Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Sour grapes leads me to much larger thoughts about Children's Literature and Comics

I don't think you need to hear it from me. It's big news all over. Mario Vargas Llosa won a Nobel Prize for something having to do with cartography.

Personally, I always preferred Garcia Marquez to Vargas Llosa, and I want to get that out there just because what I'm about to say probably will come across as sour grapes. And it is. Without the sour grapes, I don't think I would have thought more about this topic, in-depth. It's just that I can think of a few other writers I'd have preferred over Vargas Llosa.

My exposure to Vargas Llosa was ten years ago, and was not a complete representation of his large and important body of work. I read one thing, thought it was scattered, and that the magical "realism" was more about being clever than being expressive of deeper truths. Nothing wrong with that, but, for whatever reason, I was mostly indifferent to Vargas Llosa. I never picked his stuff up again after that impression, for good or ill. Part of how I know I didn't care for it is because it has left no meaningful mark in my memory beyond that sense of something scattered, something clever, something unenjoyed. I think it was something ekphrastic, but that's all I got. When I heard he won the award, I was disappointed and started thinking about who I would have liked to see win the award.

So, sour grapes.

But, it led me down a mental path that I think is worth mentioning. I was thinking about people I'd have liked to see win a Nobel, instead, and it occurred to me that some of the people most deserving of this prize are simply not qualified to win it. They don't write IMPORTANT works of POLITICAL narrative for SERIOUS READERS.

One of them retired from writing comics a while back. One of them's dead, god bless him for all he did in life. One of them would probably not show up to claim his prize, and--if he did--he'd give the best damn speech ever and look like a madman in a tuxedo doing it. One of them is so exceptionally rich there's almost nothing you can do at this point but stand back and watch how her books are classics and will continue to be classics and isn't there a movie coming out.

This strange line exists around certain awards. Hugos, for instance, generally do not go to authors who do not also go to sci-fi/fantasy conventions where this award is really decided. Nebulas, for instance, tend not to go to people who are not members of SFWA, that I can tell. Pulitzer Prizes tend to spark the mind with the sort of books that win these things. National Book Awards are a bit more eclectic, and it's an imprimatur I look for when I'm browsing around, but they still aren't really that eclectic. Other awards, established ones especially, create a clear image in the mind of what kind of book should win the award. The Nobel is this kind of golden seal upon a text and author, marking their life's work as important the way penicillin is important: inoculating the mind against the evil toxins of social sciences. It goes out to major scientific discoveries, and world peace makers, and books that are thereby deemed as important as scientific discoveries and world peace makers.

For this reason, when I think of the place where this major award has failed, I think of children's literature, especially. Kid's Lit is the stuff that shapes the future of humanity for good or ill, and it is often ignored when people talk about IMPORTANT books. I guess it's because the people making the lists have to reach way, way back into the past to remember these books. Maybe it's because they are too easy to read for the adults who look back upon them. Still, any list of the great books of the last few centuries will generally throw a few bones at YA with Harper Lee, or if the list is even smarter and more erudite, Judy Blume, but otherwise ignores an entire, important body of work. Yet, to compare the overall impact on human society and culture between something like  Judy Blume's "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret" and "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White, with something like "The Sound and the Fury" or "Finnegan's Wake"--books both famous for being unreadable as much as they are famous for being excellent classics--I wonder if the influence of young books is ignored. Those two kid's books are really, really important and shape the attitudes and ideas and compassions of generatons of young people. The vast and overwhelming majority of people who read "The Sound and the Fury" do so because school amde them, and consider it one of the reasons they don't read important books.

You know what the most important book I ever read was? "The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha" by Lloyd Alexander. That was the first book that showed to me what it was really possible for a book to do. Before that, I just thought they were cartoons without pictures, or stories I could tell to myself. When I encountered something that gave me that feeling of art and thoughtfulness and meaning, it turned me forever. I do not propose offering an award to Mr. Alexander, who was, alas, passed on. I know that much of that was my experience of his book, and not shared by others. But, I do wonder at lists of however many number of important novels that do not include "The Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson. For many children, their first meaningful guide to a terrible and important secret of adulthood, grief, happens through this little book. It is an excellent book, and a classic to this day. I doubt anyone has considered Katherine Paterson for a Nobel. How many maps has she drawn to all the troubles to come for all the young people that need really good maps, who have no real way of comprehending the days to come without these maps? Plenty.

I doubt, as well, that the cartographies of political power were ever mapped quite so successfully as was done by Dr Seuss. I doubt, as well, that the influence upon the cultures of the world that Dr Seuss represented is even remotely reflected by any of the winners of the Nobel Prize. His books are marvels of political understatement masked in zany rhymes and pictures so charming and distinguishable that "Seussian" is a word used to describe both the whimsical close rhymes he favored and the whimsical furry and feathery people he drew. He's passed on, alas, but it is a shame he was probably never in the running for such an award as a Nobel. His influence is wide and deep. His importance to the raising of proper, well-adjusted children cannot be understated.

