07 January 2007

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

Ursula K. Le Guin in the New Statesman last month:

Many of us have at least one book or tale that we read as a child and come back to now and then for the rest of our lives. A child or grandchild to read aloud to provides a good excuse, or we may have the courage to return, quite alone, to Peter Rabbit, for the keen pleasure of reading language in which every word is right, the syntax is a delight in itself and the narrative pacing is miraculous. . . .

Curiously enough, most of these "lifelong" children's books are fantasies: books in which magic works, or animals speak, or the laws of physics yield to the laws of the human psyche. When there began to be such a thing as books written for children, in the mid-19th century, fiction was dominated by the realistic novel. Romance and satire were acceptable to it, but overt fantasy was not. So, for a while, fantasy found a refuge in children's books. There it flourished so brilliantly that people began to perceive imaginative fiction as being "for children".

The modernists extended this misconception by declaring fantastic narrative to be intrinsically childish. Though modernism is behind us and postmodernism may be joining it, still many critics and reviewers approach fantasy determined to keep Caliban permanently confined in the cage of Kiddie Lit. The voice of Edmund Wilson reviewing J R R Tolkien is still heard, bleating: "Oo, those awful Orcs!" There should be a word - "maturismo", like "machismo"? - for the anxious savagery of the intellectual who thinks his adulthood has been impugned.

To conflate fantasy with immaturity is a rather sizeable error. Rational yet non-intellectual, moral yet inexplicit, symbolic not allegorical, fantasy is not primitive but primary. Many of its great texts are poetry, and its prose often approaches poetry in density of implication and imagery. The fantastic, the marvellous, the impossible rode the mainstream of literature from the epics and romances of the Middle Ages through Ariosto and Tasso and their imitators, to Rabelais and Spenser and beyond. . . .

Realism comes in three separate age categories, fully recognised by publishers. Didactic, explanatory, practical and reassuring, realistic fiction for young children hasn't much to offer people who've already learned about dump trucks, vaccinations and why Heather has two mommies. Realistic "Young Adult" novels tend to focus tightly on situations and problems of little interest to anyone outside that age group. And realistic fiction for adults, with its social and historical complexities and moral and aesthetic ambiguities, becomes accessible to adolescents only as and if they mature.

As for "genre" fiction - mystery, horror, romance, science fiction - none of it is for children; they begin to read it as they approach their teens, but not before. The only kind of fiction that is read with equal (if differing) pleasure at eight, and at 16, and at 68, seems to be the fantasy and its close relation, the animal story. . . .

The Harry Potter phenomenon, a fantasy aimed at sub-teenagers becoming a great best-seller among adults, confirmed that fantasy builds a two-way bridge across the generation gaps. Adults trying to explain their enthusiasm told me: "I haven't read anything like that since I was ten!" And I think this was simply true. Discouraged by critical prejudice, rigid segregation of books by age and genre, and unconscious maturismo, many people literally hadn't read any imaginative literature since childhood.
Thanks to Janni Lee Simner's Desert Dispatches for the push.

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