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Sweeping Depth Into the Dustpan

In response to Alexis's entry, "Are You Listening, Oprah?" LSJ commented:

I think some of the best written books in the world are for children, not adults.

I honestly can't agree more... except to add that some of the best pure storytelling can be found in children's and young adult's books.

Unfortunately, as we get older, I think it's pounded into our heads that our themes must be bigger and the language must be loftier, and the simple act of telling a good, strong story in an engaging way becomes forgotten entirely. Or is considered too simplistic a goal for a work of capital-L "Literature."

I would argue that a lot of the "bigger" themes in adult literature really aren't as profound as the authors and many critics would like us to believe. Burying a trite theme beneath acres of tangled, overly self-conscious prose doesn't actually make the theme more meaningful, does it?

When I look at the first paragraphs that Dave has posted on this very blog, I find myself thinking, No WONDER the Harry Potter books are so popular among adults!

I don't mean to pick on the authors of these two books — the same holds true for any number of titles that fill the New York Times Book Review each week. It's come to the point that I feel like much adult literature is actually an endurance test: Do you dare admit defeat?

The ever-colorful Pipi comments:

shouldn't we all just dispense with our faux-intelligence, come off the increasingly high hobby horse of self-deception, and admit once and for all, that there are indeed books of such grandiose stature and sweeping depth that in fact, some of us CANNOT READ?

I question that assertion. Yes, okay, I admit — Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum absolutely defeated me. I've read warranties that made more sense. There's a guy who outsmarted me.

But the vast majority of tomes that aspire to "grandiose stature and sweeping depth" are unreadable to me not because they're too deep and complex, but because they're written in a dense style that fails to interest or engage me. When you can see the flopsweat hit the page because the author is trying SO, SO HARD to amaze and astound us with his/her linguistic skills and poetic eloquence, I have to ask myself, To what end?

Does this really make the thin, not-as-profound-as-the-author-hopes story any more enjoyable?

Certainly not for me. If that renders me a philistine, then I embrace the title. I'll even make a sash to wear around so everyone knows that I'm just not dazzled by fifteen pages of self-consciously "clever" footnotes.

I would pit the opening paragraphs of Philip Pullman, Garth Nix, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Robert Cormier, or any number of popular kids' and YA authors against these opening paragraphs any day. I'll wager that I get to that next paragraph — indeed, the next page; and likely, all the ones following — far more often.

Reading isn't a popularity contest, nor should it become one. But I wonder how many of today's authors are interested in communicating a good story to a riveted audience... and how many just have their eyes on those literary prizes that have so little to do with how enjoyable a book actually is.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Foucault's Pendulum Used Trade Paper $5.50

7 Responses to "Sweeping Depth Into the Dustpan"

    ams February 7th, 2006 at 8:35 pm

    Very well put. It's so encouraging to see that there are others out there--highly literate, articulate, thinking individuals--who recognize children's books as literature. Thank you for saying so.

    Dave February 7th, 2006 at 9:07 pm

    Thanks, Venkman. Excellent post.

    John Irving:

    There was ??? I don't know, what would you call it? a poll? ??? about who the greatest twentieth century writer was, and the critics at Time magazine chose Joyce. Spare me. Okay, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" ??? nice book. The rest of it? Self indulgent, intellectual crap. It's graduate student-ese, the stuff that people who are now writing for magazines remember from their graduate school courses.

    Give me a break. Are you going to go on a long trip and take "Ulysses"? Are you going to go on a long trip and read "Finnegans Wake"? It's bullshit. No, you want to read a book, you read something by Dickens, you read something by George Eliot, you read something by Thomas Hardy, not some self-indulgent, intellectual onanism.

    My opinion: Many authors do wonderfully engaging things with language and structure that more than repay the effort required to digest them. The ones worth reading, for me, entertain AND enlighten; they please AND challenge; maybe they demand a bit more engagement on behalf of the reader, but the best ones (this is the important part) repay the reader for that work.

