The most exciting thing in my life is going outside for walks. The excitement is primarily my dog’s, but the fact that he’s so excited makes it just a tad exciting for me as well. I get a glimpse of what walks are like from a dog’s point of view. My experience of walks starts to overlap with his, at the edges. I begin to understand why, “Oh boy oh boy! Outsides! The greatest thing ever invented!” is the appropriate response to the very thought of going for a walk.
I think something similar happens for people who are good with kids. The things that kids love, they love. A kids’ movie? Oh boy! Duck-Duck-Goose? The greatest! When you’re with children, you can’t help but see things from their point of view — at least a little. So, things you would normally find utterly banal or tedious can acquire a kind of magical glow. (If you don’t believe me, think of how your experience of Christmas changes when there are little ones around.)
But the tendency to begin experiencing things the way others experience them isn’t limited to our interactions with animals and children. We even experience “vicarious excitement” when we show a video or movie that we love — or find amusing — to a friend. You may have seen it a million times, but you see it anew because your friend is seeing it for the first time. You share their experience. You feel the newness again because you’re experiencing it from your friend’s point of view.
In each of these cases, your experience of a thing changes because you are sharing someone else’s experience of it. I begin to see Outside as amazing. You find the antics of the animals in this picture book (the one your nieces and nephews asked you to read to them) genuinely amusing. The movie you’re watching with your friend seems fresh again.
Now, imagine if you weren’t willing to share someone else’s experience of a thing. If I hated dogs, I would never have come to see Outside the way my dog does. If I despised children, I would never have let myself get into a situation where I might have been socially obligated to read to them. And I’m definitely not going to be showing any movies to my enemy.
In fact, if someone I despise enjoys something, that gives me a compelling reason not to like it. “If you have to be that kind of person to enjoy the band, or movie, or book in question, then I want nothing to do with it.” And yet, if you ask me why I dislike Nickleback, or The Da Vinci Code (the book), or The Da Vinci Code (the movie), I might respond:
- Nickleback makes poor quality music
- The Da Vinci Code gets religious history offensively wrong, and
- The Da Vinci Code portrays Catholics as scary — but I know a ton of Catholics and they’re all so friendly
That is, I might think my dislike for those things is due to something wrong with the things themselves. But it might actually be that I just don’t like “the kind of people who enjoy” Nickelback, or The Da Vinci Code, or The Da Vinci Code. Perhaps I find it viscerally revolting to imagine sharing their experience.
Now, we all know that people like to make fun of Young Adult Literature (“YA Lit”). Never mind that some of the best fiction in the past 50 years or so belongs to this category:
- the Harry Potter series
- Howl’s Moving Castle (the book; the movie is great too)
- the Raven Cycle
- The Dark Is Rising series
- the Time Quintet.
The impression I get is this: People believe there is something intrinsically defective or inferior about YA books (and the movies based on them). It is, therefore, shameful to read (or watch) them. We ought to be devoting our time and money to better literature (and films).
But if my analysis above is correct, there is another option. The reason people look down on YA books and movies may be that they dislike “the people who enjoy that sort of thing.” It may be that people dislike Young Adult Fiction first and foremost because they dislike young adults. They find the idea of imaginatively entering into the experience of a teen — the idea of reading a book from the point of view of a teenaged reader — viscerally revolting.
As you may have guessed, I think the second option is the correct one. To properly appreciate a walk, you have to see it see it from a dog’s point of view. To properly appreciate a picture book, you have to see it from a child’s point of view. To properly appreciate a YA novel, you have to see it from young adult’s point of view. And just as some people hate dogs, and others hate children, still others hate teens. The teen’s experience of the world is one they find embarrassing or repulsive; it is not one into which they can stomach entering. It is not a perspective worth taking up for the purpose of appreciating a novel.
The current prejudice against YA Lit is nothing new.1 C. S. Lewis was combating it in the first half of the 20th century. It’s just that back then the debate was over “children’s stories,” “fairy stories,” or perhaps “juvenile fiction.”2
The main question, Lewis seems to think, is whether it is childish to read children’s stories. The question isn’t really so much whether children’s stories are bad.3 It’s whether people who read those stories are defective.
Now the modern critical world uses ‘adult’ as a term of approval. It is hostile to what it calls ‘nostalgia’ and contemptuous of what it calls ‘Peter Pantheism’. Hence a man who admits that dwarfs and giants and talking beasts and witches are still dear to him in his fifty -third year is now less likely to be praised for his perennial youth than scorned and pitied for arrested development.4
But he responds to this charge in three ways.
- It’s childish to think being childlike — being un-grown-up — is bad. “When I became a man,” Lewis quips, “I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”5
- Growth means addition and expansion, increasing the number of things you can appreciate. But “if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists,” Lewis writes, “I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next.”6
- Growth means being able to appreciate more in a second sense as well. “I now enjoy the fairy tales better than I did in childhood,” Lewis says, because “being now able to put more in, of course I get more out.”7 In fact, he writes, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only be children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”8
If it’s worth being able to see the world from a dog’s point of view, or a child’s point of view — if you and the world are enriched by your being able to do so — I would suggest it’s also worth being able to see the world from a teen’s point of view. So, if entering into the experience of a young adult reader is what it takes to properly appreciate a novel, I should think that too would be a skill worth having.
But enough of things childlike and YA. Next time, let us ask why people dislike chick lit, romance novels, and strong female leads.
- “About once every hundred years some wisacre gets up and tries to banish the fairy tale.” C. S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Harvest/Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966), pp. 22-34 (here: 25).
- Lewis uses the term “juveniles” (in quotations) as a term for a category of fantasy stories (Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 28).
- Though Lewis does deal extensively with the question of whether children’s stories are harmful to children in the second half of “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” (esp. pp. 28-32).
- Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 25.
- “Critics who treat adult as a term of approval,instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the mark of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. . . . When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up” (Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 25).
- “I now enjoy Tolstoy and Jane Austen and Trollope as well as fairy tales and I call that growth: if I had had to lose the fairy tales in order to acquire the novelists, I would not say that I had grown but only that I had changed. A tree grows because it adds rings: a train doesn’t grow by leaving one station behind and puffing on to the next” (Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 26).
- Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 26.
- Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” 24.