Infantilism? I think not

With all the attention refocusing on the Harry Potter franchise as the last movie is released (I see it tomorrow!), the press seems divided between celebrating the cultural impact of Rowling’s books and mourning what their popularity means.

On the upside, we see articles like Lev Grossman’s literate and respectful treatment of fanfiction in Time magazine, The Boy Who Lived Forever. Fanfic is one part of the participatory fan culture that’s exploded around Harry Potter over the past ten years and more, although this one fandom is only a small part of a broader phenomenon rising around books, music, films, comic books, television shows and more. Groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works champions ordinary people who want to follow those same impulses that inspired Malory to write a new take on Arthur in the fifteenth century and Shakespeare to remix the historical chronicles of English kings that he used for his history plays (some of my favourite takes on RPF or Real Person Fiction as fandom knows it).

Another in this vein comes from my local paper, The Sudbury Star, where Wayne Chamberlain explains how the Franchise is Pure Magic. He spoke with professors like Colleen Franklin and librarians such as Monique Roy who saw value in the series and in the genre. But the most touching and telling example came at the end:

“People can’t wait to read her books,” Franklin said. “And that can’t help but spill over into them wanting to do more reading.”

Ray Provencher, 34, is testament to that fact. The Sudbury man, who works as a projectionist at SilverCity, said the Potter books inspired him to read after 10 years of avoiding books.

“Since then, I’ve read The Inheritance Cycle and Kathy Reichs’ books based on the Bones (TV) series.

“I mean, I had maybe four or five books before. Now, I have shelves of books thanks to J.K. Rowling.”

More reading. It’s almost always a good thing and it’s clear that these books are part of a renaissance for reading as popular activity in ordinary culture.

On the downside, we get articles like John Barber’s more problematic How Harry Potter Rewrote the Book on Reading which raises the familiar academic criticism spectre of Harry Potter destroying our culture. Nameless academics are evoked, cursing the series for encouraging “cultural infantilism” when adults start indulging in children’s literature. (And Barber gives us extra-bonus points for apparently ‘padding’ our reading lists with Harry Potter books when we don’t condemn the works out of hand.) Let’s also not forget the condemnation of many dark trends in young adult books made by Meghan Cox Gurdon in Darkness too Visible (a position which she strongly defended in her response to criticism, My ‘Reprehensible’ Take on Teen Literature).

Won’t someone think of the children?

Ptui! First, it’s hardly a phenomenon of recent invention when you have children and adults reading the same books or that the said books have dark themes. The rise of a dedicated “children’s literature” section is relatively recent in the history of bookselling and many works we consider classics for children were widely read by adults in an earlier time and written with such readers in mind. (Robinson Crusoe, I’m looking at you!) For more reading on children’s literature to give you a sense of how permeable these boundaries have long been, see Seth Lerer’s entertaining and eloquent Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter. You can write with children in mind, and not craft something inferior. In fact, it’s more challenging to write well for an all-ages audience than for a smaller subset.

Let’s admit, once and for all, that the wall we’ve built up around children’s and young adult literature is a fiction. It’s one less sturdy than those spun in the pages of many of those books. Just as Trevor Dayton, VP for children’s books and Music at Indigo, noted in Barber’s article, the Harry Potter books have made the division between adult books and children’s books “almost indistinguishable. Also from Barber’s piece, you see that the vast majority of these YA books are bought by adults (over 75%), whether for themselves or for younger readers. Overall, more people are reading more books these days thanks to Harry Potter and company.

Adults reading books marked or marketed as suitable for children and young adults. What’s so bad about that? What’s so bad about parents and children, youth and adults, finding common ground in the books they read? Honestly, I find a lot less pretense and posing in the best of young adult literature than in much of the literary fiction I’m told represents the best of the best today. So, if you’ll excuse me, I have some great YA novels to finish reading. Then maybe I’ll check out the fanfic archives, and see what’s happening there!

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10 Comments

Filed under academe, pop culture

10 responses to “Infantilism? I think not

  1. I guess by these rules, we adults will have to chuck out Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web because E.B. White wrote them as children’s books.

    • jliedl

      Precisely, and particularly because we’re professors, we’re supposed to not read or admire any of these things because they are neither high culture nor adult enough. Really, how many other profs do you know who follow these kind of silly rules, anyway?

  2. Not to mention The Hobbit, the Narnia books, The Secret Garden, a large chunk of Mark Twain’s oeuvre, etc, etc, etc…

    • jliedl

      More good points – I never read The Secret Garden until I was in my twenties but I certainly found it a riveting read when I did. I figure that I’m fortunate to stumble upon good books when I do and not be all quibbling about who they’re marketed to and whether or not I fit that demographic, no?

  3. Pippa

    Very well said.

  4. I had an interesting conversation along these lines just this morning with a colleague in the summer school program I teach in. I’m teaching a middle school class in “Percy Jackson and Greek Mythology” — awesome! — and he made a slightly disparaging remark about the series, having read the first book and not cared for it. Disliking it? Fair enough. Giving the reason for your dislike that it’s for young children and therefore inherently not interesting to adults? Slightly annoying … especially given that this colleague just finished teaching a middle school class on _Harry Potter_! He seems to have decided that _Harry Potter_ is an exception to the otherwise firm rule that adults shouldn’t like YA books.

    • jliedl

      That attitude is maddening, isn’t it? “What I like is mature. What others like isn’t!”

      When an argument devolves down to that, it’s not very persuasive, now is it?

  5. I’ve read more YA lit in the past year than ever before, thanks to my niece, and I’ve enjoyed much of it. I especially like when there’s a good bit of creativity taking on a long tradition (which speaks to the Percy Jackson books, as well as Harry Potter, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc).

    I also like that the ones my niece seems to find most compelling aren’t focused on “teen girl meets man, marriage plans follow.”

    But then, I adore the “Good Dog, Carl” books for their wit (the park art scene in the one is pure pleasure).

    • jliedl

      I hear you on the joy of finding out about interesting new books from the younger generation.

      And speaking of children’s books: I could slide down the couch and pull a large compendium of the “Good Dog, Carl” books off of our shelves. Having owned a Rottie when the girls were born (a dog whom we all loved!), this remains a family favourite.

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