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>"Crap, here comes Teacher!"

>In the comments on the earlier post about dueling reviews, `h wrote:

Speaking of the good stick. There’s something I’d like you to measure — heavy handed instruction — when an author sticks something into the text that clearly doesn’t fit in order to model some lesson– girls are just as smart as boys, or racism = bad, or it’s okay to be yourself. Heavy handed moralizing is the best reason to return a book to the library unfinished, I think. What I really like is insidious invisible moralizing that is going to creep unreflected into the reader’s head and take root!
Wait. No! Bad moralizing! Down you insidious lesson, you!
When you review a book, how do you judge the didacticism? Subtle is okay? Heavy handed, not? Or is the divide between didacticism that is currently accepted vs. didacticism you think is misguided?
Is subtle didacticism better or worse than the heavy handed? is insidious didacticism okay if it’s on the side of the angels?
I mean the deliberate kind. I don’t mean the unreflected reinforcement of cultural norms like Enid Blyton — those things that stick out like sore thumbs when the culture changes.

I’ve moved the comment to here, because it’s really a different topic, plus, this was the week of my return to the musical stage (it went fine, thank you) and I haven’t had time to prowl around for something new. Although I think you can discern very different editorial styles among the seven of us who have been editors of the Horn Book, one thing we will agree upon when eventually gathered together in reviewer heaven is that we all hated didacticism, even while we might have had different definitions of the word and varying degrees of tolerance for it. But here I will only speak for myself. I think one could make a case that all literature is insidiously didactic, attempting to pull you into an author’s view of the world. I have no problem with that.

And the problem I do have with overt didacticism is less with its frequent technical clumsiness, where swatches of sermons or lessons are just slapped into the story, then it is with the way it reminds readers Who Is In Charge. Having someone in charge is good for a lot of things–to return for a second to my singing class this spring, I loved the fact that the teacher, Pam Murray, knew more about singing than I did and could thus tell me, clearly and effectively (and diplomatically!), how to become a better singer. That’s what I want in a teacher. But I don’t want to hear it from a writer, especially when I think of myself as a child reader, being reminded, once again, that grownups are the ones in charge. Books are a great place for kids to escape from being told what to do. They are not a place where a reader wants to hear, “I know better, so listen up.” As a reader, I want to feel that a book is a place I can explore, or even a place where the author and I are exploring together. Didacticism shuts that right down.

Didacticism can also bite the author right in the ass. Think of Go Ask Alice. It was clearly intended to be a moral instruction about the dangers of drugs; instead, it was a wild ride through a crazy, exciting world. (I’m now remembering a comment years ago by a librarian colleague, Pamela, who said “these stupid anti-drug books with all their blather about ‘peer pressure’ and ‘self-esteem’ aren’t going to mean a thing until they acknowledge something else: drugs are fun.”)

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. Anonymous says:

    >I was thinking of Ocatavian Nothing, actually, when I wrote that. And of Justine Larbalestier’s book Magic or Madness, which just won the Norton Award, and frankly, of my own personal agenda when I write. MT Anderson had something he wanted to tell his audience: History seems so Fixed and inevitable when we look back at it, but that’s not the way it feels in the making. People didn’t know that the Americans were eventually going to win a war for independence, and History in the making is never simple. Everything is always confused and confusing and changing from day to day. Anderson wanted to show his audience what it might have looked like from Inside the situation, and probably not because he was looking for a good story to tell so he could get a big advance from the publisher. I believe Anderson wants his readers to look up from his book, see the world around them and say, wow, this is history right now.

    If that’s true, (and it would totally serve me right if it’s not) then is that didacticism? Is it bad?


  2. Anonymous says:

    >Larbalestier said in an interview somewhere that she was tired of magic in stories that was the easy answer to everything. I think she wants her audience to read her book and look at all those other books with a more sophisticated eye. Is that didacticism?


  3. Anonymous says:

    >I think most writers don’t give a teeny tiny rat’s ass what their readers think and certainly don’t have any plans to get them to think anything or want them to think anything. They are too busy trying to figure out what they think themselves. That is, as Joan Didion has acknowledged, why they write. It is the ones who do want someone to think something and feel it is incumbent upon them to gift this upon them that smell. Or as C.S. Lewis said about someone, she is always the type who is always doing for others. You can tell the others by their haunted looks. this is the answer to your question of long ago, Roger, as to why we hate allegory. Allegory is doing for others gift wrapped.

  4. Anonymous says:


    “allegory is doing for others gift wrapped.”

    anon, you rock. but are you saying that you think octavian and magic smell, or are you saying that you think my interpretation is way off?


