Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reading promiscuously

I was visiting Rishi Valley over the weekend and was invited to speak at the Junior School assembly about anything I wanted to. I elected to talk about SFF, because I figured this was something that would bring together readers from the ages of 8-14 most happily.

Surprisingly enough, though they've read a lot of what's marketed as YA today, they really haven't read much SFF at all - or what my generation would call science fiction and/or fantasy. Not much Tolkien (the films, yes; the books, not really), no Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury. No Poe (I'm widening the category here to include all kinds of possibilities), no le Guin (not even Earthsea) - I could go on.

(And yet, nearly everyone had read Alice and quite a few had read The Phantom Tollbooth. This made me happy.)

At the end of the talk, the people who'd invited me to speak told me that the problem was that the kids read too much of this stuff and not enough of "real life" fiction.

"Really?" I thought. Because I thought I'd established that the kids had actually read almost nothing of SFF. It turns out that what they meant was that the kids are reading only the Riordans and the George RR Martins and the Amish Tripathis.

I didn't have the time to argue this properly. I was just a little surprised at the attitude, though god knows I shouldn't be any more. I was a little more concerned that my friends seemed to be falling on the side of carefully directed reading.

Me, I'm all for promiscuity in reading. I think children of whatever age should be able to pick any book off any shelf that seems attractive to them at the time without having some adult at their back telling them, 'Oh, this has bad language' or 'You won't understand this until you're older.'

I mean, yes, they may not understand something or may be shocked or delighted by the language; they may even be reading something out of purely prurient interest but what really shocks me is how adults can forget that they were exactly like those kids; and if they think they turned out okay, why would they believe these children won't?


If there's an objection to the category of fiction marketed as YA today, it is that it is too narrow, a mere cul de sac instead of even a street or a neighbourhood, much less the wider world. What these books do (like the adults I am sort of in lapsed dialogue with now) is distrust the intelligence of the children to understand complexity or to experience a world that is unavailable to them except through words.

I remain unconvinced that Stories About Real People will redress this lack in YA fiction. I read a lot of teen fiction, for instance - a 21st century take on the school story - and it's a sub-genre just like Mallory Towers or St. Clare's and no less bound by its own conventions that those books.

I also doubt that those children read only the kind of books the teachers seem to object to, but if that is indeed the case, the solution is surely not to discourage a certain kind of reading but to encourage another kind?

God knows, I read enormous quantities of rubbish growing up. All the Sidney Sheldons and Jeffrey Archers; books whose names I vaguely remember but whose authors I've forgotten (The Thorn Birds? Beyond the Blue Mountains?). Hey - my parents didn't even keep those Rugby Jokes out of reach. I could read absolutely anything I wanted and as far as I can tell they didn't allow themselves an opinion on whether it was 'good for me' or not.

They may not have thought of it that way, but what they encouraged was promiscuity in reading without thought to the moral or the lesson or the nutrient-value of the book in question. I wish schools would be as hands-off with the kids in their charge.

In celebration of which, this post:"May they always come for the unbuttoning and find that they stay past the remaking of the bed."


amruta said...

Thanks. Sharing.

Space Bar said...

Amruta: Thanks - it seems to have reached a number of people!

Anonymous said...

I studied at Rishi Valley, and I was always being told what to read, and what not to. Books were kept in the admittedly gorgeous library, but the librarian and various faculty members monitored your reading quite carefully. It was deeply frustrating, given that different children read at different paces, and in different areas.

I don't think young minds are harmed by a width of material, whether it is pulp, or SF or anything else. Some material is beyond understanding, at that age - but coming back to them later is equally possible, and equally a delight.

I huddled in Rishi Valley's library and read Mrs. Dalloway, at age 14, despite being told not to. Coming back to it ten, fifteen years later, I understood it better. Reading it back then, however, did no damage (unless opening your mind is damage).

Space Bar said...

Anon: Mail me? I'd really like to know more and I respect your wanting to remain anonymous on my blog.

I have to say, it wasn't like that when I was in RV. I wanted to and could read what I wished - Steinbeck and Beckett and Synge at 14 with as much interest as Mary Stewart or any other lighter fiction.

It worries me, this tendency and I'll like to know more.

Mail me? I'm