One of the great pleasures of reading, to my mind, is discovering an author who revels in allusions and reference; who makes language work so the reader can have a small shock in realising that there might be more than one meaning, writers who even include quotations! For the best of these writers such richness is not the most important element. The story should work as a story, but like a really tasty dish the other elements combine to give the finished product a depth; the flavours are there to be discovered – but don’t have to be. Such writing might now be considered ‘old-fashioned’ by which one must suppose is meant ‘long winded’. But this imaginative style is certainly not the prerogative of the past. There are plenty of outstanding authors today who weave stories that are layered and complex and whose storytelling is richly satisfying. What is less comfortable is the growing awareness that many of them are no longer being published.
The argument appears to be that their books do not sell in the mega quantities now required. This is probably true. There is nothing new in this. Looking back over the history of publishing for children, one is quickly aware that the bulk of the popular authors from the past have not survived the test of time. Who now reads A.L.O.E or demands a Herbert Strang or even a Henty? Yet these were the bestsellers of their day, cashing in on a popular demand, providing easy (if wordy) reads. What has changed is the climate in which authors are encouraged to ‘grow’; the backlist which allowed new readers to discover authors over time. It is encouraging to see titles beginning to be republished – but, again, there is an expectation of immediate impact.
Then there is the argument that young people no longer have the concentration to read concentrated prose; that the author’s style must be immediate. In fact, there is a belief that it should replicate the pace of films and the presentation of computer games in order to attract readers. This is a comment authors themselves often make. Their answer seems to be a reliance on the present tense and a first person narrator. However, a book is not a film or a computer game and reading is a very different activity. This does not mean it is – or has to be – boring. It is the skill of the storyteller that must create the illusion. Another factor in the apparent trend to ‘dumb down’ is the way young people are taught and the content of the curriculum. This is not necessarily cured by a reversion to past techniques; the world has changed and young people need the skills and information to meet it. However, there is a question over balance. While students need to be equipped for the future, knowledge is surely most effective if it has been informed by the past, and empathy, sympathy and understanding come from imagination. This is where the good authors, past and present, are so important. How to fit this in? There have been demands to bring back the learn-by-rote system, to re-establish canons of classics – not perhaps, the answer. But just reintroducing the practice of sharing books with a class at least once a week – and not just in the Primary School – would be a great (and simple) step to my mind. Or maybe it needs to start earlier, in the training of new teachers.
Dumbing down – I suspect every age has made this criticism. Today, it seems to have taken a particular urgency. However, young readers are not clones. Of course, the instant hit will create the buzz but there will be many for whom the effect will wear off quickly and who will now want something more satisfying. How will they find it? It is up to librarians, teachers and booksellers who have reading histories to step forward, and for new young publishers to be adventurous in a way the big established and increasingly monolithic firms, cannot. Today there are so many ways to access the printed word. While the digital may be one answer, it is usually a real person who will be the inspiration – or a real book. Immediacy may be the hook – but stories are a way we define ourselves and relate to both our past and present. The best writers create these stories. Let’s make sure their voices can be heard as well as the instant hit; there is room for both.