Saturday, 28 June 2014

Second thoughts on the value of reading in childhood - Clémentine Beauvais

After the let’s-call-it fruitful debate a few months ago on this blog on the value of reading, I was left uneasy. I felt that the question I was truly interested in hadn’t been addressed; instead, the discussion revolved around ‘trash’ and ‘quality’ literature, which wasn’t what I felt to be central to my post.

But I fully understand why. My original post was unnecessarily vociferous and talked about ‘trash’ without definition. I knew very well that it would be a controversial post, but I wrote it too fast and I should have anticipated that this particular aspect would dominate the discussion.

What I was really interested in was the following question: ‘Who benefits most from the notion that any reading is preferable to no reading (or to encounters with other media such as films and video games) in childhood?’

My original blog post failed in part because I was not assertive enough in expressing why there may be an issue with the valorisation of (‘just any’) reading in childhood. I tentatively said things like ‘There are problematic ideological and economic reasons why…’, but didn’t spell them out. I would like to go back to this point because I do think it’s important to have a discussion about it.

Of course, I see reading as essential – and not just because verbal literacy is an important skill. Like all of us on this blog, I do believe that there is something about reading that sets it apart from other types of artistic or fictional encounters, and I love nothing more than seeing children who enjoy reading.

However, I think we have to admit that that something is very hard to pin down, and I am unconvinced by the unspoken hierarchy which puts reading ‘above’ film-watching, video-game-playing etc. in the minds of adults who care about and look after children.

(Therefore I completely agree with all the commenters who said that there should be no hierarchy between ‘classic’ novels and comics, for instance. I said this in a comment that got buried somewhere: I am NOT a 'genre' or 'media snob': I do not classify 'low' and 'high' quality literature in terms of genres or media. On the contrary; I think such distinctions can only exist within genres and media. This is between brackets because I don’t wish to get into another conversation about ‘trash’ and ‘quality’, but go ahead if you really want to…)

I’m unconvinced by this hierarchy, but moreover I am worried about who and what it serves. Of course, it uncontroversially serves children. Having motivated and passionate mediators, teachers, librarians, parents who value reading makes children from all backgrounds more likely to encounter books and to enjoy reading.

However, the undebated claim that any reading is good is also highly profitable to the publishing industry as a whole, indiscriminately. And here I'm uncomfortable. As authors, we don’t want to criticise the publishing industry; we want to support it. Publishing is in a state of unprecedented crisis, so we don’t want to make distinctions as to which parts of the industry to support and which parts to criticise, especially on such elusive grounds as ‘quality’.

Furthermore, authors are under pressure (implicit or explicit) not to express negative opinions they may have about the publishing industry. Mid-list authors, especially, can’t afford to talk about requests they get to make books more commercial, more gendered or less political. The problem doesn’t come from individual editors of course; very often they are distraught to be making such requests. They are themselves under pressure from other departments.

Regardless; in the Anglo-Saxon market, children’s publishers profit to a very large extent from the consensus that any reading is better than no reading when it comes to children.  We should talk about this fact much more than we currently do, because it is problematic. The publishing industry has a very strong financial incentive in maintaining this consensus – and currently, I think that we (authors, mediators, teachers, librarians= 'child people') are maintaining it for them, for free.  

When we say that ‘it’s good’ that children are reading, whatever they may be reading, we are not just supporting ‘reading for pleasure’ (though I accept that we are in part). The sincere desire to be on the side of children is not met by an equally sincere wish on the part of the publishing industry, too many aspects of which are utterly unburdened by such considerations as artistic worth, child development or the value and pleasures of reading. And yes, I know, #NotAllPublishers.

Like several other commenters, I think the dichotomy between ‘reading for pleasure’ and ‘serious’ or ‘quality’ reading is hugely problematic. This dichotomy happens to profit, very conveniently, contemporary children’s publishing in its most undesirable aspects.

By ‘most undesirable aspects’ I mean extreme commercialism, market imperatives superseding or driving editorial work, reliance on formulae and ‘what sells to TV or cinema’, etc. And often, this leads to the production of books which are ideologically problematic (resting on lazy sexist, racist, classist, etc., clichés).

There is always the argument, of course, that those profit-driven aspects of the publishing industry serve to fund the more niche, quality books. This argument may be valid in part, but it’s too neat a defence to convince me fully.

I’m not naïve – I know very well that ‘publishing isn’t a charity’ (that’s something we hear a lot as writers - another mantra we gradually internalise.) I don’t think there is an easy solution to these problems. Other countries do things differently, privileging quality and accepting very niche books, but writers earn much less money than we do here (yes, it’s possible…) and there’s virtually no way of scraping a living out of writing.