  5. Roger Sutton says:

    >’h, I don’t know if I would call what you’re saying about Octavian Nothing didacticism. I’d agree that you’ve identified a theme of the book, though, and God knows books need themes. I confess I searched for one in the new Nancy Farmer novel and came up empty. The book has plenty of adventures and some great moments, but it seemed to lack a reason for why the things that happened in it happened the way they did–it was all kind of arbitrary.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >I meant hunted not haunted looks. but H, where I disagree with you about octavian nothing and with roger about all writers engaging in a subtle form of didacticism is that in allegory as well as in didactic books, the author starts out knowing what he wants to say and he tells or teaches it to the reader. I doubt MT was doing this or any good writer. They instead are gifted with the firsthand experience of the book and find out along the way what it is about. The reader – and readers aren’t dumb – feels the difference. They get the book second, after the author, but because the book is happening to the writer, they feel the genuine sense of exploration no matter how right or inevitable the events. You can also sense when someone is creating a book around something they simply want to say. It’s annoying. Who cares what htey think? It’s the excitement of the author’s trip into the unknown that hooks us. As Joan Didion says, she write to find out what she thinks.

  7. Anonymous says:

    >And the nancy farmer isn’t not didactic, she probably just never got to the gist of the book. It happens. But because someone does, doesn’t make it didactic. It just means they found out what that book was about. the need to press this upon a reader is a whole other thing. Didacticism is all about intent.

  8. Anonymous says:

    >Paging Mr. Anderson, Mr. Anderson, please respond.


  9. Anonymous says:

    >And, h, I think it’s interesting how you use octavian nothing as an example and the idea that we don’t know what will be as it happens, just afterwards when it becomes history does it become the official story because this is so exactly what happens to the writer who is immersed in a book.

  10. >When you said: the way it reminds readers Who Is In Charge, that sent my thoughts off on a different tangent: I don’t want to be reminded that in the book, the author is the one who decides what happens, who gets rewarded, who gets punished. That’s why didacticism so often fails for me. I want to pretend that things in the book are happening because that’s the way they happened, and not because of the author’s say-so, and… if things work out neatly with the good rewarded and the bad punished, I can’t pretend that.

  11. Anonymous says:


    that’s not what happens to me. maybe it is for you, but which of us speaks for the majority of writers would be impossible to tell, and maybe neither of us does. maybe all the others are out there transcribing their dreams, and you, me and joan didion are the outliers. (out lyers?).

    every book of mine so far has started with a theme like the one I ascribed to O.N. It’s just that my themes are not the main stream moralizing I see in a lot of didact-heavy books, like “strong women rock!” or “It’s okay to be yourself!” Mine are more like, “don’t let outward appearances mislead you.” Yes, that’s what I wanted my story to say, right from the beginning. Does that mean I smell? If I am right about Anderon’s motivations, does that mean he smells? he got a national book award. i got a star from horn book.

    maybe nobody noticed my sneaky didacticism, does that make me smell less, or more? do you judge a book by the author’s intentions? Roger have you ever liked a book and then gone, euugh! when you found out about its slimy underside?


  12. Roger Sutton says:

    >h, “don’t let outward appearances mislead you” is as much the beginning of a story as it is Words ‘O Wisdom. I don’t know who you are or what you “meant” in writing the book we gave a starred review to, and I don’t want to. That’s not to say I’m not curious, since you’ve shown up here at the blog, but as a reviewer I don’t much care about what the author meant to do, and I have never found authors to be all that reliable when it came to evaluating their own books anyway.

    You know, Gone With the Wind could be construed as a “strong women rock!” book but it’s still fun to read.

  13. Anonymous says:


    er. i can remember dodging the heavy handed stuff pretty easily. but when an author says Bob is the kind of loser that gels his hair perfectly flat every morning, or Susy is the kind of girl that wears double knit polyester pants to school. Well yeah, as a deeply uncool child, sometimes that was my headsup that there needed to be a change in the wardrobe or the hairstyle. It wasn’t until high school that i found myself thinking, “who says this guy knows what’s uncool, anyway? “

  14. Anonymous says:

    >so, Roger,

    what then is didacticism? only instruction that is obvious to the reader?


  15. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think that’s how we use the term in this field, yes. It’s actually a neutral, descriptive word, but it’s become, in reviewers’ parlance, pejorative, used to mean that the reader feels preached or teached at.

  16. >Hey Roger,
    It’s the ol Zee-ster back again. This is very off topic, but I was reading your link from the musical stage and found a fascinating entry on you playing assassin and feeling some confuddlement. Did you ever get the info you wanted. I am a long-time assassin player so would be happy to “show you the ways of the assassin” so to speak.

  17. >Ummm, and on this topic, arent’ we forgetting the face that the reader himself creates the text of the books as he reads? Meaning, you could have ten different people read the same book and all get different things out of it, no matter how heavy-handed? For instance, I recently reviewed Ameriacan Born Chinese. I am sure my take on it wasn’t the same as everyone else’s because we all come with different filters. And one could argue that graphic novel had some moralizing going on. At the same time, the author did not push his agenda on us. Or did he?

