on 'The Hunger Games' to at least consider the possibility that they might like '1984' or 'Brave New World'. This isn't her saying that the 'Twilight' series is 'trash', (although personally I think it is) or that reading it is harmful (discuss) but, unjudgementally, 'you might like this, too'. There IS a qualitative difference between Suzanne Collins and George Orwell, and though we might be shy of naming names, ther's no need to, so long as children keep being nudged to explore the wider world of books. This is why we need librarians - and the private schools will always value them. It's the state sector which is losing them, hand over fist.

C.J.Busby said...

What a fabulous discussion! Three cheers to Clementine for raising her head above the parapet. I think I disagree about the analogy. As many posters have said, reading is a skill that requires practice, and sometimes formulaic easy reads are where you get that practice. My son had a primary teacher who wouldn't let the reception/year 1 kids have access to 'reading scheme' books on the basis that they weren't real stories and were formulaic - but it made me furious, as learning to read from ordinary picture books is fiendishly difficult and frustrating, because of all the difficult words and lack of repetition, despite the fact that the stories are more imaginative. Once words and sentences are mastered, there are issues of stamina, and the kind of 'external' understanding of plot devices needed to get your head round more complex books - and again, formulaic, repetitive books do have a place - they can help teach kids these devices. I devoured Famous Five at the age of 5/6 at a time (early 70s) when Enid Blyton was virtually banned from school libraries, and I loved them. They taught me that you can curl up with a book and enter a whole other world...
But I do want to support Clementine's point, too, to some extent, because the really good books (and they can include comics and genre and series reads) are in danger of being drowned out by an avalanche of 'easy-read' attractive undemanding books catering to the less able readers - and there is now less and less opportunity, it seems to me, for child readers who would benefit from getting their teeth into something more demanding being steered to wards them (unless they have reader parents, and then they tend to steer them to the ones they read as a child).
Oh, for great full time school librarians in all primary schools!!

Liz Kessler said...

Kath, I respect the point you're making, and as you know I'm a huge fan of your books, which I consider to be at the higher end of the literary-trashy scale. But I feel very differently about some of the things you've said.

For one thing, it's great that you got to read Enid Blyton and all the more 'worthy' stuff too. But even if you'd ONLY read Enid Blyton, and had hours of being lost in the magical stories and worlds that she'd created, that would have been fine too! I actually think that The Adventures of the Wishing Chair was one of the biggest influences in the way I feel about my books and children's reading - and I make no apologies for that.

Also, has anyone REALLY heard people say 'Sure the book is awful, but at least they're reading something,' 'Or who cares what they're reading,' etc, or are these sentiments an oversimplification and exaggeration for the purposes of making a point? I've certainly never heard anyone use these phrases, or even one close to them.

And yes, there is a qualitative difference between Suzanne Collins and George Orwell, but there's also a big difference between your description of a good librarian saying 'If you liked that, you might enjoy this' and the sentiment of this post which includes comments like this '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's assumptions like this that have got my back up!

And by the way, I can't help thinking that your comment about librarians and private vs state schools is inaccurate and (sorry but) a bit insulting to some great librarians who work passionately within the state system to help children develop a love of reading - like the one I wrote about in my blog earlier this week.

Liz xx

Katherine Langrish said...

Liz, how could you possibly imagine I was being disrespectful to state- school librarians, when the point I was trying to make is that it's an absolute tragedy that the state sector is getting RID of so many of its wonderful librarians - and even in some cases getting rid of physical books? An example is Bristol SLA being shut down recently, and the loss of fabulous Margaret Pemberton. But maybe I put it badly.

Emma Barnes said...

Liz, I'd agree with pretty much all you say but I don't think Kath is insulting librarians at all - on the contrary. In state primary schools, there are very few designated librarians unfortunately - I've virtually never met one, though I've occasionally met very inspireing TAs/classroom teachers who are filling that role part-time (and without training) through their own choice. It's a resource issue, I think, and also because there's no requirement from government/OFSTED for them to have a library/librarian - hence the Society of Author's campaign on this issue. It's such a shame, and means many, many children are missing out.

Liz Kessler said...

Kath, I'm so sorry. I put it badly too! I think it was your line about how private schools will always value librarians that seemed to imply that state schools won't. And I was probably being super-defensive about that after the trouble that a local librarian went to in order to get books into the hands of a whole class of children, many of whom don't have a single book at home - and how well supported she was in this by her school and PTA.

Sorry! Hugs xxx

Moira Butterfield said...

Many people never read books because they have been made to feel inferior by an elite literature-loving minority, told from a young age that they were not intelligent enough to make their own choices. Result? They stopped making choices and they stopped reading. They regard bookshops as 'not for them', which is very sad. But perhaps you would prefer it if they kept away, because they might choose something you disapproved of.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Great to see all these comments. Of course I know it's an offensive post in many ways; I tried to put it as softly as possible, but some opinions are just difficult to put honestly without coming across as offensive! And I wanted to be honest :)

Conversely... *I* find that it's literary relativism which is offensive! I honestly do; I think that putting on the same level all literature, with the only absolute being 'reading', is deeply offensive to writers, deeply dismissive of readers' imaginative and intellectual abilities, and ideologically dubious.

But I'm glad this discussion can be had, and that it triggers such strong feelings. Children's literature is a very safe, very cheerful, very polite world and yet clearly we don't all have the same opinions and the same values regarding reading and regarding children's literature. It's important that these differences should appear sometimes.

