The Purpose of Literature – and Who Cares?
A speech delivered by Natalie Babbitt for the Ann Carroll Moore Lecture at the New York Public Library, 1989.
Last summer I gave a speech at the annual children’s book conference at Simmons College in Boston, and afterwards, during the question-and-answer period, a young woman asked me why I don’t write books about the current societal problems of American children. She was especially concerned, she said, about poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse. These were topics, she said, that needed to be treated in books for children because such books could help children to deal with them. My answer was, I’m afraid, rather knee-jerk and glib. “That” I said grandly, “is not the purpose of literature.”
I have been thinking about that question, and my answer to it, ever since. And then, only a couple of weeks ago, in The New York Times Book Review, an essay by Mark Jonathan Harris raised it once again. He suggested – and I more or less quote – that “because there are no easy solutions to [social problems]. . . most writers simply avoid dealing with [them]” and warned that “it is critical that we not disdain or ignore the experience of one-fifth of our children.” Again I found myself saying, but only to myself this time, thank goodness, “That is not the purpose of literature.” But I began to realize that unless I could satisfy myself as to what the purpose of literature is, it wasn’t much use to say what it isn’t.
By the way, please do not think for one instant that I take lightly the terrible conditions under which so many American children are living. In a time of great change in Eastern Europe, with a chance at last for freedom and democracy in places where things have been very dark for a long, long time, we have these sorrows here, and it is difficult to make sense of the contrast. The changes in Europe are new and exciting, the sorrows here are as old as time and as resistant to solution. But the purpose here is not to talk about the sorrows themselves. The purpose is to talk about literature.
One of the things that makes the children’s book field different from the adult book field is that there are a number of implied responsibilities for us that are simply never thought of by adult writers. All writers are expected, and rightly so, to keep their work free of any personal racism, sexism, or religious bias. But beyond that, I don’t think people who write fiction for adults give much if any thought to being helpful or useful to their readers. The old maxim that says writers should write about what they know is in full sway, just as much as it ever was, and so subjects and settings and points of view are just as varied as they ever were. It’s hard to imagine anyone seriously suggesting – in an Authors Guild meeting, for instance – that everyone from Tom Wolfe to Judith Krantz should start writing about poverty and drugs and sexual abuse, even though these terrible problems are making as least as many adults miserable as children. Writers for adults would probably say – though this is only conjecture on my part since I haven’t asked any of them – I would have, but I don’t know any – they would probably say that they are writing in response to an inner impulse, as opposed to one or another need on the part of the reading public.
There have been books for adults written in direct response to pressing social problems. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one. Another is The Grapes of Wrath. But there aren’t many that have lasted. And there aren’t many that are written simply to be sympathetic. They tend to be written out of moral outrage, and they are directed at the general public, the general reader. Their object is to make a noise and bring about social change, and some have been remarkably successful at this. Then, once the problem has either been solved or has faded into unimportance, most of these books disappear. I really don’t think John Steinbeck expected migrant workers to read The Grapes of Wrath and be comforted by it, any more than Harriet Beecher Stowe expected Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be read by slaves.
The novels of Charles Dickens have lasted, and you could argue that Dickens always wrote about pressing social problems. But it’s not the same thing. He wrote often about the miseries of his own childhood, and in doing so, he was following the maxim: he was writing about what he knew, from his own experience, and his own experience is what brings the passion and the truth to his characters and makes them durable.
But the young woman at the Simmons conference and Mark Jonathan Harris in his Times essay, were not suggesting that writers for children address the general public and raise a cry for change. They were suggesting, unless I misunderstood them, that we write for the children themselves with the idea of bringing directly to them sympathy, encouragement, and the realization that they are not alone. These things are extremely important. They are things that fiction can bring to readers of any age who suffer from any kind of problem. But only if, like Dickens’s novels, they are full of truth. Truth would make enormous difficulties for the average writer. What is being suggested is a tall order for those who have not undergone themselves the particular, specific miseries that plague so many of today’s children. It requires either a great leap of the imagination on the one hand or, on the other hand, research of a kind to which most writers would be understandably reluctant to submit themselves. It is an order that leads a writer away from the general to focus on the particular – to write directly to the present needs of one segment of the child population, to think specifically of the audience, to find motivation outside his own life. It is an order that could be filled far more effectively and efficiently by social workers and psychologists than by writers of fiction. The world in which we live, which produces the problems of children, cannot be changed by writers of children’s books because children’s books are not read by the general public, and the general public is the only part of the population with the power to make changes. Children have no power.
