RE:Views Conference, 11-13 March 2005

The RE:Views conference was organised by the South Australia Writer’s Centre as part of the Come Out Youth Arts Festival. It was a follow-up to the 1993 Views on Reviews conference, which attempted to address the problems associated with the reviewing of children’s and young adult books.  


I don’t consider this my best-ever paper; it was written in something of a rush, but the central tenet is something I do firmly believe: that one reason why books for children receive such short shrift is because young people themselves are so frequently demonised in the media.  Anyway, here’s my take on the subject, for what it’s worth.
Here we are again, more than ten years after the first conference addressing the vexed question of the art of reviewing books for children and teenagers, asking the same questions and laying the same complaints at the feet of literary editors all over the country. It’s a subject that just won’t go away—two few words, too many books, too few reviews, too much disrespect. We’ve seen some improvements in the status of reviewing books for young people in non-specialist publications—Australian Book Review under the editorship of the late Helen Daniel, the substantial coverage given by the independent commercial magazine Good Reading—but as we are all too well aware, too many poorly written, superficial and still, too often, downright ignorant and infuriating reviews are published—and we’re still here, in all our sound and fury, asking why, and what can be done about it.

I’d like to propose today one reason why I have come to believe that books for young people get such bad press—and it’s because young people themselves get pretty bad press. If you don’t respect the audience—and I submit that by and large, contemporary mainstream Australian society doesn’t—then why would you respect their literature?

Disrespect for young people is nothing new. We’re probably all familiar with that famous quotation attributed to Socrates that is trotted out by folk like myself to shore up arguments like the one I am putting today; young people have always copped the rough end of the pineapple as far as respect and trust go. If you aren’t, by chance, familiar with the quote, here it is:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

These days we’d add, they swear at train stations, travel in gangs, listen to crap music and wear weird clothes and far too many piercings.

Attitudes towards young people have become a bizarre mix of contempt and mistrust—even fear—and an obsessive anxiety about child protection and safety. If we’re not wanting to stop parents taking their photographs at swimming carnivals, we’re trying to stop them driving after 9 o’clock at night. It’s like at the onset of puberty, children change from being in need of our protection, to being dangerous creatures that the rest of us need protection from. The last few weeks have seen some stories in the press that are fascinating in the way young people are positioned as either constantly vulnerable victims-in-waiting, or mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In recent weeks, some local councils in NSW—supported vociferously by the P&C association, so it can’t just be put down to fears of litigation—attempted, unsuccessfully, to ban parents from taking photographs of their own children at swimming carnivals, sports fields and on the beach. The rationale here is child protection from sexual predators. As one caller to local ABC radio in Sydney said in response—children are occasionally kidnapped walking home from school. Do we therefore ban all children from walking home from school? Even though the ban was quickly overturned in response to a, for once, entirely reasonable response from the general public that this was in fact the nanny state run mad, it nevertheless remains true that we live in a time of unprecedented anxiety about our children. It would seem that in our attempts to protect children, we are in very real danger of taking their childhood away from them altogether.

Once those vulnerable young things hit puberty, however, it seems they are magically transformed—in the eyes of the mainstream press and politicians, at least—into thugs and hoodlums at worst, or aimless, selfish, brainless wastrels at best. We’re all familiar with recent stories of proposals to turn water cannons on young hoodlums (failed would-be Premier Colin Barnett’s words, not mine) in WA. There have been the riots in Macquarie Fields in Sydney, where the disaffected youth of the area were dismissed by the Premier of the state, no less, as simply being bad—dire social conditions, repeated and in some cases substantiated claims of continuous police harassment and 17 percent youth unemployment apparently being far too complicated matters to bother dealing with. I’m not here to defend car theft or rioting in the streets, but I think it’s singularly unhelpful, to say the least, to dismiss these young people—hundreds of them—as simply “bad”, as “hooligans”, as if naming them as such abrogates ours responsibilities to them.

