Neil Gaiman, Rebecca Mead, and the “Percy Jackson Problem”
Rebecca Mead wrote a piece in the New Yorker today called “The Percy Jackson Problem.” I found it via Neil Gaiman’s tumblr:
So, I clicked through because, first of all, I object to the notion that the Percy Jackson books “seem designed to repel grownups with teen goofiness.” And second, I wanted to see how Neil Gaiman was winning an argument he wasn’t aware of.
So, the reason Gaiman was invoked by Ms. Mead is that almost exactly a year ago he gave The Reading Agency annual lecture on the importance of reading and libraries. And the lecture was reprinted in the Guardian.
The whole lecture is worth a read, but the part that gets pulled out, and the reason it is relevant to the New Yorker article can be summed up in these two paragraphs:
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
I happen to agree with him. I was encouraged to read with very little supervision as a child. I read almost anything I could get my hands on. I had a personal library of over 1,000 books by the time I was 15. But, I remember one Christmas when I was ten or so. My mother gave me Pride and Prejudice and Stranger in a Strange Land. Now, I love both these books now. But at ten I shook out my stocking a few more times to see if there was anything better in it. She didn’t push though. She didn’t force me to pick up those books and read them right then. If she had, I doubt I would be the Austen or the Heinlein fan I am now. (Also, what was she thinking? There is no way I could have grokked Stranger at ten. Maybe some kids could have, but not me.)
So, I know where I stand. You know where I stand. The article seems a little uncertain about where its author stands. She wants to be with Gaiman, but also finds herself leaning toward Tim Parks’s view. Mr. Parks wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books in which he expresses the opinion that people do not move from trashy books up “a kind of neo-Platonic stairway” from bad books, or children’s books up to Serious Literature.
He does say, at the end of the piece, “that there are many ways to live a full, responsible, and even wise life that do not pass through reading literary fiction.” So Parks is, ostensibly, not assigning a value to the reading anyone is doing, he’s simply saying that it is unlikely to see a progression in one’s reading tastes. People will not graduate from Twilight to Tolstoy, for example. Or even to Romeo and Juliet (although why people want to force students to read that play I do not understand. It’s really not very good) no matter how much publishers try to encourage it.
Since I prefer genre literature I am fairly strongly on Gaiman’s side of this argument. I think people should read what they like. I don’t, personally, like literary fiction very much because I find most of it dull. I want action or adventure. I want stakes that are higher than a middle-class marriage or the resolution of feelings of discontent. That’s me. That’s what I like. I read Great Literature. I have a degree in literature. Russian literature even. But, I spend most of my time reading mysteries, speculative fiction, or young adult literature. I generally find that more happens in those books.
Because of that I have fairly strong feelings about what sort of books one should be reading. How do you feel? Are some types of books better than others? Or should we just live and let live when it comes to people’s reading habits? And is that different for kids?