In Defence of the Present Tense

On September 8th, at Homerton College, Cambridge, Philip Pullman gave a lecture on Philippa Pearce and Tom’s Midnight Garden, choosing the concept of time as his main focus.

As expected, the lecture was brilliant: funny, erudite and confident. Judging by the questions asked after the lecture, the most controversial aspect of Pullman’s talk was his take on the current ‘trend’ for narratives for children and teenagers in the present tense.

‘I see texts in the present tense everywhere,’ he declared, ‘whereas when I was young they didn’t exist. Recently, I visited a Creative Writing class at a university and almost all students were writing in the present tense. When I asked the teacher why that was the case, he admitted he hadn’t even noticed.’

While not directly attacking such narratives, he made no mystery of the fact that he was in favour of the ‘conventional’ past tense. The audience’s responses were interestingly mixed. Someone said – strangely – that she was currently writing in the present tense, despite the fact that she didn’t like reading in the present tense. Other people made bold assumptions that ‘young people’ now preferred the present tense because of the immediacy and the spectacular aspect of that tense. Translation: young people now live solely in the present and need constant stimulation to be able to read (if they manage it at all). Finally, someone laid the blame on a vicious circle at the level of the authors, who ‘feel obliged’ to write in the present tense. Pullman elegantly refrained from making any definite judgement on the matter.

I’m ambivalent. The present tense has never bothered me, either when I read, or as a ‘concept’. In French, my mother tongue, you can write a narrative in more tenses – two different forms of past, and the present (not mentioning the very experimental future tense). Writing in the ‘simple past’ (which is ironically absurdly complicated) makes for a ‘classical’, formal narrative. Writing in the ‘composed past’ is the most informal, relaxed form of narrative (Young Nicholas is an example). Writing in the present tense isn’t connotated either way – you can mould it to make it sound grand, philosophical and nouveau roman, or to make it sound fun, immediate and energetic. A neutral tense, in other words.

It’s a bit easy to assign a form of ideology or social commentary to the present tense. Yeah, it’s tempting to say that it will appeal to people who live in the here and now, refusing to look behind and to pay their respects to their elders. It’s tempting to blame reality TV and live events and the Internet (vade retro).

But we can also look at it another way. Suspension of disbelief in the present tense may actually be more difficult than in the past tense. It might require more imaginative skills than the past tense, and a better ability to navigate between different temporal levels. Especially as narratives in the present tense are often full of flashbacks and flash-forwards. What if narratives in the present tense were actually more complex and demanded more sophisticated reading skills?

Being multimodal young adults constantly plugged in to our iPods, constantly receptive to current affairs, constantly reactive, might very well enhance our ability to imagine ourselves everywhere and everywhen at the same time. Reading and writing in the present tense isn’t necessarily a blind declaration of carpe diem.

by Clementine

The Literary Equivalent of Clean Knickers

 One thing an e-reader was supposed to do was to remove ‘library anxiety’ – otherwise known as the worry that people will judge you by the book you read. Unfortunately I seem to suffer from this unfortunate ailment more than ever before, since my kindle wormed its way into the heart of my commute.

You see, all I seem to be able to read on it, is – for lack of a better word – trash (see episode two). If I purchase something on there I deem good, I immediately have to rush out and buy a paper copy. If it is something that I know will be good, or I will read more than once, then of course I want it in a form I can lend to people. In a form that feels much more substantial than a file on an e-reader, that I can read without having to charge a battery. One of my favourite things about my kindle is that it is an ideal receptacle for books that I want to/have to read, but would never deign to give shelf space to. They are all available and there for me to read, but hidden away. Being someone who ruthlessly judges others by what they read, e-readers also perform the function of hiding the fact that I am reading a children’s book/chick lit/Twilight. I can sit on the tube, happily caught up in Alex Rider’s latest adventures or Bella’s incessant whining and no one around me is any the wiser. I could be reading War and Peace for all they know. When I started to read books like that on my kindle, the frequently judgemental looks from other passengers stopped. Any lover of children’s books who uses public transport must be well used to these ‘looks’ by now. They are usually given by women in suits.

However, this has given rise to a new anxiety – one that I didn’t expect. I now spend entire journeys worrying that if I died, like, right now, and all that was left to know me by was my kindle, people would think I was an uncultured, unrefined pleb whose library solely consisted of paranormal romance, Jilly Cooper-esque romps and a couple of token free classics (that the examiner would assume were unread). My spirit would be there screaming ‘go to my house! There are adult books there! Proper ones! Middlemarch and everything!’ If I was reading a print copy of the paranormal romance they might (quite rightly) speculate that I had a broad taste in reading and this was only part of it. But the many many books on a kindle could be assumed to be representative of your general taste in books….

