Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The 'Hole' in the Pantry Story: Should Penguin have Validated Belle Gibson's Cancer Claims?

Would it ever be responsible to legitimise the story that someone
“healed themselves” of cancer through diet? 
Jan Hallbæck
Australia is no stranger to a literary hoax or deception, from the “Ern Malley” affair to the falsified backgrounds of Helen Darville and Norma Khouri.

Social media entrepreneur Belle Gibson, developer of The Whole Pantry “health, wellness and lifestyle” app, is now the first to be accused of fabricating a miraculous recovery from metastasised cancer.

There are well publicised allegations that Gibson invented the story of her successful battle against malignant brain cancer using alternative therapies. No doubt Gibson’s personal story was a major hook in the publicity for her brand and helped to drive more than 300,000 sales of the app alone.

The questions raised both by those who have known Gibson and medical experts are beginning to taint the legitimacy of Gibson’s lucrative app and the cookbook she published in October last year.
Penguin, publishers of The Whole Pantry, have stated they did not check the validity of Gibson’s cancer account as they did not see that it was “necessary” given that the book is “a collection of recipes”.

The book does, however, contain a 3,000-word preface that is devoted to answering questions about Gibson’s cancer diagnosis and how she came to the decision to “heal herself” instead of continuing with the prescribed chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

In answer to the latter question, she contrasts her experience of vomiting after medical treatment with the approach she devised through reading articles on the internet and speaking to people. Her solution involved “nutrition, patience, determination and love – as well as salt, vitamin and Ayurvedic treatments, craniosacral therapy, oxygen therapy, colonics”.

Recipe books are proving to be far less benign subject matter than publishers might have imagined.
Also in the past week, the publication of celebrity chef Pete Evans’s paleo-inspired cookbook for infants, Bubba Yum Yum, has been delayed. The book includes recipes for bone broths that appear to be recommended as substitutes for breast milk or formula, and which doctors have warned might pose a risk to babies under six months old.

What is the responsibility of a major publishing house, then, to check the credentials and claims of its authors’ biographies? Or even the validity of particular health claims, such as alternative therapies for cancer or fad diets?

After all, the standing of a publisher can confer authority on a published work. We know there is a continuum between self-publishing houses such as Trafford, who published the much-mocked anti-vaccine polemic Melanie’s Marvellous Measles, and respected academic presses that require books to pass expert review.

Both Apple and Penguin would have perceived the benefits of an association with an “inspirational” social media star who claimed to donate a significant amount of her company’s earnings to charity.
It is troubling that either reputable company would wish to promote someone whose profile and theories rested on entirely unproven claims about the power of food, mindset, vitamins, oxygen and colonic irrigation to cure malignant brain tumours that usually have a poor prognosis.

People are now alarmed by Gibson’s recovery story because it cannot be true if the accusation that she was never diagnosed with cancer is factual.

Yet would it have ever been responsible to publicise and legitimise the story that someone “healed themselves” of cancer through diet? While a good diet certainly does not harm a cancer patient and the role of diet in the development of particular cancers, such as bowel cancer, is established, diet-based “cures” have not been scientifically validated.

Encouraging cancer sufferers to have faith in unproven cures is ethically problematic, purveying false hope and potentially drawing sufferers away from treatment that could be efficacious.

Moreover, the suggestion that a young woman with no medical or scientific education or training was able to devise a cure for her brain cancer through some hours spent googling the topic (and her discovery of the “detoxification properties of lemons”) is preposterous.

Suppressing ideas that are not accepted by contemporary thinking would thwart new knowledge. But, as Patrick Stokes points out in his widely-read article No, you’re not entitled to your opinion, the ability to voice an opinion that is difficult to argue for is different to having views “treated as serious candidates for the truth”.

If the foundation of a book is so far outside of accepted knowledge and little evidence can be mustered in support of it then publishers might not wish to affect their reputation through publication. For instance, Keith Windschuttle’s controversial three-volume The Fabrication of Aboriginal History is self-published.

Whether Belle Gibson suffered from cancer or not, the core dilemma with the publication of The Whole Pantry is that the influence of the author rests upon unverifiable claims about curing cancer with alternative therapies.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird, My Brilliant Career and long-lost 'sequels'

Harper Lee
By now there can be few people who don’t know Harper Lee’s supposedly long-lost manuscript, Go Set a Watchman, will be published in July. It will be the first book published by Lee since To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960 and, with both novels essentially hewn from the same manuscript, the works are intimately connected.

