OT, but worth noting

Yesterday, I happened to read something Norman Vincent Peale wrote in 1957 for Look magazine, regarding school boards banning books like Huckleberry Finn “because of inappropriate language and ideas” (yes, as far back as 1957).

He referred to “the peculiar notion that all ideas in fiction must be good,” and predicted that in the future “supernervous boards might drop Merchant of Venice or the Bible because some characters are depicted unsympathetically or in a way that some people might find disturbing [we’ve already gone there, of course]. If children’s minds are to be shielded from conflict and social change, it might be better to keep them away from reading entirely.”

38 Comments

  1. ‘I do think it’s lamentable, though, that a goodly portion of “young adult” fiction is read by adults.’

    As an adult who sometimes reads YA fiction, I’d like to know why you think it’s lamentable.

  2. @ Arthur: I think it is lamentable because quite a bit of it isn’t very good. There are better books they could be reading. However, in a world where “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a smash hit, I suspect a goodly portion of people won’t read something good no matter what.

    I remember when the Harry Potter series started, there were people who were quite upset that “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” wasn’t nominated for the Booker Prize. They had started up a petition to get it nominated, so great was their outrage. Now, I’ve read some of the Harry Potter books and they’re okay, but I think it’s disappointing that a good number of people do not have the frame of reference to understand why they wouldn’t deserve a Booker.

  3. SingaporeBill: Quite of bit of any genre isn’t good (hat tip to Sturgeon). It doesn’t follow that it’s lamentable that anyone reads that genre. It’s only arguably lamentable when people read bad books in that genre (although I’m not sure I’d even lament that).

  4. Yes, 90% of YA fiction is crap. Sturgeon’s law says that 90% of everything is crap. Don’t lament by genre; lament by quality.

    I disliked the world building in Hunger games, though I liked her writing. I found she wrote a series of fantasy books for younger readers. I wouldn’t have the world-building problems in those, and I very much enjoyed her Gregor in the Underland series.

    I no longer worry that I’m not the age a book is meant for.

  5. “I no longer worry that I’m not the age a book is meant for.”

    Me, neither. I never had American children’s books read to me, so when we read to Hubby’s daughter, I enjoyed learning about them with her. I collect all the Jan Brett books, more for the illustrations than for the stories, but I do enjoy the stories, too.

  6. “I do think it’s lamentable, though, that a goodly portion of “young adult” fiction is read by adults.”

    I started reading “YA fiction” to my 6-year-old daughter. The Heinlein-iness of Heinlein shines through even in his juveniles (as they were called back back in the day). I didn’t hit her with “Starship Troopers” or “Puppet Masters” as a child, but “Tunnel in the Sky”, “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”, “Red Planet” and “Podkayne of Mars” are all excellent for intelligent, capable, independent-minded young people of any age. “Little Fuzzy” isn’t, technically, a juvenile… almost none of Piper’s work is… but it’s also good for small people, generally.

    I didn’t push my kid towards “YA” titles, but schools did, because it’s a step up from the grade-school “chapter books” that can be read entirely in a sitting, and they aren’t really geared towards handling kids that could have been reading from the grown-up sections of the library from about age 10.

    Then, (ugh) Twilight happened, and I lost her. If it didn’t have werewolves in it, my daughter wasn’t reading it, for about a 4-year-period. If I could have found a copy of “An American Werewolf in London”, that might have done the trick, but now I’ll never know. AFAIK, most of her reading nowadays is textbooks.

    I, on the other hand, am about 1.3 of the way through the increasingly misnamed Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy.

  7. I think it’s more correct to lament the fact that some adults read ONLY YA fiction. It’s intentionally written with a reduced vocabulary and simplified grammatical structures, which makes it easier to read.

    To go back to Heinlein as an example, he was certainly capable of writing fiction that was challenging, imaginative, and highly creative. But publishers wouldn’t buy it, they wanted stuff they could sell to libraries, and libraries of that time wouldn’t buy science-fiction for adults. So Heinlein wrote juveniles because they paid better. Later in his career, he got powerful enough to make the publishers print whatever he put out, and… to me… the pre-Stranger work was stronger than the post-Stranger work, and the juveniles happen to fall into the pre- era. “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” is my favorite, and it’s definitely not YA.

    The trend I didn’t like was when genre fiction, in general, began being sold as trilogies instead of as single volumes. Lord of the Rings is three books but only one story. YA fiction in general seems to be geared towards setting up franchises, often with film deals as the apparent goal because WB did so well with Harry Potter.

  8. “Lord of the Rings is three books but only one story.” It was intended to be one book. It came out in multiple volumes for basically the same reason 19th century novels did: more copies of a less expensive Volume I of a new work will sell than of a more expensive all-in-one-volume.

  9. “the increasingly misnamed Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy”

    I’ve heard that Adams never referred to it as a trilogy until after he wrote the 4th book.