This is a literary version of the always-wear-clean-knickers-in-case-you-get-hit-by-a-bus anxiety, if you will. Clearly it is unlikely that if the tube crashed the kindle would survive. And it is also clear that this all arises from my own biblio-snobbery, and if I were a little less judgemental about others I would probably be less worried about being judged myself.

But as I am unlikely to succeed in dropping the snobbery any time soon I will continue to worry and have a spare copy of Jane Eyre in my bag. Just in case. And nice knickers on – of course.

By Lauren

Reality check: the Oslo massacre and the Hunger Games

A friend and fellow PhD student is currently reading the Hunger Games trilogy, and she’s reading it compulsively, as required by the book itself.

When we first heard about the terrible Oslo massacre of July 22nd, she sent me the following email:

it is watching things like this on the news that make me never want to think about how i ‘enjoyed’ the hunger games!

It is a controversial thing to say, but I was immediately struck by how true it sounded. I hadn’t even thought of making such an association, but now that she’d made it, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Of course there is absolutely no direct link between the Hunger Games and the shooting perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik. But watching the news and listening to the horrifying testimonies of the teenagers and young adults present on Utoya island during the seemingly neverending shooting, I cannot help but think, just like my friend did – This is what a cold, organised, mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like, and really feels like.

This is the kind of circumstances when you realise that the enjoyment of fiction can powerfully anaesthetise us to the real equivalent of what it portrays. The Hunger Games plays on both modern and ancient fears to force us to watch a horrible, but oh-so-compulsively-watchable, theatre of child and adolescent sacrifice. It is an artificial construction, of course – no less than a chimera to be enjoyed and feared at the same time. The teenagers in the Hunger Games are unnaturally equipped to deal with thoughts of death. They face it, they give it, they fight against it. Our fear and delight in reading about their endeavour is safely enclosed within the dystopian universe of the books.

And as a friend pointed out recently during a conversation, the hype surrounding the upcoming Hunger Games film is giving rise to a strangely morbid display of young actors and actresses whose roles are just numbers, on the model of ‘Laura Smith, n.3 – runs into trouble at the Cornucopia’. Understand: this pouty Californian blonde dies within the first ten minutes of the movie. But look at her! It’s her first big Hollywood part! She doesn’t die, of course – only her character, so that’s ok.

And suddenly we are interrupted in our desensitised reading of adolescent death by the occurrence of the unimaginable: scores of real, tangible, material adolescent deaths. Deaths that will entirely rewrite the history of the country, that will forever prevent hundreds of friends and relatives from living a normal life.

Of course there is nothing wrong with reading the Hunger Games. Of course we need catharsis, and we need fiction to meddle with our vision of reality and deal with its excesses. And of course the Hunger Games does not defend murder – it denounces it.

But when faced with such a brutal reality check, I am uncomfortable and uncertain. I will draw no conclusions other than ‘This is what the mass killing of a country’s young people really looks like.’

by Clementine – first posted on the Cambridge Children’s Literature Students’ Blog

Why All The Education?

An interesting thing about children’s books – when compared to adults’ books – is the strange preoccupation people seem to have with the notion that children’s books should be educational. A child should learn from reading a particular book; it must enhance their reading skill, widen their vocabulary or teach them a moral lesson – enjoyment is not enough. At the Children’s Book Circle talk referred to in episode two of Kid You Not librarians and teachers talked of the responsibility that authors and publishers have. The implicit meaning was that this responsibility is of an educational and moral nature.

So, what I want to know is, why is it not ok for something to just be a good story? Even incredibly controversial books by authors like Melvin Burgess are almost overpoweringly didactic. No one finishes Junk and thinks ‘you know what, drugs might be ok’. This trend for ‘challenging but moral’ seems to be on the rise – a twenty-first century version of the repentant schoolgirls in the religious tracts that were the first examples of books for children. Maybe children’s literature never advanced from its beginnings as an educational tool in the first place – but then the anarchic books of the 1960s and 70s would contradict this. Texts such as the Beano and authors like Roald Dahl revelled in rebellion and the snubbing of authority, and can hardly be said to be useful for the moral education of a child – however brilliant they are.  Scholar Dennis Butts observed this trend, and put forward the theory that a sense of moral responsibility in children’s literature has followed a pendulum pattern, swinging from wildly didactic in the first place, mellowing to the authority despising texts of the mid-twentieth century, and now moving back into a more veiled didacticism.

Clearly, even in Roald Dahl’s texts the bad get their comeuppance and the good prosper – but authority can be defeated as George’s Marvellous Medicine shows. Compare this to current books as diverse as Horrid Henry and Doing It. Whilst both may revel in youthful mischief (of varying kinds), adult sensibilities permeate the entire experience and conquer the narrative. The fun is not allowed to overpower the moral prerogative.