When a beloved story ends, whatever the medium, there is a sense of loss and disappointment. We can re-read or re-watch a book or TV series, or turn to fan fiction and different formats such as comics, in an attempt to continue our immersion in a favourite world and extend the adventures of its characters.

The temptation to give official life to popular books after the death of the author is often too strong to resist.

L Frank Baum’s Oz series was taken up by a new “Royal Historian of Oz”, Ruth Plumly Thompson, who published 19 books in the 1920s and 1930s. Geraldine McCaughrean wrote the “official sequel” to J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) almost a century after the original in 2006.

And after rights to a Winnie the Pooh sequel reverted from Disney – who had turned the character into a lucrative merchandising phenomenon – the estate of A.A. Milne authorised David Benedictus to write Return to the Hundred Acre Wood in 2009.

The Gothic family sagas of V.C. Andrews continued to corner the market for tales of incest even after her death in 1986, with more than 50 additional novels authored by a ghostwriter. Recently it was announced that Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series, for which he wrote three of ten projected novels before he died in 2004, will be continued by a new author.

Readers’ desire for more once an original author has passed away rarely leads to satisfaction. But what if the original author happened to write a prequel or a sequel around the same period as their most famous book?

Such is the case with Go Set a Watchman, the forthcoming book by the reclusive Harper Lee. Many who hold To Kill a Mockingbird dear have been celebrating the news of a second work of fiction.

The novel is set 20 years after the events depicted in To Kill a Mockingbird, but was written prior to the high-school English mainstay. Lee has said she was advised by her editor to write another manuscript, from the perspective of Scout Finch as a child, and Go Set a Watchman was left aside.

As strange as the situation seems, there is a similar case in Australian literary history, albeit by an author who did publish other works of fiction and non-fiction.

Miles Franklin


Like Lee, Miles Franklin’s first novel became one of the most successful books ever written in her home country. My Brilliant Career (1901) was – as with Mockingbird – narrated in first-person by a girl, Sybylla Melvyn, who is a teenager coming into womanhood.
Franklin felt her novel had been misread, a process that began with the alteration of her original title: My Brilliant(?) Career, and was heightened by the perception that is was an autobiography. (She even withdrew the book from publication, and it was not reprinted until after her death in 1954.)

Franklin immediately wrote a satirical sequel, The End of My Career, to right the situation, but publishers rejected it. According to Penelope Hanley, the manuscript was “too audacious, with characters too recognisable”.

It was not until 1946 that the work was published as My Career Goes Bung. Like Lee’s long-thought-vanished first manuscript, what was to become My Career Goes Bung was also thought lost for a substantial period. Franklin believed it had been thrown into a furnace in Chicago when a man had wanted to use the trunk that contained a number of Franklin’s manuscripts.

Franklin was also something of a recluse in that she lived overseas for more than 30 years and published a number of novels in the latter part of her career under the pseudonym “Brent of Bin Bin”.

Both Lee and Franklin were inhibited by the weight of the success of their first published novels.

Though published almost half a century afterwards, the sequel to Franklin’s most successful novel was obscured by the original, the reception of which it directly responded to. While Lee was never satisfied with any of her subsequent attempts to write both fiction and non-fiction manuscripts.

In both cases, editors declined early manuscripts that were subsequently thought to have been destroyed. When it was finally published, readers did not find My Brilliant Career: Part Two in My Career Goes Bung, which deliberately rewrote the original to achieve different ends.

Go Set the Watchmen, which will be published in its original unedited format and focalised through an adult Scout, is also unlikely to give readers all of the pleasures to be found in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet the millions of readers of one of the highest selling books of all-time will be curious to see the world once again through the eyes of Scout Finch.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The ‘death’ of J. K. Rowling: Why it doesn’t matter what she has to say about Harry Potter

The invisible diversity of Harry Potter: Joya Wu/Flickr         
Who owns a story? When an author writes a book, are the words on the page the definitive version of the plot and characters? Does what the author have to say outside the world of the book have the power to add to the meaning of the book itself?

Youth Project poster shared by J.K Rowling
In response to a question from a Jewish fan, J.K. Rowling recently explained on Twitter that the Harry Potter series includes a Jewish wizard, Anthony Goldstein. Goldstein’s name is recorded in an early notebook in which Rowling listed the original forty students whom she imagined attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Within the series, however, he only appears as a minor character in the fifth and sixth novels.