  10. “It came out in multiple volumes for basically the same reason 19th century novels did”

    “I’m writing as fast as I can, dammit!”
    –George R. R. Martin

  11. Sturgeon’s Law is that “90% of everything is crud.” Not “crap.”

    Damon Knight, who was there, told me that and I believe him.

  12. @ WW, Arthur, JP: I did not lament the existence of YA as a category (I would not call it a genre, as it could be of any genre). I think these books are an important step for youngsters and enjoyed many of them when a child. I’ve enjoyed some of them as an adult.

    My concern is more explicitly stated by James. There are some adults who either never graduated to reading adult fiction or regressed and now read nothing but YA titles. Given that the books are a simplified both in language and themes, I think that’s a problem. Adult fiction is written at a higher level, explores more complex ideas, and presents more nuance in how the situations are resolved. Good books are a shared culture experience and their themes inform and shape our thoughts and how we discuss those thoughts. They can be challenging to read, understand, and reconcile with previously held ideas and opinions. Humans are storytellers, from the oral tradition of prehistoric times to now, storytelling has shaped civilization. I would prefer that it shaped people to be intellectually engaged adults active in society rather than magpies seeking only diversion and juvenile entertainments.

    There is certainly a time and place for simple diversions and I enjoy them, but I think we may be diverting ourselves to death.

    I read a couple of interesting pieces on recently about the topic, though it refers to comic books and not YA:

    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/no-self-respecting-adult-should-buy-comics-or-watch-superhero-mo/

    https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/jan/22/adults-superhero-worship-alan-moores-comics

    James, you are correct about “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.” It is brilliant. Heilein constructed a truly alien but plausible Moon culture and dialect. The argot was off-putting for the first few pages and then no problem and worked very well.

    The pedant in me points out that “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” is indeed mis-named, but no longer increasingly so.

  13. And lest someone correct me, the pedant corrects himself:

    “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy is indeed mis-named, but no longer increasingly so.

  14. Carkfink, are we sure “crap” and “crud” aren’t both just euphemisms for what he originally said?

    After all, LBJ never really said Gerald Ford couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

  15. Singapore Bill: Your original comment lamented that a good portion of YA fiction was read by adults. This seems fairly different from lamenting that some adults only read YA. I would dismiss your first comment as perhaps not accurately capturing your true meaning, but you’ve followed up by linking (with seeming approval) to an article lamenting that adults buy comics books or watch superhero movies at all.

    I suppose in an ideal world, everyone would do nothing but the most intellectual pursuits. We would spend all our free time reading Proust, and watching documentaries about 15th century Scholaticism, or whatever gets defined as the pinnacle of cultural sophistication. But the reality is, I have limited free time and mental resources, and sometimes reach my limit of doing intellectually stimulating activities. I’m going to consider myself a “self-respecting adult” and still read comics and watch superhero movies.

  16. @ MiB – Tolkien actually structured “The Lord of the Rings” as six “books”, numbered sequentially. The way he described it, the reason that the publisher split them into three volumes was not “profit maximization”, but rather “risk minimization”: they wanted to see whether the first book would see before investing the money to print the remaining 2/3rds of the work.

  17. @ Winter Wallaby: It seems that in discussing the relative merit of YA books I may not have made my basic position clear. I am sorry for any confusion. To boil it down to a sentence:

    In a world so anti-intellectual that many people view anything deemed “high-brow” with a sneer and will proudly and publicly boast of their contempt for such things, I am thankful to not be such a base and simple creature.

  18. Paralleling Winter Wallaby comment on limited resources: I don’t even have the time to read the books on my own bookshelf, so I certainly am not going to waste any time worrying about what other people are reading (or watching).
    The reason that “90% of everything” is junk/crap/crud/$#!+ or whatever epithet you prefer to apply is simply because there is a viable, profitable market for cheap, low-quality merchandise in virtually every facet of our society.
    Publishers that produce supermarket tabloids or “50 Shades of Grey” are not concerned with quality, they just want to make a fast buck. That doesn’t bother me, since I don’t have to read any of it. I did find a little bothersome when “Grey” DVDs started showing up on supermarket (and drugstore) shelves, but that says more about the mainstreaming of p0rn that it does about the mercenary aravice of those stores. At least it wasn’t at the checkout counter. The tabloids are bad enough.

  19. “The pedant in me points out that “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” is indeed mis-named, but no longer increasingly so.”

    The pedant in you needs to step aside, because I’ve heard of posthumous publishing. The third Fuzzy novel didn’t surface until over a decade after H. Beam Piper’s death, and three writers (that I know of) have contributed additional Fuzzy novels. When the copyrights expire, and the works fall into public domain, there’s no reason to believe there won’t be additional works created. (Plus, it’s been a radio broadcast, a television broadcast, a record set, books, a computer game, and a big budget feature film. With one exception, they’re all different in many details… the exception being that the original radio scripts were printed in book form. That’s the only time Adams didn’t indulge in significant rewrites.)
    All you can say is that Adams appears to no longer be actively contributing.

