Let’s Be Fair to Fairy Stories

A few things regarding children’s literature made the rounds on the Internet recently, so I thought it was almost necessary that I comment on them. One is Richard Dawkins, whose work on atheism I’ve enjoyed in the past, saying that kids shouldn’t be exposed to fairy tales because they encourage supernatural rather than rational thought.

When called out on it, he later claimed he was just throwing it out as a possibility, and that he doesn’t necessarily actually believe that. I know that, on a personal level, I aim to be a skeptical rationalist (which isn’t to say I always succeed), but I love fantasy and fairy tales. I’ve wondered before if this is somewhat contradictory, but I don’t think it is. I don’t believe that magic is real, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. Also, there are plenty of things that I know aren’t true that I wish were. So it’s a form of escape and wish fulfillment.

I see a lot of defenses of fairy tales as helping children learn thinking skills and deal with problems, and while that might be true in some cases, I’m not sure it ever was for me. When I had to deal with bullies, I knew throwing a bucket of water wasn’t going to help, and I didn’t have access to a magic sword. But they let me know that, as bad as the world can be, there’s always imagination.

I also felt I should mention the Slate article about how adults should be embarrassed to read young adult books. This is a terrible article, not simply because I disagree with it, but because it makes an extraordinary claim without providing extraordinary proof. Instead, it takes the lazy route of comparing a few YA books to a few adult ones, making for total statistical insignificance. The article has been refuted many times, but my perspective is that it’s giving too much power to the marketing department. When a book is sold to children or teens, isn’t that more because they think that’s the audience who’d be most likely to buy it? I’m sure no author minds if people outside the recommended age group are reading it; it means more exposure for them. I know I sometimes felt a little embarrassed when someone saw me reading a book with large print and prominent illustrations in high school, but that was what I liked (albeit not ALL I liked), and I tried to own it. To me, the article just seems to be giving more power to those people we all knew growing up who acted like it was so babyish to like cartoons or video games after reaching a certain age. Or the 40-Year-Old Virgin thing where you have to sell all your toys to get laid. There’s also the literary snobbery against certain books, where people talk about how much better the Classics (which span a period of about 3000 BC to 1900 AD, apparently) are than Popular Literature, even though many of the Classics were written to be Popular Literature.

Some people insist that there are objective standards to measure literature, but I can’t say I buy it. To me, there are just different subjective scales. My idea of a well-written book might differ from yours, but there are also books I enjoy despite not thinking they’re very well-written, and vice versa. It doesn’t mean I think all books are equal, or that I might not judge you if your favorite books are the Twilight series. But I’m not going to stop you from reading them, and who really cares what my opinion is on what you’re reading?

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13 Responses to Let’s Be Fair to Fairy Stories

  1. There’s always some stick in the mud, who because he doesn’t like fantasy, or can’t understand it, feels the need to denigrate it and make it seem like it’s bad for everybody. I’m not surprised to hear Dawkins is in that camp because he similarly pushes the idea that religion is bad for everybody and should be eliminated. Forget nuances or specificity, or evidence which shows the opposite in some cases, that kind of blanket condemnation is why I think he’s as pernicious as the extreme right. People like him (regardless of their philosophical stance) see black and white, and dogmatically try to push their views to make everyone conform to whatever twisted ideology they happen to favor.

    Since Fantasy has become mainstream, most of the dissenting voices have been shamed into silence, but the old prejudices still rear their ugly heads from elitist types who want to feel superior b/c they read so-called “real literature,” ignoring the fact that real literature encompasses ALL genres, and that their stance is discrimination, pure and simple. There’s no good or bad genres, only good or bad books, and even that is mainly subjective. Even if one could objectively ascertain that, say, The Catcher in the Rye is a greater work than any of the Twilight books (which I believe it is), that doesn’t mean the latter is without value. And if one COULD make such objective assessments, one would likely find that The Lord of the Rings is a greater work than Ulysses. So, to dismiss an entire body of literature on the faulty premise that it “teaches” untruths to kids is wrongheaded, psychologically absurd, and indicative of the kind of person making such a pronouncement.

    • Nathan says:

      One thing I’ve noticed about some prominent atheists is that they’re so used to religious people (particularly Christians and Muslims) insisting that their religion is best for everybody that they tend to reply in kind. The thing is, while this religious viewpoint gets a lot of attention in the media and is indeed dangerous, I think it’s becoming more and more common for people NOT to think that way. Interfaith marriages are a lot more common these days, for instance.

  2. I believe that when mankind ceases to be able to dream and wonder we will cease to be human. I for one do not want a world like that.

    As for the quality of a book, I agree. The Oz books, for example…they are definitely not the best written books with their inconsistencies and haphazard plots, but they have brought so much joy to our imaginations that I still feel they are some of the best works of fiction ever written. (Even most of Miss Thompson’s, as hard of a time as I give her!)
    If a book can captivate it’s audience, give them the power to escape reality for a short time and have fun, I think it’s done it’s job. There are so many books I can’t stand to read, for various reasons, but that’s my own choice. To say that fairy tales and such are bad for kids is silly. Maybe it’s better for some than others, but myth and tall tales are part of us and always have been.

    • Nathan says:

      I think that, if fairy tales lead someone to believe untruths, we can’t blame the fairy tales. That’s kind of like blaming video games for violence.

      • Joe says:

        I do wonder, though, if violent games do foster in certain kids: 1. love of violence, 2. increased aggression, 3. desensitization. Certainly, there’s no direct correlation. The human mind is too complex for their to be any single causal factor, but I tend to find that they’re rather “contributory,” along with other factors. I also think that violence presented as solutions in games and films and literature tends to subtly indoctrinate people into believing that violence is the primary solution to conflicts, or, at the very least, an acceptable one. The fact that there is still tacit approval for wars raging around the globe tells me that this is indeed the case.

      • Nathan says:

        I guess it’s hard to tell. I certainly don’t see too many kids jumping on top of turtles, though. {g}

      • Joe says:

        Haven’t you seen it on TV? There’s been a rash of turtle-jumpings. Kids 7 to 17 are jumping on the backs of turtles and going into the sewers!

      • Nathan says:

        Where they encounter alligators, I’m sure.

  3. Bryan Babel says:

    “‘I’ve no quarrel with the slogan of “art for life’s sake,” but I think the current definition or delimitation of what constitutes life is worse than ridiculous. Anything that the human imagination can conceive of becomes thereby a part of life, and poetry such as mine, properly considered, is not an “escape,” but an extension.” –Clark Ashton Smith, 1926.

    Proof of the eternal struggle.

    • Clark Ashton Smith is, in my estimation, one of the finest writers this country has ever seen, and sadly one of the most neglected (save by fans of the outre).

      My only problem with Smith is that when I read him, I find him SO good I want to put my pen down and stop writing. :)

    • Wow, that quote fits perfectly with the post *I* wrote after reading Dawkins’ proclamation there! It’s like, “See! I’m not crazy! Somebody said this 88 years ago!”

  4. My secret confession- I occasionally re read a Ramona or Judy Blume book. Or an Edgar Eager. Oh the humanity…

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