My original question remains: who benefits from the claim that all books are equal, and should be equally valued - or at least equally tolerated? Does it truly benefit young readers? Does it truly benefit young readers from deprived backgrounds? I personally don't think so. I might be wrong of course, but to me, it benefits a mass-market publishing industry which relies on easy, "universal" appeal, which guarantees easy sales, which means that it cultivates assent for "universally-shared" values (namely, the values of late capitalism and neoliberalism, often patriarchal, heteronormative, racist and ethnocentric). Yes, this is a huge generalisation, but this is a blog comment :)

So when we promote literary relativism and the 'at least they're reading' attitude, are we not mistaken in thinking that we're being good to children?

Of course I do hear all your arguments. And I know that I'm coming across as a literary snob, but if I really were, I wouldn't be writing children's literature, let alone stories of superheroines on rollerskates.

Cavan Scott said...

I did a school visit once where the children had to come dressed up as their favourite book character. One kid came dressed as a Transformer. The teacher ripped them off a strip saying that Optimus Prime wasn't a book character.

The child argued - Optimus Prime was in his Transformers annual he got at Christmas. He read it everyday.

The teacher's reply? "That's not a proper book!"

Made me so angry.

I started reading because of books like the Doctor Who novelisations by Terrance Dicks.

Are they great literature? No.

Could you say they are trash? Some might.

Did they inspire a lifelong love of reading? Yes, absolutely.

"At least they're reading," isn't a bad thing to say - and yes, so-called trash books can lead to reading more.

C.J.Busby said...

It occurs to me that some of this debate relates to English versus French culture - and the food issue is interesting here. French schools feed their kids excellent cooked meals, English schools (along with most of the population) have bowed to the pressures from the capitalist food industry and feed their kids industrial chicken nuggets. As a result, most British kids refuse to eat vegetables, while French children are happy to eat anything. IF there were fewer Rainbow Fairies and Beast Quest books lining the shelves of Waterstones, would kids be more likely to read better-crafted and less gender-stereotyped books? And would that be overall better for everyone? We are very resistant in this country to state control of anything, and we generally roll over when big business makes demands (witness the abolishment of the net book agreement - was this good for child readers? It put a lot of independent bookshops with wider choice of reading out of business...) State promotion of high culture is (I get the impression) more acceptable in France. Interesting to think about the difference that makes.

C.J.Busby said...

Cav - I'm extremely surprised at your teacher who ripped a strip off the child. We've more often experienced the opposite - child goes as character from a slightly obscure book, al the other children say, Who are you meant to be? in withering tones, child sneaks off to toilet and removes 90% of her costume and goes back pretending to be Tracy Beaker because at least it's on TV. I've never come across schools that don't accept just about any character at all (from films, games, comics, you name it) on World Book Day.

Liz Kessler said...

Clémentine, I have no idea why you think it isn't possible to write children's literature and come across as a literary snob. I think you have demonstrated it is perfectly possible to do both.

I don't intend to offend with this remark - but I can't get past the tone of your blog.

I am totally comfortable with people having different opinions. It's absolutely fine that some people think children should be pushed to read harder and more challenging books and that some think they should be allowed to read what they want. What troubles me in your blog is that I feel it comes across as incredibly patronising and offensive to many authors as well as children, and that it is full of assumptions about what 'most people' think and feel, which you have no basis for claiming.

Also, as far as I can see, no one has suggested that all books are 'equal'. You say that this was your original question, but it wasn't. Your original question was: is it better to read something than nothing? If it were possible to do so without making quite the number of judgemental comments, then I too would be glad to be having this discussion. As it is, I'm just frustrated and ruffled - and I'm sure I'm not the only one.


Clémentine Beauvais said...

Hehe! I have to say, I'd never thought it could be a cultural difference too... but I do see your point. France isn't exactly the land of literary and cultural relativism.

Also, sorry I do write bits in bold in all my blog posts. It's just something I usually do - if that's not OK here I'm happy not to do it. It's basically to ease reading.

C.J.Busby said...

I think it might be worth just making the point here that good books are not necessarily difficult books. I'd champion Mr Gum or Mr Majeika for early readers, while I'd say glittery Barbie Annuals or My Little Pony books can have less well judged and more difficult vocabulary in.

Emma Barnes said...

I don't understand your point about "cultural relativism", Clementine. If people say "at least they are reading" then they are surely being less than complimentary about the particular book being read. The implication is..."it's not the greatest book in the world but at least they are reading." They wouldn't say "at least they are reading" if what is being read is Hamlet, say.

So in opposing this phrase (and the implied approach to children's reading) you are not opposing cultural relativism. Any more than your opponents on this blog are arguing that all books are equal.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Liz - I did not mean to come across as patronising and offensive - if that's the case, I'm sorry. I can see that you have taken this to heart much more than I intended. However, I know it's a tricky topic, and I did not mean it to be a peaceful, uncontroversial blog post. Maybe it's impossible to express such opinions without sounding this way. Maybe a blog post isn't the best way of doing it. Maybe such opinions are better discussed face-to-face around a drink!

I personally know, too, many people who are frustrated by the attitude towards reading that this blog post talks about. They are also people who care about literature and children, not just huge snobs, literary conservatives, and relentless elitists.

Claire Hennessy said...

"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."

Who are the adults deciding this? Are we talking about teachers or other adults whose main priority may be, say, improving a child's vocabulary rather than a love of reading?

