- An Assertion of Essays
Susan Cooper's fantasies are "dull, flat, predictable." Joan Aiken's are "magnificent." Roald Dahl is "tasteless." Leon Garfield is "the lung-pin" of contemporary writers. Madeleine L'Engle is boring. Katherine Paterson can be a bit self-indulgent. Esther Hautzig's work is "outstanding." William Mayne's is uneven. Jane Gardam's is some of the "finest" writing today. David Rees, well, David Rees is not without opinions. In this collection of essays, Rees muses on the work and reputations of some fifteen writers of children's literature, covering writers not addressed in his two previous collections of essays, The Marble in the Water (1980) and Painted Desert, Green Shade (1984). With the exception of Mary Norton, most of the writers are authors who began their writing in the 1950s and 1960s, authors who might well be credited with ushering in a "second golden age of children's literature." In an act of audacity that is characteristic of his voice and his judgments throughout these pieces, Rees includes himself in the group, concluding the collection with an essay devoted to his own fiction.
Rather brusque judgments, like those that open this review, salt the essays. But how are we to take them? What aid do these pieces offer to readers who may be turning to them for advice on whom to read and whom not to read? Or what assistance do they offer to critics who may be looking to them for a serious colloquy on the reputations of important writers? The answer, I'm afraid, is that what they do have to offer is uneven. Rees's treatment of Aiken's language and vision and his essay on Maurice Sendak are well developed and useful. Moreover, his pieces on Patricia Wrightson and Ivan Southall provide valuable introductions to Australian writers who may not be familiar to North American readers. Yet his other assessments are rather idiosyncratic. For example, according to the testimony of librarians whom Rees knows, young people do not borrow William Mayne's books; they do, however, borrow David Rees's. The conclusion? Mayne writes for critics; Rees writes for children.
One problem is that in many essays Rees makes assertions rather than develops arguments. His concern with the quantitative output of writers is one instance of this. Without really demonstrating the effect of quantity on quality, Rees faults some writers and praises others. Helen Cresswell, Ivan Southall, and William Mayne are prolific and hence, to some degree, suspect. Mary Norton and Jane Gardam are not prolific and therefore to be admired. Another problem with Rees's criticism is what might be termed "the anxiety of influence." Again and again he impugns writers for using scenes, strategies, or characters that may have appeared in some other literature at some other time. Yet these would be small quibbles, hardly even worth mentioning, if not for other, more problematic aspects of Rees's book.
If we look at what Rees admires and at what he dislikes, we can see a pattern of response that indicates a curiously rigid method of reading. It is rigid in that Rees at times responds to what he thinks an author ought to have done. That is, instead of being a willing participant in the fiction the author is creating, Rees resists it and asserts that the fiction is flawed because the author's choices differ from those that Rees himself would have made. His insistence on realism in an author's treatment of place is an illustration. For example, even though he acknowledges that she is writing fantasy novels, he faults Susan Cooper's presentation of Buckinghamshire and Cornwall as being nostalgic and unrealistic, and he criticizes her for inventing the Greenwitch ceremony when "Cornwall is rich, if not unique, in the number of pagan spring ceremonies that are still kept up today."
Rees's point about Cooper also reveals his most basic concern, a concern that may have kept him from entering honestly into the fictive worlds of some of the...