Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Are Children The Ultimate Literary Critics?

There is an amazing essay by Isaac Bashevis Singer with which I fully agree entitled "Are Children the Ultimate Literary Critics?" It is relatively short, as essays go, but I have been unable to find it online and therefore reproduce it below. No copyright infringement is intended; indeed, my only desire is to make people aware of this work and the writer, so that they might read more of his pieces and purchase his works. The essay is found in the back of a book entitled Stories for Children. It is rare that I agree entirely with a piece; this is one place where the writer speaks for me in every capacity. It is one of the truest essays I have ever read.


Children are the best readers of genuine literature.

Grownups are hypnotized by big names, exaggerated quotes, and high-pressure advertising. Critics who are more concerned with sociology than with literature have persuaded millions of readers that if a novel doesn't try to bring about a social revolution it is of no value. Hundreds of professors who write commentaries on writers try to convince their students that only writers who require elaborate commentaries and countless footnotes are the true creative geniuses of our time.

But children do not succumb to this kind of belief. They still like clarity, logic, and even such obsolete stuff as punctuation. Even more, the young reader demands a real story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, the way stories have been told for thousands of years.

In our epoch, when storytelling has become a forgotten art and has been replaced by amateurish sociology and hackneyed psychology, the child is still the independant reader who relies on nothing but his own taste. Names and authorities mean nothing to him. Long after literature for adults has gone to pieces, books for children will constitute the last vestige of storytelling, logic, faith in the family, in God, and in real humanism.

When I sit down to write a story, I must first have a real topic or theme. One cannot write for children what some critics call "a slice of life." The truth is that so-called slices of life are a bore even for adults.

I must also have a real desire or a passion to write the story. Sometimes I have a topic but no compulsion to deal with it. I've written down hundreds of topics which I will never use because they don't really interest me.

Finally, I must have the conviction- or at least the illusion- that I am the only one who can write this particular story. It has to be my story. It has to express my individuality, my character, my way of looking at the world.

If these three conditions are present, I will write a story. This holds true when I write for children or for adults.

Some bad books lack these three conditions. They have no story to tell, there's no passion in them, and they have no real connection with the writer.

Because children like clarity and logic, you may wonder how I can write about the supernatural, which, by its very definition, is not clear and not logical. Logic and "realism," as a literary method, are two different things. One can be a very illogical realist and a highly logical mystic. Children are by nature inclined to mysticism. They believe in God, in the Devil, in good spirits and bad spirits, and in all kinds of magic. Yet they require true consistency in these stories. There is often great logic in religion and there is little logic in materialism. Those who maintain that the world created itself are often people without any respect for reason.

It is tragic that many writers who look down on stories of the supernatural are writing things for children which are nothing but sheer chaos. There are books for children where one sentence has nothing to do with another. Things happen arbitrarily and haphazardly, without any connection with the child's experiences or ideas.

Not only does such writing not amuse a child, but it damages his way of thinking. Sometimes I have a feeling that the so-called avant-garde writers for children are trying to prepare the child for Jame's Joyce's Finnegans Wake or other such puzzles which some of the professors love so much to explain. Instead of helping them think, such writing cripples the child's mind. Put it this way- the supernatural, yes; nonsense, no.

Folklore plays a most important role in children's literature. The tragedy of modern adult literature is that it has completely divorced itself from folklore. Many modern writers have lost their roots. They don't belong and they don't want to belong in any special group. They are afraid of being called clannish, nationalistic, or chauvinistic.

Actually there is no literature without roots. One cannot write good fiction just about a man generally. In literature, as in life, everything is specific. Every man has his actual and spiritual address. It is true that in certain fables the address is not necessary or even superfluous, but all literature is not fables. The more a writer is rooted in his environment, the more he is understood by all people; the more national he is, the more international he becomes.

When I began to write the stories of my collection Zlateh the Goat, I knew that these stories would be read not only by Jewish children but by Gentile ones as well. I described Jewish children, Jewish sages, Jewish fools, Jewish bridegrooms, Jewish brides. The events I related did not happen in no-man's-land but in the little towns and villages I knew well and where I was brought up. My saints were Jewish saints and the demons Jewish demons. And this book has been translated into many languages.

