Perennially, seasonally, weekly, daily, one straps on one’s keyboard to write another Apologie for speculative fiction with the same tired determination a doctor treats a smoker’s fourth heart attack—with the same heartsick sense of grim duty that President Obama takes the podium to state, again, what a tragedy it is that yet another school in America has been shot up, and that we really ought to be lifting the occasional finger to stop such supremely preventable crimes.
Like Obama’s school-shooting statements, delivered half to the heartbroken and half to the apathetic, speaking out in defense of imaginative literature is among the most important things we do, and yet of all the things we do it’s of the most questionable utility. Responding to haters of literature with our writing is about as effecting as shouting insults at a carton of milk gone rancid before its expiry date: we may be in the right, and may feel better afterwards, but it’s thoroughly incapable of understanding us, and we’re unlikely to change its mind.
Today’s particular carton of rancid milk is a lumpy and florid blog post called “The Imagination of the Child,” the pretentiously-titled work of Acorn School headmaster Graeme Whiting, a former phys-ed teacher whose move into administration seems to have convinced him he’s qualified to contradict Bruno Bettelheim on matters of developmental child psychology.
Need I summarize his column? It’s located here for your reading displeasure; much as I despise linking to it, we ought not to lower ourselves to Whiting’s level by indulging in that old chestnut of fantasy-haters: slagging on writing we can’t even be chuffed to read before we open our mouths.
In his article, Whiting indulges in that other cardinal sin of the fantasy-hater, the barmy assumption that all speculative fiction is by nature juvenile, and thus intended “for young children.” Whiting’s targets of criticism, naturally, consist of whatever popular fantasy he’s able to Google: “Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett,” all of which in Whiting’s mind “contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children.”
First, there is an inexactness here that deserves mention: Game of Thrones is, of course, the hit TV series made from George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire. There’s already a degree of antipathy between the diehard fans of Martin’s books and the pop-culture devotees of the HBO series, though that’s a story for another day. What’s important here is that, in a subtle way, Whiting is outing himself as a man who’s responding to geek culture rather than to the actual literature that spawned it. He is not in any form a literary critic. He is an angry old person responding with antipathy to the cultural practices of the young. That is an important distinction to keep in mind as we go forward.
Also important to keep in mind is that A Song of Ice and Fire is, at heart, a series defined by murder, rape, incest, torture, dismemberment. It’s a debate for another day just how healthy or unhealthy, how fair or unfair, Martin’s treatment of these themes really is. What we can’t deny, however, is that no diligent parent would hand their child a copy of A Game of Thrones on the same birthday as a copy of The Hobbit. The fact that Whiting imagines all fantasy as equally juvenile and therefore interchangeable is characteristic of the genre of hate-writing to which he has consigned himself. It is not unexpected, and certainly not without precedent. It is the reason that Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s brilliant satire of men not unlike Whiting, has spent the last century under the public cultural assumption that it’s a tale for children because it’s a story about make-believe things happening, like a made-up kingdom where people are magically smaller.
Ever since an ignorant public with no understanding of speculative fiction first turned this living Brobdingnagian dildo into a beloved hero of classic children’s literature, genre-fiction has been plagued by the same goofy miscategorization that has put Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke its place on the kids’ shelf at my local library’s Teen Annex:
In this fashion, grouping together Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games with George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, because both are fantasies, is a little like grouping J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan with Irvine Welsh’s Filth because both were written by Scotsmen. With modest apologies to Star Wars, which stands as the noted exception to the rule, a series full of incest, warfare, and severed limbs is usually not something we intend, as Whiting asserts, “for young children.” The classic, tone-deaf assumption that “pretend” and “make-believe” are the provinces of young children alone—those young people who have not yet had the silliness educated out of them with a few righteous swings of boarding-school hickory—is not just a damaging myth. It’s a myth that places Whiting firmly in the centuries-long tradition of people who are wrong about the nature of fantasy, the nature of reading, the nature of the development of the human mind.
All these things were forgivable, once. The eighteenth-century critics who dismissed English Gothic fiction as juvenile trash, yet “unacceptable literature” (Whiting’s words) for well-bred daughters grew up in an age uninformed by modern medicine, uninformed by psychology: even the breakthrough science of phrenology was decades too futuristic for the curmudgeons with whom Whiting has cast his lot. Since that time, since the rise of the very first modern ghost stories and supernatural literature, the tradition of speculative fiction has progressed while the tradition of unsubstantiated slagging on it has failed to keep up. Whiting has placed himself firmly in the company of “Academicus,” that pseudonymous detractor whose column “On the Absurdities of the Modern Stage” appeared in the Monthly Mirror back in September of 1800:
“the fairy tales; the Cock Lane Ghost; Mother Bunch’s romances; or even the mighty magician of Udolpho, Aladin [sic] and the Wonderful Lamp, or the Castle Spectre, are very well in the nursery, will please children, when the coral [pacifier] will not, but are not to be endured by men of sense and judgment, or who have ceased to act like children.”