I do believe that a quiet way of making a small difference could be to stop condoning the indiscriminate statement that any reading is a good thing (which doesn’t mean ripping books out of children’s hands – just saying this in case someone is tempted to pull the ‘censorship alert’ cord).

A not-so-quiet way is to have this kind of debate, politely but firmly, on a public forum such as this one. 

Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in both French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine


Liz Kessler said...

Hi Clémentine,

Once again, I disagree with you on so much of this!

Your opening paragraph implies that your previous post was hijacked by people who went off on a tangent from your central idea, by discussing 'trash' when that hadn't been your main point. A quick scan of your previous blog has shown that that post used the word 'trash' or 'trashy' at least five times and three of these were in bold and italics! (With the phrase 'sure, the book is awful' in the title.) So let's be honest about why the debate centred on 'this particular aspect'. It certainly wasn't about your blog not being assertive enough, and if it hadn't been central to your post, perhaps it might have been useful not to emphasise it as strongly and centrally as you did.

I still think that your argument is setting up a hierarchy in children's reading that, if it was shared with the children themselves, would make some of them feel ashamed or embarrassed about what they're reading, whilst others could feel superior and satisfied that they have met your criteria, deeming their tastes good enough. Avoiding any kind of inequalities like this is far more important in my mind than worrying about whether publishers are making more money than you'd like them to be making from books that you consider to be 'most undesirable' because of their 'extreme commercialism'.

I'm really not sure why you see there being a problem with publishers making money. Publishers are not the enemy. I believe that publishers are on the same side as us in this industry and as you say, are facing extreme difficulties in the current climate. Do you want the ones who choose to make commercial decisions that some of us may not like to go out of business? That would be the result of your argument, taking many children's authors' books (and salaries) out of existence at the same time - as you yourself point out in your description of the situation in some other countries. I honestly find it hard to see how a children's author can promote an argument like this.

Sure, some authors have bad experiences with publishers some of the time, and I am not dismissing this at all. This needs talking about, in careful, useful ways (and in my opinion not in public) by people who want to move our industry forward in ways that serve as many people as possible - including publishers, authors and children. I believe that it's in everyone's interests to do what we can to foster good relationships between authors and publishers, and blogs like this do nothing helpful for this relationship at all.

I DO understand what you are saying about wanting to encourage children to read books of a quality that is more demanding than the more commercial end of the spectrum. I just believe - EXTREMELY STRONGLY - that this should be done by starting from a point of making children feel good about what they are doing and what they are reading, and gently encouraging them to push themselves - NOT by making them feel inferior and inadequate for the choices that they make, and once again I do feel that this blog has got that balance wrong.

In peace - but with strong feelings!


Clémentine Beauvais said...

I understand all your points, Liz, and of course I didn't expect you to agree this time around either :)

99.9% of the time, I spend my life supporting (both actively and passively) the publishing industry as a whole. Like all of us I work everyday to write books, go to schools, write blog posts and tweets in support of it, and also promote children's literature as an academic discipline.

Sometimes, though, I get discouraged or uneasy as to what exactly I'm supporting, and such questions as the ones I've asked in those two blog posts - I also meet other people in the industry who ask similar questions, and people outside the industry who also have concerns of this kind. And I think there's a kind of unhealthy omerta surrounding them. So, unlike you, I do believe it's a debate we should have on a public platform, as long as it remains polite and considerate for the individuals who work to support reading.

Emma Barnes said...
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Emma Barnes said...

You seem to be very cautious about how you put things in this post, and I find it hard sometimes to work out exactly what you mean - I think because you don't give examples of the books that you think are being published, but shouldn't be, or the books that should be, but aren't. (Where are all these these "lazy sexist, racist, classist, etc" books that you talk about? Maybe I'm naive, but I don't notice a lot of racist children's books out there. It would be great to see more books published featuring non-white protagonists, but that's a different thing from branding existing titles as "racist").

I guess you are saying that purely commercial objectives are too important in determining what's published. Personally, I think it's good to have a balance. I'd like to see libraries and schools play a greater role in choosing, buying and critically assessing books, and I think it's terrible the way that school and public libraries and librarians have been cut back (to be honest, I'm sure that most publishers would agree). I wrote a post about this recently I think certain types of books which I think are valuable but more niche - eg historical fiction, translated fiction - might get more of a look in then.

