A Defence of Rubbish

“The danger of living in a golden age of children’s literature is that not enough rubbish is being produced.”

“Nobody who has not spent a whole sunny afternoon under his bed rereading a pile of comics left over from the previous holidays has any real idea of the meaning of intellectual freedom.”

“Nobody who has not written comic strips can really understand the phrase, economy of words. It’s like trying to write Paradise Lost in haiku.”

The above remarks, and a few more like them, have now haunted me for five years. They were part of a digression in a talk I gave to the 1970 Exeter conference on children’s literature, and if I’d realised then what a powder-keg I was throwing my fag-end of thought into I would have kept my trap shut. I’ve no wish to be type-cast as the man who likes rubbish. On the other hand I did (and do) believe what I said then, and what follows is a more serious attempt to formulate my ideas.

I have always believed that children ought to be allowed to read a certain amount of rubbish. Sometimes quite a high proportion of their reading matter can healthfully consist of things that no sane adult would actually encourage them to read. But I had not, until people started asking me what I really meant, attempted to defend my position or to think it out in any detail.

Definition: by rubbish I mean all forms of reading matter which contain to the adult eye no visible value, either aesthetic or educational.

First, I believe that it is very important that a child, or anybody for that matter, should have a whole culture—at least one whole culture—at her fingertips. We make no objection now to those adults who spent their youth going two or three times a week to the cinema regardless of the merit of the films shown. They have the whole of the Golden Age of the flicks at their fingertips down to the last most trivial B film and it has immensely enriched their lives and their outlook in a way which a diet which consisted solely of plums could not possibly do. Nowadays one can say the same about the pop song culture. There is good stuff on the discs, mixed in with an enormous amount of trash, but both of these are necessary to a child who is taking a serious interest in pop. The child may not realise that the interest is serious but when she grows up she will then find, with luck, that it has been and that she is the better for it. As one teacher expressed it to me at the conference, it is vital that children should have ‘all that stuff churning around in there’, and he rubbed his belly.

Second it is also especially important that a child should belong, and feel that he belongs, to the group of children among whom he finds himself and he should feel that he shares in their culture. Inevitably the group interest will be mostly rubbish. For instance, my son at the moment reads two football comics a week. I love comics, but by the standard of comics these are not much cop. Even so I do not discourage him because this gives him that essential sense of belonging to a group. To remove these comics or to attempt to discourage their reading in any way would be a socially divisive move. A child should feel that he is an individual; but he must not, if possible, feel that he is somehow set apart, especially by family taboos which are not shared by the families of the group to which he belongs. Obviously one can carry this point too far, but in the case of things like football comics I am sure that laissez-faire is the only sensible attitude.

Third I am convinced of the importance of children discovering things for themselves. However tactfully an adult may push them towards discoveries in literature, these do not have quite the treasure trove value of the books picked up wholly by accident. This can only be done by random sampling on the part of the children, and it is inevitable that a high proportion of what they read will be rubbish, by any standard. But in the process they will learn the art of comparison and subconsciously acquire critical standards, so that in the world they are discovering—even the world of football comics—they will begin to work out why one strip is ‘better’ than another and seems more fascinating and is more eagerly looked forward to than another. They may even argue about this with their friends and so make the beginning of an effort at rationalising their appreciation or dislike of cultural objects.

Fourth comes a psychological point. Children have a very varying need of security, but almost all children feel the need of security and reassurance some time. For instance, in those families where boys are sent away to boarding school it is often very noticeable that, in the first week of the holidays, the boys do not read just the books they read last holidays, but books off their younger brothers’ bookshelves. One can often tell how happy or insecure a child is feeling simply by what she is reading. And sometimes she may need to reread something well known but which makes absolutely no intellectual or emotional demand. Rubbish has this negative virtue, and I would be very chary of interfering with a child who felt an obvious need of rubbish.

My fifth point is more nebulous. There is no proof, or even arguing about it. But I am fairly sure in my own mind that a diet of plums is bad for you, and that any rational reading system needs to include a considerable amount of pap or roughage—call it what you will. I know very few adults who do not have some secret cultural vice, and they are all the better for it. I would instantly suspect an adult all of whose cultural activities were high, remote and perfect.

Sixth, it may not be rubbish after all. The adult eye is not necessarily a perfect instrument for discerning certain sorts of values. Elements—and this particularly applies to science fiction—may be so obviously rubbishy that one is tempted to dismiss the whole product as rubbish. But among those elements there may be something new and strange to which one is not accustomed, and which one may not be able to assimilate oneself, as an adult, because of the sheer awfulness of the rest of the stuff; but the innocence—I suppose there is no other word—of the child’s eye can take or leave in a way that I feel an adult cannot, and can acquire valuable stimuli from things which appear otherwise overgrown with a mass of weeds and nonsense.

I am not of course advocating a total lack of censorship. I have no doubt in my own mind that there are certain sorts of reading which are deleterious, and from which a child should be discouraged. Rubbish does not have this quality. It has absolutely no quality. It is neutral.

Nor am I advocating that children should be encouraged to read rubbish. None of the ones I know need much encouragement. All I am asking is that they should not be discouraged from reading it.

The question remains of the children whose diet appears to consist solely of rubbish. Obviously, as far as possible, they should be slightly weaned. But not totally weaned. And besides, if they did not have this diet they would not be reading at all, and in a verbal culture I think it is better that the child should read something than read nothing. And perhaps, long after the child is out of the hands of parents or teacher, the habit of reading—even the habit of reading rubbish—may somehow evoke a tendency to read things which are not rubbish. I know two or three of my contemporaries who were, by cultural standards, total philistines in their boyhood, but they used to read a considerable amount of rubbish and have now, from the habit of reading, become considerably more literate than I.

Copyright © Peter Dickinson 2002