Many of today's books for children have no local color, no ethnic charm. The writers try so hard to be international- to produce merchandise which appeals to all- that they appeal to no one. (By the way, the Bible, especially the Book of Genesis, teems with stories for children- all of them short, clear, deeply rooted in their time and soil. This is the reason for their universal appeal.)

Without folklore and deep roots in a specific soil, literature must decline and wither away. This is true in literature of all times. Luckily, children's literature is even now more rooted in folklore than the literature for adults. And this alone makes children's literature so important in our generation.

Some writers sit down to write a book, not because they love the story, but because they are in love with the message it might bring. There is no famine of messages in our time or in any other time. If all the messages disappeared and only the Ten Commandments remained, we would still have enough messages for the present and the future. Our trouble is not that we don't have enough messages but that we refuse to fulfill them and practice them.

The writer who writes a bad novel and whose message is peace and equality and other such virtues does us no great favor. We've heard all this before and will continue to hear about it in newspaper editorials, in sermons, even from diplomats of the most aggressive nations. There are multitudes of writers whose only claim to literature is that they are on the right side and that their messages are righteous.

Literature needs well-constructed and inventive stories, not stale messages, for every good story has a message that, even if not obvious, will be discovered by readers or critics sooner or later. I do not yet know the message of Tolstoy's War and Peace, but it was a great book just the same. A genuine story can have many interpretations, scores of messages, mountains of commentaries. Events never get stale; commentaries often are stale from the very beginning.

As a child, I was glad that I was told the same stories my father and grandfathers heard. The children of my time didn't read stories about little ducklings which fell into kettles of soup and emerged as clay frogs. We preferred the stories of Adam and Eve, the Flood, the people who built the Tower of Babel, the divine adventures of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. We were never taught to rely completely on any authority. We tried to find motivation and consistency in God's laws and His commandments. A lot of the evil taking place today, I often feel, is the result of the rotten stuff this modern generation read in its school days.

Since I began to write for children I have spoken to many children, read stories to them (even though my accent is far from perfect), and answered hundreds of their questions. I am always amazed to see that when it comes to asking questions, children possess the same curiosity as adults: How do you get the idea for a book? Is it invented or taken from life? How long does it take you to write a book ?Do you use stories that your mother and father told you?

No matter how young they are, children are deeply concerned with so-called eternal questions: Who created the world? Who made the earth, the sky, people, animals? Children cannot imagine the beginning or end of time and space. As a child I asked all the questions I later found discussed in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Leibnitz, Hume, Kant and Schopenhauer. Children think about and ponder such matters as justice, the purpose of life, the why of suffering. They often find it difficult to make peace with the idea that animals are slaughtered so that man can eat them. They are bewildered and frightened by death. They cannot accept the fact that the strong should rule the weak.

Many grownups have made up their minds that there is no purpose in asking questions and that one should accept the facts as they are. But the child is often a philosopher and a seeker of God. This is one reasons I always suggest they read the Bible. It does not answer all the questions, but it does deal with these questions. It tells us that there is a God who created heaven and earth. It condemns Cain's murder of Abel. It tells us that the wicked are punished and that the just, though they may suffer a lot, are rewarded and loved by the Almighty.

If I had my way, I would publish a history of philosophy for children, where I would convey the basic ideas of all philosophers in simple language. Children, who are highly serious people, would read this book with great interest. In our time, when the literature for adults is deteriorating, good books for children are the only hope, the only refuge. Many adults read and enjoy children's books. We write not only for children but also for their parents. They, too, are serious children.


Yosef said...

And add to this that many of the greatest books out there are children's literature.

Anonymous said...

Singer is a master story-teller. His children's stories are so engaging. My kids just love them. Many of his characters step "with unquestioned authority into the Pantheon of literature,where the eternal companions and mythical figures live,tragic and grotesque,comic and touchy,weird and wonderful people of dream and torment,baseness and grandeur".(from his biography).

Dov said...

An accurate appraisal of the strengths and needs of children's literature - but which literature professors is Singer (and you) talking about? In my experience, such people are not nearly so clueless, foolish or unappreciative of the differences between genres as this essay seems to suggest.

Ezzie said...

Awesome. A few quibbles, but overall, awesome.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ezzie.
Chana,this is an eye-opener of an essay. Thanks for sharing.

Jack's Shack said...

Very Nice. Thank you.

arade89 said...

considering i only read the first and last paragraph, i would suggest to you sophie's world.