Thursday, September 1, 2011

Childish Fantasies

As a child and a teenager, I read a great deal of fantasy books. I did this because my father had quite a few in his closet, partly because I'm geeky that way, and partly because I was expected to. Popular wisdom where I grew up, and in fact everywhere in America I have personally been, held that there was a special connection between children and fantasy that rendered younger people more likely to read and fantastic stories than purportedly-mature adults. I have read no studies confirming that this is the case but am provisionally prepared to accept it as truth, at least for people resembling me, that is the children of white, white-collar American families of no great religiosity. The question that interests me is why that should be. I've heard quite a few explanations over the years, but none of them has entirely satisfied me, as most seemed to rely on an uncharitable misunderstanding of either children or fantasy, while the dissenters simply shifted their contempt towards adults and realism.

For instance, I've often heard that children read fantasy because fantasies has the potential to be extraordinarily simple. The idea is that kings, curses, and magic swords are less complicated than parliaments, psychiatric disorders and ICBM missiles, both because they fulfill thier functions in a more direct and predictable way and because their properties have to be explained in the text. The idea here is that children read fantasy as a default because they can't enjoy other, more complicated stories.

I don't really buy this explanation because in my experience complexity is not actually a strong deterrent to a child's interest. It's true that children have less knowledge and less capacity to understand than adults, but in my experience children who happen to latch on to something whihc is really beyond them frequently cling to it with all their might. I've seen children happily playing video games too difficult for them to win or complex for them to understand; I've seen them happily read books whose symbolism they can't understand (even children who have no knowledge of christianity like narnia), and I've seen them happily read or watch sci-fi that's full of words they don't understand. In general, the inability to appreciate a text as an adult would does not deter children from enjoying it. Admittedly, I've yet to see an 8-year-old read Proust but if you put a shiny cover on it and left it in the nursery room I wouldn't be surprised if a handful of them did.

A closely related argument holds that adults, being more sophisticated, are lured away from fantasy by thier newfound capacity to enjoy things like authentic characterisation, moral complexity, topical relevance, psychological realism, virtuoso language or other things one is less likely to find on the fantasy shelf. However, I find that a great many adults choose to read westerns, romances, technothrillers, and other books which typically don't have much in the way of the virtues touted for sophisticated fiction. The question becomes, why is a girl reading "trashy" fantasy while her father reads "trashy" thrillers?

A handful of people put a positive spin on it by suggesting that children have a special "sense of wonder" which allows them to get joy out of fantasy stories that don't move adults. I find this kind of sentimental child-worship singularly uninteresting and don't intend to say any more about it. Except...

Except actually, I DO think that children appreciate fantasy stories in ways adults typically can't. I just don't want to attribute it to whimsy or innocence. In my mind, the affinity some children feel for fantasy stories is much more pragmatic. Children are attracted to fantasy because the themes, problems, and characters of fantasy are more relevant to the lives of children than they are to adults. In forthcoming posts, I will endeavor to provide a childs-eye view of topics including ogres, kingship, hobbits, and warfare. For the moment, let me say only this: Children are drawn to fantasy to because children do not, by and large, live in the modern world. an parliaments, psychiatric disorders and ICBM missiles, both because they fulfill thier functions in a more direct and predictable way and because their properties have to be explained in the text. The idea here is that children read fantasy as a default because they can't enjoy other, more complicated stories.

Except actually, I DO think that children appreciate fantasy stories in ways adults typically can't. I just don't want to attribute it to whimsy or innocence. In my mind, the affinity some children feel for fantasy stories is much more pragmatic. Children are attracted to fantasy because the themes, problems, and characters of fantasy are more relevant to the lives of children than they are to adults. In forthcoming posts, I will endeavor to provide a childs-eye view of topics including ogres, kingship, hobbits, and warfare. For the moment, let me say this: Children are drawn to fantasy because children do not really live in the modern world.

2 comments:

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_|\|_ said...

Thier should be their, I think, you repeat the last paragraph twice, and "children do not, by and large, live in the modern world. an parliaments, " should probably be "and parliaments", although I'm not so sure about that last one.

Nitpicking aside, interesting subject for analysis-- I'm looking forward to further posts!