Dare I suggest that reading is actually meant to be fun, first and foremost, rather than ticking off boxes from an educator's checklist? Challenging students is absolutely a good thing - but reading-for-school in that case becomes a very different kind of reading, and I'm not at all convinced THAT is helpful in building lifelong readers.

Liz Kessler said...

Thanks Clémentine, I appreciate your comment.

I guess the reason I've taken it to heart is because I passionately hate elitism and I feel that the arguments and the tone are on the side of the literary snob, not on the side of children. And if it comes down to it, I'll always be on the side of the child who's nervous that they're not as good as everyone else, rather than the adult imposing strict standards on them.

Anyway, equally, apologies if my tone feels attacking. It isn't meant to be. I guess this is what happens when you write about an emotive subject.

And yes, let's do it over a beer one day. I'm sure that would be much more fun! :)

Charlotte Guillain said...

My problem with this idea is how do you define trash? One person's pile of pants might be another person's perfect story. I loved the Magic Faraway Tree when I was younger (trash? discuss) and one thing I noticed when revisiting it as an adult is how little there is to it. And yet I remember such amazing adventures - clearly a lot of it had been going on in my imagination and I know other people who have similar memories. Who are we to dismiss a book as trash when we have no idea what it's stimulating in a child's own imagination that might go way beyond the few simple words on the page?

I also think getting into the habit of reading when there are so many other distractions around is almost the most important thing for a child so I say let 'em read what they enjoy. Meanwhile we authors can all be ambassadors for really great books when we talk to kids about reading.

Unknown said...

My aunt refused to let her children read 'trash', which back in the day meant Enid Blyton. My mother disagreed, and encouraged us to read whatever we wanted, including copious amounts of Blyton. I became a journalist and now I write YA fiction. My brother has a first in from Cambridge and a PhD from Oxford, in English Literature. My sister reads all the time. My cousins, who were denied Blyton - they are writers too. The only books that should be kept away from children, in my opinion, are the ones which rely on gratuitous violence, sex or swearing to get noticed - and once a child is 12 they should decide for themselves.

Moira Butterfield said...

I haven't worked on beastquest personally but I do know the artist. He puts in many hours over and above what he gets paid because he is obsessed by a love of comic book art. I expect he's inspiring lots of children who love comic book art, so perhaps he is, in fact, a hero, not a trash-peddlar. I remember when comic book art, or any illustration that resembled it in a book, was actively banned by librarians in this country. I don't believe in banning anything, especially not in the cultural arena. I will fight and fight to resist censorship, which I take to be the meaning of the phrase: 'state promotion of high culture'. And 'cynical publishers'? What's new?

Cavan said...

C.J. - Absolutely, I was completely shocked.

I heard of another teacher who told one of her pupils that he shouldn't have come to school dressed as James Bond as Bond was from films not books!

I banged my head against the desk about that one.

Eve Ainsworth said...

I honestly believe children should read widely. I did and I will encourage my children to do the same. I am a YA author and come from a family of bookworms.

Part of growing up is developing opinions, shaping your own experiences, world building and forming your own opinions. What some people call trash, others will find some treasure in - a nugget of information, or something that captures their imagination. Surely that's the most important thing?

Unknown said...

As a few people have said it isn't what is on the page that matters it's what is going on in the reader's head. If something inspires someone's imagination it doesn't matter what it is or how good or bad it is.

Unknown said...

I've just reread your post, and specifically this bit.

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.

Clementine, I wish you'd met the boy I met this week. He didn't learn to read until he entered the prison system at 13. There, kind and patient volunteers worked with him until he moved on from sounding out picture books to devouring real books. I didn't stop to ask which books he was reading, the pride on his face and the faces of the volunteer and the librarian was enough for me. For boys like this, reading books - any books - can transform their lives. Of course it's a success. Lucky you that you weren't ever in his position.
You should get out more.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Er - timidly raises hand - Hunger Games and 1984? Sorry, but all they have in common is that they're dystopian. And I know which of the two I got more out of, barring all the famous quotes that have entered the language, and it wasn't Mr Orwell's book, I don't care if it IS a classic!

I work in one of those working-class state schools which have such a shortage of resources, my budget is around $3000 a year. I've risen to the challenge -I run a book club, I do book launches, I take the students on inexpensive excursions to writers' festivals, I encourage them to choose books for the library and enter writing or book judging competitions, I have a book blog so my review copies can go on the shelves... And still the former maths teacher who runs the school wants to close down the campus libraries because, let's face it, when you have to make cutbacks, the library is the easiest place to start. And they can get it all off the Internet, can't they? I am fed up with hearing how wonderful private school libraries are - they have the money and the staff to enable them to be wonderful. I stopped going to library conferences where smug librarians from the private system dominated the proceedings, in one case bragging that they had scanned books on to the system to save their wealthy students the massive sum of about $12 -so, rich AND breaking the law, depriving the author of royalties. I'm sorry, but I see red when I hear about private school libraries.

C.J.Busby said...

I'm willing to bet that quite a lot of this discussion will end up quoted in one of Clementines research projects at some point!

I'd just like to say that maybe Beast Quest wasn't the best of examples, and I have to confess to not having read them - I just have a particular beef about the stacks of them and the stacks of pink Rainbow fairy books that colonise the younger reader shelves in major bookshops like fast-growing fungi, and I hate the way they pander to the increasing gender-apartheid of reading material for children.

