Sunday, 28 September 2014

"Competing for their attention" - Clémentine Beauvais

I know I am, in many ways, in support of what in Britain would be qualified as ‘traditionalist’ educational practices in terms of literacy (and in France as ‘normal’ ones), namely the learning of poetry by heart, the imposition of reading lists, etc. However, where I differ from the French view on literacy, and perhaps from many educators in English-speaking countries too, is that I am opposed to the common hierarchy between arts or media which puts reading at the top. I don’t think there’s any reason, once literacy skills have been acquired of course (and it’s not an easy task), to enforce the notion that books are ‘better’ intrinsically than films, video games, TV series, and other visual or musical art forms and media. But they are, certainly, different ways of looking at the world. 

This is partly why I’m getting increasingly uneasy with the common claim, in author interviews, that ‘we’ authors ‘now’ have to ‘compete’ with ‘films, video games, TV series’ in order for our books to be read. I used to say this as well, and of course I understand that in the most basic sense of ‘competition’ (=available time), it is true: children and young adults ‘now’ have immediate access to a wide range of such other media, and while they’re watching films or playing games they’re not reading our books. So, in terms of time, yes, we have to ‘compete’. We also have to ‘compete’ with one another, as authors, I guess. We have to ‘compete’ with funny YouTube videos, too, but that doesn’t keep me awake at night.
No, this claim bothers me because I do not see and do not want to see other creative people and other works of art as ‘competition’. Films and video games are not our enemies. They are works that ambition to set in motion creative processes, to stimulate the imagination, to increase empathy, to entice viewers and players to take part in the elaboration of complex worlds, and that can do so in different ways and just as well as books. They are not ‘competitors’. If anything, we complement one another; we provide different ways of encouraging creative, thoughtful, witty, etc. visions of the world. 
Saying we’re in competition with them is the equivalent of saying that all these different works of art and ways of looking at the world are interchangeable. ‘Yes! I win! She’s reading my book instead of watching a film!’. To me, this is like saying, ‘Hurrah! She’s reading my book instead of talking to her grandmother!’. Both are hugely beneficial activities. They’re not the same, but they all contribute to growth, maturation, creativity and learning, in their own original ways. 
If we try to 'compete' with films or video games through similar narrative strategies, we risk making it sound like literature does not have its own specificities; like it's just a matter of being 'more entertaining' than 'other media'. This would impoverish greatly what we can do with verbal narrative, with words, which are what makes our medium unique. 
And there's worse. While we’re busy saying that other branches of the creative world are ‘competitors’, we’re not talking about those branches of the culture industry which are actually busy ‘competing’ with us - in the sense that they're waging a war on the creative spirit and critical thinking of children by promising them, for instance, that the acquisition of a toy or product or game will bring happiness; by flattening the beautiful diversity of existence into easily-packaged, formulaic tales that will generate addiction and therefore money-spending; by constructing consent for the world as it is and driving reflection out of it. That's what keeps me awake at night, to be honest.
I'm being wilfully provocative here, but let me tell you what I see as competition. 10 million iPhones 6 sold in one weekend: that’s competition. Cultural products that are only created so as to sell spin-offs and merchandise: that’s competition. Little girls being made to worry about their looks and having to spend time investigating diets and make-up techniques: that’s competition. Little boys having to be interested in porn and war rather than in creative pursuits: that’s competition. Adverts selling children and young adults a unified, unimaginative version of world where “possession = happiness”: that’s competition.
Thank goodness there are people who create enticing, challenging, thought-provoking, original pieces of work in all the arts and media; and a school system which is starting to recognise this when it encourages high-level visual literacy, film and video game analysis, encounters with media and art forms from different cultures, etc. The real competitors are the messages we receive daily (and especially children) that discourage such imaginative pursuits and critical reflection by giving easy answers to complex questions. 


Clémentine Beauvais writes books in both French and English. The former are of all kinds and shapes for all ages, and the latter humour and adventure stories with Hodder and Bloomsbury. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine


Elen C said...

You probably know about it already, but have you seen the women vs tropes project? I think it should be compulsory viewing in schools to help encourage critical analysis of gaming.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

Yes! thank you for sharing this Elen. There's been an ongoing debate in the feminist community about video games and representations of women both inside the games and as players and game-designers. We'll get there some day!

Stroppy Author said...

I'm not aware of children's writers using the word 'competition' to mean anything other than competing for the time and attention of children. And, as you say, that does mean we are competing against one another in a sense, just as people in any industry compete with one another, whether to produce apples or shoes or films or smart phones. We are less competitive because they child who likes (say) spy stories will choose them over animal stories, and the child who likes spy stories will read more than one. People won't buy several smart phones and will often choose apples on price rather than farmer!