Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Sorry, Dame Stella, but you're wrong about children reading - and about social media

Dame Stella Rimmington, former head girl and ex-spy is chairing the judging panel for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I suspect that part of the job description for this chairing role is to say something controversial about literature or reading or the general state of the world through the eyes of bookish folk. And Dame Stella has obliged with a gentle rant about twitter:

Dame Stella said that while she was confident a market for fiction would still exist in 100 years, she feared many children were not growing up to be book lovers. “I think much of the Twittering and emailing and texting and all that sort of stuff that children go in for now may be taking their eyes off reading fiction. When I was young we read more than the average child reads now.”

Now I don’t wish to be too critical of such an eminent lady but she’s talking nonsense:

In the UK, the value of publishers’ sales of children’s books actually increased in 2010 by 2%, to £242m. The report shows that the value of publishers’ UK sales has been increasing year on year over the last three years, from £236m in 2008.

And this represents some 60 million books sold which makes for five books on average for each of the UK’s roughly 12 million children. OK, the kids aren’t devouring hundreds of books in the manner that Dame Stella doubtless did as a girl but they are definitely reading.

More importantly however social media – all that twittering, emailing and texting – means that children are doing something we never did (and which I suspect Dame Stella’s contemporaries didn’t do either). Children are writing to eachother. OK, they’re writing in a language that only just approximates to English and is replete with acronyms, shortened words and peculiar codes but it is written communication.

If – twenty years ago - we’d have said that the most common form of communication between young people would be written communication, the experts would have looked at us, shaken their heads and called for the men in white coats. Yet that is the reality – we have replaced the verbal communication, whether directly or via the telephone, that was the dominant feature of the decades from the 1960s to the 1990s with a mish-mash of written forms.

It seems to me that, regardless of the oddity of language involved, the growth of social media forms – facebook, twitter and so forth – makes a positive contribution to the literacy levels of young people. After all you can't play in the sandpit of social media if you can’t read or write can you!

Dame Stella’s comments reveal yet again the extent to which the literary elite are out of touch – not just with the facts about books and literacy but with what interests and excites young people about reading and writing. Yet again much chatter will be expended on the Man Booker Prize – chatter that will sail completely by the majority of folk. Why?

Because the literature involved presents an impenetrable arrogance that covers up the deeper truth – it is indulgent literary fiction that is dying out not reading. And this is because the books promoted by the literary elite are not what most people want to read. If the Man Booker Prize is to mean more it has to break out from the narrow genre into which is has crawled – it has to embrace popular fiction and recognise that just because a book doesn’t use three words that aren’t in the Concise Oxford Dictionary on the first page and has fun things like spies or wizards or vampires in it, that doesn’t make it a bad book.


No comments: