Plumbing and/or Scaling the Entire Range of Human Experience Before BreakfastPosted: December 4, 2013
[The following contains hyperbolic silliness and should not be taken literally. I do not consider children or children's literature unworthy. I write it because I love it and believe in it. Also: don't mistake my tone for anger. This is me laughing merrily. I feel a bit silly explaining myself in such detail, but this is the internet. Tone is hard to hear on the internet.]
Ah, my darlings, the winter bear has been prodded from her slumber.
First there was an article about how Kent University was ‘penitent’ for belittling children’s literature. “Huh,” I said to myself. “Is that Kent University in Canterbury? I played cello at a Messiah workshop there, long ago.”
Indeed it was, or one of their campuses, anyway. Close enough. Satisfied, I went back to sleep.
But then we get this follow-up article today: Children’s Fiction is not Great Literature.
I have to admit, I scoffed at first. However, I have come away transformed. I am a convert. Permit me to explain.
“Great adult literature aims to confront the full range of genuine human experience,” quoth the article. Of course it does! Except for children’s experience, which isn’t genuine experience after all. It’s barely what we’d call human. As some fellow on The Simpsons once said, “You kids don’t know what you want! That’s why you’re still kids! Because you’re stupid!”
It’s not like serious adult literature has never explored the experiences of childhood. I always thought James Joyce’s description of wetting the bed in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was particularly sublime. Nobody understands bed-wetting like an adult, though, and this is the entire point! Children do things without understanding the nuances! They only discern black, white, good, evil, and bright cartoonish things. When Joyce wets the bed, it has gravitas. Pathos. Introspection. Of course, James Joyce was far too Great to spend an entire book wetting the bed. He grew up, as any sensible person ought, and moved on to genuine human experiences like sexual urges, fear of hellfire, and spiritual epiphany. None of which children have the faintest notion of. Don’t tell me they do. I can’t hear you, lalala.
Now, does this mean that any individual work Great Literature must encompass the entirely of human experience? Of course not. That would be silly. Nobody has time for that. No, no, Great Literature merely has to be capable of containing anything. As the article explains: “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” So you see, virtue lies in not omitting – in omitting to omit, if you will – those elements of the adult world which would disturb, confuse, or just plain bore a child to tears. All the really genuine stuff, in other words.
Greatness in literature is like the load-bearing capacity of a bridge: nobody’s really going to drive a ten-billion-ton truck over your bridge, but it has to be strong enough, just in case. Because seriously, you never know. Somebody might have a truck that’s beyond your feeble imagination. We must allow for the full range of possible trucks, even the ones that don’t exist.
Children’s books, on the other hand, are like little wobbly rope bridges, capable of carrying only the wee-est, twee-est widdle emotions, only the fluffiest kittens of experience. Is there anything more futile and ridiculous than a fluffy kitten of experience? Surely the universe could get on quite well without fluffy kittens at all. No one would miss them. Stop blubbing, you.
It is therefore self-evident that the more Human Complexity a work is capable of containing, the Greater it can be. This is why (self-evidently) more greatness may be found in epic poetry than in sonnets. There’s only so much complexity you can cram into a sonnet, especially if you’re being strict with the rhyme scheme (I prefer English, myself). And don’t even get me started on haiku. How much Genuine Human Experience can 17 syllables possibly hold? I’ve had complex adult emotions with more syllables than that. I had one just now. It was self-congratulatory-dyspeptic-smugtasticrabby-glibberishness. Haiku that, darlings.
In sum: it’s not enough to write children’s emotions or experiences well because they are inherently unworthy of literary consideration. A Great book potentially contains anything (except silly kid stuff). The problem with Harry Potter (which I think we all agree exemplifies the entirety of children’s literature) is not that there isn’t anything Complex and Genuine in such books, but that there can’t be, by definition. QED, thank you, and goodnight.