And there is another uncomfortable piece to this tall order: it may preclude the creation of good fiction. So, well, what is good fiction anyway, and why bother with it when there are children in need for whom it may be useless? Might it not be better to bring to those children some sense that they are not alone, than to worry about creating good fiction? Talk about tall orders! At this point, in preparing this paper, I began to wish I’d chosen to talk about something easy, like fantasy. I’m not a critic, and any definition of literature from me is bound to be as full of holes as an old screen door. Is literature fiction that in some way enlarges the soul, by which I mean that it somehow takes the reader beyond his own life and his own experience and shows him how human beings are alike rather than how they are different? Maybe. A poet, whose name I am sorry to say I cannot remember, said recently on television that if you reach down deeply enough into your own psyche, you come to the place where the things you write about are no longer personal but universal. That was good, I thought. That was maybe a satisfying definition of good fiction: it goes beyond the personal into the universal.
But — what’s the use of universals to a child made miserable by the dreary facts of his own immediate existence? Who cares what the soul is doing when the body is besieged by present dangers? Maybe it’s a luxury to try to enlarge a soul. Maybe the only souls that can be enlarged are souls in comfortable, well-fed bodies, for there’s an old saying that when poverty comes in through the door, love goes out the window. To which I would add that along with love goes philosophy. Maybe those of us who have been fond of saying that all writing is alike, regardless of the intended audience, are full of hot air. It may be true that those who write fiction for adults have no responsibility towards their readers, but it may be equally true that someone who writes fiction for children does have responsibilities and should be drummed out of the field if he doesn’t make an effort to meet them.
And yet – you see, I have this deeply-held conviction, with no clear idea of where it came from, that you can’t write a decent book if the subject or theme is prescribed from the outside, by something beyond your experience and your own truths and passions. And so you can see that for me, all this is difficult and complicated. And in addition to all the stuff about trying to enlarge the soul, and trying to meet the immediate needs of the reader, there is a whole other element which we’d better not forget, and that is that a book has to be a pleasure to read. If a book isn’t first of all a pleasure, then it can’t do any good no matter how literary it may be or how useful to present needs, because nobody will read it.
Given all these demands, it’s a wonder anyone ever undertakes the writing of fiction at all, at least fiction for children. It may in fact be impossible to write a book for children which meet all three of these requirements. It may be impossible to enlarge the soul, meet present and specific needs, and please the reader all at the same time.
In my own case, there is no way to meet with any honesty the present and specific needs of those children referred to by the young woman at the Simmons conference and by Mark Jonathan Harris. I don’t avoid dealing with them because there are no easy solutions. I avoid them because I don’t know, first-hand, anything about them. On a scale of one-to-ten, I am a five. I’ve never been rich, but I’ve never been really poor, either. The only homelessness 1 know anything about is the kind you experience in moving, when you’ve left the old place but are not yet installed in the new. The only drug I’ve ever struggled with is nicotine. And I’ve never gone hungry.
There are thousands and thousands of people just like me. But just because we are fives, it doesn’t follow that we are innocent lambs, untouched by life. And it doesn’t mean that we are numb. We may fall somewhere between the Bronte sisters and Ernest Hemingway in terms of experience of the world, but we are still human. And so, in direct proportion to how long we’ve been around – well, if you’ve ever moved, you know how the moving companies rate your furniture on their work sheets before they put it into the van; “Chipped, scratched, marred.” And I’m sure we would all like to think that we have learned maybe not a lot, but something.
Here is one thing I’ve learned: My grandson, at fifteen months, brings out in me feelings I was too young and too busy to face with my own children when they were his age. His beauty is humbling; his trustingness, his vulnerability, his very littleness – these things are sometimes almost more than I can bear. Because I know, now, what I didn’t really know with my own children: no power on earth can protect him from life. No matter what is done for him, no matter how much he is loved, and educated, and supplied with books and music and attention to the needs of his soul and his body, he is doomed, simply because he is human, to suffer loneliness, disappointment, anger, despair, confusion, and pain. I yearn to protect him, but I know that protection is impossible.