I appreciate all the points about "who decides?" and mutterings about censorship, but there are counter-arguments, which relate to the fact that publishing is an industry, where money and profit already decides what goes on the shelves, and children do not read 'what they like', they read from a selection of what's put in front of them. If that includes swathes of material that promotes fashion and make-up and boyfriends for girls, and guns and superheroes and fighting monsters for boys, the 'freedom of choice' argument starts to ring a bit hollow.

I don't think anyone is arguing that we should take an individual child and tell them what they are reading is trash and hence they are by implication unworthy/stupid - this is the equivalent of Cav's example about world book day and all of us would condemn that sort of damaging attitude - but shouldn't we, as children's authors, who got so much out of reading excellent books as children, be at least a little bit concerned that well written, adventurous, funny, well crafted, interesting, sane and inclusive books should be being ousted by repetitive, insular, stereotyped, unimaginative production-line books?

(And just to be clear - most comics, and especially The Beano, would go in the first category for me and personally I'm happy to put Enid Blyton there too - for all she was vilified in the 70s, she's way way more fun than the Disney Princesses Annual...)

Susie Day said...

I'd like to echo the sentiments of Anne, Liz, Charlotte, Nicola, Keren, Claire et al. Not all readers need to develop a love of classic literature to still count as legitimate readers, to be respected and valued as such - and I find it troubling to hear a fellow writer discount those experiences. No child is served by having a book they have chosen snatched out of their hand. 'Hard' does not equal 'good'. And taste is subjective.

I think it's especially ironic that you're raising this paint, when your work - like mine! - is about a girl, with humour, packaged as 'fun' or perhaps 'light'...I can think of adults who might well casually assume that was 'trash' due to their own narrow view of what constitutes 'a good book'. Who decides what counts as good enough for your imagined reader?

C.J.Busby said...

totally agree with Keren's point - reading (mastering the technicalities of reading) IS a huge thing to celebrate, and not always easy - and in that sense any book that allows children to increase that skill level is doing something marvellous. And repetition is often key to mastering reading skills.

But as I said above, actually, good books are often simply written and easy to read, and gripping, and get readers going. The equation shouldn't be good=hard to read and trash=easy to read. It's a totally different judgement, in my opinion.

Eloise said...

I'm fascinated by this debate, and I feel drawn to arguments on both sides. My own personal experience suggests that the "reading is good regardless of material" view is fairly dominant, so I'm glad Clementine was brave enough to stick her neck out.

I wonder about a couple of things that haven't really come up so far:

1) Are there some kinds of "trash" that are definitely harmful? I'm thinking for example about the kind of pink princessy stuff that fills little girls' heads with the idea that being a worthwhile female is about being beautiful and well-dressed (and white) and snaring a handsome prince. (Of course, plenty of books with pink covers subvert these ideas fantastically, but there are also plenty that drive me to despair.) I can't help feeling that it *is* a Bad Thing if these girls go on to read YA romances of the Twilight type, with passive heroines whose happiness and existential meaning is entirely defined by and dependent on their boyfriend/romantic interest. Books have so much power to teach girls that they can be the heroines of their own stories, but also a lot of power to teach them the opposite. Of course, some children will be apparently savvy enough to resist these messages, but I'm not so sure... as an avid Blyton fan I was conscious that they were written in different times, and not all girls have to be as wet and pathetic as Anne, but I'm pretty sure I was nonetheless subconsciously absorbing the ideas that female values/roles equated to doing the cooking and making the cave into a little home and being scared of things, while male values were being brave and adventurous and not admitting to being frightened - and if you were an adventurous girl like George you were actively subverting the normal. (There is also the wider issue of boy-as-hero, girl-as-helpmeet, but that's an even bigger can of worms!)

Of course, ideally, children would have access to some fabulous teacher/librarian/parent/etc who would talk to them about things that they love in these books, and also the issues that are problematic, in a way that lets the child come to their own conclusion about their own values... and these people should get lots and lots of medals and be put in cloning machines. I think both sides of the argument probably agree that supporting children's reading should be about carrot rather than stick? As in, "why don't you try this great other book?", rather than "don't read that rubbish".

Eloise said...

2) Is it always bad for older children to internalise the idea that they "should" be reading good/better books? As a teenager, I read Dickens, Orwell, Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, and tons of other "important" classics. (Conversely, as an adult I've been trying to read Bleak House, but I just don't have the time and energy for a 900 page novel that I had when I was 15.) I also went to Shakespeare plays voluntarily, listened to the nation's favourite poems on CD, started reading "proper" science books, and was generally a massive nerd. These things fed my intellect, and I'm really glad that I spent my (non-infinite) free time doing them rather than hoovering up dozen-book identikit paranormal romance series, so I admit that the proliferation of low-content YA (not all of it, of course) does worry me a bit, and I wonder if I would have read the same things if I was growing up now. Fortunately I didn't really get/listen to messages about not reading certain things, so I carried on reading lots of rubbish, as well as plenty of excellent, non-trashy genre/modern fiction, plus children's books that I was "too old for", and enjoyed it all enormously, but I definitely had internalised the idea that I "should" read "proper literature" in a kind of self-educatory spirit. Again I think it's about carrots rather than sticks. In terms of reading being a pleasure activity, then of course people can/should read what they like, but I don't think it's a bad thing if children also want to read difficult stuff because they understand that reading can also be about stretching your understanding of the world, coming into contact with great minds, feeling intensely, tapping into important influences on our culture, etc.

(And if I might be slightly naughty... most of the people commenting here are probably adults who like reading children's books better than grown-up books... so I wonder if we are the best people for understanding "normal" reading patterns?!)

Eloise said...

