21 August 2004

Remember Why the Good Lord Made Your Eyes…

… as Tom Lehrer explained, "Plagiarize!" Well, not really. Far be it from me, an attorney who represents authors in, among other things, theft-of-intellectual-property matters, to advocate plagiarism! However, two articles unwittingly juxtaposed in the issue of NYTBR posted online today—the "back to school" issue—should give one pause.

Before diving in to the articles, though, it's worth noting that the people who most need to hear what those articles have to say won't read them, except perhaps if nagged by their parents. Even snotty, supercilious, pseudointellectual rich kids from private boarding schools don't read NYTBR. If they read anything of that nature at all, it will be the New York Review of Books; and far more likely it will be a more-specialized source of reviews that concentrates on publishing categories of particular interest, not a "general" review. So, then, keep in mind that the two articles I'm pointing to in this entry are aimed at the parents of those snotty, supercilious, pseudointellectual rich kids from private boarding schools. With that in mind:

On the one hand, we find an article on "term-paper services." Suzy Hansen acts a bit as if these are new phenomena made possible only by the Internet, although these services have been around for decades (they just weren't as easy to find, and didn't take credit cards). She accurately observes, though:

[I]f you're a cheap cheat, your [purchased-over-the-Internet] paper will be shoddy, but believable. If you're willing to dig deep for the custom-written papers, you might raise eyebrows. What a bind. Considering that it takes three to four hours to read The Great Gatsby and perhaps a night to write a short paper, what's actually more amazing is that students would risk their integrity, their education, their unlimited access to sexual experimentation — all for freeing up ten measly hours of their already limitless college time.

(typography corrected) There's a much shorter way to say this: Lombardi was right. Winning isn't the most important thing—it's the only thing; and good grades are "winning," however they are achieved.

Which, in a subtle way, leads to the other "opinion essay" column in this edition. Laura Miller wonders why kidlit has to be so depressing.

[Barbara Feinberg, in Welcome to Lizard Motel: Children, Stories, and the Mystery of Making Things Up,] sees the memoirlike problem novels as symptoms of "the drastic fall from grace that the imagination has suffered in popular understanding" and her generation's insistence on "making our children wake from the dream of their childhoods." Adults, she suspects, secretly resent the sheltered, enchanted world children inhabit and under the pretext of preparing them for life's inevitable difficulties, want to rub their noses in traumas they may never actually experience and often aren't yet able to comprehend. All the better to turn them into miniature grown-ups, little troupers girded to face a world where they have no one to count on but themselves.

Of course, this is far from a new complaint.

I agree that children need to be—and usually want very much to be—taught right from wrong. But I believe that realistic fiction for children is one of the very hardest media in which to do it.… Or you get the "problem books." The problem of drugs, of divorce, of race prejudice, of unmarried pregnancy, and so on—as if evil were a problem, something that can be solved, that has an answer, like a problem in fifth grade arithmetic. If you want the answer, you just look in the back of the book.

That is escapism, that posing evil as a "problem," instead of what it is: All the pain and suffering and waste and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over and over, and admit, and live with it, in order to live human lives at all.

Ursula K. Le Guin, "The Child and the Shadow," Q.J. Library of Congress (April 1975).

So, then, it's not just Barbara Feinberg's generation: It's her parents' generation; and perhaps generations before that. It's the unthinking, shortsighted preference for Hawthorne and Dickens over Twain and Swift, or even within Twain for Life on the Mississippi over "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" and "The Jumping Frog." It's the mistaken premise that nothing of amusement or imagination can offer anything of serious import. It's the mistaken premise that because so many adults are miserable in their day jobs and existences, that children must be too.

And it's the mistaken assumption in the publishing industry that taking risks is bad business. But that's an argument for another time—preferably one in which no quarterly reporting requirements matter, because the short-term imperative of quarterly reports does far more to damage creativity than any other single factor in the "business end" of publishing. It's also an argument that will exclude The Wizard of Oz, and Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Riddlemaster of Hed, and The Sparrow, and The Left Hand of Darkness from the bookshelves; this would not be a good thing, no matter how many "millions sold" stickers one can place on the covers of cheap paperback editions of hard-boiled, soft-brained pseudorealistic fiction—whether for "children" or "adults." That so much of this garbage reads like those cheap book reports one buys off the Internet should give one pause.