  18. rhubarb says:

    >I think it is not a question of does this or that book contain a Big Statement, or what some author did or did not intend to communicate – but does the reader end up feeling nagged or manipulated?

    American Born Chinese had statements galore, as noted above, but to me it felt more like opening a fascinating dialogue then hearing a lecture.

  19. Anonymous says:

    >H, I suspect that the writers to whom books happen as opposed to the writers who make them up says a great deal about whether a writer has talent or just a desire to write. Sorry. And a star doesn’t bestow it on you.

  20. Roger Sutton says:

    >Zee, I never did figure out Assassin but am just as happy to stick to Scrabble.

    Full disclosure: I could not bring myself to finish American Born Chinese, try as I did. I have just finished another graphic novel with lots of messages, Castellucci’s Plain Janes and it completely knocked me out. But as Rhubarb said, it felt more like it was giving me lots of ideas to think about, not telling me what to think.

    Anon, unless I’m missing something, that last comment is ludicrously sentimental, and complete, of course, with a gratuitous crack. I’ve noticed that the two often go hand in hand.

  21. Anonymous says:

    >But then, of course, Roger, you wouldn’t know.

  22. Anonymous says:

    >”H, I suspect that the writers to whom books happen as opposed to the writers who make them up says a great deal about whether a writer has talent or just a desire to write. Sorry. And a star doesn’t bestow it on you.”

    I can’t agree anon. I think both approaches can produce great books or crap, and it’s really really silly to think otherwise. Sorry.


  23. Anonymous says:


    In your second copy you asked if didacticism wasn’t in the eye of the beholder. Anon seems to think it is all a matter of intent. Roger doesn’t care about intent, he just calls it as he sees it in the book. And we can all disagree on whether a book is good. I think I am with Emily that I’m going to object when teaching a lesson is more important than the integrity of a story. Or when I find the message, no matter how subtle, to be unacceptable. But if you want to slide an anti-war, or a pro-tolerance message in, and you do it with elan, that’s good for me.

    Thank you Roger, for letting me hijack your blog. it’s been fun.


  24. >A wise man once said “Let the book tell you how to read it.” I have always taken that to mean, at least in part, that we should let go of literary proscriptions, and measure books in terms of how well they achieve their own goals. I wonder if I’ve entirely understood the wise words. And, with them in mind, I wonder to what degree didacticism amounts to a legitimate goal for a book. If propoganda means to be propoganda, does it make sense to ding it for not being literature?

  25. Roger Sutton says:

    >As I see it, Thommy, few people–novelists, especially–would cop to writing propaganda, which is media that is willfully misleading. I guess I believe that if something is presenting itself as a story, then it had better work as one. This doesn’t say anything about the presence of didacticism one way or another. In recent years, there has been a spate of books that proffer information about manners in the context of a picture book story. The books are didactic–in that they are offering lessons–but (Yolen and Teague’s, anyway) are also funny. They work as picture books. That’s what matters.

  26. Anonymous says:

    >Of course, M. T. Anderson already *has* commented on this very subject in speaking about Octavian Nothing. I don’t know whether transcripts of any of those talks exist online.

    I believe, however, that he explicitly advocates for fiction that dares, in these times, not to remain neutral.

    I would say that the crux of didacticism may not lie so much in the author’s intent (I agree with Roger that authors may often misinterpret even their own best intentions) but in the author’s imagined relationship with her audience. A writer may set out with a very clear idea of what she wants to say, or she may discover some of that underlying message as she writes… I don’t really think either form the basis for a “didactic” text.

    I would say that it is when an author fails to engage her audience in an open conversation, when a book is really a monologue and not a dialogue, that we as readers sense we’re on the receiving end of a lesson. When we read, we want to be treated as equals, to find a space in the story for our own response. I’d even say that this is especially true for child readers…

    So maybe it isn’t the author setting out with a clear message who creates a stink, but the author who forgets to listen for her reader’s reply…


  27. Anonymous says:

    >Her reader’s reply? Is this getting sillier and sillier?

  28. Anonymous says:

    >anonymous said:
    “But then, of course, Roger, you wouldn’t know.”

    anonymous said:
    “Her reader’s reply? Is this getting sillier and sillier?”

    are you the same anonymous? can you elaborate? because both times, you lost me. what doesn’t roger get? and what is silly? women writers, or the idea the the writer can imagine herself in a dialogue with her reader?


  29. Roger Sutton says:

    >I think Ruth’s post is interesting in all kinds of ways. My main reason for not joining in the Harry Potter enthusiasm is that those books make me feel unnecessary. Not as a critic (though God knows that’s true, too!), but as a reader. Everything is spelled out for me, the (frequently inventive) pictures have all been (often beautifully) colored in, I’m told how to feel and what to think about each event and character. It’s too over-determined for my taste. I like some of the storytelling to be left up to me.

