17 September 2008

Can Children's Literature Be 'Literary Fiction'? (A guest post by Johanna Knox)

Johanna Knox is a freelance writer and editor, occasional children's book reviewer, a home-schooling mother, and a committee member of the Wellington Children's Book Association. Johanna made such interesting comments on a previous post on this blog, Is Literary Fiction a Genre?, that I invited her to do a guest post expanding on the issues she raised there. Here it is!

Can children’s literature be ‘literary fiction’?

When Tim asked last month, ‘Is literary fiction a genre?’ I was interested in this assertion: ‘ … I think the most characteristic feature of literary fiction is the absence, or at least the downplaying, of plot, and of narrative in general.’

I wondered, where does that idea leave children’s literature, which generally places great emphasis on plot? Is there such a thing as children’s literary fiction, and if so, what does it look like?

US literary agent Nathan Bransford has come up with a slightly different definition of literary fiction, as opposed to commercial fiction, and blogged about it. He writes:

In commercial fiction the plot tends to happen above the surface and in literary fiction the plot tends to happen beneath the surface.

There are only a very few children’s books that can nestle completely happily into his definition of literary fiction. (Some books by Australian children’s author Ursula Dubosarsky, who came to Wellington for Writers and Readers Week, fit the bill. I can’t think of too many others.)

Those who work in children’s literature regularly come up against the inference that children’s writing is a lesser form of authorship. It doesn’t help that the mainstream media devotes so little space to children’s book reviews or interviews with children’s authors, and that when they do, the ‘author’ is often a celebrity who has dashed off a children’s book as a little sideline to their serious work in sport or politics or music – to the great irritation of bona fide children’s authors who have slogged away at their craft for years.

Is it, I wonder, all the above-surface plot in children’s books that gives it its inferior status? The assumption is that below-surface plot is much harder to write, as well as to appreciate.

In fact though, many great pieces of children’s literature work on both levels – there is a clear above-surface plot, but at the same time plenty more happening beneath that.

Recently I read two books about death and grief. One was Ali Smith’s Hotel World, a stunning work of literary fiction. The other was All the dear little animals – a picture book by Ulf Nilsson and illustrated by Eva Eriksson, translated from Swedish and published by the amazing Gecko Press.

Hotel World is one of the most powerful books I have ever read, with plenty of compelling under–the-surface plot. The author takes death in her hands, and turns it over and over, obsessively studying it from every possible angle, peering closely at its every irregularity, trying to get at its truth, trying to inhabit it. In this way the narrative mimics an aspect of real-life grief. There is some above-surface plot too, but you are not swept along by it. It’s more like you are in a sea, grabbing bits of it as they float by.

All the dear little animals on the other hand has a straightforward above-surface plot, chronicling a day in the life of three children as they set up their own funeral business for ‘all the poor dead animals on earth’.

But there is so much going on below the surface in these 36 pages of text and illustration. Each of the three children is on their own journey to understand a little about death. There is black-coated Esther, the undertaker, with her seemingly unemotional fascination with the physicalities of death. She is joined by her little brother Puttie, all empathy, the trio’s ‘professional mourner’. And then there is their friend, the unnamed narrator of the book, a frightened funeral poet who needs to examine death through a filter of words.

Don’t each of these children live inside everyone?

Nathan Bransford does acknowledge books that contain plots both above and below the surface:

There's a reason there are genre busters like Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard, as well as the hybrid genre of commercial literary fiction. These novels tend to be told with more straightforward prose and are accessible, but they have a deeper emotional complexity. They fuse the out-in-the-world plotting of genre fiction with the in-the-mind plotting of literary fiction. The novels have traditional climaxes that also resolve the inner battles of their characters.

It makes me groan slightly that, seemingly, a whole new genre (‘commercial literary fiction’) needs to be invented every time a group of books don’t fit existing definitions, but that’s marketing for you I suppose. Or human nature. Or both.

I think, if we must categorise them, then All the dear little animals, and most other great works of children’s literature come close to Bransford’s idea of ‘commercial literary fiction’.

Just because there is a strong above-surface plot doesn’t mean there are not also all sorts of fascinating things going on down below. And if I was pushed to say which out of Hotel World or All the dear little animals I thought had more ‘literary merit’, well, shocking as it probably sounds to some, I’d have a hard job choosing one over the other.


jim e. said...

A couple of us here in Colorado have been talking about the possibility of children's literary fiction for a few months now, and we think for children’s books the distinction between genre and literary fiction is not as useful. But the distinction between literary fiction and two other categories may be. So I'd like to weigh in.

Many of the long-standing favorites are popular by virtue of sentiment or tradition (e.g., my mother read this to me, and I will read it to you). Sentiment may be among the strongest forces in shaping a long-term 'canon' of children's literature (see Deborah Stevenson in The Lion and the Unicorn 21.1 [1997] 112-130). So while publishers can still sport stacks full of classic literary fiction, the classics in the children’s area may have been through a process which focuses very little on the writing.

The children’s market is glutted with didactic and topical fiction (i.e., about being kind, sharing, brushing your teeth, not eating too many sweets, obeying your parents, treating your little brother with respect; or about divorce, the first day of school, making friends, a new baby, homeless people, being ethnic during WWII). The way I see it, tipping too far toward a topic in children’s literature is analogous to tipping too far toward genre in grown-up fiction.

And these topical books sometimes win the awards—usually because they are good books for their purpose. Does the term ‘literary fiction’ provide distinction between good and bad books? No, I find it a more useful tool when talking about the different purposes of books. We can value and devalue these purposes when we want or need to, but a soul-plumbing literary novel is not better than a mystery novel any more than a fence is better than a pillow.

I read ‘grown-up’ literary fiction when I want to, and I will take it back to the library if it doesn’t work for me. The same holds for genre fiction. I read a lot of it, and move on if it is not working well for me. The categories have made it easier over the years to find a piece of literary fiction, but also to find good mysteries, high fantasy, etc. Not so with children’s fiction. The categories there are far less helpful for children's books.

Literary fiction (if it exists, I guess) has emerged from a curious mix: writers, critics, editors, publishers, and academics. While I enjoy thinking about individual works that are more than their plot (like Babbit’s Tuck Everlasting, Willard’s Things Invisible to See,or Dickinson’s Tears of the Salamander), I wonder if anything like the same community has worked to create a niche in children’s fiction. If so, it hasn’t been very successful. You won’t be able to find literary fiction for children in a bookstore or library unless you already know the title you’re looking for (or unless there is a special librarian or proprietor who is on the lookout). You can find these shelves fairly easily outside the children’s section.

When trying to find literary children’s fiction I have to wade through piles of books that are mostly aboutsomething other than the words, the mind, the imagination,or whatever I hope for from literary fiction. Sometimes just finding a piece of plain-jane genre fiction for children (without a ‘message’) is like a breath of fresh air.While the term may have outlived its usefulness or has become uninteresting to some readers of ‘grown-up’ fiction, we never even really got to make any good use of it in children’s literature.

So don’t let’s make literary fiction go away too soon (even if it doesn’t really exist).

I like to find children’s books where significance outweighs sentiment, where the importance of writing outweighs that of a sugar-coated ‘message’. And I would love it if the reading, writing, and publishing folks could get together and drift that direction for a few decades the way they have for grown-ups.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks, Jim E. I don't have any specific points to make in response, other than to say that I continue to be most impressed by the quality of the thinking, and the writing, in the contributions on this topic.

Johanna Knox said...

Hi Jim

Thanks for this. I've been thinking over your comments. Yes - here in NZ at least - in libraries and bookshops, and in the media, children's fiction is categorised in a very different way from adult's fiction. It's all divided up by age (and this brings its own set of thorny issues of course.)

I agree with your sentiments!

Are you on the very lively Rutgers University Child_lit email list? I've enjoyed listening in on debates about this kind of thing there. I would say that list may come close to your 'curious mix' of 'writers, critics, editors, publishers, and academics'.

Perhaps what is hindering general discussion about what constitutes children's literary fiction is that children's literary fiction will inevitably look slightly different to adult's literary fiction - it won't conform to all the same norms. Overall, it probably will have more plot ... I agree with you that overt didacticism shouldn't be allowed to get through though, just because a work is for children.

(I would love to see more general acknowledgment of the didacticism of many children's books - and also more discussion about why many people find this level of didacticism acceptable in children's fiction when it isn't in adult's fiction - I don't think. I know these discussions *do* take place in some quarters, but perhaps not as widely as they could.)

So you are suggesting I think that there needs to be debate about and movement towards a definition of 'children's literary fiction'?

My personal debate starter would be - is A Series of Unfortunate Events literary fiction?

Skipping back to the issue of age categories for children's books - perhaps that could be seen in one way as the current children's literature equivalent of the genre debate.

Age banding is so contentious. I just finished reviewing a batch of children's books for a local publication. Thinking about specifying what age band they would appeal to did my head in. (In the end, after discussion with the editor, we decided to leave the age banding off, for this issue anyway, which is the only one I'm reviewing for.)

jim e. said...

The Michigan Prize for Literary Fiction disqualifies children's fiction (which it is apparently 'safe to say'). Hmmmm.

Johanna Knox said...

Hi Jim - ouch - interesting! That's quite a sweeping and damning entry guideline, isn't it!