Saturday, 23 August 2008

Enid Blyton: Modernising the Classic? - Part Two

Market expectations
What was is about the Famous Five that has made them appealing to millions since 1942? The stories and characters were written over decades, and Enid Blyton withstood some criticism over the apparently perpetual youth of the gang who experience a world of perfect endless summers. It was famously highlighted by J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series when she talked about Harry in an upcoming release, "In book four the hormones are going to kick in - I don't want him stuck in a state of permanent pre-pubescence like poor Julian in the Famous Five!"

The stories were adventures, mostly set in an escapist holiday setting and free of adult supervision. The description of their life and appearance, and to some extent their attitudes may have been distinctly post-war Britain, but the ideas and values of the Famous Five are universal. It is truly a ‘Classic’.

Modernising the Classic?

Italo Calvino (1923 - 1985) said: ‘A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’.

What is it that the Famous Five say to us today? What was it that Enid Blyton was trying to tell us?

The BBC wrote about the subject, “Many teachers (ABB note: and I also believe agents and editors) now think that children should have more examples of heroes from backgrounds that they can relate to. Children aged 7-10 - the prime readers of Blyton's adventure stories - are now told tales of parents divorcing, children in care, and life on a council estate. In the 1980s, Enid Blyton's work was banned from Nottingham Libraries amid allegations of it not being politically correct. A media furore started and many other libraries followed suit. Despite best efforts of many well-meaning teachers, plenty of today's children would rather read Enid Blyton than a worthy tale of parents divorcing on a council estate."

I agree wholeheartedly. Why do children read and what are the readers' expectations? The readers may want to be entertained or escape to a fantasy island, regardless of their background. Let's face it; even Harry Potter attended boarding school.

Five pluses and minuses, that "modernising" Blyton might mean?

1. In Touch: Young people feel closer affinity with the characters
2. New readers: a previously unreached audience inspired by the writer’s creations
3. Language: contemporary dialogue is understandable for more readers
4. Book sales: Overall quantity of books sold increased
5. New storylines: possible based on new technology

Considerations: making something old into something new
1. Trying too hard to be cool: Young people don’t want to be patronised: a fine line
2. Material expectations: does the use of gadgetry increase expectations of what is 'the norm' for YA to own?
3. A contrived fit: Do your characters want to act or speak in a way that does not fit your specific modern mould?
4. Cannibalisation (overlap: possible reduced original book sales as the new product is bought instead of the existing one
5. Quickly outdated: how quickly did ipods become mainstream products> how soon until the next must-have gadget appears and the previous is out of date?

Communication or commercialism?

Enid Blyton herself wrote in an enclosed environment, her childhood and later family life imposed restrictions on her, which you could consider were an inspirational force behind her escapism adventures. Was her Mother repressive? Was her first husband a fool? What was it that she was trying to say that society did not permit? She planned fewer, but continued to write more books in the series after achieving commercial success.

Leo Rosten (1908-1997) summed it up so,

“A writer writes not because he is educated but because he is driven by the need to communicate. Behind the need to communicate is the need to share. Behind the need to share is the need to be understood.”

As writers, I believe we all need to understand why we are writing and what are we trying to say. Perhaps it is critical, just as in the new Blyton books, to understand, are we writing primarily to be commercially viable or to communicate what it is that drives us to write? If the former, the market is of paramount consideration. It may change the way we write, what we write and when, dramatically. But is that what we want our writing to be driven by? (Part three follows on Monday, to conclude the article: "Enid Blyton: Modernising the Classic?"

1 comment:

Paul said...

Great article, Jen. Plenty of food for thought here.