As a collector with a roomful of editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (arguably one of the most influential works of literature to come out of the nineteenth century) I feel I must take a little space to take issue with a recent article in the Guardian claiming that “children’s fiction is not great literature.”
The only reason given for this is that “a novel written for children omits certain adult-world elements which you would expect to find in a novel aimed squarely at grown-up readers.” The primary example the writer gives of this is that in children’s fiction, “good and evil were clearly defined and rarely muddied.” Oh really? Tell that to Severus Snape, Albus Dumbledore, James Potter, or Petunia Dursley to name just a few characters from the Harry Potter saga who possess what Jane Austen called a “general though unequal mixture of good and bad.” Of course Austen did not write about evil, so I suppose her novels do not qualify as great literature. Are the moral dilemmas faced by Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games unmuddied? Is Edmund Pevensie in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe one whose moral character is “clearly defined?”
The writer goes on to say that he teaches in an MA program whose purpose is to teach students how to write literary novels. Surely this is like teaching in a medical school whose purpose is to educate doctors solely on treating diseases of the pancreas. There is nothing wrong with writing literary novels, but does the writer expect that every student he graduates will become Philip Roth? The simple fact is that literary novels represent a tiny percentage of the writing that is purchased each year. It would be nice to make a living writing them, but realistically your chances of that are extremely slim. For a school to train you only in this skill is rather shortsighted. Surely the job of a writing program is to teach students to write well, regardless of what they write.
In the years since I received my MFA I have written academic nonfiction, nineteen published children’s plays, and a bestselling novel. My study of literary novels has been a help in my career, but my ability to write clearly has been of much greater use. Grayson Perry may have said that “democracy has bad taste,” but perhaps if writing programs also taught students how to write mysteries, adventures, children’s fiction, and even romances we might find a general up-tick in the quality of books available to the general reader. The writer of the Guardian piece seems to be saying that anything other than a literary novel is somehow an inferior art form. It is what a Facebook friend and fellow writer calls, and rightly so, literary snobbery of the highest order.
Is great literature something that touches a wide range of readers, moving them, causing them to think, and giving them a fresh perspective on the human condition? Or is great literature something that appeals primarily to a small group of critics and professors? Because I am a young person or even a child am I not allowed to connect with literature in a way that has meaning for me as a human being? It is an insult not just to the writers of great children’s fiction, but to children themselves, to claim that the best of what they read does not deserve the appellation of literature.