    We hear a lot from writers about how they don’t think about audience, as if to do so would sully the writer’s sacred communion with his or her Art or something, but Ruth is suggesting that the consideration of audience has a different dimension. It doesn’t mean that you write the way you think your audience wants you to (although commercial writers do this routinely and there’s nothing shameful about it) but you write with the awareness that the story needs the reader’s commitment, an investment that suggests you leave room for it. One way to do this is to give readers questions to ponder–maybe they’re metaphysical, maybe they’re just about the weather–that pull them in and thus require you, the writer, to leave room for whatever answers the reader might be trying out. Ruth, is this at all what you’re talking about or am I wandering further afield?

  30. Tobin Anderson says:

    >Hi there, Roger & Co.!

    It’s probably a little late to put my oar in, but I do think that this is a fascinating and important discussion. A few thoughts:

    First, I believe that embedded in all novels — and motivating much of their action — there are a set of value judgments, there’s an understanding of causality, even an implied political sense. For one thing, plots tend to be structured around well-known topoi, as the Classical rhetoricians called them: stances and arguments about things like the country vs. the city (e.g. healthy, simple country vs. bad, clogged, sophisticated city), man vs. nature, age vs. youth, innocence vs. experience, etc. Invariably, the decisions one makes about these traditional oppositions end up shaping a certain ideological slant in the narrative. Most of the time, these choices are invisible, because they go along with narrative tropes that we all take for granted.

    Secondly, I do believe — as someone said above — that this is a time to reexamine the supposed neutrality of fiction in the political world. I believe a writer has GOT to write about things that they are passionate about. I am very fired up about certain questions of morality, national behavior, human behavior, etc. … This isn’t what I begin with when I write a novel, but these are things that engage me when I think of characters and a plot and a setting, because that is where I feel things very deeply, where there’s anger and wonder and all of the things that make stories vital to a writer.

    HOWEVER: My rule of thumb in thinking about this is that if you know what you want to say about a thing before you write, then you should write a nonfiction book. Good fiction, in my mind, expresses the tension and anxiety in ideas — that’s what undergirds it and keeps it moving — not a certainty in ideas. Fiction certain of verities tends to be predictable and slow-moving in every respect.

    So, for example, for me Octavian Nothing does have a moral issue at its center (which I will now mention, though, as Roger said, we authors rarely have useful things to say about our own work …): On the one hand, I believe that there is no moral order in the world, that virtue is not its own reward, that the only law in nature is power, that altruism is merely a complicated form of self-gratification … and yet, at the same time, I absolutely resist this with every fiber of my being … On the one hand, “The world is the house of the strong,” on the other hand, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inheret the earth.” To me, it is my anxiety about these statements in contest — the horror at the one I believe, the deep yearning for the one I discount — that underlies the action of the novel. I don’t believe the novel ever “answers” the problem of how to reconcile these points of view, because I don’t believe that we can reconcile this moral confusion in the real world.

    Having said this, about doubt and not-knowing and all, I would finally like to say, however, that if a completely flimsy, crappy, propagandistic book was produced that made a huge number of us behave in a way that was kinder, less self-centered, if it brought to light some injustice which was then rectified — really, who gives a s. if it was “good” or not?

    Blah, blah, blah, blah, but there’s me,


  31. >Well, Gee, I think Ruth and I were saying the same thing, but that’s just me. The reader, in part, “writes” the books as he/she reads it. Roger just commented on my assassin comment.

  32. Roger Sutton says:


    I have to ask you about two things in re “Secondly, I do believe — as someone said above — that this is a time to reexamine the supposed neutrality of fiction in the political world. I believe a writer has GOT to write about things that they are passionate about.”

    Do you think fiction has ever been thought to have been politically neutral? Even for children? Politically disengaged, sure, but that’s a different question. And once you’ve got writers writing about “things they are passionate about,” I’m guessing you’re not necessarily going to get a lot of writers–especially for children–exploring political ideas. ON does, the Plain Janes I discussed above does, and there was a recent David Levithan, too–and none of ’em suppose neutrality.

    And if you talk to any of the Marxist critics (or whatever they call themselves these days) such as Jack Zipes, they’re going to tell you that ALL fiction is political, each novel either reinforcing or subverting the structure of power.

  33. Monica Edinger says:

    >1. I like Roger’s image of someone writing, “… with the awareness that the story needs the reader’s commitment, an investment that suggests you leave room for it.” And while I don’t think of the Harry Potter books as great literature (vis a vis the recent great/good discussion on child_lit that continued on my blog), I actually think they do make for active readers. While they never get me brooding about big ideas, they do about the specific mysteries of the series (Will Harry survive? What about Snape? and so on.) I admire Rowling’s playfulness with all of this even while I would agree that the books aren’t terribly deep relative to others. (They feel like Star Wars; in both series the creators are working with big ideas, but that doesn’t mean audience is doing a lot of pondering about them.)

