[Golden Key][Blue Ribbon]

The Real Horror

By J. D. Macdonald

I have before me a copy of the 25 September 1995 edition of The Weekly Standard, featuring as its cover story, "Here Lies Children's Literature Murdered by R. L. Stine America's Best-Selling Author -- An Inquest by Diana West." The inside title (on page 43) is "The Horror of R. L. Stine."

I won't take points off for the titles -- they may have been written by the editor, not Diana West -- but now it's time to look at the article itself.

The first obvious thing is that Diana West has a major screw loose about sex. To quote from her article:

...As one 10-year-old girl, a veteran of 40 Stine titles, put it to a Canadian newspaper, "I like how the creepy feelings and shivers go through your whole body." And so, reading becomes a crude tool of physical stimulation, wholly devoid of mental, emotional, or spiritual engagement.
Does that sound like a working definition of pornography? ...

It sounds more like a working definition of a roller-coaster to me.

I have, in the course of a misspent life, been scared at times and turned on at various other times, and I didn't have any difficulty at all in telling the difference. Not so Diana West. I'd hate to be her boyfriend, husband, or significant other if she regarded my approach with shivers of fear. And this is the person who finds "deviancy" in Stine, and thinks that Pike is "smuttier" still.

But leave that all aside. Diana West doesn't seem to be too familiar with either horror fiction or children's fiction.

She seems to think that what she terms "shock fiction" is somehow new. "In this literary landscape, narrative exists solely to support a series of shocks occurring at absurdly frequent intervals. Push-button characters serve to advance the narrative from shock to shock." I needn't point out that she's just delivered a great description of Varney the Vampyre, a mere one hundred and fifty years after that character was hawked on London street corners at a penny a chapter. Despite the florid Victorian prose, in modern terms Varney's reading level clocks in at third to fifth grade.

Later, she tells us:

In works ranging from Grimm's Fairy Tales to Huckleberry Finn to Booth Tarkington's seminal coming-of-age novel Seventeen, childhood and adolescence have been seen as a journey, a passage to adulthood. Moments of truth, phases of growth, discoveries of a wider world all transform the characters and enrich the readers, young and, in the best works, old.

West must have a different copy of Grimm than the standard one on the library shelf. The Kinder und Hausmärchen come from a society in which the entire concept of "childhood and adolescence" was unknown. While we're at it, I'd like to hear West explicate the moments of truth, the phases of growth, and the discoveries of the wider world in "The Jew Amid the Thorns" or "The Children Who Played At Butcher." It should be enlightening.

I'll overlook the fact that Seventeen has aged badly since the turn of the century, and that Mark Twain stated emphatically that his book, Huckleberry Finn, was not intended for children. All this tells me that West's bullsh*tting us: she's talking about books she's either never read or failed to comprehend.

Still lamenting what she sees as Stine's innovations, West moans: "And nothing ever changes. That is perhaps the biggest and saddest change of all." She appears not to have noticed that the only change Tom Swift underwent from 1911 to date was that he turned in his electric runabout for a monster truck. Neither Nancy Drew nor the Hardy Boys, going strong for fifty years, are whirlwinds of personal development. Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. As anyone who has ever put a small child to bed knows, children have a sense of ritual that would make a Victorian butler seem like a madcap free spirit.

West holds up a number of books as examples of what children ought to be reading, and is never happier than when she's waving them around. The specific titles she mentions are: Kidnapped, The Yearling, White Fang, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Huckleberry Finn, Seventeen, The Wind in the Willows, Charlotte's Web, The Call of the Wild, Ramona, and The Once and Future King. To say that the vast majority assume a background in a rural society that hasn't existed in America for two generations would be merely to state the obvious. Yet West misses the obvious: right in her opening paragraphs she tells us that Stine sets his books in a suburbia of trimmed lawns, recreation rooms, and shopping malls. In short, the world that is familiar to his readers. If she's looking for a cause for his popularity, she doesn't need to look much further. And she needs to find a cause for Stine's popularity, since his popularity is one of the three things she holds against him.

