Sunday, May 29, 2005

Ursula LeGuin, & "juvenile fiction"

I have been thinking about the classification "juvenile fiction" over the past few days. Partially it's because of going to the Bookfest, & seeing on the JF table books by Dickens, Mark Twain, Sir Walter Scott, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Jack London, H.G. Wells et al. Look at any of the myriad homogenous editions of (out of copyright) "Classics", & the presence there of books like Aesop's Fables or Lewis Carroll's two Alices alongside the above authors indicates the market they are aimed at. Though I doubt very much if any of the authors felt they were writing for a juvenile market.

But more particularly my thoughts have been provoked because I've been reading the last two books in Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series. They've been sitting on my shelves for a while now, waiting for me to get around to reading them, probably bought in a trawling through a second-hand bookshop where I tend to buy a number of books at once, to be read 'later'. These days I usually only read detective stories immediately I buy them, & buy them new. The paucity of bookshops in this place is one impediment; but the other is I would rapidly drive myself bankrupt if I started buying online, so I stay away from that.

The Wizard of Earthsea, the first in the series, was first published outside the U.S. under a Puffin Books imprint, the juvenile arm of Penguin. The latest, The Other Wind, by Orion Children's Books. But these books are anything but juvenile. The classics mentioned earlier are now probably re-categorised because of certain simplicities; they deal with reasonably clear-cut good vs evil, full of adventure in which good triumphs, full of supposed manly characteristics & male values. Most of them were written by men. & looking around me it would seem as if nothing much has changed – the Hobbits, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Tom Cruise. Even in pop music most of the "strong" women adopt a subservient stance, that of boys' toy – "Fuck me daddy, cos I'm your whore".

LeGuin challenges all this. She challenges the assumed power of men & the role-modelling, the gender stereotypes. Delineations are blurred. (In another LeGuin novel, the brilliant The Left Hand of Darkness, people are latent androgynes, taking on defined sexual characteristics only at estrus.) In LeGuin's Earthsea, the preferred power is something people possess as individuals, that comes from inside them, not from without. She writes about sorcery - without swords – but surrounds it with the universals: seasons, trees, injury, crops, animals, love, respect, dragons, discomfort. (Okay, I concede that real fire-breathing dragons are not everyday items, but the dragon-myth is universal.) She does not write down, & because of that her appeal is across the ages, in all meanings of the phrase.

& if it does get categorised as juvenile fiction, & read by the audience it is supposed to be for, then perhaps there is hope that some that come through will be a little less closed by prejudice, a little more open to change.

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