Or: Why I Read "Children's" Books (Disclaimer: Many of my thoughts are stolen from Chesterton, Sayers, Lewis, Tolkien and my husband.)
Much of the reading world is being unwittingly held captive by the intellectual elite.
Humans have loved story for as long as we know. By story I mean a narrative of progressing events that follow a fairly standard arc of exposition, conflict, climax and resolution. Story, in this form, has been with us for all known history. Mythology, adventure, mystery, fairy tale and folklore have delighted us for millenia. It is the archetype of the protagonist facing seemingly unconquerable challenges and overcoming them in the end.
The narrative story arc is not a law made up by man and imposed on story. It is something seemingly inherent in man and only a "law" in the sense that it is an observable consistent pattern in the universe, like gravity. Aristotle observed it 2300 years ago, and it is still true today.
And yet modern writers treat the story arc like the "law" of some old curmudgeon that they must break, rather than a "law" of human nature that can guide us. Thus you have all kinds of modern writers who purposefully break the conventions, as if to say "ha!" to the universe. But they do so at their own peril, or they would if the intellectual elite would admit that the emperor really has no clothes on.
Someone, whom I can't remember (perhaps G.K. Chesterton), once said that stories used to be about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. The modern story is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. The shift has been made from being interested in story to being interested in psychology or society. Thus you have the psychological novel in which Ulysses wanders about Dublin all day doing nothing in particular and boring high school students to death ad infinitum.
And you have all sorts of authors writing novels in which they turn every convention they can find on its head in order to be edgy and new and artistic. And you have readers who read books in order to have their perceptions tampered with rather than to enjoy themselves. People are more concerned with a work being different than with a work being good.
But the problem with our ever-increasing literary thirst for edginess is that it all eventually becomes exhausting and boring and meaningless. For example: Thomas Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, acclaimed for being a postmodern literary breakthrough and which Time includes in its 100 best books list (which people regretably go to for their leisure reading). It is a mystery novel in which one never "solves" the mystery, beyond learning that the truth is unknowable and that all pursuit of truth is vain.
And here is the crux of why so many modern novels are so odious. Ultimately, the modern novel, which chucks story in favor of oddity, is a vehicle through which authors express their belief that all truth is ultimately unknowable, that all pursuits are meaningless, and thus our best bet is to simply create our own universe and truth to live in while we wait out the storm of life. This philosophy rejects story, as story can only exist in a universe with meaning, order, and, ultimately, God.
Not all modern novels are as extreme in their philosophy as Crying, but in their own way they are the fashionable and perhaps unwitting children of the ultimate postmodern heresy: nihilism.
On the other hand, those of us who still like our tea and crumpets, who still like to read The Wind in the Willows and Wuthering Heights are condescended to in our supposed arrested development. Tolkien said that when certain types of literature went out of fashion, they were banished to the nursery. Thus, the standard literary fare which has long nourished us is now belittled as only suitable for children:
"Now this, you may notice, implies that we are regarding as specifically childish a taste which in many, perhaps in most times and places has been that of the whole human race. Those stories from Greek or Norse mythology, from Homer, from Spenser, or from folklore which children (but by no means all children) read with delight were once the delight of everyone." C.S. Lewis, "On Juvenile Tastes"
The implication is that children have childish taste. But the truth is that children have good taste. They are the ones who have no reason to posture and pretend that the emperor has new clothes on. They have no motivation for reading books but pleasure, and thus only read what they would classify as "good."
How many of us now read not what we call "good," but what we call "compelling" or "groundbreaking" or "revolutionary" or "fascinating." Surely not all of this reading is bad, but how much of it is fueled by pretension? And how much of it really feeds our souls in a wholesome and nourishing way?
We are willingly subjecting ourselves to the tyranny of the intellectual elite. Those who say that only their "Art" is the real art and all else belongs to the small-minded masses. Afraid of being called the masses, we all pretend that the emperor is wearing clothing and that we love Ulysses and find so much artistic work deep and illuminating and moving rather than depressing, absurd and "cruddy," as my grandmother would call it.
Why must we sacrifice bread and butter stories for the alleged "adult" pursuits of higher literary works - which so often reject the possibility of story in the universe? I, for one, will not.
"When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." C.S. Lewis, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"