Oh, I didn't see the later comments before I wrote mine, sorry for the bits that are repetitive! C.J. Busby hit the nail on the head about freedom of choice I think... although I do worry about the dodgy values I absorbed from my beloved beanos!

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you for all your comments; it's late and I'm going away for the weekend tomorrow so I won't be able to reply much more. There's not much I could say that I havent already said, and maybe the discussion is going in a slightly different direction now. I'll try not to wrench my goddaughter's books that I don't approve of off her hands this weekend... :p seriously though, of course I'm not a censor and an ogre. My position, I think, is not shameful and should not be demonised - I'm asking questions which are(I hope) more subtle than what some of the comments have made them). I profoundly respect the opinions of anyone who cares about children and literature, and I know you all have the interests of children and literature at heart - well, I do too, passionately.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Liz that this post reads as horrifically snobbish, and honestly, I couldn't finish reading it because of the condescending tone (I got a little more than halfway through). Also, I know a huge number of children's literature scholars, and this is making the rounds among their Facebook pages as a piece that is frighteningly inaccurate to the point of damaging. Normally I shrug these things off, close the window, and try to ignore the whole thing, but I'm so tired of people claiming they know what's best for someone else to read-- and you just don't. What someone chooses to read, child or adult, isn't your business unless it's your kid (and even then, I think it's questionable how much it is the parents' business after a certain age). Let them read what they like. If they want to go on to read "better" literature, fine. If they want to grow up to read formulaic series thrillers or Harlequin romance novels, really, is that your business? Some people just like to read for fun, much the same as watching a fun sitcom or the latest episode of Project Runway. Why do you get to judge that? You don't. I'm sorry if this sounds as antagonistic as I interpreted your original posting to be, but I'm just exhausted by this kind of literary snobbery.

Susie Day said...

I’m glad Eloise has raised the ‘pink books’ and the Twilight question (let’s face it, all conversations about policing children’s reading end up there sooner or later). I’m an avid supporter of the current Let Books Be Books campaign, encouraging publishers to ditch miserable divisive collections like ‘Brilliant Book for Boys/Beautiful Book for Girls’. That’s not because I want to limit kids’ choices. I want kids to have freedom to choose what they read, and the message that a book is ‘only’ for boys or girls is as problematic as deciding that one is ‘good’ and one is ‘bad’. Pink sparkly covers pose a more nuanced problem: as noted above, inside might be icky messages about girls only being valued by appearance, or empowering messages which fight against that tide. And I’m a boring shouty feminist; of course I want all kids to know there’s more to any girl’s life than being a pretty princess. But the way to help move the next generation past that isn’t to deny or to deride the choices they make.

It’s an interesting parallel to what Clementine is saying about quality versus trash. The anxious policing of girls’ reading choices (and it is more often girls’ reading, although boys are just as limited by the current push towards books about bums and guns but not feelings, as if boys don’t love their pets, or their mums, as if they might not grow up to be parents) is understandable: I want those kids’ free choice of book to give them stories which reinforce that same freedom of choice. But those kids live in the world we do, receive the same quiet and loud cultural messages we do, and telling them they are ‘wrong’ for choosing the pink one, the one that has been carefully crafted to appeal to them - that isn’t helpful. We need to stop telling girls they’re wrong for liking what they like. Because girls hear that message all the time already: chick-flicks, guilty pleasures; gamer culture which insists girls prove their credentials and knowledge; the way a crowd of girls screaming at One Direction is so, so different from a crowd of guys screaming at a football match. (Note: there are of course armies of fans of both of any gender, but the cultural dominance of one makes it a valid contrast.)

Twilight: I didn’t enjoy it; I think it’s problematic. But I didn’t like The Great Gatsby either, which is just as full of bad writing and unhealthy relationships, and that doesn’t get wheeled out as The Mockable Example of same. Newsflash: readers read for different things. I do like that Twilight got people reading who might not have; who got to participate in a shared book experience, perhaps for the first and only time. And I wouldn’t try to tell anyone that either book was or wasn’t something they ‘should’ read.

Eloise said...

Susie - your comment is so interesting to me. I really like what you said about "loud and quiet cultural messages" - it hadn't really thought about girls also feeling guilty about their "pink" choices, but it makes a lot of sense. Something I'll be meditating upon. I do think a lot about at least some girl characters being allowed to be recognisably girly as well as brave, smart, and adventurous, so that girls who like wearing pretty dresses etc can also recognise themselves in those characters.

I totally 100% agree that the boy/girl split is just as damaging for boys as girls, and people don't say this enough. I was recently listening to the BBC radio adaptation of Patrick Ness's A Monster Calls and I pretty much wanted to burst out into a full-on cheerleading routine at every single episode. The more upsetting it got the more I wanted to cheer at the way Conor loves and cares for his mum and is devastated by her cancer - but messes things up and is in no way a paragon of virtue. Such a good example of Doing It Right in my humble opinion!

I'm also laughing at myself because when I was about 11-12 my guilty pleasures were the polar opposite of pink - I was absolutely obsessed with Willard Price books. As far as I can remember, they were all basically the same: two brothers go to an exotic location to catch wildlife for their father's zoo, with help and/or hindrance from the natives. They pretty much hit the dubiousness jackpot in terms of gender, environment AND race, and I was old enough to know how dodgy it all was and be a bit ashamed, yet my passionate love was unabated. No idea how I got so good at ignoring cultural messages!

