Joel Stein did his part to insure thatThe Times reputation for being stodgy, out of touch and pretentious stays intact:
The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.
I’m sure all those books are well written. So is “Horton Hatches the Egg.” But Horton doesn’t have the depth of language and character as literature written for people who have stopped physically growing.
Julian Sanchez offers a well-reasoned but guarded defense of Stein.
I think we’d probably be worse off in a world completely bereft of this kind of cultural snobbery. It’s hard to resist poking fun at the pretentious undergrad lugging some William Gaddis doorstop to the local café so everyone can see what they’re reading—but I’m not sure I’d prefer a world where grown men and women didn’t feel slightly sheepish about settling in with teen lit day after day instead. This probably isn’t an issue for the sort of wordsmith public intellectuals who felt inclined to comment on Stein’s squib: Of course they’re going to read plenty of adult fiction, and of course they’re right to bristle at anyone who’d sneer at them for throwing something a bit lighter into the mix. But that’s not a given for most adults, and a little nagging voice in the back of the head that says “Hey, you’re a grown-ass man/lady, shouldn’t you challenge yourself a bit?” is probably a net cultural asset.
Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress offers a reply more in line with the snark that I think Stein deserves.
Young people are capable of fairly sophisticated reasoning, of empathy, and even of significant evil, and many of them can rise to meet fairly high bars as readers. A series like the Hunger Games franchise can keep Katniss a virgin throughout the majority of the three books and still communicate the horror of surrendering your sexual and romantic autonomy. Harry Potter may be the first encounter a generation of readers has with the evils of torture and nasty class bias. Tamora Pierce’s Provost’s Dog series is an unflinching exploration of crime and poverty. Simply because these novels are also appropriate for younger readers doesn’t mean the ideas in them are stupid or the prose is unworthy. Not all things written for younger readers are masterpieces, of course. But there’s plenty of bad trash, insipid prose, and deeply stupid ideas in books written for adults. Joel Stein is welcome to it.
All that comes from Andrew Sullivan. I’d add only two further pieces to the debate. First, this from Jerram Barrs writing in defense of the Harry Potter books:
There are beautiful and enjoyable human relationships among the characters, and there is a depth of commitment and service among them. The characteristics celebrated in the relationships are friendship, loyalty, integrity, kindness, and self-sacrifice. Harry Potter himself is prepared to set aside his own success, in order to serve his friends. These are qualities in which we can all delight.
There is also a very clear portrayal of the distinction between good and evil — both the appalling destructiveness of evil to human life and the beneficial fruit of treating people with justice, kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and integrity. It is particularly significant that the books recognize that goodness and faithfulness in relationships have a cost. This is not a world where everything is like a box of chocolates and always works out nicely. Good virtues have to be worked at and are hard won. Virtue is rewarded primarily in terms of character development and the increasing depths of relationships among the characters, rather than through the attainment of popularity or success.
This I would add: One of the values of breaking literature into genres is that it gives us different categories for writing a book as well as thinking about that book. But the key is that the difference in genre does not have to imply a drop in quality. We’ve been taught to think of high-brow literary fiction as being innately better than a good sci-fi thriller or a children’s series. But it’s not an issue of one work being better, but simply one of having a different set of criteria for judging it. I don’t judge His Dark Materials the same way I would Three Junes but that doesn’t mean Pullman’s books are innately worse than Glass’ (though in that particular case they are).
With sci-fi, I’m looking for sophisticated thought about the interactions between science, technology, and cultural possibilities. And I’m willing to forgive simplistic character development or less witty repartee between characters. It still needs to be serviceable, but I’m not looking for Jean Valjean type characters or Oscar Wilde caliber dialogue.
What children’s lit allows you to do is focus the themes of the narrative. When so much 20th century lit reveled in ambiguity and wanted to show how everyone had feet of clay, children’s lit was able to keep alive the romance, the thrill of goodness and the severity and difficulty of living well in the world. Alan Jacobs’ defense of The Lord of the Rings from last year captures something of this:
It may be true that the story of the Ring is less morally ambiguous than the average realistic novel, but that’s primarily because Tolkien wasn’t especially interested in the problem of knowing right from wrong. His concern was to explore the psychology of the moment when you know right from wrong but aren’t sure whether you have the courage and fortitude to do the right thing.
Obviously children’s lit can be done poorly. (Speaking of His Dark Materials…) So can sci-fi. And so can high-brow literary fiction. But one genre isn’t innately superior to another just because a pretentious snob at the Times says so.