Of course, the two positions represented here—over the top protectionism and A Current Affair-style demonisation—are the extremes positions held when it comes to general social attitudes towards young people. Perhaps more insidious, though, is the middle position that I would argue is in fact the default position we take regarding young people; that of a careless contempt that serves to dismiss young people from serious consideration in social discourse.

Back in December (2005), the SMH published a story about a study done by Professor Chilla Bulbeck, chair of Women’s Studies at the University of Adelaide. The study looked at the aspirations of 420 young people and their attitudes towards gender and feminism. I’m not sure the results were all that surprising for those of us who have spent any time in high schools recently—the young men wanted sexy wives, lots of money and nice cars, the young women wanted romance, family and marriage, although they by and large also assumed they’d have a career. What struck me, however, was the casual contempt expressed towards young people by the letter writers to the Herald in response to the report on the study:

More astonishing than the results is the researcher Chilla Bulbeck’s success in finding 420 teenagers who knew the kind of life they want.

All Professor Bulbeck’s study shows is that teenagers are just as clueless as they have ever been, and they always will be.

Imagine substituting “Jews” or “Aborigines” or even “men” or “women” for “teenagers” in these comments. But such offensively dismissive comments are so common when we talk about young people that we often simply don’t even notice them.

Here at last I will bring this rather long and hotly opinionated piece around to the topic at hand; the reviewing of and discussion of books for teenagers and children in the non-specialist press, and I will restate my central premise—if we don’t respect the audience, why would we respect their literature? (We can apply this argument to other categories of literature; chicklit being the obvious example, but that’s a question for another conference.)

In August of 2002, the LA Times published an article on the at-the-time new phenomena of established writers for adult venturing into writing for children. I’m not going to comment on this publishing trend here, except to say that by and large the authors interviewed for the piece had sensible and well-informed things to say about their work and their interest in writing for a younger audience. What has stayed in my head over the past two and a half years is a complete non sequiter from the journalist writing the piece. Let me read you a short quote:

Harry Potter, who conjured billions of dollars in book sales out of an age group everyone assumed was functionally illiterate, has facilitated another miracle–the American adult-kid crossover author.

Hang on—what was that? “an age group everyone assumed was functionally illiterate”? What? Who assumed this? What does this actually mean? Is it true? And what the hell does it have to do with the subject at hand anyway?

I’m sure you can all think of similar examples of such contemptuous and dismissive comments about young people. Just a few short weeks after this article was published, ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program featured an interview with Andy Griffiths to celebrate World Literacy Day. I listened with great anticipation, only to be utterly dismayed to discover that, rather than a celebration of literacy and young people’s engagement with books and reading, the entire conversation focused on the assumption that children—all children—need to be bribed into reading by giving them fart jokes. What is it that allows educated adults, like Julie McCrossin and her producers, parents themselves, to fall into these frighteningly unexamined but deeply dangerous assumptions about young people?

Here’s another doozy from a review of Joanne Horniman’s novel Mahalia, published in the SMH in September 2001. For those of you who haven’t read it, Mahalia is the story of a young man who is raising his baby as a single parent after his girlfriend takes off. Let’s leave aside for the moment the question of the quality of Horniman’s writing in this novel; the Herald certainly did. Here’s the reviewer’s assessment of Mahalia:

When can you be self-obsessed if not when you’re a young adult? And, rightfully, who are you and what you want out of life is probably a lot more interesting to a young adult than the screaming needs of someone not much younger than yourself… Although touching at times, to most young readers it will be as interesting a pile of nappies.

What really worries me about these off-the-cuff comments, which I suppose are meant to be witty, and about these unexamined assumptions that simply merge into the accepted discourse about young people—they’re lazy, they’re uneducated, they can’t read—is that they are attitudes we all know only too well politicians, bouyed up by a conservative press, are only too happy to exploit. So the next time an education minister launches a literacy scare—and have you noticed how often schools funding is tied to literacy scares?—or a Premier tries to hide the chronic failings of social policy behind inflammatory language, or the RSL calls for the return of compulsory national service, remember—you read it in the literary pages first.

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