16 May 2007

China, Tall Tales, and a Sense of Hope

So the night after I brought home Un Lun Dun from the library, Roger Sutton's post directed me to author China Miéville's recent essay in the Guardian:

There's nothing like the constant sage cliché that polemical politics has no place in fiction to make a person hanker for a bit of agit-prop. The cruder the better. Of course a lot of agitproppy art is crap, true, but then so's a lot of everything.

Irritated by the insipid and disingenuous separation of politics and art? Be reassured that it's never too early to corrupt young minds with tendentious reasoning smuggled into narrative. Fortunately, there's no shortage of political discussion in children's and YA fiction, sometimes camouflaged, often not.
In fact, I'll go further and note that children's and young-adult fiction is often judged by the values it imparts, far more often than serious adult literature. And what are politics if not values writ large?

Miéville went on:
The worst propaganda works aren't those (relatively few) books that actually do what the critics of political fiction claim it does (foreclose discussion and replace it with hectoring): they're those books which pretend -- perhaps to their authors too -- that they are above and unsullied by political concerns. What better way to naturalise all sorts of unexamined prejudices?
Unexamined prejudices like, say, the need to leave readers with a sense of hope. Which brings me to Mitali Perkins’s interview with our friend Karen Day, whose Tall Tales has just come out. Speaking of her editor, Wendy Lamb, Karen said:
She thought I left the family too vulnerable and wanted to see a happier outcome. She said she’d look at the novel again if I made these changes, but I wasn’t sure. I wanted to be realistic. I couldn’t see how to change it and stay true to my realistic conception of the novel. I fretted over this for months until finally I found a solution that satisfied me but also, I hoped, would satisfy Wendy.
As I've said before, there's nothing wrong with giving young readers a sense of hope. Tall Tales is a hard-hitting picture of a troubled family, so it's natural to want better for those kids. But it's worth examining whether our culture has a prejudice about how children's books must end. Does our model of the modern "problem novel" function like the books Miéville discusses, which claim not to be political yet reflect and reinforce unexamined political beliefs?

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