But I also think the market is important too - I don't forget that many librarians banned Enid Blyton for years, often on the kind of classist, racist, sexist grounds you mention (with a heavy dose of literary snobbery) and I think that was a shame for the many children who loved her books. This was true of lots of despised "genre fiction" (eg Antonia Forest, one of the best writers for children ever, in literary terms, in my opinion, but seen as too "upper class".) Parents do respond to what their kids enjoy, and spend their money on it, in a way that a bureaucracy/committee, like a school or library, may not. The Carnegie is another good example - chosen by librarians, I can't help feeling that it focuses too much on dark/worthy/sombre/issue-laden/downright depressing books for older age groups, and must put off many child readers - on the other hand, many would say that it's an important counterweight, bringing the attention of readers to titles that they'd otherwise pass by.

It's about balance. Maybe at the moment it's too much about what will sell in the supermarkets. We do need more reviewers, librarians, schools to help critically assess what's out there and help ensure that there's a range of different types of books for kids. But it's not publishers' fault that this literary infrastructure has been eroded, and I'd certainly hate ever to be in the situation where adult taste became more important than what appeals to the kids.

C.J.Busby said...

There's an issue in Clementine's attempt to steer the discussion away from what overtook the blog last time which I think has been sidestepped again this time, and that's the desire to talk about why books in and of themselves are deemed worthier than other cultural forms kids might engage with, like games, TV and films. And here maybe she's closer to Liz than it might appear. After all, kids are constantly lauded for reading (in any form), while parents, teachers and educationalists tend to look down on their engagement with Tv and video games. In terms of making children comfortable with their choices and happy about themselves, which is what Liz would like to see, a serious debate about the value of decently scripted and exciting video games over poorly scripted, boring and cliched books, would be A Good Thing.

Stroppy Author said...

Surely the way in which reading (fiction, at least) differs from other media forms is that engaging with a written story is active - requiring imaginative work on the part of the reader - and watching TV or a film is passive. It's similar to the difference between watching a football match and playing in one. But that doesn't mean watching football is bad, just that playing it exercises and develops important physical skills and muscles.

Returning to reading, it doesn't matter whether the child is actively imagining what it's like to be a fairy-princess-unicorn or a tormented teenager with cancer/a dying parent/bla bla. I'm with Liz. I can see reasons for encouraging challenging reading, but none at all for condemning any kind of reading.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Thank you for your comments,

Emma - I am indeed cautious about what I'm saying because I'm aware that it's the kind of criticism that can actually get you into trouble (which I deplore, but I'm also a coward - or pragmatic - I guess). Again, I understand your concerns but I would argue that the 'reading for pleasure' =/= 'good' reading dichotomy is to a great extent false and problematic.

CJ - Yes, I absolutely agree. I think educationalists look down on children's film-viewing and video-game-playing simply because they often don't know those media and they're not always able to read or 'teach' them. It's like comics - comics can be hugely sophisticated and require high levels of visual and verbal literacy, but they're often dismissed altogether because people have no idea how to engage with them. It's really time this hierarchy of art forms in education was questioned.

...and particularly because, Anne, I definitely don't agree that watching a film or a TV series is a passive activity! The amount of activeness required to follow and understand even a blockbuster like The Matrix is far higher than many reading experiences. And the visual literacy you develop in the process is absolutely vital, too, in today's world, if we must be talking about the educational value of artistic encounters. Video games require hugely active and inventive users.

Liz Kessler said...
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Liz Kessler said...

Clémentine, I notice you haven't answered Emma's question about which books you are referring to with your 'lazy racist, classist, sexist' etc label. I have to say, I wondered the same thing. I actually wonder if the laziness is within your argument itself - referring to things like this with sweeping generalised statements but refusing to back them up with real examples.

On the point about books per se being regarded as better than other forms of entertainment, I have mixed feelings about this and can see a lot of worth in both sides of the argument, so yes CJ you might be right that we would be closer than we might think on this!

Clémentine, we really should have this discussion over a beer or a cuppa some time. I imagine if we did, we'd find it easier to find points that we agree on - and perhaps one of us would talk the other round a bit more on the ones we don't! :)

Best wishes

Stroppy Author said...

Clem, I am not saying that I agree that watching TV is 'worse' than reading. As I don't watch it, I don't feel qualified to make that judgement. I was suggesting differences that migth explain why people could think in that way rather than supporting a hierarchy. But children don't watch The Matrix! children's films and TV do not, on the whole, require complex interpretative skills. And I didn't include video games precisely because they are not passive. I think children do a lot of imaginative work with films (and perhaps TV) away from the screen - playing at Disney princesses or superheroes, for example.

The only sexist, racist, etc children's books I have read recently have been classics such as The Little Princess and I don't see anyone moving to stop children reading those. There are some that reinforce gender stereo-typical roles, but that's not the same as being sexist. If you aren't going to name and shame, we can't have a proper critical debate - though I can see that naming and shaming within your own writing community is difficult.