  20. P.S. That second “see” should have been “sell“.

    Oh. I thought it was going to be publishing jargon, like “see through to the advance” or something.

  21. “I sense a rising anti-intellectualism in this country, don’t you? The other day I was hanging floss out on the line to dry when this guy comes up to me and says ‘I’d like to read your gas meter’. I said, ‘Whatever happened to the classics?'”

    – Emo Philips

  22. Singpore Bill: YA novels span a wide range of target ages and notional levels of reading ability. Some are “simplified”, others aren’t, some are a little but you have to be pretty sharp to notice, and so on. The only characteristics you can really count on are that the protagonists will be younger, and the gratuitous sex scenes added to make the adult version sell have been removed again at no meaningful net cost. Meanwhile, authorial and editorial skill still count more than anything else. Casting aspersions at the whole category just makes you sound elitist.

    Meanwhile, since somebody mentioned Hunger Games… it’s terrible. Not only was it written with a clear eye on Covering Important Themes so as to be Recommended to Teachers, it’s written really badly — the most glaring issue being that every time she runs into a defect in her plotting the main character conveniently becomes comatose for a while.

  23. “The only characteristics you can really count on are that the protagonists will be younger”

    You can’t count on that. Gandalf is a protagonist in “The Hobbit”. The youngest of the protagonists are all 4 or 5 decades old.

  24. Tolkien didn’t write “The Hobbit” for young adults, he wrote it for children, specifically his own children, and had to be encouraged into submitting it for publication. Besides that, given that a large percentage of Tolkien’s characters are effectively immortal, 40 or 50 years counts (comparitively speaking) as juvenile.

  25. 40 or 50 years may be RELATIVELY young for a dwarf, but not for a human. AFAIK, all the readers fall into that category, and sales among the dwarvenkin are light to none.

  26. @ Dave in Boston:

    “Casting aspersions at the whole category just makes you sound elitist.”

    I’m sure you intended “elitist” to be a slur, but I take no offense at the idea that some people are dumber than me. Constant testing has shown this to be so.

    Further, I did not did not cast aspersions on the category:

    “I did not lament the existence of YA as a category (I would not call it a genre, as it could be of any genre). I think these books are an important step for youngsters and enjoyed many of them when a child. I’ve enjoyed some of them as an adult.”

    What I did say was:

    “In a world so anti-intellectual that many people view anything deemed “high-brow” with a sneer and will proudly and publicly boast of their contempt for such things, I am thankful to not be such a base and simple creature.”

    Elitist? Perhaps. But they do teach us a lot at the Elitist Academy. Like the definition of irony.

  27. I have no idea how old Tolkien’s trolls were, but I could make a pretty good estimate about others that I have encountered.

  28. Books can be read at different levels of understanding depending on one’s age. The first two books I owned – about the day I was born – were “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and a children’s versions of “Little Women”. Both of them have parts I have memorized over the years (and I have a full version of “Little Women” since junior high – and have multiple versions of same). In reading them at different ages I had different understanding of both books. A few years ago we saw the movie version of “Little Men” in a movie theater, which I don’t normally watch as it was such a bad version of the book. Robert asked questions about the book,, so I reread it – followed by “Jo’s Boys” the last book in the “trilogy/4 book series – Little Women in the US contains 2 books – “Little Women” and “Good Wives”) I read it now both with the eyes of an old person and a reenactor. If something is mentioned in the book – it exists in the period and I can compare same to what existed in language in the period we interpret. The expression “bathroom ” is used – not in our period. They take the students in a “bus” I had no idea that there as a type of horse drawn vehicle called same (and by coincidence got to see one at the local restoration village afterwards).

    So reading the books at different ages of the reader changes how the material in the book is interpreted.

  29. When my niece (the first of our “niblings” was born we had to figure out a wonderful, lasting baby gift for her. We are not jewelry people. We bought her an assortment of books to make a (very) small library for her of books we thought she should have. We included (okay, this one was selected at random) a bathtub book, a favorite of her mother’s picture book. “Little Women” of course, and several others to cover her to at least junior high in reading. Robert inscribed each book with how/why it was selected and in one of them explained that we bought her these books as we think of books as being precious and she is.

    When her brother came along, he got a library of boys books, inscribed. (He is named after my dad, so there was a complete Sherlock Holmes as my dad loved same and introduced me to same.) Robert’s 2 nieces also each got a small library of girl’s books – again, inscribed,whether they were ever seen by his nieces, I have no idea – they are “in the pile”.

    I suppose if there ever are grandnieces/nephews we will continue it.

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