Thursday, 22 March 2012

Cheer for Artistic Success

Even if it's not yours.

Have we all forgotten what we learned in playschool/Montessori/kindergarten?
  • If you haven't anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all
  • Be a good sport
  • Be a good friend
Sound simple? I reckon so too. So then why do people in the literary world seem so intent on ripping one another to pieces?

Any success in art is a success for all artists. Art is a struggle for anyone in a time of drastic budget cuts across the world. We are facing a time when children are being taught fewer art classes and have less time to spend on figuring out who they are as individuals, never mind how to express that artistically. I think we should be cheering the latest book release, the latest prize winner, the latest success of any description.

Last summer Tea Obreht was named the most recent winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction. Instead of  rejoicing at the success of a woman who was born in the strife of the war in the Balkans, the literary world turned her into the whipping girl for American MFA programs. It's hardly her fault if MFA programs are churning out less than stellar graduates. She didn't get the prize because she had an MFA, she got it because she wrote a good novel.

Now, I am not saying that literary books should not be subject to criticism, of course. In fact, I didn't really like The Tiger's Wife. I thought it wasn't as strong in the framing narrative as it could have been and was a little bit superficial on the war. Look at what I've said: "wasn't as it could have been," "a little bit". These are minor points. She did a beautiful job of weaving legend with her main narrative and she captures a sense of history through place extraordinarily well. Her narrative is superbly layered and the novel is very well structured.

Anyway, who cares whether I liked it or not. The question is: is it good literature? And the answer is: yes.

I'm not sure when personal opinion became so important, but in this digital age when everyone can broadcast their opinion to the world (i.e. Me. Here.), I'm here to argue for thoughtful, critical debate, not ad hominem attacks. Thorough critical analysis enhances the literary world. We should, of course, be engaging with the books we read and thinking about their construction, themes, ideas, whatever interests you. But it does the literary community no favours when we tear ourselves down from within.

There is a saying in Boston (I've heard this come from the Wampanoag tribe who are the Native Americans indigenous to the area, but don't know that for a fact) that if you have a bucket full of crabs there will be one or two who figure out how to climb up and get one claw over the edge. As soon as the other crabs see one getting out, though, they pull him or her back down so that no one gets anywhere.

If someone is having literary success. I say, hooray! More power to you. How did you do it? What advice do you have? Oh...and I just happen to have this writing sample...would you mind giving me some constructive criticism?

If Tea Obreht crossed my path, you can bet I'd be asking for her advice. Maybe she'll think I'm rubbish, but hopefully, she has come criticism that takes me one step closer to the Orange. Or even just an agent!

Watch out for crabs in a bucket. We're all just headed toward the sunshine.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Incredible Disappearing Act of the British Book

It's no secret that I'm a bit book crazy. My parents said they could bring me anywhere as a child and not worry because I'd always find something to read; books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, instruction manuals. If it had words, you could guarantee I'd read it. My favourite gifts have always been books (and cuddly toys, but that's another post). This past Christmas the husband and I had a bit of a disagreement about the appropriateness of books as gifts for kids. Our little niece is four-years-old, very bright and loves stories. We have to travel a fair distance to see them, so I thought that books would be an excellent gift. She likes them, they're easy to transport and if we get her one she already has, it's easy for Mum to re-gift. Vetoed.

My other half - who is, I should say, also a reader - maintained that there's nothing like a gift. "A proper gift" he called it. As in a toy, not a boring book. Well I want to say that a book is better than a toy any day. A good book is not just a physical thing, it's an entire world, it's a future, it's a integral part of a childhood, it's  filled with possibilities.

I can't even guess at the number of hours I spent with my childhood neighbours playing "Olden Days". It was a very involved game of make-believe that sprung directly from the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was at university in Montreal, Canada I saw maple syrup being poured on fresh snow to make candy. It brought me back to the moment I first read about that in Little House in a Big Wood. In an instant, I relived the joy that I felt reading that book over a decade before. I didn't love maple syrup candy, but I loved that moment. What would that moment have been without the book? Nothing.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was, in fact, the writer that made me want to be a writer. I remember saying to my dad that no one would ever be interested in what I'd write because my life was boring compared to hers. He said, "It's not what happens to you, it's the story you tell. Laura's life was ordinary to her, too." Turns out, Dad was right.
The four books I brought when we moved to England. Not to worry, though, the rest are safely stored away, waiting for more shelf space!

The BBC recently did a piece on books in Britain where they reported that 1 in 5 children has never been given a book as a present. It makes me so sad that 20% of British children have never had the joy of curling up on a cold and miserable Christmas day with a new book that whisks them away to a world so different to their own. According to the report, in 2005, 1 in every 10 children said they had no book at home. By 2011, this number had skyrocketed to 1 in 3. They said that this translate to almost 4,000,000, that's right, four million children without a single book in their home.

I can't even imagine not having a single book in a house. I grew up in houses filled with books and around adults who discussed, recommended and traded books all the time. We used to read together. Well, Mom and I would read; Dad would put on his glasses, take out something to read and then fall asleep, but it wasn't TV that brought us together, it was books. This, in a family, where most of us are dyslexic. My parent made sure that no one missed out on the joy that reading and books could bring.

There's an awful lot of talk these days about print books vs. e-books and I want to weigh in on this debate, finally. My take is: I don't care how kids read as long as they do. You, like me, love print books? Love the feel, the smell the actually physicality of the book? Well read a print book. You're attached to your laptop, smartphone, iPad etc? Go to town on e-books then! Who cares as long as you're reading?

I know a young man who is dyslexic and struggled to learn to read as a child. His parents read to him constantly, even while he jumped up and down, swung off his bunkbeds and generally did everything but sit and listen quietly. When his classmates were learning to read Berenstein Bear books, he was scribbling on pieces of paper while Mom read Harry Potter in the background. When his friends started to read Roald Dahl, he read comics like Beano and anything with a fart joke or explosion. No matter what he was reading, his parents encouraged it. They understood that nine-year-olds don't need to read the classics, they need to develop a life long love of reading. He devoured Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events (which his mother hated, but never told him) and a fairly poorly written series about feral housecats. At about eleven he suddenly made the transition to adult literature. Today, in his mid teens, he's well able for the classics and anything school throws his way. In the last year he's read Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games trilogy and Native Son. Not a bad list for a kid who was once diagnosed as "illiterate."

So I say, give books! Give books to all the kids in your life. Give them not what you think they ought to be reading, but what they'll love to read. They love cartoons? Give them comic books. They love horses? Give them the first book of any number of horsey series. Never mind what the book is, as long as they enjoy it. Give them the gift of other worlds and imagination. You never know, you might end up with a dyslexic author in your family, too.

What did my niece get for Christmas? Well, she got a book, but she sure did love the jewelry box and silver handbag that we brought, too.