He will share these common human woes with every other child in the world, to a greater or lesser degree, because all are human. But fortunately this is not all he will share. He will also share common human joys. For there is joy around, always. It is a blighted life indeed which has never known a joy of any kind, and books are not for lives like that. Those lives need a kind of care and attention no writer of fiction can provide, however well-intentioned.
So I think a work of fiction, for children especially, needs to present life as it really is: a mixture of joy and sorrow, of the solvable and the unsolvable, of the simple and the complicated. I hope my grandchild will be a reader and that he will learn something about the contradictions of life from books before he is thrust out to learn the same thing firsthand.
Thinking about all this, however, brought me no closer to defining the purpose of literature or even what literature is. In desperation, I finally said to my husband – to whom I don’t like to admit I am stumped – “Sam,” I said, “what is the purpose of literature?” He looked surprised by the question. “Literature has hundreds of purposes,” he said. And he should know. He has a PhD in it.
This was plenty discouraging. It threw me right back onto my own recognizance. Once there, I had to admit that what I used to think the definition of literature was, is plain and simple twaddle. I used to think that literature was the top layer of fiction – the layer that was going to last, or already had lasted, for generations. Up in that layer was The Odyssey and War and Peace and The Golden Bowl and Dombey and Son and – well, you get the gist. I used think that all writers should strive to create what I was calling literature because everything else was temporary, if not downright trashy. I was wrong. Literature is simply fiction, some good, some not so good, depending on who’s doing the choosing, and – it has hundreds of purposes.
It’s twaddle to say that writers should sit down and try deliberately to create work of lasting value, and that, by so trying, they should avoid dealing with the social problems of the moment because if they do, their work is doomed to eventual obscurity. If there’s anything to be learned in our present-day world, it’s that “lasting value” is a term of dubious significance. I’ve still got my mother’s old metal kitchen grater. It has four sides and a handle on top, and you can grate cheese and slice cucumbers with it, and one side has large perforations with such wickedly sharp edges that it looks like a medieval instrument of torture. I don’t know what that side is for. My mother probably got this tool when she was married in 1928, so it’s 61 years old and still going strong. It has survived my mother, and it will survive me. That’s lasting value for you. It is still possible to create kitchen tools of lasting value, but nobody, least of all me, can say what will make a work of fiction survive. And even if we could, I defy any writer to create, by an act of will, a work with any built-in guarantee. As a motive for writing, that would be arrogant nonsense. The ages will decide what lasts, not the writer.
So – literature has hundreds of purposes and I for one no longer care. But one question remains: Do we, as writers for children, really have any special responsibility? We do. We have a responsibility to do the very best work we’re capable of. And I still think that means we should each stick to what we know, and do what we do best. Some of us will write movingly and effectively about the current societal problems of children and may be able to bring comfort to those children if only by showing them they are not alone. Some of us will write funny books, light-hearted books, and thank goodness for them! Some of us will write about ideas and snippets of philosophy we find puzzling and interesting. Some of us will write about sports, or the solving of cops-and-robbers mysteries, or aliens from outer space, or dinosaurs. All of it will be literature, all fiction. All will serve one purpose or another. Some will be good, some not so good, again depending on who’s doing the choosing. But, for pity’s sake, let us hope that these books will first and foremost bring pleasure to their readers, regardless of which of the hundreds of purposes they serve, because otherwise it won’t matter what they’re about, or whether they’re good or not so good, and it won’t matter whether a given writer spent ten weeks or ten years writing one of them because no child will bother to read them. And if a child is forced to read one in school, he will forget it as quickly as possible afterwards.
Maybe, after all, there is one single purpose for literature – one foremost purpose, anyway. Maybe the giving of pleasure is the purpose. I find I could care about that. The purpose of literature is to give pleasure to the reader. I will leave it to somebody else to define what pleasure is. It could be a topic for some other paper: what is the purpose of pleasure? I hope nobody will ask me to deal with it.