Dear Mr Whiting,
I read your blog post with great interest. Before I begin, let me just point out that what I write is so spectacularly not for children it’s unreal, but that’s by the by. My whole childhood I read what you describe as ‘sensation’ and ‘insensitive’ material and far from the process you describe – where this is addictive, damaging and upsetting – as a bright child in an unchallenging school, this was my refuge, and what stopped me becoming damaged.
Fantasy fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea. I understand that. But there’s something deeply flawed (if you will forgive me, if you indeed ever read this post, which likely you will not) about your logic.
You praise the works of ‘Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespearean plays.’ Without providing too compendious a list of the incest, murder, rape, mutilation, racism, sexism, antisemitism and political corruption dealt with in Shakespeare’s œvre, I might point out that ‘Classic’ literature is also harmful insofar as it promulgates, privileges and exclusivises the work of dead white men. The canon was in part, after all, developed for educating those ignorant natives in the colonies. For your information on what, perhaps, informs your decisions on what is worth or unworthy literature, might I suggest you refer yourself to the scholarly writings of Bordieu? His 1979 La Distinction highlights a lot of the issues that your argument relies on. Bordieu calls it ‘the distinction of taste’. I call it intellectual snobbery.
Who am I to judge, you cry? I am a purveyor of sensationalism. Yes I am. If you would like to ‘rubber stamp’ me to check I know what I am talking about let me also assure you that I am an Oxford graduate.
You claim that:
Buying sensational books is like feeding your child with spoons of added sugar, heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more, which if related to books, fills the bank vaults of those who write un-sensitive books for young children!
I am not sure what the ills of Harry Potter, The Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings are supposed to be. Certainly, I am perplexed by the claim that fantasy is ‘addictive’ or ‘damaging’.
Fantasy allows children to play out difficult issues in a world they know is fantastic (in the literal sense). Fantasy helped me, as a child, to explore my inner life when I was a shy, bookish child who found it difficult to make friends. All reading is valuable. All enquiry is precious. Are some things not suitable for children? Absolutely. I’m not recommending our eleven-year-olds read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But fantasy and sci-fi of the kind you are describing? Come off it, mate.
To take one example, Harry Potter is a story about how friendship, a mother’s love and bravery can overcome racism, prejudice and hatred. If that’s not a narrative you think is beneficial to children, frankly you’ve got something wrong with you. Fantasy elements don’t make something ‘demonic’. In the Shakespeare you recommend so heartily, your students could just as easily read about two teenagers getting married after a few weeks just so they can have sex with one another, then dying because their families won’t stop fighting.
We’re never going to see eye to eye on this, and frankly that’s because you’re just plain wrong. But, since I’m sure the words of a woman who writes genre fiction won’t sway you, I’ll just refer you to the words of A.E. Housman, renowned (Oxford-educated) classicist and poet, on the merits of fiction that might just be a little troubling:
‘TERENCE, this is stupid stuff:
You eat your victuals fast enough;
There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear,
To see the rate you drink your beer.
But oh, good Lord, the verse you make,
It gives a chap the belly-ache.
The cow, the old cow, she is dead;
It sleeps well, the horned head:
We poor lads, ’tis our turn now
To hear such tunes as killed the cow.
Pretty friendship ’tis to rhyme
Your friends to death before their time
Moping melancholy mad:
Come, pipe a tune to dance to, lad.’
Why, if ’tis dancing you would be,
There’s brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God’s ways to man.
Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world’s not.
And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
The mischief is that ’twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I’ve lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.
Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less good than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure,
I’d face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
‘Tis true, the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul’s stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
Love and (sensational) kisses,