    I have very little patience for incorrigible authors that write impenetrable prose; that's nobody's loss -- they're writing for 0.002% of the population, and as long as graduate schools exist someone will blissfully go on deconstructing their work. I read Joyce in college: it was one of the best classes I took. We read every page of "Ulysses" out loud, front to back, over the course of a semester and a half. The margins of my book are blue with so much exegesis. I wouldn't trade that experience for the world, but you won't catch me dipping into "Finnegans Wake" anytime soon, either.

    The distinction between kids' books and adult literature is immaterial. There are just as many uninspired, mediocre books for children as there are for adults (they just don't get reviewed in Sunday papers and glossy weeklies). Yes, kids' books are often more inviting, but that doesn't mean they're more rewarding. Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy kept me in rapture from beginning to end, but so did Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and I wouldn't recommend that novel to your typical sixteen-year-old. I'm older; my life has become more complicated; my taste and interests continue to evolve. Generally, I want the books I read to acknowledge as much: I want to be treated as an adult. But not always. Some days I'm more inclined to exercise my fancy, others I want to challenge my intellect. It's rarely so clear-cut. Thankfully, both urges are served by bookstores.

    What do others think? I'd love to hear more.

    pipi February 8th, 2006 at 10:25 am

    i have to agree with dave on this:

    "Some days I'm more inclined to exercise my fancy, others I want to challenge my intellect. It's rarely so clear-cut. Thankfully, both urges are served by bookstores."

    monsieur venkman, i do think that you're pigeonholing the issue.

    while literature is indeed ONE field of endeavor, i think its fairly safe to say that like any artistic medium it is an exceedingly broad field on which there is room for everyone, be they recalcitrant genius or
    certifiable hack. to demand simplicity from artists working in complex forms, or to denounce them for their efforts is akin to asking one of friends to be more like another, so that you may convince yourself that you're receiving them equally, when in fact you are merely dictating the boundaries by which they may commune with you. should we not receive the abounding differences presented to us by literature unequivocally, and without restrictions that we most certainly would not enjoy having hoisted upon ourselves?

    perhaps you misunderstood my last post, which you so thoughtfully quoted. my shorts are decisively twisted whenever someone challenges not what i many happen to find profound, as i would like to think that i can carry out a conversation wherein divergent interests are expressed, but when the very notion of profundity itself is debased.

    believe me, i am very large of fan of authors who are succinct, and manage to cave my chest in with two, may be three lines of prose and/or poetry (i am thinking of rilke or c.f. ramuz). but can i not concurrently revel in thomas wolfe's gargantuan sentences, or become displaced by the awesome absurdity of rabelais?

    i simply think that it is a mistake, AS A HUMAN BEING, to limit yourself by stating:

    "you can see the flopsweat hit the page because the author is trying SO, SO HARD to amaze and astound us with his/her linguistic skills and poetic eloquence, I have to ask myself, To what end?"

    to what end? that's just it, the "end" is not acknowledged. the entire expanse of an artist's energy is put to the grindstone by attempting to either dispel or deny the "end". authors, painters, and musicians (if they are worthy of those names), do not labor for prizes or sales, but for the possibility of breaking down and/or through standardized forms which are in need of either resuscitation or decapitation followed by rebirth. to be unaware of this purpose in art/literature, is know nothing of what it means to create and nurture life.

    venkman, venkman! cast off the "mind-forged manacles"! or is that too lofty a proposition?

    Brockman (Post Author) February 8th, 2006 at 10:42 am

    Ah, Venkman. Your ignorance continues to astound and delight me.

    Georgie February 8th, 2006 at 11:30 am

    I would tend to agree with Dave here as well, especially his last paragraph. My mother, an editor and enviably well-read, was reading Proust a couple of years ago, and when I expressed an interest in doing the same she simply told me to wait another ten or twenty years. She believes that some work is better read at a later age. The older we live the greater context we have to be able to appreciate work that at a younger age can be inaccessible, or at least partially under-appreciated.

