Fantasy for fogies

2009-11-07 00:00

HAMBURG — It is increasingly becoming regarded as cool and youthful for a person over 40 years old to read a fantasy novel aimed at the teenager market. Whether it is the vampire Edward in the Stephanie Meyers series or the Inkworld trilogy from Cornelia Funke, children’s fiction has turned into an all-generational form of literature and is selling very well.

The hype over fantasy books began with Harry Potter. In the meantime, there are four big names in the top-10 list of children’s and teenager’s authors who have succeeded in creating a form of all-encompassing literature that pleases both the young and old: Stephanie Meyer (fifth place), Cornelia Funke (third place), J.K. Rowling and Eragon author Christopher Paolini.

A debate has broken out in the arts sections of newspapers and on the Internet over “escapism” in literature. Some describe it as a flight from reality. “What is so bad when adults get a break from the real world by reading a fantasy novel?” ask others.

The pro side argues that fantasy is fun, and fairytales and flights of fantasy have always been a part of literature. Medieval myths and sagas, classics such as Alice in Wonderland or Tolkein’s Lord of the Ringshave all managed to catch the attention of both adults and children. The repeat story patterns that are commonly found in cross-over fantasies make it easy for people who do not read a lot to access a good yarn.

They also lend themselves well to serialisation and hold the attention of their loyal fans. Publishers have also been able to access new markets with cross-over titles as the children’s population falls. All-age books also deal with serious subjects such as separation and death.

Many fans find it absurd that the books have been criticised as being black and white in their presentations by what they say is a one-sided reporting by the world’s media. They also argue that good literature must not by definition be pessimistic.

Hans-Heino Ewers, director of the Institute for Children’s Literature Research at the University of Frankfurt, sees it as a positive development in the culture of literature. “Exciting and entertaining literature is no longer being perceived as merely trivial.”

However, those on the “anti” side argue that cross-over literature leads to a flight into a world where good always conquers evil, encourages escapism instead of debate and it often deals in stereotypes and simple formulas. Fantasy novels, say critics, are encouraging the infantilisation of literature and their readers and publishers are increasingly concentrating on a small number of titles to the detriment of age-specific children’s literature.

“Is something not going into decline that we will painfully miss as long as there are children, namely, a form of literature that is aimed at their needs and in the process respects their knowledge of the world and their wishes?” asks Tilman Spreckelsen in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

“Children need books that they will remember in the future,” says Renate Reichstein from the Association of Children’s Book Publishers. “Age-specific children’s literature is not being given enough importance because everyone is looking at cross-over books. We may be losing focus on the six- to 11-year-old group. That’s a terrible development.”

One question is how do such books manage to enthral young girls, mothers and a growing number of men in equal measure? Are children getting mature faster or are adults staying young longer? “Probably both,” says Martin Wambsganss, a psychologist at the University of Tubingen and visiting professor for children’s literature. He thinks the argument has been overblown: “Every book that is read is a good book.”

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