    2. Since I’m a teacher, I’m didactic. And I’ve thought a lot about what that means over the years. I’ve decided that what I do best as a teacher is to express and model my passion for certain topics and so I admire writers who do that successfully in their writing. I write “successfully” because there are many books that exhibit passion, but in a way that makes you feel you are being hit on the head and not in a good way. Greatness is being able to get a grand idea across, one you the writer care about enormously, in a way that gets the reader to care about enormously too.

  34. Anonymous says:

    >Roger, when you write your reviews, do you do so making sure you keep your audience in mind? Do you write them as a dialogue. Is it important to you that the audience like or understand and accept yourpoint of view? Would you edit yourself so that they do? Is it important to you to dialogue with the writer of the piece that you are writing about? Is how the writer feels important to you? Is getting your review right based on how the writer thinks of his work imporant to you? do you keep this in mind when you write? And who is this audience? Is audiencemember A the same as audience member B? Will that woman whose cat just died in Delaware (and what was the cat DOing in Delaware – oh never mind) the same as the woman taking her briefcase once more slog slog into the Phoenix library and then having her thirtieth party complete with balloons. One thinks you’re daft and always skips your pieces anyhow, the other thinks you’re brilliant. But they both read the review this time. As did that eighty year in the nursing home who still reads Horn Book. Are they all the same. Can you write for all of them? should you keep them all in the mind?Or do you just sit down and do the best job you can getting to whatever truth of the moment and let the fucking chips fall where they may? what is your job, really? I think good writers ignore their audience. Good reviewers ignore what we want. Everyone is busy ignoring everyone else until the wrok is read and that’s what makes it all work.

  35. Anonymous says:

    >And my problem is allegory and didactic writing is that the writer is not only keeping me in mind but actually talking to me. And I dont want him/her there. Go away you silly extraneous person and let me find the story. You see, not too little attention from the writer but too much.

  36. Anonymous says:

    >In respnse to Roger– thanks, yes, that was the direction of my comments…

    Perhaps with the idea of asking questions, this can take a less literal form– and maybe this ties in with Tobin’s argument about authorial certainties. Above, Tobin talks about the book that is ultimately certain of its convictions, versus one which holds more tension in regard to those beliefs. The latter seems to be a narrative that asks questions, or allows for questions… and, in that way, leaves space for other answers.

    I think there may, however, be a distinction between this, and the author who sets out with a clear sense of where she wants to go– or a clear notion of the ideas to be explored. This is what I felt “h” was addressing above (though I could be wrong!) and it seemed to be more a question of process, than one of didacticism. For myself, when I begin writing I may not yet have a defined sense of the ideas which will be central to the ensuing narrative. Yet, I’m perfectly willing to accept that others will have such clear intentions… Which, to me, doesn’t seem to be a didactic approach to writing, but rather another way of getting to the same place…

    And Zee, I agree that this is all ultimately subjective. I personally find the later installments of the Philip Pullman trilogy to be books written with the authority of certainty… I feel the author trying to lead me to his final answer, and I, perhaps in keeping with the book’s own message, feel the urge to rebel. Roger feels the Harry Potter books are a little too self-sufficient (a description that reminds me of a pb text that hasn’t left room for illustrations…) But, of course, other readers have different responses to those books…

    I’d also have to say, just to be a nit, that if you are committed enough to the life of the imagination to be a writer– a non-didactic writer for children, though still a political one– then perhaps this implies some sort of faith in meekness…? In all seriousness, it’s interesting to see a more universal theme of power, and where it might lie, come up in a discussion of didacticism in books for children…


  37. Anonymous says:

    >And Tobin, how can you laud the importance of the tension of the question, of opposing quetions,which I thought you addressed very well and at the same time suggest that a book could be written with an answer that would make everyone behave better. Is good behavior the point? And by whose standards good. I think that part was ill thought out and creepy.

  38. Anonymous says:

    >Who are we to EVER think we know to whom we speak. the audience is more like the tiger. And tiger, tiger, burning bright…..

  39. Tobin Anderson says:

    >Hey there!

    I would actually agree entirely that every novel is political, or, more precisely, that they all have a political dimension. Of course, in some books, it’s overt, and always has been (THE LORAX, THE PUSHCART WAR). And on the other end of the spectrum, in some books, there is a certain political disengagement which often amounts to a confirmation of the status quo. At any rate, it can contribute to it. This is independent of the quality of the books, in many ways.