    I tend to think that good children's fiction is heavily plot-driven and exercises an expansive imagination. The same could be said about good science fiction or fantasy however. For me though, be it adult or young adult, good fiction must in some way touch the heart, and — at the risk of sounding lofty — profound. That might sound vague or pretentious (or unreasonable?), and is certainly not taking into account what Dave speaks of when he writes:

    The ones worth reading, for me, entertain AND enlighten; they please AND challenge; maybe they demand a bit more engagement on behalf of the reader, but the best ones (this is the important part) repay the reader for that work.

    However, in thinking about two books which made a huge impact on me after reading them — a young adult novel How I Live Now and the amazing Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go — the language in these novels, although exquisite, almost takes a back seat to the emotional impact of the story. Form and function do indeed coexist beautifully, as they should, but the difference between being provoked, emotionally 'moved' (for want of a better word), distressed, and also made to think — and think hard — to me is the purpose of a good novel. Whether this can be said of many novels published these days in the fields of adult or children's literature is a continuing cause of consternation to me.

    alexis February 8th, 2006 at 12:00 pm

    As one of the many intrepid, passionate Kids' Team members at the City of Books, I often bemoan the number of trashy, obnoxious, or otherwise lame books publishers put out for kids. The problem: some of these books are extremely popular, which means that (ack!) readers really do like them.

    Here we come to the familiar argument: popularity v. quality. The two are not mutually exclusive by any means, but if we're talking about stories to which many people respond, we're not always talking about great writing. We may be talking about taste, or values, or topic-du-jour, or great marketing.

    What we're probably always talking about, though, is familiar narrative form. Mystery, romance, fantasy, lad lit, chick lit, meta-fiction: they all have familiar narrative devices specific to their genres. Some people respond more to one genre than another. And any bookseller will tell you that genres go in and out of popularity. (Remember nautical fiction's brief jump in popularity when the Master & Commander movie came out? And when, oh when, are kids going to be over dragons, please?)

    Every so often an author comes along who changes the form just so, or manages the devices so well, that his or her stories become paragons of the genre and of fiction in general. We recognize in their stories the differences and similarities between their stories and all the stories that came before. But this isn't usually an intellectual recognition, it's an intuitive one, because humans are programmed to respond instinctively to narrative (ask Freud).

    This is as true for children's books as adults' books. You find it in everything from Andersen or the Grimms' fairy tales, the Brontes, Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Tolkien. These stories endured, and will continue to endure, because they appeal to us as narrative, because, as Samuel Johnson says of Shakespeare, they have "pleased many, and pleased long." We may find ourselves, one hundred years from now, with the Norton Critical edition of Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone, while Dave Eggers falls into Melvillian obscurity for a time. I can tell you which book I'd rather read right now, but who knows if that will last?

    Let's see if I can bring this back around. Dave says that generally he wants the books he reads to assume he's an adult, but that sometimes he wants to "exercise [his] fancy" (a lovely, silly image, that--I picture modern dance), or his intellect. I don't see how the great examples of children's lit can't satisfy all of those needs as well as adult lit does.

    When those trashy, inane kids' books come my way, I sometimes think about what I read as a kid: the Babysitter's Club, Christopher Pike's teen horror novels, the occasional Sweet Valley High, every Nancy Drew. Lots of fluff. And so what? It didn't render me incapable of reading Derrida in college.

    I try to apply this kind of thinking to the adult fiction that is either considered fluff, or self-indulgent, high-lit--what did Venkman call it? "flopsweat?"--and I come up with the conclusion that both are necessary. On the one hand, you have writers who keep the narrative forms alive by recasting them over and over. On the other, you have writers who self-consciously deviate from forms or experiment with language in attempts to break free of those forms (thus creating new forms, but that's another discussion). And somewhere in the middle, there are writers who split the difference and create the stuff most of us seek out: great stories that engage us--kids and adults--on emotional and intellectual levels.

    pipi February 8th, 2006 at 12:23 pm

    great post alexis.

    wish i could stick to a topic like that!

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