Muse by Craig Ranapia


Worthwhile Literature, Worthless Newspaper

EDITED TO ADD: Links to relevant commentary from elsewhere at foot of post.

At some point I'll have something more meaningful than "oh fuck off" to say about the Herald On Sunday's epically fatuous concern-trolling of YA fiction but there was one passage that dared me to take it seriously. 

Some booksellers, we report today, are refusing to display Into the River by Ted Dawe, which took top prize in the recent New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. One explained that it was "unnecessarily graphic" and contained themes the bookseller considered inappropriate for young teenagers.

It contains obscenities and shock references that worthwhile literature does not need. We can only wonder what the judges were thinking, or how much worse the other entries could have been.

I'll continue my default position of respecting the right of booksellers to carry stock as they see fit even if gives me a migraine,  but I'm glad my third form English teacher -- Father Carl Telford, SM, by name -- had a slightly more intelligent idea of "worthwhile literature."

It's could be torn from the headlines. Historical abuse scandal! Catholic priest exposes impressionable twelve year old boys to a squalid pit of gang brawls, stalking, underage sex, glamourized drug use and general juvenile delinquency climaxing in a teen suicide pact gone horribly wrong!  (There was even some swears and fanny jokes, if you had the patience to parse the footnotes. You'd be surprised how many did.) 

If you're slightly more literate than the editorial board of the HoS, you've figured out I'm talking about Romeo and Juliet.  Father Telford has my gratitude, and teachers like him deserve all our thanks not the condescension of a second-rate tabloid.

Still, how could you argue with this?

It is often remarked that New Zealand fiction written for film and television is oddly and uncharacteristically dark. There is not much that is bright, stylish or subtle in its treatment of most subjects, especially sex.

That is probably a reflection of the immaturity and limitations of screen writers in a small nation's talent pool, but our literature has been better than that. And our writing for children has been exceptionally good. Novelists should not let the crude depictions of New Zealand on air wash back into its literature, particularly when writing for the young.

It is not prudish or patronising to maintain a certain standard, it is re-assuring [teenagers] that quality exists and people they respect can recognise it. For many, their early teenage years might be the last in their lives when they read literature worthy of the name.

Quite easily, as it turns out.  It is prudish, patronising - as well as more than a little hypocritical from the bully pulpit of a tabloid newspaper - to assume that teenage boys can't intelligently process crude language or depictions of sex and violence without transforming into ultraviolent droogs.  (It also shows a eye-watering degree of cultural illiteracy well beyond the printed page, but let that pass for the time being.)

Editor/author Emma Neale makes this point, in an excellent post you really should read. (Emma also has an advantage in having read the book in question. More than once, even.)

I strongly believe that literature is one of the places that young people can safely think through situations, and rehearse their moral choices, without the grave personal compromise that living through the real events might involve. Forewarned is forearmed.The novel is aimed at ages 15+: the sex scenes are unromanticised, and speak the truth of unsatisfactory experiences. Yes, they’re awkward, raw, discomfiting. That’s part of the point.

But it's also an equally valid point for "worthwhile literature" without any rude words or explicit sex.  One of the least remarked ironies of the editorial was it saw print a few days before the first anniversary of Margaret Mahy's death. Mahy did "bright, stylish and subtle" like nobody's business, but she also wrote a string of remarkable YA novels.  I hope nobody tells The Herald that her (much under-rated) 1985 YA novel The Catalogue of the Universe contains a startling chapter where a teenage girl recounts almost being raped.   They might also just want to avoid The Tricksters (1986) entirely, because Mahy certainly opened my eyes to the notion that teenage girls also think about sex, or at least the possibility of it, and find it terribly messy and confusing.  And cringe-inducingly funny.  And sometimes even as bright and stylish as the hem of a summer skirt fluttering in a warm breeze.

To say both novels were shocking, in the best sense of the word, to a teenage gay boy at a single-sex boarding school was a considerable understatement.   So were Maurice Gee's "children's novels" -- particularly the Halfmen of O trilogy, which also appeared in the mid-80's to this SF/fantasy geek's whole hearted approval -- which worried away at the ambiguities and tensions of Godzone with all the spirited moral ferocity as his adult novels.  And not without controversy either: "sordid" is an adjective that has hung around Gee his entire career, no matter who his intended audience is.

The Herald on Sunday may have as little faith in the discernment of teenagers as I have in that organ's literary judgement, but that's no reason why anyone else has to follow suit. Just makes sure to brush up on your Shakespeare, and the keep the latest front page atrocity on the Sunday newspapers away from the kids.


New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards judge Bernard Beckett blogs a temperate and thoughtful defense of the award. Money quote: "[T]rust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more." Oath.

Ted Dawe Playing Favourites with Kim Hill on Saturday Morning.  As usual, the music has been stripped out, but Dawe is a fascinating man in his own right.

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