The unstated assumption is that anything kids like in such great numbers must be bad for them, since if it was good for them they wouldn't like it.

The other two things West holds against Stine are that his books are badly written (though not noticeably worse than books by conservative paragons like Newt Gingrich, I note parenthetically), and that he writes horror.

That Stine isn't a very good writer is not a breaking news story. Yet West is shocked, shocked! when she stumbles all unknowing over Sturgeon's Law: ninety percent of everything is crud.

Stine writes horror, and horror arouses feelings of -- dare I say it? -- horror. When you look at it objectively, that's a real so-what kind of proposition. Had West read Grimm or Poe (another author she mentions favorably) rather than just toss their names around, she would have found things that make the most horrid of Stine's horrific images look like tea with Squirrel Nutkin. West seems to be particularly upset that Stine evokes an emotional response in his readers: "... the aim of all shock fiction is the same: to set off a bodily response which debases the act of reading -- and, more importantly, the reader himself." So do books that make us laugh and books that make us cry debase the act of reading as well? Clearly not. Had West bothered to think this part of her proposition through she might possibly have dropped the entire line of reasoning.

West's favorite device, since it relieves her of the necessity of providing argument, is the rhetorical question:

Will Bill and Tommy's demands for sensational incident bar them from the great literary voyages of growth and discovery? Will they graduate from shock schlock to the best that's been thought and said? Are you kidding?

The answers, respectively, though I doubt West will like them, are:
more likely than someone who hasn't gotten the habit of reading, and

West's enthusiasms lead her to unsupported -- and unsupportable -- statements:

Even where such non-literate pursuits as baseball card statistics and comic books may lead to more literary endeavors, shock fiction would seem to be a retarding, pre-literate experience.

From this shaky foundation, West turns to grander themes: Pat Buchanan's "culture war" and the decline of Western civilization, all laid on R. L. Stine's shoulders.

She rises to heights of bombastic glory in her closing:

Ours is, after all, a shock culture, all sensation and no feeling. A numbness paralyzes the arts, high and low, pretentious and proletarian, from the work of the supplicating grantees of government largesse to that of the plutocrats of rock and rap. Is it any surprise to see this trend reflected in children's books? Just as crimes against children still wound a numbed populace, so too should shock fiction, for its role in desensitizing the very young, stunting the life of the mind before it has even begun.
A cruel turn of the screw, indeed.

That West, having failed to prove that a problem exists, never provides any suggested solutions, marks her as a failed essayist.

A cutline at the bottom of "The Horror of R. L. Stine" tells us that "Diana West's fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly." That's true enough as far as it goes. It would have been more accurate to say "Diana West's sole published fiction work appeared in The Atlantic Monthly." The story is "Two More Days," in the May 1990 issue (pages 87-93 inclusive). The teaser at the top of that story reads "Alicia and Brian would soon be married -- if she could overcome some personal misgivings about the wisdom of that plan." That just about says it all. The story is hopelessly mainstream: It deals with rich white folks whose trivial problems have obvious solutions.
An abridged version of Ms. West's essay has also appeared in New York Teacher, November 13, 1995, page 8, under the title "The horror of shock fiction." The magazine invited replies of no more than a thousand words. Here is the version of this essay that I sent. I don't know if it was ever printed.
I see now that Diana West's article was reprinted in full in American Educator, the American Federation of Teachers magazine, Fall 1995, page 39. Where next? Readers' Digest? It's nice to see that she sent her rant to as many markets as she could. What's a bit depressing is that so many of them chose to print it. Will this nonsense never cease?

And the beat goes on: Diana West's nonsense has resurfaced in January, 1997, this time in a bit of commentary that appeared in the Star Tribune.

Diana seems to have been keeping herself busy. Using her new-found expertise in children's literature, she managed to get another article published: P.C. Mommy Knows Best, "Children's book awards enter the brave new age," in The American Spectator, July 1995.

It's now shown up in Focus on the Family.

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