Wednesday, August 10, 2005

As Long As We're Trading Incendiary Quotes

Adult fiction recognises that the contemporary world is a complex, difficult place with demands on our reasoning that require careful consideration. I have nothing against Harry Potter or any of his genuinely juvenile followers - children should be bursting with juvenility - but his adult disciples are little more than cowardly escapists.

OK, here's the thing. Like a book or don't like a book. But WTF is the deal with the galloping contempt of this editorial (and incidentally, the Bookslut blurb that pointed me to it)? Mr. Brian Hennigan claims to have nothing against HP or the kids that read him. I don't believe him. What he's saying is, That sort of dreck is fine for the unsophisticated and naive tastes of the young.* Which is bullshit of the highest order, because kids are neither of those things. Besides which, this whole "when I became a man, I put away childish things" sort of thinking really sticks in my craw. (Or would, if I in fact had a craw. Not sure where these quotes come from; Matthew the raven?) I submit that there is nothing "cowardly" about a healthy measure of escapism, and that most adults could stand to be a bit more childlike.

*Note that I don't accept the premise that HP is simple or easy; I think the series, particularly as it continues, becomes more and more morally complex. It's still overwritten, though :-)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think adults need to be more childish. Child like maybe, but not childish.

I have a friend who only reads YA fiction because she "can't deal with depressing or scary stuff."

So even if the above quote doesn't apply to everyone, it certainly does apply to my co-worker/friend.


4:20 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Can you clarify for me the distinction between childish and childlike?

4:24 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

OK, I've been looking at definitions and you're right. I'm going to edit the post.

4:32 PM  
Blogger gwenda said...

It seems like the friend could accomplish the same only reading certain kinds of adult books -- as someone who reads a fair amount (though certainly not exclusively) of YA, there's plenty depressing and scary there. She's choosing a certain kind of YA.

6:48 PM  
Blogger Trent said...

If you haven't already done so, you should check out J.R.R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories." He speaks directly to those who criticize "escapist" fantasy literature. The whole thing is rather brilliant. It's in a book called "The Tolkien Reader" and may well be found other places in the post-movie explosion of his work.

Similarly, his "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" touches on the same theme when he defends the use of the monsters in the poem. Another awe-inspiring piece of non-fiction from the old curmudgeon.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The nice thing about opinions is, you don't have to back them up with any evidence.

Unless you want to be taken seriously. Maybe Mr. Hennigan's not interested in that?

(It's a very weird piece. It reads like it ought to have a punchline at the end, but really it doesn't even seem to me to have an end at the end.)

(First I wrote, 'it's a very weird peace.' I think I'd like a very weird peace.)

- H

8:57 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Gwenda speaks truth. The big fallacy about YA is that it sugarcoats reality. This is rarely true, in my experience. YA can be terribly depressing and scary both.

Trent, good that you brought "ON Fairy-Stories" up. I particularly like Tolkien's idea of "Recovery," which is basically the idea that fantasy can help us take a clearer look at reality. The "escapism" tag is the social realists' way of saying fantasy is irrelevant to life as most people experience it. I submit that this is both untrue and culturally naive.

Hannah: it is a weird piece. It's not really a complete thought, truly, perhaps because that would require actual thinking.

(Also, seconding the call for A Very Weird Peace.)

12:52 AM  
Blogger Abigail Nussbaum said...

The nice thing about opinions is, you don't have to back them up with any evidence.

Except that Hennigan, much like everyone else in the 'reading Harry Potter after age 18 means that you are X' crowd, isn't offering an opinion. He's stating his determinations - adults who read Harry Potter are losers, they're avoiding life, they may not even exist (note how he says that they 'style themselves' HP fans) - as if they were facts, without even taking the trouble of talking to a few people and finding out if he's close to the truth.

I have to say, I'm much more disappointed in Bookslut's Michael Schaub than I am in Hennigan. He's just trying to get a byline, and swinging at a giant like J.K. Rowling is a good way to get attention. Schaub already has plenty of attention, and given how exercised he and Jessa Crispin get whenever someone makes absurd generalizations about comics readers, he really should have known better than to endorse this article.

By the way, calling only certain books 'escapist' is a pet peeve of mine. All fiction is escapist. Anna Karenina is no more real than Harry Potter.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Dave said...

Abigail, I don't know from Schaub well enough to be disappointed in him. But the tone of the blurb was incredibly snide.