On the princesses/Twilight/Great Gatsby theme, I was also thinking when I wrote my first comment that quite a sizable proportion of fairytales (especially the best-known ones) teach girls just the same dreadful messages about their role in the world, and yet I consider them a childhood staple. And plenty of beloved and worthwhile classics like E. Nesbit and F.H. Burnett are full of gender/class/racial stereotypes just as a virtue of their age - and that's an interesting thing for children to understand in itself. So we can't really have our cake and eat it if we want to be snobs (and I definitely do have a secret snobbish streak, but I recognise that it's not necessarily telling me sensible things!). I guess it all comes back to the need for teachers/librarians/parents/guardians who are able/willing help girls and boys to develop and apply critical thinking skills, in both their reading and lives in general.

(Which I suppose is another way of saying that instead of trying to police children, it makes more sense to give them the tools to police themselves? And cultivate their own mental gardens, if that's not too sickly a metaphor?)

Catherine Butler said...

Well, this thread has grown like Topsy!

It's not surprising: the idea of ranking books is bound to be a sensitive one amongst those who write them, at least where the ranking is to identify which count as "trash" (we're much more comfortable with the idea when it comes to winning prizes!). The questions of which criteria such a ranking might use, of whether those criteria are universal or specific to particular contexts or groups or readers, and of how the "literary" qualities of books play off against the other demands we make of literature for children (e.g. teaching them values we approve of, teaching them to read) - well, it's a complicated subject, too big probably for one post.

I was also struck by this passage:

If the alternative is watching reality TV, would I still prefer them to be reading? To be entirely honest, I wouldn't really care either way. Undemanding, unsophisticated TV is equivalent to undemanding, unsophisticated books in my mind.

Extrapolating from this, perhaps I wouldn't be taking Clementine's name in vain if I suggested that she would consider watching excellent television as a more worthwhile occupation than reading an inferior book. In other words, a secondary target of this post isn't just bad literature, but the reflex exaltation of reading itself above other kinds of activity. That too is worth debating, though I think it's got a bit buried under other matters.

I was a bit shocked to read that Susie didn't like The Great Gatsby because it was "full of bad writing and unhealthy relationships". Fitzgerald isn't my favourite author, but even I can see that the writing is superb - indeed, it's probably one of the most meticulously crafted books in the English language. And if we are to dislike novels with unhealthy relationships, out goes most of literature, from Oedipus Rex to Hamlet to Wuthering Heights. But that really is another post...

adele said...

I won't add much as Anne C, Anne R, Liz and Keren and others have said so much that I agree with. I'd only say: Very many people read nothing at all. Very many. Anything that someone LOVES is almost by definition not rubbish. It's something to them. You try reading an Enid Blyton now....I did and it was a rude shock but I ADORED these books as a child. Also: there are many writers dismissed as rubbish who are nothing of the sort. Viz. Agatha Christie. A book can be easy, accessible, silly trivial and etc and NOT be rubbish. If someone thinks the Great Gatsby is rubbish, I rest my case. It's a personal matter. I myself am ALLERGIC to Tolkien, CS Lewis, and MUCH fantasy. As long as a child gets its narrative 'fix' from somewhere, that's fine. Boxed sets are very good too....sometimes even leads to someone reading something. ...I am burbling but you get the picture. And with regard to Keren's comment, if you could make the prison population properly literate, crime figures would be dramatically cut And if they want to read rubbish to do that, then it's fine with me.....Signed, A writer who spent many many hours reading comic books as a girl >And Enid Blyton And who still enjoys much of what the world calls rubbish.

Unknown said...

This is a contentious issue because there are no guidelines (nor should there be) for "good" and "bad." I do think the simple act of reading words improves a child's future socio-economic status. Literacy is knowledge is power and leading to good wages--one would hope! There's more to that formula than this one element, of course. But "at least they're reading" certainly makes sense to me in that context. Reading anything is good. Even cereal boxes. I was the nerdy kid who read encyclopedias and dictionaries. So why not comic books, formulaic chapter books, JK Rowling or Neil Gaimon?
But I suspect that what you are talking about is a matter if taste and you'd rather young readers have good taste. I mean, that sounds good to me. :) I do think the "laziness" and the like assigned to "bad" books and the phrase that you don't like "at least they're reading" is solved by good librarians, teachers, and parents who are clued in to what's "good" and promoting that. They are the ones putting books in children's hands. And kids need to find their own way to books and reading. They know what's "good" or not. Trust them.

A Wilson said...

Most things have already been said and this has been fascinating to follow. I just have to throw in a final curve ball... Everyday French culture is not all that highbrow. The French teens I know love the same books and TV as my own kids. And it's just the same when it comes to books. For a start graphic novels flood the French bookstores and are highly prized, yet here there are people who would call them "trash" or "not real books" (I disagree by the way - The Beano got me and my sister hooked on reading and informed her life as an illustrator and mine as a writer. I went on to adore Asterix and still read graphic novels and comics written for kids and adults, as well as "proper books".) Also, French kids all eating their greens? This is a myth that middle class English parents propagate to make themselves feel bad. Or at least it might be true in Paris amongst the middle classes, but the schools I taught in in the Auvergne had dreadful food - and the fast food industry is growing rapidly over the Channel. Back to books: my view is "horses for courses". My kids read what they want when they want and I am afraid I do take the attitude that I am happy they are reading and I do believe it will ensure they are always readers. My primary school banned Enid Blyton and all it meant was that I went to the town library and borrowed the lot. It does not seem to have done me much harm. I went on to do a degree in French and German literature and quite frankly The Beano was a welcome break from Proust and Mann some days ;)

Leila said...