    Authors can achieve a kind of political transparency by relying on certain well-worn plot tracks taken so for granted that no one questions their meaning. … at least until the political climate shifts significantly, and suddenly people start asking, “Why do all the novels of this period end in marriages with excellent ‘settlements’?” or “Why was no one horrified by these ‘comic’ black characters?”

    A John Updike novel, say, about love among the WASPS that mentions “pansies” and the hired help without granting those characters any autonomy has clearly made some choices, and clearly represents an understanding of the world and what’s important — though it’s “just a love story.” For example.

    Sorry if I was unclear above. Thank you for including me in the discussion!

    Off to the sea,


  40. Roger Sutton says:

    >Reviewers, most particularly, had better leave room for their readers or they won’t have any, so I always keep them in mind. I can look back at some reviews I wrote that I now find ill-considered, not because I’ve changed my mind about the book but because the review was so insistent on pressing my opinion that it didn’t give readers room to disagree without feeling like I felt they were idiots. Nobody wants to read reviews that make them feel stupid, or that don’t have the implicit space for “your mileage may vary.”

    I remember reading an enthusiastic review by Roger Ebert of The Color Purple, in which he said, about Whoopi Goldberg, “you are looking at the winner of this year’s best actress Oscar.” The fact that we weren’t, in hindsight, isn’t the problem, it’s that Ebert was trying to make up my mind for me and close off the response I might have to the movie (which I’ve never seen, perhaps because Ebert pushed me away rather than drew me in). A reviewer’s opinion should provide a theme for a review, but once it becomes the review’s raison d’etre, we’re back to that above-on-the-thread problem of hitting the reader over the head.

  41. Barbara says:

    >Interesting conversation!

    Anonymous (and golly, but there’s a lot of you, so I better identify the one I mean; I’m referring to the person who felt one of Tobin Anderson’s points to be “creepy”), I read that comment very differently; that is, I felt Tobin was putting forth a supposition that *if* such a book *were* to exist, and have that kind of positive effect, then what would be the problem if it were not the best book in the world?–rather than taking him to mean that it were possible to have as a goal to do such a thing, if you get what I mean.

    And, to my mind, we already have had instances of exactly this. Madeleine L’Engel’s books, for example, did this for a whole generation of kids, me included. As an adult, I find the writing in them to be fairly weak, and the plots predictable or even full of holes, but, as a child, many of them got me thinking very deeply about good and evil and ethics, and I think many other readers my age had similar experiences. So, who cares, really, if her writing wasn’t as strong as some others?

  42. Anonymous says:

    >You clarified for me really well why I don’t like the Potter books. How they are too much like the American Girl dolls with every single little accessory, at first tempting, but leaving no room for play. But we come at this so differently. You think it is because the writer hasn’t given her audience enough consideration and I think it’s because she has given them too much. I wish you would explain why you think not thinking of her reader results in this as opposed to thinking too much of them.

  43. Anonymous says:

    >And for Ebert and the color purple. I don’t think I want the reviewer second guessing my opinion and leaving room for it. I want to hear what he thinks. Might there not have been as many people out there saying go, Ebert, next oscar winner, yes, yes yes. Good for you for saying it? I think we have to be careful assuming everyone is going to react as we do. We can only say waht we think.

  44. Anonymous says:

    >The problem I had with it, Barbara, the tobin creepy thing, was the supposition that a book that caused people to behave better was a good thing. It presupposes too much about nearly everything including our agreement about good behavior.

  45. Anonymous says:

    >It’s the same reason i think roger’s argument doesn’t hold water. It presupposes a mythical audience all of whom want the same thing or react the same way. Even saying that he just leaves room for their reaction presupposes THIS is what they want. When he says that the potter books leave no room for the reader, what I think he means is himself. That he doesnt want this kind of detail and storytelling but clearly so many people do. Rowling has left room for those readers. So who is this mythical audience everyone is talking about?

  46. Anonymous says:

    >Also it helps me understand why I dont like most fantasy. Tht it seems concerned with delineating a world and making things up and when you make things up you leave no room for the unknown to grab ahold of you. The same for allegory and didacticism. Tht I am not so interested in the questions and answers but the spaces in between. I suppose you think this is ludicrously sentimental too, Roger.

  47. Anonymous says:


    Thank you for restating my position with such grace.

    You clarified something for me; that it is the certainty of the author’s positions, the overbearing confidence in his own conclusions that makes me react negatively to the lesson. There’s nothing more loathsome than being buttonholed by someone, of no matter what politcal persuasion, who thinks he has all the answers and moreover that all the answers are simple.


  48. Tobin Anderson says:

    >Anon, Anon, Sir/Madam —

    In re: my creepiness.

    You give the appearance of quoting me without actually quoting me. I never said anything about “good behavior,” first of all because I would call into question the word “good,” secondly because that seems like I’m talking about running in the halls and practicing the piano after nine in the evening.

