27 April 2008

Juvenilia, feminism, love, and other labels

A bit of a "portmanteau" piece, this one, with apparently unconnected thoughts and reactions coalescing around a more or less arbitrary focus.

Over at Thinking Through My Fingers, Jim Putnam muses on the fencing off of adults from "juvenile literature". I emphatically agree with him: what matters is the quality of a story and its telling, not the label hung on it for marketing purposes ... and I'm not happy with that word "juvenile" either, which is perfectly innocent in itself but has acquired pejorative overtones in common usage.

The sequence which has specifically prompted this is Jeanne DuPrau's Ember sequence, which I have myself recommended in glowing terms, so of course I am pretty much bound to agree. I just gave away my eleventh copy of The City of Ember (I still don't have one of my own – I really must hold onto the next one!) and my seventh of The People of Sparks (I have, thus far, also managed to retain a copy on my own bookshelf). But the issue is a wider one: why do we feel constrained to limit our reading, our thinking, almost any aspect of lives, according to labels?

The publishers of J K Rowling's Harry Potter sequence (can I say "heptology" or "septology", or do they sound too much like the study of reptiles and infection respectively?) dealt with this by cunningly publishing separate "adult editions" in different covers. I perversely insisted on buying all seven volumes in their "children's edition" jackets (partly because I didn't want to align with the idea that adult and children's literature are so separate, partly because they would be read by children in the family) but part of me applauds this stratagem to bring stories across the imaginary boundary from one audience to another even as I deplore the need for it.

Clothing is a notorious label-slavery zone, of course, and I won't detour too far down that byway – I'm sure you've read No Logo. I know someone who bought two tops on the same day. The first was from budget high street store Primark, cost £11, to wear. The second, £37 from a famous name was bought simply for its label which could be cut out and stitched it into the first "because I can't possibly wear something with a Primark label". Ridiculous, of course ... but is it, essentially, so very different from buying a "children's book" in an "adult cover"?

About Salman Rushdie's work my opinions vary. To some of his books I take with enthusiasm, about others I am lukewarm. My favourite, and most frequently reread, is Haroun and the Sea of Stories – one of that long and honourable line of fictions written by authors for their own offspring. Is it a children's book or an adult one? I would argue that the distinction is meaningless ... but it has been marketed exclusively to an adult audience, though told in a way that places it squarely in the usual definition of "juvenile literature".

I don't deny that there are many books which have both appeal and value for children but not for adults – and, of course, vice versa. But this isn't the same thing as drawing a line between the two. Haroun (its audience decided by Rushdie's existing "adult" reputation) illustrates that in many cases the difference is simply how we look at it.

Before moving on, I'll take this opportunity to again recommend to both adults and younger people Philip Reeve's wonderful Mortal Engines. You'll probably find it in the 8-12 section of your local bookshop. If you're afraid of labels, bribe a child to go and buy it for you – in fact, get them to buy two and let them keep one copy for themselves.

This slavery to labels goes way beyond book genres, of course – though arguably there are few issues more important than allowing ourselves to be arbitrarily told what we may or not read. Ideas, for example –intimately tied up with books, and just as vulnerable to labelling. I recently wrote about the label "feminism", after being prompted to rethink my assumptions by a comment from Julie Heyward in Unreal Nature. In an email response to my rhetorical "What's in a name?", Ms Heyward commented that "As soon as something has a name, then people have something to defend -- to get tribal about..." – and she's quite right, that is precisely what is wrong with labels.

The day after I wrote that post on the meaning of the label "feminism", I picked up and read a copy of Alexander McCall Smith's Blue shoes and Happiness, which by coincidence has a thread throughout it of misunderstanding over the meaning of the word. Mma Makutsi's timid fiancé, Phuti, has heard a militant feminist on the radio talking of "sweeping away men"; Mma Makutsi, not knowing this, says that she is, "Of course" a feminist because "these days most ladies are feminists". Much unnecessary anxiety and soul searching results, simply because they understand different things by the word.

If I seem goody goody and holier than thou on this business of labels, by the way, I should mention that I am as vulnerable to preconception as anyone. I regularly discover (usually by chance or recommendation) which I have subconsciously avoided because of some baseless assumption or other. Blue shoes and Happiness is part of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency books, which I had ignored for some years under the vague feeling that they were lightweight – and, to be brutally honest, to my shame, the fear that in an academic world I would be thought shallow for being seen reading them. Now, having tried them, I wouldn't claim that they are designed to sit alongside Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, or Wollstonecraft's Vindications of the Rights of Woman, but ... so what? Where is it written that everything worthwhile must be heavyweight? In their own, different way, McCall Smith's books contain as much wisdom and love as anything else you could read. Perhaps they will not be your thing; but the only way to find out is to try one.

Somewhere in that last paragraph, I used the word "love". There are few labels with a larger and more diffuse domain of meaning than that one. Back at Thinking Through My Fingers, to close where I began, Jim Putnam offers his own definition of love and it's a good one which I can salute with respect. There are, though, more meanings for the word than anyone can shake a stick at. No single definition can pull in and adequately embrace love of child, love of money, love of self, sexual love, the love of teenagers and the love of the elderly, love of chocolate... McCall Smith's books are hymns of love for the small country of Botswana and for all humankind, two equally real and valuable loves which can't be squeezed into the same envelope. DuPrau's books contain nothing of the usual romantic meaning of love, but are suffused with the power of love nevertheless. As with "feminism", it's important to recognise that the label is a convenience and nothing more. We need a signifier, but it's the signified which matters. The label should only ever be a means to an end, never something "to defend, to get tribal about".

  1. Jeanne DuPrau, The city of Ember. 2005, London: Corgi. 0552552380 (pbk.)
  2. Jeanne DuPrau,, The people of Sparks. 2006, London: Corgi Books. (978)0552552394 (pbk)
  3. Naomi Klein, No logo : no space, no choice, no jobs, taking aim at the brand bullies. 2000, London: Flamingo. 0002559196 (pbk.)
  4. Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the sea of stories. 1990: Granta in association with Penguin. 0140140352 (pbk)
  5. Philip Reeve, Mortal engines. 2001, London: Scholastic. 0439993458.
  6. Alexander McCall Smith, Blue shoes and happiness. 2007, London: Abacus, (978)0349117720 (pbk)
  7. John Steinbeck, The grapes of wrath. 2000, London: Penguin. 0141185066 (pbk) (original publication: 1939)
  8. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with strictures on political and moral subjects. 1793: Dublin: James Moore. Many modern paperback editions available, including 1992, London: Everyman.

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