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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Vampire vs Tokoloshe: the battle for the hearts and minds of young South African readers

(A version of this paper was presented to the ISASA Librarians Conference in Grahamstown on 6 July 2011)

As fiction for teens becomes one of the most profitable areas in publishing, it has also become a hotly contested terrain among those who seek to manipulate or control it.

This impulse to control what young people read is not a new one. In 1797, the Monthly Mirror published an article entitled Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity. The author of this cry from the heart argues that the habit of reading novels during her formative years will render a woman unfit to be a wife and mother when she reaches adulthood. The problem with novels was that they glorified romantic love and the individual’s right to choose her own romantic partners. This was regarded as dangerously seditious at a time when marriage was regarded more as a commercial transaction between families than as a route to personal fulfillment.

The sort of novels that would have troubled the Monthly Mirror author include Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolfo. These highly lurid gothic romances boasted plots feverish enough to challenge today’s most bosom-heaving vampire novels.

The 20th Century might have brought a cloak of respectability to the novel, but it didn’t put a stop to the adult desire to meddle in what children were reading. Today’s parents are more inclined to jump for joy than to shake their heads if their children start reading Enid Blyton, because books like The Magic Faraway Tree, and the Famous Five are now regarded as classics of children’s literature. They might be surprised to learn that the BBC effectively banned Enid Blyton from radio and television for thirty years. The BBC recently released archived correspondence between its officials which show that a conscious decision was taken to exclude all Enid Blyton stories from its children’s programmes, on the basis that they had no literary value and “too many pixies”. Blyton was described as a second-rater and it was decided not to give her airtime at the expense of “really good children’s writers”.

Later on in the 20th Century Blyton’s stories came under fire from parents who didn’t want their children exposed to the golliwogs and greasy foreigners who make up the villains in her fictional world. Today, the golliwogs have been replaced by goblins but the greasy foreigners remain, yet most parents count themselves lucky if their children go through an Enid Blyton phase.

It’s when they graduate to Harry Potter that the trouble starts again. For every parent who steers their child towards J K Rowlings’ series, there is another who forbids it on the grounds that it is satanic and full of witchcraft. This is despite the Archbishop of Canterbury famously stating that he would encourage children to read the series because it presents the struggle between good and evil in such an accessible light. The Vatican has equally famously flip-flopped on the issue – warning against the books in 2003 on the basis that they “undermine the soul of Christianity”, only to change its position in 2009 by praising the series for “drawing a clear line of demarcation between good and evil and for promoting the values of friendship, altruism and loyalty”.

It’s when children outgrow Harry Potter and move on to the likes of Twilight and the Vampire Diaries that the controversy really hots up.

It’s tempting to look back and laugh at the anti-novel brigade of the 19th Century, and the anti-Blyton brigade of the 1930s, but Young Adult writers are facing just as much blind prejudice today.

The debate got a new injection of controversy in June of this year when an article by Meghan Cox Gurdon appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It was entitled Darkness Too Visible and asked why contemporary fiction for teens is so “rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity”. Gurdon bewails the prevalence of such themes as suicide, self-mutilation, and incest in young adult literature, as well as the relentless creep of profanity into books for children. It’s hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for her. Yes, young adult writers have pushed the envelope way beyond what could even have been conceivable thirty years ago. Yes, a lot of young adult fiction is extremely dark and grueling to read. And yes, one can understand the squeamish reluctance of a parent to expose their child to such ugly unpleasantness.

But it is worth remembering that every attempt by adults throughout history to control or limit what young people are reading has turned out to be entirely misguided. That alone should sound a warning bell that it is a mistake to try to rein in Young Adult fiction.

Gurdon’s article spawned a backlash of unprecedented ferocity among young adult writers. A flurry of articles followed, as well as a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #YAsaves. The anti-Gurdon camp has argued passionately and convincingly that uncomfortable content exists throughout literature, from the classics on up and that this is no justification for censorship. They have argued that issues like self-injury, eating disorders, and bullying don’t go away if you ignore them, but can be rendered more manageable when the silence around them is broken and open debate is allowed.

