Joanna Trollope has said something a bit daft this week. The gist of it was that she was concerned that young people read too much fantasy fiction and that they should be reading the classics instead. The classics will equip them better for the big bad wide world. It’s similar to the statement made recently by Michael Gove, who said “would you rather find your 17 year old daughter reading The Hunger Games or Middlemarch?” There appears to be a general horror of modern fantasy novels, for no reason that I can think of, except that perhaps neither Gove nor Trollope has read them.
Nothing matches my pride when I watch my daughter (currently 17 months old) take a book from her shelf and go through it all by herself. Do I want to censor her reading? Of course not. Will I want to do that when she’s a teenager? No. Will I be able to even if I wanted to? Probably not.
But back to Joanna Trollope. There are a number of things that upset me about her statement. First up, it’s reductive. Classics are better than fantasy fiction? OK. But what are you calling classics? Trollope mentions Eliot and Austen. That’s it. Well, without wishing to be sexist, you’ve just lost the boys. And probably half the girls.
Let’s assume she knows there are more than two authors of 19th century literature. But this still leaves her in a pickle. Shakespeare had all kinds of fairies and monsters – isn’t that fantasy fiction? And then there’s classics such as Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, the Iliad and of course, Dracula, you know, that vampire book.
Both fantasy fiction and science fiction have suffered from statements like this. Some writers, like Kurt Vonnegut took great pains to try not to have their work pigeonholed in this way. It doesn’t really benefit anyone. Can you remember being a teenager, being told to read more books, finding some of them dull – and here’s a word of advice, don’t get 13 year olds to read Great Expectations, they won’t enjoy it – and finally finding something you enjoy reading, only to be told that isn’t right either?
I’ll be honest here. I’m not a great reader of fantasy fiction. Nor of sci fi. I have very little interest in vampire books (I make an exception for Dracula as it’s brilliant) I struggled halfway through the Hobbit when I was 13 and gave up. Ditto those respected children’s classics and fantasy novels by CS Lewis. It’s never done much for me. When I took my A levels I read quite a few classics, English, French and Russian. I may not read many of those these days but there are some I cherish. So wouldn’t you expect me to agree with Trollope?
The joy of literature is that all the diverse people in this world can find value, entertainment, knowledge and life lessons from all kinds of books. Most of the knowledge I carry around with me came from a book. While I’ve read a few classics, I wouldn’t say I’m a scholar. I’ve read a wide range of books including some of Joanna Trollope’s. This is the legacy I want to pass onto my girl. If she finds something to recognise in the stories behind the Hunger Games then great. If she just reads them to entertain herself, then that’s also great. And if she finds Middlemarch wonderful then also great. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
This kind of statement is part of the nostalgia mindset that’s with us so much these days. Things were better back in the day, you know before women started working outside the home, before the war, before the internet or whatever plague of modern living scares you the most. So the classics, books you regard as cosy, from a rosy time, are held up as being more relevant than something modern and popular and scary. I remember when I worked in a bookshop, serving a customer the day one of the Harry Potter novels came out, snorting that AA Milne didn’t need all this fuss to sell Winnie the Pooh. Well so what? Does that matter? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fuss? A mania for a book, in this digital age. how wonderful. Rowling did wonders for children’s literature – she shook it up, improved literacy and enthralled adults and children alike. I celebrate that in the same way that I celebrate the final lines of Winnie the Pooh that make me cry every time I read them.
We’re more connected now. So let’s make the most of that by telling each other how great stuff is, including telling young people that they might like some classics. Let’s not slag young people off because they’re making their own choices about how they spend their time.