Friday, February 17, 2017

Books for Adults: Keep Your Inner Kid (Or, Don't Be An Empty Onion)

I recently started watching a series called The Magicians...and before reaching the end of the first season I have decided to abandon it. Sorry, call me a prude, but I simply couldn't stand sitting through the sex scenes and drug abuse to get to the story, to the magic.

I've read some descriptions of this series, and as I suspected, I found a lot of "Harry Potter for adults" and "Narnia for adults."

Can we please, please, please stop saying this?

Listen, there are things that are adults-only, because they are not appropriate for younger viewers. This is why we rate movies and TV shows. We don't want someone watching something they are not emotionally developed to handle.

But something being "adults-only" is not -- I repeat, not -- the same as something being "for adults."

Folks, Harry Potter and Narnia are just as much "for adults" as they are for kids and teens.

Fantasy and fairy tales are just as much for adults as they are for kids.

There is a short story called "Eleven" by Sandra Cisneros, in which the main character (an eleven year old girl) explains getting older:

"Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one."

Yes, we change and we grow as we age and mature, but that doesn't mean we abandon magic and adventure. It doesn't mean that suddenly the only things we concern ourselves with are adults-only. Shouldn't adults be more complex than that? Shouldn't we be adding and adding, not replacing? We want to be the full set of dolls, not just the outer one. We ought to be a solid tree trunk, not a hollow one, the center eaten away by the disease of aging. Imagine an onion with only the skin, no center--flimsy and flavorless.

The irony is that The Magicians really is making an attempt to combine those things--adult themes and child-like love of magic and fairy tale. The main character is a college-age guy who hits bottom emotionally when he is forced to give up his childish belief that a storybook world is real...until he finds out that it is real, and so is magic. What a concept! But more and more the onion is losing its center as the brittle skin of sex and drugs take its place.

A story can have romance and grit and deal with deep topics. It can have cussing and darkness and rage. I love stories that dig deep and get dark. I love stories that challenge me as an adult. The thing is, I end up finding more of that in middle grade and teen literature than I do in shows like The Magicians. I don't just want gratuitous adults-only content to make me feel like I'm getting something mature. I want real complexity. I want layers.

Madeleine L'Engle said, "You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."

And "for children" means it goes deep, to the core of the onion, to the center tree ring, to the innermost doll. Stories like that work their way through the layers -- they don't stop at the outer skin. They keep us, as adults, filled from the inside out.


Krysti said...

Oh, very well said, Kat! And how timely too! This post puts into words the objections I've had to a number of shows and books I've encountered in the past five years.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Krysti!

Kessie said...

What a pithy observation. I think this is why I've had such trouble graduating to reading the adult market: so much of it is that brittle skin with nothing deeper.

Kat Heckenbach said...

I have never been called pithy before! Cool! :D

And, yeah, it seems like the focus of the stories just narrow down and shallow out.

dtwrites77 said...

It's the way of people to categorize things in a simplistic way that does justice to either the writer or reader. The truth, or, at least my idea of truth, is that he Harry Potter and Dr. Who series covers ideas and concepts and that put what people consider "adult" works to shame (though I don't agree with all of it), and that many "adult" works are nothing more than tributes to voyeurism. And I am not even putting that down if that is what someone enjoys. but it is very patronizing to say something is ratonizing to
Don Henley, co-founder of the Eagles, said there was only two categories of music, good and bad, and I believe that applies to writing in whatever media or genre, be it Frozen or Toch Island or Zero Dark Thirty. Interesting piece. .

Kat Heckenbach said...

Yeah, I agree that there is good writing and bad writing -- the problem comes in when those who think only what they like is good writing and what they don't like is bad.

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Bookishqueen said...

I love the quote from C.S. Lewis when he told his niece that some day she would be old enough to read fairy tales again.