Within the same Twitter question-and-answer session, Rowling also “revealed” that the school was similarly diverse in its inclusion of gay and lesbian students. She shared an image created by a Canadian LGBTQ organisation that reads, “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet.”

Both Jewish and LGBTQ news sites have reported these brief comments by Rowling in positive terms. The Harry Potter series, which totals some 4,000 pages in US editions, did not give millions of readers any clear sense that Hogwarts was home to Jewish or gay and lesbian students. However, Rowling’s declarations on Twitter are not only newsworthy, but a cause for pride.

Similar feelings of celebration were evident when Rowling announced in 2007 that she had “always thought of [beloved headmaster Albus] Dumbledore as gay”. Likewise, very few people had gathered from the books themselves that Dumbledore was homosexual. Although subsequently his penchant for “plum velvet” and high-heeled boots were interpreted as clues to his sexual orientation.

With both of these announcements, some fans have also questioned whether these extra-textual announcements carry any weight. If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?

Admittedly, there is an argument that attempts to depict a character as being of a particular race, sexuality or religion could appear tokenistic. Should Rowling, for example, have made more of Anthony Goldstein’s Jewish identity by mentioning his observance of Hanukkah, or need for kosher meals at banquets in the Hogwart’s Great Hall?

Nevertheless, depicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.

The Harry Potter series has had worldwide influence Hung Chieh/Tsai/Flickr  
To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.

Indeed, Barthes famously suggests that individual readers produce their own, different interpretations of the same texts, dismantling the idea of the author as the creator of a text’s definitive meaning. As Barthes describes the process of removing the author as the explanation of a text, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.

When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.

If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.

Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Barbie for Boys? The Gendered Tyranny of the Toy Store

“I didn’t encourage my daughter to play with Barbie dolls and dress up in flouncy fairy costumes, but she just gravitated toward them.”

When confronted with the idea that gendered marketing and stereotypes have a substantial impact on children’s play, many parents make claims such as this that suggest that girls have an innate predisposition to acquire pink, glittery toys.

Not only do many parents deny that gender stereotypes shape what kinds of toys children feel allowed to play with, but so too does our Prime Minister. On hearing of the No Gender December campaign, which encourages people to consider what kinds of toys they are buying in the lead-up to Christmas, Tony Abbott dismissed it as “political correctness”. We must, he argued, “let boys be boys, let girls be girls”.

No Gender December, and similar campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys, nevertheless suggest that the gender stereotyping of toys restricts children’s creativity and development. They also argue that the separation of toys for girls and boys contributes to gender inequality by marking off certain pursuits, careers, and tasks as unsuitable for one gender or the other.


Letting children “be” boys or girls implies that there is a natural set of likes and dislikes for each gender that are unaffected by the culture in which we live. Behind this view is the sense that toy preferences are rooted in biology, such that only girls are drawn toward baby dolls because they are driven to nurture, while boys will be attracted toward active toys such as guns.

There are several problems with this viewpoint. First, to take one type of toy as an example, very young boys seem equally attracted to dolls. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender refers to a study that measures young children’s reactions to dolls, finding that boys only begin to reject dolls around the age at which they can be taught that dolls are intended only for girls.


If we were able to create an environment in which limiting cultural views about gender were not presented to children through the media, advertising, or enforced by their peers or parents, then in all likelihood many boys would continue to show an interest in dolls beyond infancy, as some still do regardless of these factors. That would truly be letting “boys be boys”.

Indeed, such an attempt to counter the effects of gender segregation in toy stores is already in progress in Sweden.

In 2012, Top Toy, the franchise holder for Toys R Us in Sweden, produced a catalogue with a girl shown deftly working a Nerf gun, a small boy cradling a baby doll, and both a boy and girl playing with a doll’s house. International media reports about the catalogue reacted along predictable lines, suggesting that gendered separation of toys mirrored children’s natural preferences and that the concept of gender neutrality was bizarre and artificial.

Nevertheless, Toys R Us Sweden has only continued to move towards gender neutrality in its stores, with the physical layout being transformed such that typically masculine and feminine toys are intermingled throughout the aisles.

Second, these supposedly “natural” preferences for particular kinds of toys or colours shift according to what our culture believes appropriate for children and what the toy industry finds profitable.
We know, for example, that the “pinkification” of girls’ toys is a relatively recent phenomenon, in part motivated by a desire to improve sales by rendering the most innocuous of toys unusable by siblings of different sexes.

Similarly, where Lego was once imagined as a relatively unisex toy that encouraged creativity and developed fine motor skills, in recent years a separate line intended for girls, which involves less freedom to construct, has become a bestseller.


We place great strength in the idea that the kinds of toys that children play with helps to determine the kind of adults they will become, especially in terms of how appropriately masculine or feminine they will be. Even children know enough to act as “gender police” if a boy or girl attempts to play with a toy outside the accepted items for his or her gender.

The No Gender December campaign notes that:
It’s 2014 – women mow lawns and men push prams but while we’ve moved on, many toy companies haven’t.
Yet some of the main markers of gender inequality refuse to budge in countries including Australia. The majority of housework and childcare is still performed by women, even as more women are in paid employment than ever before. High-paying industries and senior positions within most fields remain dominated by male employees, while feminised occupations, involving caring or working with children, remain low paying.

The segregation of toy aisles is a reflection of a society in which gender inequality is normalised and children are taught to understand that the disparity between male and female social roles is inescapably natural.

While making it easier for girls who want to romp adventurously to do so and for boys who want to show an interest in clothing to play with Barbie won’t single-handedly correct gender inequality, it will help to minimise the internalising of gendered limitations during childhood. It also won’t stop girls being girls or boys being boys.


The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, September 1, 2014

'Offensiveness' and children’s books: censoring ‘slut’ from a Roald Dahl classic


A collection of Roald Dahl books

I’m fixated on scanning Aldi’s general merchandise offerings in its weekly catalogue. From big-screen TVs to tortilla warmers, Aldi will place almost any consumer good haphazardly in the middle of its grocery aisles.

Last week, the supermarket’s decision to stock Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes drew the book to the attention of at least one shopper who was perturbed by its use of the word “slut”. Aldi responded to a Facebook complaint by removing the title from sale.

The book of six poems, which parody fairy tales, was first published in 1982. Like most of the Dahl canon, it has remained in-print and popular with child readers ever since.

In the poem that prompted the complaint, the Prince says to Cinderella: “Who is this dirty slut? Off with her nut.” The book delights in gruesomeness (decapitated heads roll across the floor, and cannibalism features), violence (Red Riding Hood packs heat), and irreverent humour.

As the title warns, the book inserts all things “revolting” into stories that we’ve come to associate with happy endings, for an audience whom we believe to be innocent and vulnerable.

Though Aldi acted to prevent potential parental backlash, the reaction to the removal of Dahl’s book has been overwhelmingly negative. Over 90% of respondents in a Fairfax media poll believe Aldi acted wrongly, and there have even been calls for a boycott of the supermarket.

Many parents are concerned by inappropriate products being marketed toward minors, as when youth-oriented jewellery outlet Diva was criticised for selling a Playboy range of jewellery in 2011. However, adults also don’t like the cultural touchstones of their own childhoods being tampered with.

When original 1970s episodes of Sesame Street were released on DVD in 2007, they were sold with an adults-only warning label indicating that they “may not suit the needs of today’s pre-school child”. Adults who had been raised on a Cookie Monster who did not know the meaning of a “sometimes” food were offended that their childhood viewing could be considered harmful.
1940s children’s magazines containing stories by Enid Blyton 
Enid Blyton books, most of which were originally published between 1930 and 1960, have been subject to frequent revisions.

Golliwog characters were removed from editions of the Noddy series in the 1980s. References to the titular character and Big Ears sleeping in the same bed have also been expurgated. In the mid-1990s, the Faraway Tree books saw the spank-happy schoolteacher Dame Slap sanitised into Dame Snap, and characters Dick and Fanny can no longer prompt sniggering fits as Rick and Frannie.

As with the complaints about the use of “slut” in Dahl’s rhyme, many people mocked the notion that Blyton’s simply written and ubiquitous childhood books could suddenly be regarded as offensive or inappropriate.

Indeed, when it comes to children’s books, almost any form of content could be considered unsuitable to somebody, somewhere in the world.

Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, for example, appears on the American Library’s Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The novel is at number 56 on the list and reported complaints, to school boards in particular, are as numerous as they are bizarre. James and the Giant Peach has been challenged because of its depiction of magic, use of the word “ass”, references to tobacco and alcohol, and for alleged promotion of communism.

As we view children’s books as having an educative role, it makes sense that we want them to be in accord with the values of our time and place. In the present moment, we are particularly attuned to screening out racism and sexism that was the historical norm in periods in which authors like Blyton and Dahl wrote.

