Thursday 24 April 2014

Books without lumps. Or, Are some books trash?

A post on ABBA a couple of weeks ago by Clementine Beauvais prompted a storm of comments. The question it asked - is it better for children to read 'trash' than nothing - mostly brought a resounding 'yes' in response, but with plenty of people pointing out that the definition of trash is up for grabs.

I do think some books are 'trash' in adult terms. I feel entitled to say this because I am also willing to own up to having written trash. You won't find it - it's not under my name, and it's not linked with me anywhere online or offline. I don't include it in my list of publications. I suppose the only people, apart from the editors, who could identify me as the author are the people who work for PLR.

Why did I write trash, and why do I think it is trash?
The books were commissions, and I needed the money. I won't write for peanuts, and I won't write something I think is damaging, but other than that I'm fairly promiscuous. I have to be - I have bills to pay. The trash, as you've probably guessed, was for character-led fiction series, and one was a tie-in with a TV series. The publishers already had the cast of characters, the 'bible', and the scenario for the books. It wasn't one of those in which the plot is also provided, but there were certain limitations and requirements constraining the plot.

Why is it trash? Actually, I'm starting to change my mind as I write this post. But I'll say what I first thought and then review it and you can all join in. Socratic method - all good.

It is not challenging to the imagined reader. It says nothing original in terms of characterisation, themes, or plot. It is formulaic. Once the characters have been set in motion, you know pretty much (in broad terms) what will happen. OK, you don't know whether there will be a ghost, or a burglary, or whatever. But you know there will be some conflict between the central group of characters, which will be resolved. You know there will be some external challenge (the ghost or other antagonist) that will force the characters to be resourceful or resilient or both. You know that at the end the problems will have been solved, the characters will be firmly welded together in their friendship and might have learned a lesson. Good will triumph over evil. No one is going to die of cancer, no one's dog will be run over or killed with a pitchfork, no one will develop a second head, there won't be a pack of rabid, zombie wolves [oh, there's an idea] and the world won't be wiped out by a killer virus. It will all take place in its domestic+school world. (Other types of trash take place in other types of fictional world - with fairies, ponies, talking pants, dinosaurs, whatever. But they all have their tropes and formulae and follow them rigidly.) There are also plenty of books for adults that are written in the same way - look at any of the 'pulp' series of romances, westerns and erotica.

It's anodyne, predictable, shallow and - to adults - dull. But it serves a function. In fact, it serves many functions.

The phrase that starts off Clem's post is "at least they're reading". I suppose this means 'at least they are decoding text, practising the basic skill of working out how marks on the page relate to words'. Yes, my trash books do that. By reading something rather than nothing, the child develops reading 'muscle' - it becomes easier each time as the basic skill is slowly mastered.

The child is not only learning to decode words, of course. They are also learning to understand life. Most of the 'trash' books contain very simplistic depictions of human interactions. They are formulaic in their endorsement of friendship, showing good actions generally rewarded and bad actions reflected on and revised (rather than punished, often - we aren't Victorian moralists). The Enid Blyton-style school or adventure story doesn't have challenging characters, plot twists, stylistic elegance or anything else that adults like. But if a child is still working out how narrative works, they will learn that. I would not defend the outmoded showing of girls as simpering ninnies and boys as adventurous - that type of thing is truly harmful trash. But the books discussed in Clem's post are not, on the whole, toxic - just easy.

We know children struggle with what makes a story and they need to learn that in simple steps.  Look at any 'story' written by a small child: 'The dog went out for a walk and found a bunny. Hello bunny, he barked. Then he went home and went to sleep. The next day it rained.' The stage after decoding words is understanding narrative. My Director of Studies used to say that readers developed in sophistication from interest in plot, through interest in character, to interest in style. Leaving aside whether that scale is useful in assessing adult readers, it certainly maps out the progress of the emerging reader. (Though I could argue for an occasional reversal of character/style in some cases that allows 2D characters to be carried by style - Mr Gumm, for instance.) A trite story about fairy unicorn princesses that illustrates a very simple view of friendship or kindness - the archetypal trash, if you like - provides a useful model of narrative structure and human experience recreated recognisably in fiction. The child - even the child who has no friends, or a distant and cold family - is not alone if they can see some aspect of their experience mirrored in a book. I would consider a lot of the fairy-unicorn-princess stories to be trash, but as long as they don't promote discrimination or endorse an overly gendered view of girls (which sadly they often do), they aren't in my view harmful.

Imagine you are a child who has just got the hang of reading. You're not desperately struggling, just not fluent yet. You can read a fun romp in which you don't have to worry about themes, complex character motivation, or tricky intellectual (or even imaginative) challenges. Or you can pile on all the challenges in one go - and probably give up. We give babies food that is easy to eat; we give small children tricycles, and then bicycles with stabilisers. We don't feed a one-year-old filet mignon or onion tart with parmesan. We don't ask a five-year-old to take their little bicycle straight up a dirt track over a mountain. Trash books are weaning food, they are bicycles with stabilisers. They are care and concern for the weaning mind.

We don't feed our babies rubbish, though. We don't give them food stuffed with salt and sugar and additives - we just give them food that is easy to identify, hold and digest. Food without lumps made from healthy ingredients (though they are sometimes bland, to adult tastes). And easy books are not necessarily rubbish. As long as they aren't stuffed with unhealthy stereotypes, lies, misleading ideas, they do no harm. They are books without lumps.

So - were my books trash? No, actually, I don't think so. They are not even trash if children choose to read them when they 'should' have progressed to more challenging books. There is a huge elephant in the room here. Writers are always banging on about 'reading for pleasure' and how the GOVErnment pays it no heed. But here we are, the people who are supposed to care and champion reading, saying kids CAN'T read for pleasure if we don't like their reading choice! They must read for challenge, for education, to develop their taste. They must read Northern Lights instead of My Fairy Unicorn Princess Annual. No wonder reading drops off when children get the choice. We all have preferences.

If we want a child to read for pleasure, we have to let them read what pleases them. Only after the stabilisers and the lump-free stage can they progress to allegory and trauma - if they want to. They don't have to. That's the whole thing about pleasure. Some won't progress to more challenging books, and some adults don't read challenging books. I'm sure there are people in the anti-trash camp who would baulk at being told to spend their days reading Finnegan's Wake or Tristram Shandy.