    Notwithstanding your slightly unfair recounting of my comment, the point you make is an interesting and important one. As I understand it, you feel that there is a failure in my relativism, since I begin by discussing tension and doubt and no right answer, and end with a joke about pursuing specific goals (kindness, the ending of various injustices, etc.), as if there were an absolute right.

    This, it strikes me, is indeed a complicated problem — one which at the moment particularly dogs liberal politics. Liberals tend to relativism, but pure relativism leads to inaction. You, for example, may suggest (as you do) that even my passing wish for people to be kinder, less self-centered, and for injustices to be brought to light is dangerous. While I understand that from an abstract point of view, I also would say that if everyone shared your squeamishness, we would be in trouble.

    I believe it is time to move beyond the tired post-modernist pieties of absolute relativism and construct compassionate goals for positive change, even as we recognize those goals are constructed.

    For us to sit back, admiring our own equanimity, even-handedness, and lack of engagement when others are suffering — that is truly “creepy.”

    Back from the sea,


  49. Anonymous says:

    >tobin anderson,

    thank you for coming to comment. as someone too timid to sign a name to posts, i appreciate, all the more, others who do.

    off to dinner,


  50. Anonymous says:

    Everyone thinks they are doing the right thing. Even the people you think are unkind and unjust. but if you want to get up on a soapbox, go for it.

  51. Anonymous says:

    >Beautifully put, Tobin!

    Anonymous, your comment seems to imply that you think inaction is preferable to action simply because one notion of rightness or goodness is impossible; how is this helpful? Or even possible? Everybody acts, and inaction itself is an action–a passive contribution to and construction of the (a) status quo.

    I very much appreciate this discussion of fantasy and Harry Potter! My experience of HP mirrors Roger’s; in fact, I think it mirrors Harry P’s own experience as created by Rowling, in that I find he *chooses* only rarely, and is, in fact, mostly helped and led by external forces to what feels like a set of foregone conclusions. I must confess, though, that I gave up on these books for exactly this reason pretty early on– it may well have shifted in later books, so I should probably not comment on them so sweepingly. 🙂

  52. Anonymous says:

    >I think anon above you will have to be more specific for me since action vs non action is your interpretation not mine. Act how as opposed to how? Who is the enemy or the one we are acting upon? Who are the bad guys here? I said that everyone thinks they are acting rightly. Not just Tobin. Not just me. But the people we think should be behaving as we would prefer. If you think this not true, tell me who is acting unjustly and unkindly because that is their choice and they know it so that it is up to us to bring them up to speed.

  53. Anonymous says:


    Please forgive me for sticking in a moderator comment.

    to the new anon:

    I think we have had in this discussion just one anonymous. If you post anonymously, please sign with a letter or a number or your comments may be swept into the identity of the first anonymous commenter. it’s been a five star session, i think, and I’d hate to become confused now.

    for those of you less familiar with the web environment, a troll is just an obnoxious commenter. the format breeds them. they have many reasons for being a troll — they think of themselves as playing devil’s advocate, or they feel a discussion is too reserved and they want to poke people into revealing their true selves, or they are just having a troll moment and are temporarily overcome with the petty.

    as I said, the format breeds trolls, and I belive that anyone may suddenly transform into one. that’s why my mother doesn’t let me play on the web, and it’s why I sign my posts with a letter. that way, when my troll moment comes upon me, no one but me is going to know that the idiot was . . . me.

    but what to do about them? do you allow the petulent and childish to go by unremarked? or do you respond and risk having the discussion fly off onto ever more distant topics trying to respond with reason to the unreasonable?

    I think it is a discussion that belongs on its own thread. Roger can certainly toss anyone he feels he doesn’t want commenting. it’s sunday, Roger might be off singing, and I am sticking my oar in. i’ve enjoyed this exchange immensely. Tobin’s comments have been especially appreciated. Ruth and emily have helped me see what I like about didacticism and what i don’t like. And Roger told me how to define the word. Let’s please continue, if others are willing, and let’s ignore an occasional trollism.

    thank you all

  54. Anonymous says:

    I can assure you there have been more than one anonymouses here. And certainly no trolls. I’m not sure what you find so incredible about the suggestion that all people believe they are acting kindly and justly. Even you in what I think is a very unkind and unjust post above. My guess is that however I may feel about it, you thought you were doing a good thing.

  55. Anonymous says:

    >Tobin Anderson said:

    “My rule of thumb in thinking about this is that if you know what you want to say about a thing before you write, then you should write a nonfiction book. Good fiction, in my mind, expresses the tension and anxiety in ideas — that’s what undergirds it and keeps it moving — not a certainty in ideas. Fiction certain of verities tends to be predictable and slow-moving in every respect.”


