May 10, 2020

Twaddle and Other Categories

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It seems to me that educators influenced by Charlotte Mason may sometimes try to pack too much into the term “twaddle,” as if the distinction between twaddle and living books is the only distinction that matters, or as if these are the only two options and a book must be one or the other.

In fact, there are several other ways of classifying books, none of which are the same as the twaddle vs. living book distinction:

(1) Poorly written vs. well-written. A book may be poorly written — the author doesn’t tell his story entirely coherently; it doesn’t flow as well as it could; there are grammatical errors — and yet not be twaddle.

For instance, the diary of an American pioneer might not be well written, a great work of literature, but that doesn’t mean that it is then twaddle. It might, in fact, be a living book, full of interest and ideas and observations and life.

On the other hand, I suppose a book may be relatively well written — at least as far as grammar an syntax are concerned — and still be twaddle because of its tone and the way it talks down to the child. The condescension may be grammatically correct, but it’s still condescension.

(2) Easy reading vs. more challenging reading (and, of course, everything in between). What is easy reading for a 9 year old may not be for a 6 year old, mind you. But being easy reading doesn’t make something twaddle. Arnold Lobel’s Frog & Toad story “Cookies” is easy reading, but it’s certainly not twaddle and as an adult, I still enjoy it.

(3) Light fiction vs. “heavier” fiction: Light fiction isn’t just easy reading; in fact, it may use just as many big words or complex sentences as “heavier” fiction. But it’s written more for fun, while what I’m calling “heavier” fiction is more serious, often dealing with weightier or “darker” topics.

P. G. Wodehouse’s books are light fiction and are certainly not twaddle, and Wodehouse is regarded by many as one of the greatest writers — the greatest English stylists — of the 20th century. National Review, when they heard that the Modern Library was trying to list the best 100 novels of the 20th century, wrote: “P. G. Wodehouse wrote 96 novels. What are the other four?”

I suspect that when some people say, “I’m okay with my kids reading some twaddle,” they really mean “I’m okay with them reading light fiction, not sticking only to the classics.” But light fiction isn’t necessarily twaddle or poorly written or not worth spending your time on.

(4) Big themes vs. little themes: A book may deal with some very small themes and yet be a living book. Similarly, a book may tackle big themes and yet not be a living book. Many children’s Bible story books deal with some of the biggest themes of all, but they’re still twaddle because, for instance, they’re written down to the children. Encyclopedias deal with big themes, too, but while they aren’t twaddle, they also aren’t living books.

(5) Serious vs. fun/light-hearted: Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and Dostoevsky are very serious writers, and they’re worth reading. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and P. G. Wodehouse are often *not* serious, certainly not somber, often very funny — and they’re worth reading, too. None of these authors wrote twaddle.

Interestingly, Charlotte Mason wrote:

Books of “comicalities cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have “funny books,” but do not give the children too much nonsense reading” (Home Education, 151-152).

As far as I can tell “Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy” is actually Wilhelm Busch’s “Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Corinth,” which is a poem and cartoon strip. CM would probably have known it in the form it appears in Busch’s A Bushel of Merrythoughts.

We might glance at this and declare immediately that it’s twaddle. But not Charlotte Mason. She calls it “irresistible,” thinks it’s fine for children to read, but doesn’t think they’ll “live over” it. In short, CM doesn’t think it’s a living book, but she also doesn’t seem to think it’s twaddle either and certainly doesn’t want such a silly book rejected (“They must have ‘funny books'”).

This is very important to understand: CM apparently doesn’t think that a book is necessarily either twaddle or living, or that if a book isn’t living it is therefore twaddle. In this passage, at least, she identifies a book as a “must have” in a sense, though it isn’t a living book. Not living, not twaddle. Just a sort of book you don’t want to give too much of to your child.

(6) Genre fiction vs. whatever the opposite of that might be: Some people, I suspect, think that just because a book is a mystery or science fiction or fantasy or horror or a western or a thriller, it’s not literature and therefore is, by default, twaddle. And yet much of the world’s greatest literature really is genre fiction.

So just because a children’s book is fantasy and light fiction at that (e.g., Edward Eager’s Half Magic) doesn’t mean that it’s twaddle.

(7) Formulaic/predictable fiction vs. non-formulaic, outside the box, groundbreaking fiction.

C. S. Lewis points out that in the Middle Ages, creativity wasn’t seen as dreaming up something brand new, inventing a brand new literary style, telling a story that had never been told before. Rather, creativity involved reworking older sources and doing something new with them.

Arguably, Lewis’s own novels were creative in just this way, drawing on and responding to (including responding negatively to) other people’s works.
A great writer may write something more or less predictable or even formulaic, but still add literary quality and depth and freshness to it.

So, for instance, August Derleth’s The Moon-Tenders is a fairly formulaic children’s mystery novel. There are two boys who are close friends who discover something strange happening and who solve the mystery, after a certain amount of peril.

