Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Too Good for Children - Cathy Butler

It’s a regular irritant. A literary novelist writes a fantasy or science fiction novel, and the reviewers fall over themselves to assure their readers that it isn’t really fantasy or SF. No, this novel (by Margaret Atwood or J. G. Ballard or, now, Kazuo Ishiguro) is taking those formulaic genres’ tired old tropes and subverting them, or ironizing them, or finding a new context for them that changes their meaning entirely. So, Marie Arana, writing in The Washington Post about Ishiguro’s latest, suggests that:

It would be too easy to call what Ishiguro is undertaking ‘fantasy’ or ‘magical realism.’ Critics will summon such phrases to describe this book, but they would be wrong to do so. Such facile labels – suggesting that the author is relying on literary devices pulled from old bags of tricks – have no meaning here. Instead, what we are given in The Buried Giant has the clear ring of legend, original and humane as anything Ishiguro has written.

In fairness to Ishiguro, he denies any disdain for the ‘F’ word, but the attitude exemplified in Arana’s words is widespread and of long standing. There are many good reasons to object to it, but the one I wish to highlight is the circular special pleading of its argument, which effectively runs as follows:


A: All fantasy is a formulaic bag of tricks.

B: But look at this example of fantasy! It’s beautifully written, has deep characterization, is philosophically provocative, and has all the qualities you profess to admire!

A: I agree. That’s how I can be so sure it’s not fantasy. As I said, all fantasy is a formulaic bag of tricks.

Even Philip Pullman, despite writing a classic fantasy trilogy as replete with talking animals, magic and witches as anything featuring Lucy Pevensie, once famously declared that he was engaged not in fantasy but in “stark realism”, on the grounds that – well, here is his own explanation:

I have said that His Dark Materials is not fantasy but stark realism, and my reason for this is to emphasise what I think is an important aspect of the story, namely the fact that it is realistic, in psychological terms. I deal with matters that might normally be encountered in works of realism, such as adolescence, sexuality, and so on; and they are the main subject matter of the story – the fantasy (which, of course, is there: no-one but a fool would think I meant there is no fantasy in the books at all) is there to support and embody them, not for its own sake.

So, His Dark Materials is fantasy per accidens, as it were; fantasy is present not as a “bag of tricks” but as a way of talking about real, human things. By implication, the avowed fantasies of other writers – such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, perhaps, or Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock, or Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island – take little account of such matters. Or if they do, then they must to that extent be stark realism rather than fantasy too. Pullman’s quotation is almost 20 years old now and perhaps it’s unfair to dust it off, but it retains its power to annoy, and besides, new dishes seasoned with its particular brand of chopped logic just keep being served up.

Of course, the very same tactic is also sometimes used against children’s books. If you look up the Wikipedia entry for ‎Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, for example, you will read: “Though ostensibly styled as a children's book, The Little Prince makes several observations about life and human nature.” Well, if it does that it can’t possibly be for children, can it?

However, the more common practice when it comes to children’s books is to declare that the best ones are simply “too good for children.” This ploy is all the more insidious because it’s always presented as a compliment, as in this Amazon list of “5 books too good for children” (a list that includes His Dark Materials, incidentally, although to do him justice Pullman has always spoken doughtily of the importance of children’s literature).

But isn’t this “too good for” line very strange? It tends not to happen with other genres, even ones that are looked down on by literary reviewers. “Chick lit” may be sneered at, but have you ever read a review of a chick lit novel that declared it “too good for women”? Nor is the same device used with other children’s products. Imagine an Amazon review of, say, a car safety seat, reading: “This car seat is well designed, is made of durable materials and meets all safety standards. In fact, it’s too good for children!” Or, take this description picked at random from a well-known children’s clothing catalogue:

A fabulous gingham shirt which doesn't need to be ironed for that ‘fresh from the washing line’ look. Pure woven cotton which has been peached for softness at the front. It’s far too good for children!

I made the last sentence up, of course. People who make and promote children’s clothing seldom feel the need to put their consumers down in that way. It’s only when children appear in their role as readers that this happens. I wonder why?

I’m not sure, but I do know it’s been going on for a long, long time. The earliest example of this practice of praising a children’s book by insulting its readers that I’ve been able to find dates from 1831, and a notice in the newly established Metropolitan magazine:


The Metropolitan’s anonymous reviewer also scores another first, however. He or she not only declares Mrs Watts’s The New Year’s Gift “too good for children”, but then immediately answers in the most sensible way possible: “and yet why should children not have the best?”

Why not, indeed?

19 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think there's this idea that, somehow, any idiot can write a children's book. You know? Someone approaches you at a party and says, "Oh, you're a children's writer? You know, I have this great idea for a children's story..." *Everyone* has a great idea for a children's story. So when a writer known for their adult books suddenly does a children's book, well, if it's any good, it's too good for kids. but we know, don't we, that children aren't easily pleased. If you don't hook them right away, they will drop the book.

Emma Barnes said...

I suppose, to be charitable, the "too good for" line is maybe a way of signalling to people who wouldn't normally read SF, children's books, fantasy, whatever, that they should give it a try sometimes...but the assumptions behind it are infuriating, I agree, as is Philip Pullman's remarks: coming of age/adolescence is surely a major theme of much or even most classic fantasy!

If you want to do some more foaming at the mouth then try listening to the recent Radio Four A Good Read discussion in which Katharine Whitehorn chose Terry Pratchett's "The Color of Magic". Amazement she'd chosen it - assumption this stuff was only read by adolescent boys - surprise that it could really be quite entertaining all the same - some rather disparaging comments that of course it didn't really teach you anything - praise but of a very patronising sort. Much gnashing of teeth amongst Pratchett fans I suspect (of which there will be A LOT even among non-adolescent Radio 4 listeners - a fact which might come as rather a surprise to the presenters I feel. )

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0540w3f

Nick Green said...

A prime example of the 'No True Scotsman' fallacy.

'There's been a bloody murder in Berwick! No Scotsman wud do such a thing.'

'Says here his name wa' Angus McTavish.'

'Weelll... no TRUE Scotsman wud do such a thing.'

Catherine Butler said...

I heard that, Emma, and recognize it from your description all too well. "Too good to be read only by children" is of course a very different from from "Too good for children", but I suppose we could be charitable and imagine that's what was meant... in some cases, at least.

No True Scotman - yes, that's it! I knew the fallacy had a name...

Nick Green said...

Such debates are complicated by the fact that so much written for children and under the fantasy label are, indeed, v. v. bad.

That argument might stand up, were it not for the fact that so much is written under ALL genres and labels that is, indeed, v. v. v. bad.

Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that those who tend to criticise fantasy, the 'feet firmly on the ground brigade', are simply blind to what qualities it has, even in its poorest forms. Whereas with bad 'realist' writing, they can at least check off the facts against the list that they carry with them at all times.

Catherine Butler said...

Indeed. Sturgeon's Law applies in most domains... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeon%27s_law

Sue Bursztynski said...

I think it's mostly said by people who don't read either spec fic or children's books. "Hey, I don't read this stuff, don't like it, but this is really good."

Richard said...

Even stuff lauded by the pundits can be v. v. bad. I managed to watch ten minutes of Gravity before switching off in disgust after one impossibility I was willing to accept was immediately succeeded by another that was integral to the plot and proved that the scriptwriters simply didn't know any physics.

Much of the good stuff comes from unexpected quarters. The Mythago Wood cycle (Robert Holdstoke) is a deep and literary treatment of primal myth, and quite fascinating if rather dry. If anything claims to be strict realism in a magical realism mould, Mythago Wood is it. However the best and most complete treatment of the subject is not found there. The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett has it beaten by a mile.

Sue Bursztynski said...

And it's funny! And tells you about the myth in language you don't have to be an academic to understand. :-) In fact, I'd say the same of Terry Pratchett's work in general. The fantasy is great, but that's not what it's about. It sends up various troops and says something about the world we live in as well as the one on a giant turtle's back.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sorry, that's tropes, not troops. Stupid auto-edit thing and then Recaptcha wouldn't let me fix.

Nick Green said...

Love Hogfather. A brilliantly argued justification for believing in things you know are not true, just good.

C.J.Busby said...

Completely agree about how annoying those reviews of Ishiguro were. Oh, it's literary, it's clever, it's innovative (though not as innovative as it seems to those who have never read anything but Lord of the Rings...) - ergo it cannot be 'true' fantasy. Grrr! Why do newspapers not feel the need to get a proper fantasy author to review it? (Ursula le Guin, perhaps...)

Catherine Butler said...

I'm awfully afraid that we will be hearing from various quarters over the next few days that Terry Pratchett was only nominally a fantasy writer. I think he would have enjoyed the joke.

Stroppy Author said...

I notice that no one has edited out that phrase in wikipedia yet. I'll leave it a few days so that your post is not wrong, but the point of wikipedia is to change things that are wrong, so having noticed it we should not just let it stand to delude future readers and reinforce their prejudices.

Funny thing about wikipedia - it has become a source of evidence of ignorance and bias, which the people who have noticed the errors can't then afford to correct as to do so removes their evidence... (I don't mean you, Catherine. We all do it!)

Stroppy Author said...

And then I forgot to comment on the post...

Since the point of all literature is to tell psychological truth, was Pullman just being stupid or do we really have to call everything realism? Just that some of it is bad realism because it doesn't tell us anything about the human condition.

Sadly, though, the idea that children only warrent second-grade stuff is everywhere from turkey twizzlers to plastic pink-or-blue toys that make a godawful noise.

Catherine Butler said...

You're quite right about correcting the Wikipedia post, Stroppy - mea culpa! The alternative is to take a screen shot, I suppose, but that seems a bit OTT to make a point I could have evidenced in innumerable places. (It took me all of ten seconds to find the Exupery example. I had a hunch that The Little Prince was the kind of book someone would want to save from the taint of being written for children.)

Pullman is far from stupid but this was indeed a stupid thing to say, and he'd have been better off backtracking on his opposition between realism and fantasy than trying to justify it.

The underlying problem of course is that realism is both the name of a nineteenth-century literary genre and a more general term for acknowledging and dealing with things as they are. To oppose the latter sense to the genre of fantasy is a kind of category error, much as it would be if I suggested that only people writing fantasy are able to to use the faculty of imagination.

Katherine Langrish said...

Applauding here!

Nick Green said...

Let's just add: The Da Vinci Code is technically describable as 'realism'.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Chuckle! Not really. Have you noticed that the entire novel takes place within twenty four hours during which time nobody eats, drinks, goes to the toilet or - most importantly - sleeps? And they're still fresh as a daisy for the climax? Not realism by any standards, IMO. But yes, I see your point. OTT thrillers in which there is no magic still count as "real life".