The first edition of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) depicted the Oompa-Loompas as black pygmies from Africa who work for a meagre wage of cacao beans while happily chanting.
Subsequent criticism and debate in the 1970s lead Dahl to sympathise with those who found the characterisation offensive. In the second edition of 1973, the Oompa-Loompas were rewritten as dwarves with “rosy-white” skin from Loompaland. (The orange-skinned, green-haired monstrosities of the film came in between in 1971.)

Dahl’s response suggests that it is not unreasonable to change small aspects of creative works in light of shifting social norms. However, we also have to be mindful that the concepts of offence and unsuitability for children potentially have no bounds.

If millions of parents have read a deliberately grotesque and provocative book like Revolting Rhymes with their children over the course of three decades, should the offence of a handful of adults limit the sale of the book, or even prompt the removal of the word “slut”? Or is it time that a word that is typically used to demean women no longer passes as acceptable in a poem for children?

Whether or not we believe that we should reclaim “slut” from its negative connotations, and regardless of any concern as to whether children will understand the word to mean slovenly or sexually promiscuous, it is troubling when isolated claims of offence have the power to remove a book from sale from any retailer.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Actually, women, you do need feminism


The following article was originally published at
The Conversation and was republished at the Washington Post and New Statesman.

Australian university campuses last week marked Bluestocking Week, a celebration that remembers the first women who entered English universities in the late 19th century.

Women in lecture halls were pioneering. Yet these trailblazers couldn’t sit exams or expect to graduate with an actual degree. Newnham College for women at Cambridge University was established in 1871, but it was not until 1948 that women could hold a full Cambridge degree.

This is merely one area of discrimination that restricted what women could do with their lives. The reality of how little choice women had only a century ago is nevertheless absent in contemporary manifestations of anti-feminism, such as “Women Against Feminism”.

The phenomenon began on Tumblr, with women taking photographs of themselves holding signs that explain their reasons for opposing feminism. The site has been online since July 2013, but it’s only in the last month that it’s really started to generate heat online. Women’s statements range from claims that men are now the true victims of discrimination, to homophobic categorisations of feminists as “man-haters” and “lesbians”.

Any social justice movement with a long history and diverse adherents will exhibit contradictions and problematic ideas. However, Women Against Feminism is not only ahistorical, but fundamentally misreads the nature of feminism and the current status of women.

Let’s work through some of the common assumptions made in these anti-feminist declarations.
(1) “Men and women already have equal rights where I live.”
It is indeed true that in many Western nations women enjoy formal equality, but substantive equality remains elusive. Any of these rights also has the potential to be revoked at any time. Abortion rights, in particular, are continually challenged and overturned. We cannot simply say that feminism has done its work and that women will enjoy the rights and freedoms it has helped to achieve indefinitely.

Also, people regularly travel and migrate. Things might be better “where you live”, but what if you want to go somewhere where women aren’t allowed to drive, gain an education, or report a rape?

(2) “I was raised to be an independent woman not a victim of anything.”
Prior to feminist activism, it would have been impossible for most women to be “independent”, regardless of their parents' intentions. At various points in history, women couldn’t inherit property, work outside the home, learn to read, or even walk down the street unaccompanied. The efforts of generations of feminists helped to give women a say in government, the right to be educated, and social and sexual freedoms.

An independent woman would want to pursue any path in life that she wishes. She’s the kind of woman who would speak up when informed that her job has been made redundant because she’s pregnant, or who would get angry when told that she can’t walk home alone because otherwise she’d be inviting sexual assault. Independence and refusal to be a victim are feminist qualities.

(3) “I am an abomination to feminists” (because I am a stay-at-home mother).
Many Women Against Feminism believe that feminism opposes women’s work at home and denigrates those who don’t pursue careers. Historically, most women had no choice but to remain within the home and care for their children. Until as late as 1966, Australian women had to resign from the public service as soon as they married.

Feminism has always sought rights for women as mothers. Early Australian feminists, for example, campaigned for the government to provide an income to all mothers to recognise that parenting was the equivalent of a job and that it benefited the country. Feminism did challenge the expectation that women have no vocation of her own and be solely focused on cleaning and cooking for her family. This does not mean that feminism derides women who choose to focus on raising children and maintain a traditional division of labour. Though feminists would argue that the reverse situation, in which a male partner cares for the home and children, should be equally possible.

(4) “Men have rights too.”
As the vast majority of the world’s government and business leaders and holders of its wealth, it’s bizarre to suggest that men now lack social and political power. Women Against Feminism, however, often propose that men’s rights have been eroded because they usually have less access to their children after separation or divorce.

