07 April 2010

“Children’s books are not real literature”?

John Hogan’s interview with Toon Books publisher and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly moves away from easy-reader comics for a while to discuss the larger question of how that literary magazine views children’s books:

I had a conversation with a colleague at the New Yorker where I was pushing and saying how come we don’t review more children’s books and more children’s literature? The only thing I can get the New Yorker to do is a yearly paper on it, but not on a regular basis. We don’t do book reviews in general, but still, we do mention books.

And my colleague was bluntly saying, “Well, it’s because children’s books are not real literature.”

I said, “Oh, okay. Explain that.” And he did.

He said, “Well, they are geared for a specific audience, and in literature, the author writes for himself, doesn’t have a specific audience in mind. But by definition, for children, you have to know who you are writing for and you have to take into account the limitations of your reader, and that makes it genre literature, not true literature.”
(I plan to discuss whether all children’s literature is genre literature in my workshop on what it means to write within genres at the SCBWI New England conference in May. But I think genres are defined by readership expectations, not limitations. And I suspect that authors who don’t write with the thought of communicating to their readers don’t get published by major presses or magazines. But back to Mouly.)
Now that’s interesting. To him, that’s obvious. To me, that made me realize even though it’s true we were specifically as editors trying to help the author come up with his or her best version of his strip, not worrying whether people would like it or how complex it might be, and that’s true for the New Yorker as well.

When you work for kids, especially the Toon books, for example, you have to take into account the reading level, not just the age, but the vocabulary, and we work within those limitations. I even had a conversation with my husband [Art Spiegelman], who wasn’t at first that interested in having to do something for kids because of those limitations. It’s only when he did it that he realized it’s akin to doing formal poetry. You have a set of limitations; you can only do your sonnet with so many beats—but then within that there is room for art.
Mouly has further interesting things to say about Jeff Smith’s Bone and Spiegelman’s Maus as unintended literature for young people, what defines a classic, and why major publishing corporations shy away from establishing new types of books.


Chaucerian said...

"In literature the author writes for himself." Oh, really. That explains why I don't read a lot of literature, because my tolerance for people who write/speak only for their own benefit is pretty low.
Good writing, now, that is writing which is meant to convey something to the reader -- and we readers are all limited, including the adult readers. Funny that the New Yorker guy hasn't realized that yet.

dot said...

Somewhere the New Yorker colleague's explanation falls flat, but I'm having a difficult time articulating it. All I can come up with is that if author's were truly writing for themselves, then manuscripts would languish in closets, and people would have these shorthands and self-involved referemces and scribbles that only they could understand. But no, we use the language we're most comfortable with, and we use a style and format that works for fiction or non-fiction or memoir or whatever, and thus it becomes a novel or biography or what-have-you.

Alternately, we were all children once, but it's not neccessary for us all to be Sci-fi readers once, you know? So although it's a genre, it's a peculiar genre in that it is technically standard for all folks to have it as a phase of their lives.

JudiJ said...

Australian author Mem Fox once said that writing a picture book can be likened to writing 'War and Peace' in haiku. Not literature? Yes it is, but not as the NYorker colleague understands it.

And many YA authors say that they don't write for a particular audience, they write the best book they can. It's often the marketing that defines the audience. Boundaries are becoming more and more blurred with crossover titles these days having appeal to a wide range of readers.

Anonymous said...

The author of "literature" doesn't have a specific audience in mind? What? What about the audience of readers who only read in the genre of "literature," and not mystery, fantasy or other? Granted, that audience, carefully cultivated by magazines such as the New Yorker, and supplied with literature by MFA programs, is a narrow one that suffers from not reading widely, but does exist.

Gail Gauthier said...

Wow. My mind is reeling over "in literature, the author writes for himself." And genre literature is written with the "limitations" of the reader kept in mind? Again, wow.

Nathan said...

I don't think all children's book authors necessarily write with children in mind, either.

Gwenda said...

This of course means that Shakespeare must be cast out of the halls of literature--since he was most definitely writing for an audience, being a playwright.

Lunacy. Also, the mainstream realist literary novelist I assume he's talking about? May not always be writing for a large commercial audience, but in many cases is writing for an audience of peers and those who can give him teaching positions. What's so hilarious is that the New Yorker has tended to choose to publish the work of literary writers with fairly substantial audiences--many of them either flirting with the edges of genre like George Saunders or who have strong genre roots like Stephen King and Jonathan Lethem. Which means even they aren't really so interested in the "pure" literary novelists writing for no one.