Reality Check

An article in today’s Sunday NYT (April 1, 2012) highlights very young writers who are publishing their work through a variety of self-publishing imprints (what used to be known as vanity presses), thanks to their benefactors—their parents. Parents insist that having a published book in hand raises their children’s self-esteem and tangibly recognizes their achievement.

I was thrilled with Tom Robbins’ response:

“What’s next? Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional. There are no prodigies in literature. Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”

Here! Here, Mr. Robbins!! I would agree. And I’m also thinking that Mr. Robbins could say this about political candidates. If you have enough money, you can “achieve” running for president, governor, senate, etc.

My question is this: does the hurdle of selection/curation, no longer mean anything? Would a Stegner Fellowship be less prestigious if everyone who applied and paid tuition could become a Fellow? Of course.

So what are these kids really achieving? Well, they’re proving that they can sit down and write something of some length. That’s an accomplishment, and it should be celebrated. But should it be published?

What about revision? Are they weighing each word, each phrase, and trying to convey nuances of meaning? Or are they dashing off a manuscript and moving on to the next? One publishing industry consultant suggested that parents hire him to help kids revise their work. Ghost writers for kids? Hmmmm. I would venture to say that this type of coaching sounds suspiciously like what English teachers should be doing in the classroom—for free, as part of a public school education.

One could also say that this publishing movement signifies the beginning of the end for discriminating readers, but now I’m just bemoaning the fate of literature.

I’ve been working with my 8-year-old on his story that he’s “publishing” at school, complete with a hand illustrated, laminated cover. Early in the process, he would roll his eyes and put on his thundercloud brow when I questioned him about word choice or awkward sentence structure. So I took a step back and let his work stand without much revision. We did correct grammar and spelling. And he is realistic enough to make air quotes with his fingers when he talks about his first “published” work. He’s not delusional.

This isn’t to say that the result wasn’t an achievement, knowing how he struggled to put words on the page. He is /we are proud of his effort and product. And that’s as it should be.

But paying hundreds of dollars to have my son’s amateur work immortalized is something completely different. If parents want to spend money for this, that’s fine. However, confusing this type of work with literature, lowers standards and expectations. When these kids make it to “real world,” they may find their self-esteem suffering.

Then again, I suppose one can continue to live in a bubble that’s padded with greenbacks (not unlike political candidates), until the money runs out.  

2 thoughts on “Reality Check

  1. subtlekate says:

    This annoys me. Is there nothing left for children to achieve on their own? Parentss will do anything to inflate self esteem, including buying them a career I am sure. I worry for the world.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      This morning I’m wondering if “times have changed” or if we are just more aware of this type of parental intervention because the media jumps on “child prodigies” for the human interest aspect of the story. It’s easier to do stories of this nature rather than investigative or critical journalism. Surely there have always been parents who paved the paths for their children, usually in the higher income brackets. But I don’t think it’s media-worthy, and I do think it gives kids the wrong impression of what success (and failure) really means. And I’m also thinking that this practice is the source of the expression: “clogs to clogs in three generations.” There’s the generation that works hard and achieves, the generation that spends all that hard-earned money, and the generation that starts back at the beginning–unless, of course, one marries more money (Downton Abbey, e.g.) to keep the wolves from the door.

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