But what makes the novel outstanding is both the depth of characterization — these are real people, not cardboard cutouts, and in fact are based on Derleth himself and his closest friend — and the way the setting is described.

Derleth is known today, I suspect, primarily as the writer who edited and published and added to H. P. Lovecraft’s work, but he himself would have told you that he had devoted pretty much his entire writing career to describing life in and around Sauk City, Wisconsin, which he in all of his works called Sac Prairie, and that devotion underlies all the little details that make Sac Prairie — seen through the eyes of a boy around twelve years of age — so vivid in The Moon-Tenders.

Formulaic and predicable? Yes, in one sense. But also far richer than the Hardy Boys.

Similarly, Margery Fisher, in Intent Upon Reading, talks about various children’s mystery novels and points out how certain ones are outstanding, how some break free from the formula but how others, while working within the basic formula, shine because of the beauty of the writing, the depth of characterization, the balance and proportion of the novel, the authenticity of the historical or geographical setting, and so forth.

(8) Series fiction vs. stand-alone novels: Yes, many series decline in quality and become repetitive as they go on. That may be true, for instance, of The Boxcar Children. But it’s not universally true. Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series lasted for 20 volumes, each of which is extremely well-written, none of which is repetitive.

(9) Immoral books vs. moral: A book may be literature, not twaddle at all, and yet be immoral in that it encourages readers to enjoy or even embrace immoral behavior.

For instance, there might be a novel in which a character commits adultery and the reader is expected to see that as a liberating choice, the woman breaking free from her dull, boring husband and “discovering herself,” or something like that. No matter how well written the book is, it’s aimed at promoting something immoral.

On the other hand, you might have a very moral book, a book aimed at promoting good behavior in children, that talks down to children, that’s smarmy and goody-goody … and it seems to me that in at least some passages, these are in particular the sorts of books CM spoke of as twaddle.

I hasten to add, too, that a moral book is not a book about good people doing good things. A moral book may, in fact, be a book about wicked people doing wicked things. On this, see G. K. Chesterton’s essay “Tom Jones and Morality.”

(10) “Bad” books … or just okay books vs. great books: Here “bad” and “good” aren’t moral categories but refer rather to the overall quality of the book. C. S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, says that the test of a good book is whether you can read it again with enjoyment and profit.  The science fiction and fantasy author Gene Wolfe has said, “My definition of good literature is that which can be read by an educated reader, and reread with increased pleasure.”

As a general rule, I don’t buy books I don’t intend to reread or have one child after another read (and reread). If it’s a “read only once” book, we can get it from the library.

(11) Minor vs. Major: There are major authors, authors whose names and books are instantly identified as “classics,” authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth, Austen and Dickens.

But there are also minor authors, authors whose books are worth reading but who don’t quite reach the heights of greatness that some other authors do. I suspect few critics would regard Charlotte Yonge as highly as Jane Austen, but that doesn’t mean that Yonge isn’t worth reading, let alone that she doesn’t write “living books.”

Furthermore, even great authors do not consistently turn out great books. Barchester Towers is a great book, a classic, but not everything Anthony Trollope wrote is up to that standard. Some of his other works are major, but some of them are decidedly minor.

That’s true even of a writer as great as Shakespeare: Macbeth and King Lear and Hamlet are major plays; Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a minor work — and even Henry V, beloved by so many, is (as my Shakespeare prof said) really not a play but a series of great speeches tied together by some summaries of what’s happened in between.

You’re also not going to have your child read every play by Shakespeare. Some are just not suitable for children, and some of his plays are just not all that great (e.g., Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus), and some are suitable only for older children (I’d put Romeo and Juliet and Othello in that category, although they are great plays!).  Charlotte Mason and the PNEU had students read a lot of Shakespeare, but only certain plays were assigned.

But as with minor writers, so with minor books by an author. They are still worth reading. Just because something is a minor book — or even a minor book by a minor author — doesn’t mean it’s not a “living book.”

For that matter, it can even be a delightful thing to track down some minor writers, to discover good books by writers now long forgotten whose works are not numbered among the classics.

You might really enjoy a minor writer, even more than a major writer. You might find that you prefer Mrs. Oliphant or Charlotte Yonge to Thomas Hardy. You may prefer a work that people think of as “minor” to one that people think of as “major.”

Everyone thinks of Jane Eyre as Charlotte Bronte’s major work, but I enjoyed her novel Shirley — her minor novel — more. For that matter, my favorite Bronte isn’t Charlotte (Jane Eyre) or Emily (Wuthering Heights) but their lesser-known sister, Anne (Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall). She may be regarded as minor, but she’s the one I like best.

Not one of these classifications is the identical to what CM meant by “twaddle vs. living books.” But I think it’s good for us to keep these ways of categorizing books in mind — and there may be several other classifications, as well — so that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that, e.g., if our daughter is reading an Agatha Christie novel, which is light fiction and genre fiction and part of a series, she must be reading “twaddle.”

Posted by John Barach @ 7:16 am | Discuss (4)

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