Thursday, July 30, 2009

Maria Tatar (my favorite books on writing)

Maria Tatar's Enchanted Hunters isn't precisely a book on writing. Subtitled The Power of Stories in Childhood, it is actually a wide-ranging examination of how children interact fiction, beginning with the bedtime stories that are read to them, and then moving on to the active phase, where they begin to seek out books to read to themselves.

Some may find the title "Enchanted Hunters" a bit creepy in this this connection, since it is lifted from Lolita. There is a hotel by that name in Lolita, as well as a play by that name, and Humbert Humbert uses the phrase to characterize himself. Maria Tatar is deliberately rehabilitating the phrase, since she thinks it is more aptly applied to young readers exploring the world of books than to pedophilia; but it is still an unusual choice.

The discussion of the changing roles of "bedtime stories"--which transformed from an ancient fireside tradition for whole families into stories intended to enthrall children, and has finally morphed in recent years into stories specifically designed to put children to sleep as quickly as possible--is engaging and thought-provoking. Tatar also has fine discussions on the roles of fear and horror, on the kinds of children who become habitual readers (and often writers), and on the ways where fiction can fuse escapism with facing life's problems; indeed, with facing problems that go beyond one's direct life experience.

For writers, however, the most interesting parts of this book focus on how children's literature works, and Tatar raises two points I'd never pondered before with respect to writing for children and young adults.

The concrete versus the abstract. As writers, we've all been told to focus on the specific, the Chekhovian ideal of the telling detail, and to avoid speaking in generalizations and superlatives. After all, saying that someone is possessed of "radiant beauty" doesn't really say much, does it?

On the contrary. In works for children and young adults, abstractions for positive qualities flourish, and even seem to be more effective than the concrete. As Tatar says in discussing one of Perrault's fairy tales, Donkeyskin: "There is the stereotypical proliferation of abstract adjectives: 'elegant,' 'magnificent,' 'lovely,' 'beautiful,' 'fine,' 'fresh,' 'warm,' 'wise,' 'modest'--attributes that leave a good deal of room for the imagination. It is, in fact, not very easy to spell out what Perrault wanted us to see, for there are few practical instructions for visualizing the princess. Donkeyskin's dress of gold and diamonds dazzles, and that diaphanous state of illumination, I would argue, allows the author to shine beams on her many abstract virtues to produce astonishing effects. The light of the dress ignites our imagination, urging us to fill in the blanks and to participate in the process of creating Donkeyskin's superlative inner and outer beauty...Luminosity, glitter, and sparkle enable the mind to picture persons and things despite and because of a lack of specificity."

Though Tatar doesn't discuss the issue, I think the reason this works so well with young readers is twofold. First, it allows them to impose their own concepts of beauty, warmth, or wisdom rather than dealing with specific examples which they might not, in fact, find beautiful, warm, or wise. Second, it doesn't demand the construction of subtext, a skill that develops only as readers become more mature. A "good" writer for adults throws out concrete details, specific bits of action and dialogue, and the odd metaphor or simile, and expects the readers to put it all together and summon up an understanding of character and motivation. Show, don't tell, isn't necessarily the most effective prescription for readers who have not yet developed this skill at synthesis.

I think this lack of synthetic ability and limited grasp of subtext is the reason that adverbs proliferate in the dialogue tags of young-adult novels. The Harry Potter novels contain an endless torrent of adverbial dialogue tags (some of them unintentionally hilarious, such as Harry ejaculated), but these help young readers understand immediately what the character is feeling, without demanding they stop and try to puzzle it out.

After showing that abstractions work so well for young readers, however, Tatar goes on to make a striking point: Abstractions work well for positive qualities, but for the dark, dangerous, and horrific, the more concrete, the better. As the author puts it, "Evil has many different faces, and its devlish manifestations are often in the gory details. We do not need many cues to imagine beauty and its spiritual uplift, but our minds seem to hanker for clear instructions when it comes to imagining the materiality of violence and horror. Writers of childrens books do not fail to deliver...Descriptions of beauty often have embedded in them an astonished observer contemplating the sights. Horror, by contrast, compels observers to both look and look away."

In books for children and young adults, there is a time to show and a time to tell, and which is more appropriate seems to depend on whether one is describing light or darkness.

Learning the protean power of words. At the same time that children are learning that letters on a page can tell a clear and enthralling story, they are also discovering that words can be slippery, ambiguous tools, prone to twisting in your hand just when you think you've grasped them.

Tatar points out that many treasured stories, such as The Wizard of Oz ("There's no place like home!") and The Secret Garden ("The Magic is in me! The Magic is making me strong!") teach that words are powerful, life-transforming things.

At the same time, however, some of the books best loved by the more skillful young readers, such as Lewis Carroll's Alice books, or Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, revel in the plasticity of language, using it to confuse, to baffle, or to 'prove' nonsensical propositions. To those who have mastered the art of reading, this provides a new level of delight; but one can only imagine how frustrating such books must be for those children who read laboriously, struggling to piece together a storyline when often the intent of the writer is not to transfer plot developments but instead to play with the nature of language itself. Although Tatar doesn't discuss it, to my mind this must be the point at which lifelong readers become fully committed, and the less skilled drift away.

In focusing here on implications for writers, I haven't attempted to do justice to Maria Tatar's fine book; it goes far beyond the issues I have cited here. Her analyses of particular books are fascinating (who would have thought someone could write page after absorbing page on how Goodnight, Moon works?), and her overview of how the tone and goals of books for children have changed since the 18th century is absorbing. If you're interested in children's literature, I can't imagine a more enjoyable book.

Well, okay--I can't imagine a more enjoyable nonfiction book.


Janet said...

What fascinating concepts! That's one reason I preferred reading over movies: the actors fell so short of what I imagined. But I'd never thought of age-speficity in this context.

Anonymous said...

David, have you come across Francis Spufford's The Boy Books Built? It's more memoir-like, but explores the same territory. And it's fascinating on the not-always-easy transition from childrens to adult fic...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Janet--

Yeah, movies can be disturbing in that regard, especially when it comes to concepts like the fairest in the land...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

No, I've never heard of that--but now I'm going to go hunt it down!