It is clear that books help shape a child’s life – indeed Francis Spufford was built by his. But so do a lot of things: television, parents, friends … I am not suggesting that children’s literature should be bereft of moral substance or educational worth, that it has no role at all in educating its readers. Just questioning why every book has to be concerned with this responsibility – could its responsibility not be to merely entertain? Does a challenging book have to come complete with the safety net of a strict moral code?

For I believe that this attitude  forgets that, like adults, children read for different reasons. And sometimes they just want a good time.

By Lauren

Patrick Ness is the Somewhat Unsurprising Winner of the Carnegie Medal

Patrick Ness winning the Carnegie Medal was somewhat lost in the hype surrounding Pottermore (including on Kid You Not!). Author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, the Medal was won by the final book in the series Monsters of Men. Focusing on a dystopian future in which men can hear each other’s thoughts and women are outlawed, it is the story of teenagers Todd and Viola as they find themselves first lovers and then on different sides of a war. The books explore the nature and the price of war; its complexities and ambiguities; its moral dilemmas and dehumanisation. Although (still) suffering from dystopian overload, I have been a fan of these books since I first read The Knife of Never Letting Go. Original and brilliantly written, this is an uncontroversial choice for the Carnegie.

It is a shame that Ness’ voice was diminished by Potter mania, as he used his acceptance speech to lambast the government for its library closures, highlighting the importance they had played in his upbringing and childhood reading. Describing himself as ‘a child that libraries built’, he singled out Education Minister Michael Gove for his failure to oppose the closure of libraries.

As the latest in a long line of prestigious authors to protest against the closure of so many libraries it will be interesting to see whether in fact the Government – or the media – take any notice of the campaigns to prevent the policy from happening.

By Lauren

Potter, More or Less

One minute forty-nine seconds of JK Rowling interspersed with beautiful (if slightly bobo) animation leave us with more questions than answers. The highly-anticipated Pottermore website will be an interactive reading experience, with readers’ contributions feeding into the original stories. Jo promises a ‘safe’ platform, full of extra details probably drawn from her many notebooks of background and biographical information. For the moment, what we know from the Leaky Cauldron, one of the most famous fansites in the Pottersphere, is that we’ll learn more about Professor McGonagall’s and the Dursleys’ backstories; that we’ll be sorted into houses; and that we’ll get a ‘unique’ wand. Many more ‘official leaks’ can no doubt be expected in the near future.

How will this interactive world unfold? We can be sure that the academic and publishing world will be watching extremely carefully. Too close to a video game, and it will betray the nature of literature, the dwindling of which everyone already deplores; too close to a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story and we’ll feel like we’re back in the nineties. The designers will need to work their way cautiously between these two pitfalls.

Of course Pottermore will also be a platform for selling ebooks and, potentially, more derived Harry Potter products. Are we heading towards a new publishing trend where the gap between paper books and their e-twins will need to be bridged by imaginative marketing strategies, enlarging the reading experience to a tree of endless real and virtual ramifications? Straddling Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the creative minds behind Pottermore are clearly tech-savvy and ready to embrace viral paths to success.

With Pottermore we can expect more definitional issues for academics. ‘Reading’, ‘literature’, ‘books’, ‘narrative’, ‘reader’ – what becomes of these signifiers when they come to encapsulate such a wide variety of signifieds? With one foot on pulped wood and the other one in the binary void, literature is still groping around for balance. In this precarious equilibrium, publishers, authors, agents, and academics find themselves in challenging times. Pottermore is more than Potter: it is a glimpse of the future.

by Clementinealso posted on

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Episode One: The Making Of

As a little teaser in advance of the release tomorrow, we thought we’d provide you with a brief account of our experience making the first episode of Kid You Not!

Given that neither of us had any previous experience with audio software or microphones it was an interesting Saturday in which we finally met to record the first episode. All the planning and research had been the easy part. Connecting the microphone to the computer was a little more challenging, as was working out how to reduce feedback on it and what all the buttons did…

After all this hard work we decided it was time for lunch in a local pub (before the harder work started). It seemed easier to tackle on a full stomach – anything is easier to handle after chips.

After playing around with the microphone and the audio software for long enough to work out how to make sure Clem’s voice was not ten times louder than mine, the recording finally began! We had a tentative start as we got used to the sound of our own voices and a couple of technical glitches. By the time we had finished both of us were convinced that we were going to need to start again – I could have sworn that we kept wandering off the point and that I didn’t phrase things at all as I meant them to. But when we listened to the material (to see which bits we needed to re-record) it wasn’t anywhere near what we had thought we had recorded! It was actually pretty close to what we had intended in the first place…

A lot of peppermint tea and audio aggravation later we had a roughly edited first episode. Just a little bit more polishing, and we have Kid You Not Episode One: Surely That’s Not a Children’s Book

We learnt a lot making the first episode; hopefully future ones will not require quite as much confusion or peppermint tea.

By Lauren