I have been reading through this with interest. I don't think we can gain much from discussion until/ unless Clementine defines her terms. What is trashy? What is good? She'd need to name books and point to specific examples. For the happiness of author-kind, it's probably best that she doesn't...:)

Zoot1 said...

An interesting debate. I feel very strongly that we all need to stop worrying about the intellectual and educational value of what our children are reading. Non-fiction is vital for understanding our lives and the world around us, fiction enables us to develop empathy and imagination. It makes me so sad that intellectual snobbery turns many people away from things like books, art, music and dance which are immensely enriching and inspiring in whatever form you enjoy them.

Emma Haughton said...

I read all sorts of trash as a kid. Wall to wall Enid Blyton. Then every kind of sci-fi I could get my hands on. Ended up at Oxford reading English. Go figure.

Liz Kessler said...

Clémentine, whilst I I don't like the idea that you might feel in any way got at by the comments here, I have to take issue with the sentiment of your last comment.

In the space of two lines, you've used the words 'censor', 'ogre', 'shameful' and 'demonised'. I don't believe that any of the comments on this post have implied that you are a single one of those things. If they have, then that's a big shame and I don't think that anyone would want you to feel you can't express your feelings on this matter.

However, I also don't believe that your post is 'subtle' and has been 'made' into something else by people's comments. In fact, many of the comments have quoted directly from your post.

I, for one, believe that you do have the interests of children and literature at heart - even if your view on what that means is different from mine. But I think that there are two issues here.

One is regarding the points being raised by this discussion, where there is clearly a lively difference in opinions - which is great and fine and as it should be.

The other is the manner in which the blog was written. On this point, I do think that when you assert that 'most adults agree' on your definition on 'trash' and when you describe reading books 'of low quality' as having (in bold and italics) 'zero' value, it might be worth bearing in mind that many of the people reading this blog (and your fellow writers of it too) could possibly be among the ones you are referring to, and it might be worth thinking about whether attacking them on their home turf is the best way of initiating this debate.

Best wishes

C.J.Busby said...

Just thinking, that in fact an interesting analogy here might be music - there's a whole swathe of different kinds of music available to children and adults, from the most crowd-pleasing popular forms to the incredibly experimental and avant-garde, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone claiming that kids need to be steered away from Take That and towards Tom Waits, or on to Verdi... It's assumed they will change/develop their taste (or not) and will explore whatever kind of music speaks to them over their lifetime. I wonder why literature/reading gets everyone so much more hot under the collar?

Tatum Flynn said...

Wow, what a fascinating discussion. I think the thing to remember about 'trashy' books (not that anyone will ever agree on what those are) is that:

(a) As Keren said, for some kids 'just reading' *is* a huge deal.
(b) Even the 'trashiest' books (I hoovered up comics, Blyton etc as a child like many others) do nonetheless feed the imagination, which I think is a fantastic thing to do.
(c) Even the 'trashiest' books do still put the reader in the shoes of other people, teaching empathy, which is a huge thing.
(d) A diet of Dickens, Shakespeare etc at school can turn kids off reading because it feels like too much hard work. If 'trashy' books teach them that reading can be a *joy*, that can engender a lifelong love of reading that other, more worthy, books wouldn't have, and I think that's something to be celebrated.

And finally yes, many many readers will read 'trash' but go onto read 'better' books, or read them simultaneously. Some, though, won't, because they simply enjoy so-called trashier fiction, or because(and this sounds oddly snobbish, although it's just a fact)people have different intelligence levels.

Anyway, although I don't agree with you Clementine, I'm really glad you opened up this proverbial can of worms because it's led to some fascinating insights. Thanks everyone :)

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks to Adele for mentioning this on twitter - it really is excellent, and everyone who's posted here will enjoy it!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Enid Blyton may be racist, sexist and classist, but she has given joy to generations of children, like a lot of other racist, sexist and classist stuff now numbered among the classics(C.S Lewis, anyone?). She wasn't writing for adults. But while I couldn't read it now, her mysteries started me on crime fiction and The Faraway Tree on to speculative fiction of the "explore strange new worlds" variety. And I know a lot of other people who say the same.I wouldn't call SF or crime fiction trash!

Catherine Butler said...

To be fair, in her first comment in this thread Clementine was about as clear as she could be that she doesn't regard SF or crime fiction as trash either.

Stroppy Author said...

Do we set out to write 'literature'? I don't think so. I think we set out to write a particular story, and the judgement of whether it is literature is made by others. I have a literature hat which sits alongside my PhD gown and gets dusted off in the presence of students, and a writing hat which is completely different and has baubles and flowers and baked beans and all kinds of trash stuck to it. Literature-spotting is an evaluative function, whereas writing is a creative function. I suppose there might be some arrogant writers (Martin Amis springs to mind as a likely candidate) who set out to write literature rather than stories, but I'm not sure there are any in the world of children's books. We might set out to write something clever, well-crafted, sophisticated - something with all the hallmarks of literary fiction, but without thinking in terms of the label. Perhaps. Or perhaps I'm wrong. Just a thought.

catdownunder said...

I think some people set out to experiment - not a bad thing in itself - but that this is sometimes mistaken for being "literature". One of the teens showed me a book recently and asked, "Why don't they write it in sentences? If we did that sort of writing at school we'd get it thrown back at us."
I made some sort of "well I suppose your teachers feel you need to learn to write a sentence" type comment but, quite frankly, the teen in question had a point. It was a gimmicky way of writing and irritated me as well.
The book in question is probably considered "literature" - at least it is on the long list for an award. Did the style add to the overall experience of reading it? I suppose some people will say it did.