The continuing perception in courts and the general community that women are better suited to raise children, while men are better equipped to be in the workforce, is not a “right” that women enjoy. In dozens of ways, this belief restricts and hampers women’s rights and capacity to earn. The one drawback that affects men is the only one that anti-feminists mention.

(5) “I don’t need feminism because…
It is impossible to extricate yourself from collective rights relating to gender, race, or sexuality. Unless you wish to withdraw from society, you will both benefit and suffer from political and social changes to what women can and cannot do. You may not want to need feminism, but you will benefit from its continued work toward maintaining basic rights and eliminating the kinds of sexism that cannot be legislated against regardless. It’s very easy for Women Against Feminism to declare that they don’t need feminism using the voice and powers that feminism made possible and which it continues to fight for.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reading Children's Literature is Not Embarrassing

Kevin Dooley/Flickr
This post was published in my Conversation column on 17 June.

When the Harry Potter series became a global phenomenon, adult editions were published that replaced the brightly illustrated covers with dignified photographs of inanimate objects on a black background.

Publishers presumed there was a need to cater to adults who wanted to read a fantasy series about a boy wizard, but who didn’t want fellow train commuters to judge them as juvenile or unintelligent.

A recent Slate article suggests that adults should be embarrassed to read books marketed as young adult fiction. Regardless of the problems with the suggestion that any kind of reading should be embarrassing, why should the intended age of a book’s readership determine whether reading it is “shameful”?

For one, just how do we distinguish between books for young people and books for adults? Many popular classics for young adult readers, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, were originally written for adult audiences. While canonical works in their own right, including Charlotte BrontĂ«’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, have attracted young readers since their publication in the Victorian era.

Children’s literature evolved to fulfil didactic aims. John Newbery, a pioneering publisher of children’s books in the early 18th century, aimed to provide “instruction with delight” in the books he published. (He’s responsible for Goody Two-Shoes.)

 Education was seen as integral to reading as a leisure activity for children. The concession to entertainment or “delight” was relatively recent. Much early children’s literature is tedious to the modern reader because of its moral and educative focus.

 From the “golden age” of children’s literature in the second half of the 19th century, didacticism decreased and the boundary between books for adults and books for children became permeable. Books – and plays, such as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – often satisfied a dual audience of children and adults.

Is Lewis Carroll "embarrassing"?

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally presented by Lewis Carroll to 12-year-old Alice Liddell as a gift, on publication it found a lasting audience with both adults and children.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped were first published in Young Folks magazine and were seen as “boy’s books”. Yet both Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle published reviews or commentary on both novels, in a way that the dismissal of children’s books would probably preclude today.

 In 1905, two of Mark Twain’s novels were challenged as inappropriate for child library patrons. In response, Twain claimed that he wrote “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively”. Yet he pointed out that the unexpurgated Bible should also be removed from the children’s room lest it “soil” young minds, mocking the very notion of shielding children from literature that features characters “no better than Solomon, David, Satan”.
velo_city/Flickr

If a book “for adults exclusively” is a faintly ridiculous concept, then so too is a book “for children exclusively”. Adults are the authors of children’s books and quite often they write to please and entertain adults too. The possibility of a dual audience is readily accepted in successful children’s animated films in which jokes and references that only adult viewers would understand punctuate the storyline.

Adults are now buying young adult fiction in such great numbers that the primary readership for these books might not actually be young people. Yet at the same time as adults are reading The Fault in Our Stars, Twilight and The Hunger Games, there remains incredulity at the idea that young people and adults can both be entertained and satisfied by the same book.

Instead there is guilt associated with reading children’s literature. This shaming is baseless when literature for young people that is well-written and intellectually challenging, such as the work of Philip Pullman and Sonya Hartnett, is dismissed wholesale. Yet cliched, formulaic and poorly written “adult” fiction does not carry the same weight of embarrassment.

Arguments against adults reading children’s or young adult titles often present life as an opportunity to absorb a limited number of books, with time spent on “lesser” literature destroying the chance to read Proust or defiantly finish Ulysses. Yet this claim about time being wasted in reading children’s books is infrequently applied to popular bestsellers such as Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code.

The truth is that a sophisticated reader will want to sample the most compelling, imaginative and lasting books of the past and the present. Some of these will be difficult and full of complex allusions. Others will be pleasurable genre fiction that follow a predictable, but satisfying, formula.

But there should always be a place for Alice, Peter, Dorothy, Anne, Holden, Katniss, and the March sisters alongside them.