It is surprising to see how little the argument has changed with 216 years in which to improve itself. But the tradition of supposedly eminent men of feeble imagination who pooh-pooh the speculative literature they do not read and cannot grasp has extended in an unbroken line from the Gothic detractors to the headmaster who has decided that the outer limits of his own capacity for wonder should necessarily be applied to all young people. That tradition made a notable stop along the way at Edmund Wilson, a once-eminent American essayist whose intellectual legacy has been more or less supplanted by his frothing mad and factually barmy criticisms of Lovecraft and Tolkien. Wilson’s most embarrassing screed, “Oo, Those Awful Orcs!” is now one of the most widely-available early reviews of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, kept in print by tongue-in-cheek fantasists who circulate it in mocking irony. It, too, resorts to unsubstantiated nonsense derived from personal distaste to dismiss the best-loved novel of the twentieth century as “amateurish,” “balderdash,” and “juvenile trash.” It, too, has achieved the dubious honour of being fully wrong in a “soft critical field” where weak arguments abound but right and true wrongfulness is a rare occurrence.
Wilson, who cannot get three words into his article before tripping over his own factual inaccuracies (Professor Tolkien was never a doctor), was nevertheless an intellectual of a higher order than Headmaster Whiting, who mostly uses the occasion of slagging on the contemporary success of speculative fiction to wax nostalgic for “the stories that I read as a young buy [sic]”—clearly a fellow who takes minimal care with language in general, and has not heard the advice that’s common-knowledge at most schools of quality: spell-check is the unreliable crutch of the falsely literate; it will not catch all things; and it’s no substitute for due care with your writing, particularly when affecting the appearance of a literary scholar is your goal.
And what, exactly, did Whiting read as a “young buy”? He read “traditional literature, classical poetry, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespearean plays”—in short, the usual minimal reading list forced on boys of that age, consisting of authors who were all men, all white, all English, all dead. The obsession underlying Whiting’s narrow-minded literary bigotry is one with “beauty,” a concept whose notions he freely admits he has derived exclusively from Keats: “A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” he writes, quoting from the very first line of Keats’s Endymion as if to remind us that reading more than three lines in is a labour for which he has no appetite. Indeed, his notion of all that is beautiful in the world descends from Keats’s Grecian Urn: beauty to him is old, made and owned and displayed by dead white men, drawn from the tradition of the narrowest possible definition of “civilization.” It is the sort of beauty you’d find on a well-lit pedestal in a very well-to-do museum, or the sort of gallery that fantasy-loving rabble like the Pre-Raphaelites were not welcome in their day.
Gentlemen of Whiting’s kind of refinement are the reason you can still, to this very day, pay double for your railway ticket in England for no other privilege or amenity than the right to ride exclusively in the company of other men who have paid double for the same right. It is a snobbery that, like his choice in literature, denies not only diversity of race or class or gender or other socially protected categories; it is a snobbery that denies diversity of thought. It is a snobbery that sees no beauty in the mystical; it quails at “dark demonic” things hiding in the crevices of imaginative literature. It trembles before possibility, and takes desperate comfort in reassuring itself that what cannot be seen or quantified is probably impossible.
But with this in mind, we need to recognize that his advice comes from a place informed by Whiting’s own nightmarish experience of fantasy: it is a place of terrifying unknowns to him. It is a place of darkness. “Beware the devil in the text!” he cries; and to him, the Devil might really be lurking there. That the roads of fantasy are safe to us is a function of our own healthy imaginations, our own senses of wonder, our own mystical ability to navigate unfamiliar worlds, to come to an understanding of new places and ideas while men like Whiting stand perplexed and frightened by their unfamiliarity. We are the explorers there, the rangers, and he the lost waif. The underworld, the Faerie world, the Wonderland always runs differently from the mundane world of ordinary experience. It is a thousand times more dangerous to those who fail to understand its own weird rules. Stories teach us that, if we care to read them.
Fantasy is not Whiting’s home, clearly. Treading the path of fantasy is a walk through hostile darkness in ways we readers might not understand. To even a child of six, a child struggling to sound out words of two and three syllables, that path is more familiar, safer, better lit. By age seven, by age eight, their natural curiosity has already emboldened them to look under the bed of fantasy, and learn what monsters are or aren’t really there. Headmaster Whiting is still trembling under the covers. It could be anything under there. Perhaps that’s why he believes, when it comes to scary books as well as scary beds, some covers are there to protect us, and should never be lifted or opened.