Anonymous said...

'At least they're reading something' is a dismissive adult phrase. Kids are never just reading something. What they're doing is engaging in a form of alchemy, words on the page plus the magic of their own imaginations. This why books that adults might despise are often utterly captivating to kids. For a kid, a book isn't a finished, self-contained entity. It's raw material for their own imaginations.

Sarah McIntyre said...

I keep encountering this term 'proper books' and I hate it so much. Often it's used in a discussion that puts down books which have illustrations in them or stories told in comics format. I wish we could stop using the words 'proper books' because it means different things to different people. Visually literate, well-read people may use it to judge a book fairly among its peers. But well-intentioned adults who know less about books borrow the term to shame kids away from books that are perfectly good, only because they don't understand that kind of book. They may have leafed through a single poorly made comic book and decided they didn't like comics. Or have recollections of being shamed in childhood for reading books with pictures when an adult deemed them too old for that.

What does 'proper' mean, anyway, that makes it a better word than 'good'? Proper implies a certain serious, stiff-collared, sitting-up-straight-at-the-desk educational worthiness. Not an experience that involves curling up in a safe place and getting lost in a world.

Proper, blegh.

Let's stop saying 'proper books' altogether. Anyone with me on this one?

Celia Rees said...

An excellent post and a fascinating discussion. Even Clementine's nay sayers have to admit this is a rare sparking of a real debate. A few years ago, I would have agreed with Anne Cassidy and the other posters who err onto the side of 'at least they are reading something' and who point out that they consumed a fair amount of trash in their time and ended up at Oxford (or wherever). However, my current fear has little to do with whether children are reading trash, or not, it is to do with the market. Just as food habit have changed because of the immense profits to be made in selling us pre-prepared food full of sugar, salt and fat to make it taste better, so the danger is that the book market is changing in this way, too. In a shrinking market, it makes sense for publishers to put all their money behind a few big sellers (or books they think might become big sellers). Often these books do rather play to the lowest reading common denominator, so are deficient in real literary merit for the reasons Clementine outlined. In the old days, the book equivalent of muesli shared shelf space with sugar puffs, the profits from sugar puffs made this possible and the choice was there to be made. I wonder if this is any longer true.

John Dougherty said...

I'm with you, Sarah!

Reading widely for pleasure is really, really important, and reading widely means reading all kinds of books. And there is value in all reading, even if it's just the value of practicing reading skills.

I doubt if a child ever gets just practice & nothing else from a book, though. If you're enjoying a book, surely by definition that means you're drawing something from it?

A few years back, my daughter went through a phase during which, every time she borrowed a pile of books from the library, at least one and maybe more would be from a series which - well, let's just say, a series of which I'm not a huge fan. But I never stopped her from reading them.

Then a couple of months passed during which she seemed to have had enough of them. And then she borrowed one from the library again, and one Saturday morning when we were having a snuggly family-time, she and her older brother chose it for me to read to them.

"Really?" said my wife, slightly disappointed by their choice. "Why do you want one of those books?"

"Because they're so stupid!" the kids squealed. "You always know what's going to happen, and the girls always..."

And they proceeded to give us a - to my mind - pretty accurate list of the series's shortcomings. It appeared that, by reading books that I consider to be pretty low quality, they'd begun to teach themselves literary criticism.

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, John! I used to set my Cambridge students some very poor writing to dissect as it's a brilliant way of seeing how writing does and doesn't work. You can only develop critical judgment if you have a spectrum of subjects to deal with, be it books, food, or anything else.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Argh! I'm back here a long time after the end of the battle, but I've taken a little time to read the latest comments. What a debate. I'm not sure I really have much to add to what I previously said. However, there is one thing I'd like to make clear: I am NOT a 'genre' or 'media snob'. In other words, I would not classify 'low' and 'high' quality literature in terms of genres or indeed media. On the contrary - I think such distinctions can only exist *within* genres and media. What I label as 'trash' is not identifiable by genre or medium - as I mentioned, it is a matter of individual works.

I don't think this is such a shocking claim. Anyone who writes romance, detective novels, science-fiction, adventures stories, horror, etc., will have a fairly good idea of which books in their field are original, intriguing, fascinating and beautiful, and which are derivative, formulaic and undemanding. Such works also tend to be ideologically problematic, which is something that several people have mentioned in the comments: yes, 'trashy literature' can have a negative impact, not just a neutral impact, when it also normalises sexist, racist, classist behaviour.

In this light I'd like to respond to Cathy Butler's comment that I would probably prefer good TV to bad literature. Yes, that's absolutely right, and one of the themes of the original blog post, which didn't quite get picked up on, was the question of whether it's always better to read rather than to engage with other media. Personally, I don't think so. I believe that reading is only one way to develop one's engagement with fiction, with empathy, with ideas - and to enjoy oneself.

I'm not a killjoy, I promise - I do believe in enjoyment. But like a few people who commented above, I don't think enjoyment necessarily means instant gratification and 'easy' reading. And I think enjoyment of very high quality can be gained from good TV, good films and good video games.

Thank you for all your comments and to Cathy for orienting the debate in a slightly different direction the other day.

Stroppy Author said...

Still thinking about this, and my role as occasionaly writer of trash. So I've blogged about it elsewhere rather than clog up the comments further: