Sunday, 11 June 2017

Too Good for Adults? - Catherine Butler

"No one understandeth me!"

One of the most irritating ways in which it’s possible to praise a children’s book is by claiming that it is “too good for children”.  Although ostensibly a compliment, this simple phrase manages to insult both children (seen as unworthy of, or least incapable of appreciating, high-quality literature) and children’s literature more broadly, which is implicitly dismissed as the kind of pap suitable for a juvenile underclass. Nevertheless, it’s a tactic frequently encountered, especially when the book under discussion is one that has found popularity among adults. It seems that some adults find the thought of sharing their literary taste with children uncomfortable – perhaps even infantilising – and so, like any playground bully, they not only claim that the books are for them too, but demand exclusive rights.

Well, two can play at that game. If it’s possible to read Northern Lights or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as adult literature, it’s no less so to read many so-called adult classics as YA or children’s literature, and to say, in effect, that they are “too good for adults”.

What do I mean by reading a book as YA literature? I mean reading it using the genre conventions of YA as a template for interpretation. To explain what I mean by that, let me use an example to which I’ve had frequent recourse. It is possible, as James Thurber proved, to read Macbeth as an Agatha-Christie-style murder mystery, finding in it all the things that the Whodunnit genre prescribes: a murder, suspects, clues, etc. Whether such a reading is helpful or not is of course a matter for debate (that’s why the country is crying out for English Literature academics), but it is one possible strategy.

To read something as YA literature, by the same token, means to read with an awareness of YA genre conventions. Thus, you will probably expect to find one or more young-adult protagonists at the text’s centre, or at least protagonists who have the “mind set” of that age group – young people who are engaged in self-discovery and self-fashioning; who are negotiating the tricky territory of the wider world beyond as well as within the family; who are tentatively (or not so tentatively) embarking on romantic and/or sexual relationships; who are not yet as adept at hiding their self-absorption as the more mature characters around them.

Many avowed YA texts fit that description – but what about “adult” texts? The example of Romeo and Juliet will occur to many people, and it has in fact almost been retrospectively canonised as YA by its perennial use as a GCSE text. Sons and Lovers is another shoo-in, as is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, the early twentieth century was in many ways a golden age for YA literature. There’s Le Grand Meaulnes, of course, and The Great Gatsby is another YA classic. Although the main cast are a little old for the demographic, they all (particularly Gatsby) seem unnaturally “young” in their attitudes, their hedonism, their gaucheness, their desperation to impress, their priggishness and their recklessness.

It goes without saying that Hamlet, too, is a YA text – almost the quintessential one. So is Paradise Lost, although arguably Adam and Eve are a bit young to count.

What other so-called adult classics might we claim for the YA or children’s canon?


Abbeybufo said...

Wuthering Heights springs immediately to mind - I'm quite sure that had I read it at 15 I'd have loved it - but coming to it in my thirties when I did a first degree in History with English, I was singularly unimpressed....

Catherine Butler said...

For what it's worth, I did read it first when 15 and was blown away. Rereading a few years ago, I still liked the book, but as far as Heathcliff was concerned I was just, like, get over yourself.

I was wondering about Northanger Abbey?

Abbeybufo said...

Well I did read Northanger Abbey at about 15 - maybe 16 - for one of our school set books in what I think would now be called year 10 or 11 - ie one of the 2 years leading up to what was then O levels.
Although the English mistress tried very hard, I don't think any of us really 'got' the humour. It was many years later, when I thought I should read the rest of JA - having only known P&P and NA until then - that I also re-read those two and realised there were bits that were meant to be funny. I don't think that in the school situation, we realised things were actually allowed not to be taken seriously - an all-girls school, and we were all very earnest!!