“I felt that by the age of thirty I had read all the books I wanted to read.” To anyone who actually reads, these words should virtually invalidate anything that comes after them—anything that comes before them, too. If I should ever say this and mean it, please divide up my stuff and give me a good eulogy, because I’m already dead in every way that matters. Fantasy is sometimes a dark place; but it’s darkest to those who are determined to live in darkness, cloistering themselves in the narrow world of their narrow minds. It’s this that leads me to believe Whiting is not being disingenuous with us: he’s warning us against leaving the prison of conventional thinking with all the sincerity of an inmate who’s lived in the prison so long that he wouldn’t do well outside of it anymore, and he doesn’t think you will, either. To hold this fear as a policymaker in children’s education is unconscionable; it is to invite free-thinking children into the prison with you. It’s my hope that well-meaning families in Gloucestershire will take this under advisement when it comes to determining what sort of educational governance they want for their children. Perhaps the teaching staff at the Acorn School should gently advise the Headmaster to return to his calling as a phys-ed teacher, and relegate his misguided whistleblowing to the gymnasium where it belongs.
Speculative fiction—fantasy, literature of fancy or the imagination, whatever you might call it—takes on too many shapes and serves too many important functions to explain them all here. But one small part of their boon is to save us, to protect our creativity, from imaginatively toxic people. If that were all it did, Whiting’s article would still remind us why it’s so very necessary for the development of a healthy imaginative mind—the kind of mind Whiting calls “ill” or “damaged” because it is alien to his own.
And why wouldn’t it be? By his own admission in this very article, Whiting’s personal life has been a pathway strewn from childhood with violence and death. He proudly boasts he has “dealt with” a life of beatings and family deaths without the help of therapy, at once stigmatizing mental health support as a crutch for the weak while claiming a victory over his own repressed demons that I am beginning to suspect was pyrrhic at best. For a man who claims to have overcome childhood horrors, they are accorded an awfully central position in his decision-making process. Perhaps a little therapy should have been in order—particularly when the healing work of fantasy has not been there to help him develop in the ways it has helped us. For a man who so aggressively espouses the importance of “let[ting] beauty reign” in the subconscious, his own subconscious seems a dark and sad place, filled with ugly things. Perhaps that’s why the ignorance-darkened roads of fantasy frighten him so.
Over at Bustle.com, Kristian Wilson (no relation, I hope, to Edmund Wilson) has offered the clever tongue-in-cheek headline that “Harry Potter Causes Brain Damage, Says English Headmaster Who Is Clearly Voldemort In Disguise”. This is a deliciously ironic pairing, and serves the short article that follows very well. But it’s my contention that if we’re going down the Harry Potter road with Whiting’s article, we ought not to think of Voldemort, but rather of J.K. Rowling’s Dementors, those nihilistic non-beings who feed on human happiness, devour the souls of criminals, and—perhaps as expected—work under the auspices of a government Ministry (no word on whether the Ministry of Magic reports to the British Home Office). Remus Lupin mentions in passing that over time a Dementor can drain a wizard of his powers, making these spirits of despair the only thing in Rowling’s canon capable of transforming a once-magical person into an unfeeling, despondent Muggle. In a world where a counterspell exists for everything else short of death itself, the idea that we can fall so deeply into our despair that we are permanently ruined as imaginative beings is perhaps the most frightening aspect of Rowling’s entire canon, particularly to readers of fantasy.
While I have raged pitilessly in the past against venomous serial plagiarist Margaret Wente, or against resident Guardian sourpuss Jonathan Jones on these matters, I think when it comes to Headmaster Whiting, it’s sadness more than anger that underlies my counterattack. What possesses a man to come to this troubled relationship with fantasy—much less to use his position of institutional power to push this troubled relationship on others? Even as adults, even with a far more sophisticated apparatus of psychology and medicine than we had two centuries ago, this is a very difficult and complicated issue to parse.
When even the best adult analysts and medical professionals don’t quite understand, how could we even hope to explain all this to, say, a nine-year-old child? What might I say to a Year Four student at the Acorn Lower School, a confused little girl who can’t understand why her Headmaster, a grownup to whom she’s expected to listen and defer, hates her favourite books so much? Science and psychology fail us here; they absolutely fail the saddened child, who is not a health professional and lacks both a medical degree and what Whiting would call developed thinking. (“they do not,” he writes, “have thinking brains until, at the earliest, fourteen years of age”).
“Why does Headmaster Whiting hate storybooks so much?” she might ask.
“He’s a good person at heart, and I think he means well,” I might say. “But he’s just spent too much time in the company of Dementors. He’s just a Muggle now, and it’s best not to talk to him about those books. Imaginative things only make him sad.” For a girl with “no thinking brain,” as this headmaster of a children’s school somehow sees fit to describe people of her tender age, she would understand me completely.
Headmaster Whiting has spent too much time in the company of Dementors. Full stop. Couched in fantasy or not, that’s my only substantive rebuttal to this week’s useless attack on literature of the fantastic. I ought to drop the mic at that point—and, like President Obama at the end of a school shooting conference, go and mourn in private while I prepare to say the exact same thing again next week. It doesn’t really help, this thing we do in defense of what we believe; but it’s the mark of people un-ruined by our own Dementors that we get up every day, and do it just the same.