As the South African Young Adult author Edyth Bulbring said at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, fiction creates a safe space within which children can explore the consequences of their actions. Reading about drug abuse or underage sex won’t have children rushing out to copy those behaviours, but will allow them to experience the consequences at a safe remove and hopefully take away a lesson from that experience.

The debate rages on with new articles and tweets appearing on an almost daily basis, but we have to ask what relevance this has to us in South Africa where the daily lived reality of many children is far worse than anything a Young Adult writer could dream up. These aren’t pampered, middle-class children who need to be protected from the ugliness of the big bad world, but children who need an escape from the ugliness of their daily lives. There are children in South Africa whose lives are so challenging that it would be a minor miracle if they picked up and read a book – any book. Quibbling over the content of that book seems entirely superfluous.

But South Africa is such a diverse society that there is room for discussion about all issues. There are your avid readers who will almost certainly come across content that makes their teachers and parents uncomfortable. Then there are those who will never learn to read at a level that makes fiction accessible to them. They will have been catastrophically failed by a deeply flawed education system and leaders who lack the political will to rectify the situation. And then there are those who can read at a functional level and who may or may not become readers depending on whether they are exposed to the right kind of fiction at the right time. These are the children that we as South African writers need to woo and seduce as a matter of urgency. We compete for their attention with the rival claims of TV, film and electronic media. And if they ever do pick up a book for enjoyment it’s more likely to be the latest overseas blockbuster than a South African novel.

I would love to see South African writers drawing on local mythologies in their writing, rather than relying on imported European legends. This hasn’t happened yet, but it’s surely only a matter of time before tokoloshes and kaaimans go head to head with zombies and vampires on the bookshelves of the Young Adult section.

Teen fiction in South Africa got off to a slow start after 1994, but is rapidly gaining momentum with authors like S A Partridge, Edyth Bulbring, Lily Herne, and Adeline Radloff producing books in a great, glorious rush in the last two or three years.

But it’s not enough just to create great content. Innovative ways of delivering that content are needed too. The Yoza Mobi project by the Shuttleworth Foundation attempted to harness the power of MXit to deliver serialised fiction to South African teenagers. What my involvement in the Yoza Mobi project taught me is that South African teens will read just as avidly as any other teenagers if the content is delivered to them in an accessible way. It also taught me that they are attracted to issue-driven fiction and escapist fiction in approximately equal measure. The stories that seized and transported them, while also dealing with relevant issues in their own lives, were the ones they enjoyed the most.

I’ve also been involved in the new wave of affordable romantic fiction spearheaded by Nollybooks and the Sapphire Press imprint of Kwela Books. These two publishers are attempting to bring short, affordable romances to South African girls and women. This was an eye-opening experience for me as I discovered how much less tolerant South African women are of the predictability of the romance genre than their overseas counterparts, and how receptive they are to stories set in a recognizably local setting with familiar characters, rather than Greek playboy billionaires.

South African young adult fiction is in good hands with its current crop of writers. We just need to remind ourselves to resist the temptation to meddle in what our young people are reading, and continue to seek new and innovative ways of delivering great fiction to teenagers who might otherwise resist it.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Sally</a>
    July 12th, 2011 @09:24 #

    Great article Fiona. So glad you posted it. I've always maintained that young readers want to be entertained as much as adults do and as writers we have a responsibility to provide stories that cater to all tastes. It's never a good idea to want to censor anything, especially reading habits.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    July 12th, 2011 @09:45 #

    Great paper, Fiona. What was the reaction? I think the project has had some of the most exciting, relevant YA fiction for SA kids, from you, Edyth, Sam Wilson, Charlie Human - I really wish it could see print.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    July 12th, 2011 @17:20 #

    What Sally and Lauren said. Good for you, tackling this emotive issue. And for reminding us that before we can even have this debate, we need to teach SA children to read -- we are failing them horribly at present. (PS: If you're in Cape Town, go down to Parliament, where Equal Education are camping by candlelight -- all the details are here:


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