I would also love to see Alan Moore up for a Nobel. His work is complex, very political, and so richly human. Has the Nobel Prize committee ever been exposed to "V"? Would they even know what to do with it if they did? Cartographies of power, anyone?

I doubt that even for a moment any member of the committee considered Bill Watterson. He wrote these incredible, funny, smart dialog poems of childhood imagination, and drew pictures to go beside them. Calvin & Hobbes' lonely little suburb near the woods is as rich a mythology as Macondo, or Faulkner's Mississippi (don't ask me to spell that county!), or Singer's joyfully impoverished Jewish community. His timeless work is deep and powerful.

J.K. Rowling is a billionaire, and needs no awards to increase her readership. (Which is, admittedly, one of my favorite things about the Nobel Prize: suddenly obscure authors like Gao Xingjiang or very regional ones like Orhan Pamuk explode across the world to be discovered by all.) However, the fact that she is probably not even in the running for a major award like a Nobel is kind of troubling to me. An entire generation of humanity dream of a world just beyond the wainscot, where the corruption of power must be constantly fought by good-hearted friends, and anyone who seems like an ordinary mother of a bunch of rowdy boys, for instance, is capable of saving the world. All these Imaginations are given permission to see the wondrous hidden place just behind the face of the everyday, and have gone on continuing to read and enjoy reading. Are her work as "good" as Vargas Llosa? It certainly isn't as dense as Vargas Llosa. But, I would argue that her books are a surprise in the field of megasellers in large part because they are so well-written, with prose as charming and delightful as the magical world she describes. Is it at least as important as Vargas Llosa, (no slouch in the importance-department with his politically conscious narratives)? I think it probably is. A bazillion eyeballs learning to love literature is a very important thing, indeed, and should--I hope--propel her to a level where she would be at least considered for the prize.

Part of me wonders if this isn't connected in some way to the larger debate happening--or perhaps having already happened -- of men being reviewed more than women, being taken more seriously. Children's literature is perceived as less-important, simpler, and easier to read. As a craftsman, I happen to know how difficult it is to make something read simpler for an audience that does not share my perception of importance with all the human truth of the great kingdom of Terabithia.

That's really all I'm saying here: the prize pool for some of these awards have carved out this narrow definition. This one, the Nobel, gives out awards to penicillin and test tube babies and mapping the DNA and world peace. When the committee selects a book, it subconsciously suggests that this book is as important as penicillin. This perception is part of the allure of the books. The books are always supposed to be "important". That sense of importance, I suspect, has inadvertantly carved away the true healers and miracle workers who do not exactly fit into the academy's notion of what mind penicillin ought to be. J.K. Rowling is medicine against the perils of an unimaginative life, where people are all ordinary, and her work is full of all this rich humanity, the need to end evil wherever it arises, in this world or in the wainscot one.

Part of me also genuinely wonders if she would be treated differently if she were just an internationally-acclaimed author, and not an internationally-acclaimed children's book author who is also a woman.

So, sour grapes, I admit, but it has led to other thoughts of wider things.

Children's Literature doesn't get enough credit, in general, when it comes time to talk about IMPORTANT things. Comics and graphic novels are still not considered equal of their un-illustrated brethren in story forms. This is not to the benefit of the awards, or the people who select to read books and authors based on who receives these awards.

I actually don't wish this to be considered an Anti-Nobel rant as much as it is a larger thought on the way critic's minds seem to work. The sour grapes I felt when I heard the winner of this year's prize led to a coherent concept of how to express part of what I felt when I heard the announcement.

And, sour grapes wouldn't exist if I didn't follow the award and genuinely want it to help me find more great books like the ones it has brought into translation, brought back into print, and kept relevant. "Iceland's Bell" by Halldor Laxness is a marvelous piece of writing, and probably would not exist in English translation if it wasn't for the Nobel. I am really pleased Gao Xingjiang was selected, a couple years back. Without that, I would have never discovered his amazing book, "Soul Mountain". Orhan Pamuk, as well, was obscure until the award gave him the international acclaim he so richly deserves. I doubt, as well, Marquez' amazing books would have been so readily available in English translation without that prize. I follow this award, like many of us do, because they tend to lead us to great works. So, it's not a Nobel rant, or a rant about Vargas Llosa. Congratulations, Mario Vargas Llosa, if you're poking around this way. It's mostly about how I think awards treat Children's Literature and Comics. I'll give the recent winner another chance to win me over when I have a chance to do so. I'm older, now, and maybe it'll strike a chord if I try something different from him, in a new translation.

(Back into deadline perdition for me... To My Poor, Overworked Editor, if you're reading this, I'm sorry that I fell asleep way early last night! I was exhausted! I've been up and working since 3 AM, and  I'll press on today before and after work, and we'll get this book done very soon! I don't think we'll win a Nobel for it, but I do think we'll have this great thing when we're done that people will read and love.)

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