I sometimes feel that when I see things like this I should just read and ignore them (or better yet, not read them at all), but as Hannah has noted on her blog, there seems to be a lot of this particular attitude around the 'net lately. And while I could care less whether or not someone likes HP, or even whether that person thinks I'm a feeble-minded schmuck because I do, when the contempt is extended to YA and/or Fantasy literature in general it makes me crazy.

I'm not certain I agree, however, that all fiction is escapist. I think that, to me, escapism implies not just fiction but a heightened reality, where things like adventure and romance are amplified over things like social problems and domestic concerns. Which is not to say that escapism can't address those things as well, but they aren't the focus. I've not read Anna Karenina, but staying within that realm, I didn't find The Brothers Karamazov escapist at all. Nor, in an entirely different vein, did I think that of Bulgakov's fantasy The Master and Margarita. Both are too entrenched in unpleasant realities, which is not to say that they are unenjoyable books. (They're not my favorite books, either, but they're good.)

I do think that there is a certain level of contempt for story among politically-minded persons of various stripes. As if the idea that humans get meaning from made-up narratives were somehow shameful, but as long as the device is there it should be used only in "productive" ways, with realistic portrayals which send messages about societal or self-improvement. (Karen, if you're reading this, what was that Swedish children's show that you and Par were telling me about?)

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Abigail: I'm not sure I follow the distinction you're making between opinion and determination. An opinion can be forcefully given and treated as self-evident--but being presented as fact doesn't make it one. (It may mark its owner as ill-mannered, but that's neither here nor there. And the piece _is_ published on the Opinions page of the site, so I'm willing to assume that it's meant as such--by the Scotsman, if not by Hennigan.) But your commenty bit makes it clear that you know this--so I guess I'm not sure what you're taking exception to?

Escapism--heh. I wrote a paper, once, a defense of escapism in fiction. Whether all fiction is escapist or not I think really depends on how you define the word. By Dave's definition, maybe not so much?

A lot of times that I see 'escapism' deployed, it's just as a synonym for not-the-real-world. And by that definition, I'd ditto Abigail. Fiction is pretty much by definition not-the-real-world.

And--even pure realistic fiction read specifically because the reader is trying to cope with, say, heartbreak. The story about heartbreak isn't about the reader's heartbreak. It's not that reality's reality. It's escape from that reader's reality; it's putting just enough distance between yourself and your problem to give yourself a chance to breathe, and to figure out how to cope, sometimes.

(I think I worded it better, in the paper. I hope I did, I anyway! Yikes.)

My other thing with escapism is, some people like to haul it out--"Oh, that story's escapist"--like it means automatically, "There's nothing else going on." But that's not built in. A story can be escapist without being _only_ escapist. It can be escapist and something else, too. It can be something else that looks like escapism. Or escapism that looks like something else. Or lots of something elses.

(I'm also not convinced, necessaril, that being escapist and nothing else is a bad thing. But I've taken up far too much comment space and suspect I'd be preachin' to the choir, and so I stop.)

- H

2:00 PM  
Blogger Abigail Nussbaum said...

I was going to write some stuff about the question of escapist fiction, but then H went and said it all better than I would have, so never mind. I do agree, though, that it all depends on how you define escapism, or more accurately, what part of the reading experience you think the escape consists of.

As for the question of opinion versus determination. I used to get upset at people who insisted on attaching the 'in my opinion' rider to everything they said (or, more often, everything other people said, especially when they disagreed with it). Everything everyone says is an opinion. When a world-renowned physicist gets up on stage at a major conference and says something about sub-atomic particles, he or she is expressing an opinion. It's just that their opinion is based on measurable facts and their own education and experience.

The question is not whether Hennigan was expressing an opinion but whether he has the faculties and credentials required to make that opinion worth hearing. As a literate person, he is qualified to offer his negative opinion on a book. As a human being, he is qualified to express his belief that adults shouldn't read said book because of X, Y, & Z. To make sweeping determinations about the huge group of adults who do read the book, he would have to have some background in anthropology or psychology or cultural studies, and to have conducted some sort of study. At the very least, he should have gone out and talked to a few adult HP readers. He gives no indication in his article that he's done this, and yet he presents his conclusions as if he had. That, in my opinion, is what turns those opinions into (unfounded) determinations.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Abigail Nussbaum said...

I've written some more about the escapist fiction question on my blog.

3:20 AM  

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