    ” if a completely flimsy, crappy, propagandistic book was produced that made a huge number of us behave in a way that was kinder, less self-centered”

    I’m conflicted. While I agree that good fiction addresses the tension and anxiety in ideas, I don’t think that people overconfident in their own opinions should write non-fiction. Good non-fiction also demands an awareness of the tension between ideas and a sensitivity to their complexity, and also some humility on the part of the author. Unless you mean, Tobin, that arrogant people should write tracts, self-publish them, and limit their distribution to friends and family. I’m okay with that.

    I can’t agree that someone who wants to present their ideas in a way that effects change should stick to non-fiction. I believe strongly in the power of fiction. Steinbeck, for example. Or Milton. Rarely do you get quality and idealism together, but then, rarely do you get that quality in any event. (Full disclosure, I don’t like Steinbeck, but others do).

    In “Sold!” by McCormick, I think that decisions about the form of the book limited the quality of the writing. I think the book was compromised by its mission. It needed to accessible and fairly straightforward, to reach its audience. I think O.N. is the better book, though I can see that Sold! might have more affect on the world. I wouldn’t make the compromise myself.

    I don’t think I would try to write the book you described: flimsy propaganda as a means to an end, but in the end, I might find myself lauding the person who does.


  56. Anonymous says:

    >As I said, the format breeds trolls and any of us can become one without warning. I apologize if my suggestions were offensive. I did feel that moderating on someone else’s blog is difficult to defend, and Roger, I hope you will delete my comment if it was inexcusable.


  57. Roger Sutton says:

    >In comparison with some of the other blogs I visit, this one is relatively troll free, but any help in herding them is welcome. Judging by register, cadence, and sentence structure, it seems to almost always be the same person, who has posted under various pseudonyms in the past.This person starts out with genuinely interesting and on-topic things to say but seems to get him- or herself revved up as the discussion moves along and the sentences become more fragmented, the tone more vituperative, and the attacks on me and/or other posters more hostile. It’s a shame, because I think this person frequently has good things to say but too soon becomes his or her own worst enemy.

    I’m proud of the fact that this blog hosts some of liveliest debates in children’s-book-blogdom so I hesitate to fool with a system (by moderating comments, etc.) that seems to generally work. So as my hero would say, Carry on.

  58. Anonymous says:

    >your hero is james t. kirk?


  59. >No, it’s Tim Gund, I believe.

  60. Roger Sutton says:

    >Kitty is mixing up her bears and her daddies. GUNN.

  61. >Sorry. He’s your daddy, not mine.

  62. JeanneB says:

    >May I go back a few steps to one of Tobin’s post and say Wow and Hurray and Hubba to the following:?

    ‘I believe it is time to move beyond the tired post-modernist pieties of absolute relativism and construct compassionate goals for positive change, even as we recognize those goals are constructed.

    For us to sit back, admiring our own equanimity, even-handedness, and lack of engagement when others are suffering — that is truly “creepy.”‘

    Thank you, Tobin. I agree whole-heartedly. It’s what gets me to my computer every day.

    Jeanne Birdsall

  63. Anonymous says:

    >Roger, its been an interesting post, patronizng tim gunn speeches aside. I assume we’re all grown ups here and I am no more hostile when I challenge your stances than you are when you call me ludicrously sentimental. And i assure you that I am not my own worst enemy nor an enemy of myself at all. I am staunchly on my own side as is everyone who posts here on his or own her side. Which, of course, is precisely the problem with didacticism. The call to action may send you to your typewriter but its also frequently what causes war.

  64. Andy Laties says:

    >So it would be a Post-Modern, strongly relativist stance to dislike didacticism.

    And it would be either a Modern stance or a Beyond Post-Modern (anti-relativist) stance, to like didacticism, or at least to utilize it.

    A friend recently commented that Al Gore has been using the word Truth a lot, when complaining about the Bush Administration: they don’t tell the Truth about Global Warming. The evidence is overwhelming, incontrovertible, and yet they keep fudging and pretending and lying.

    So Al Gore is a Modern, or, is Beyond Post-Modern. He believes that there is Truth: specific, definite. Something can be stated.

    The Bush Administration is Post-Modern. They believe that there is no such THING as Truth. They advise serious considerations of a wide variety of startlingly odd explanations for the dramatic weather and climatic shifts of the past several years.

    We all understand that the Bush Administration is on reasonable territory in the sense that their explanations, although highly improbable, do retain possibility. The highly improbable could turn out to be the correct. But PROBABLY not.

    Post-Modernism is an extremely interesting stance to adopt because it opens you up to the serious consideration of some VERY improbable scenarios. That’s wonderfully fruitful from an artistic standpoint. It’s “thinking outside the box” in a big way.

    We return to a non-relativistic world (Modern or Beyond Post-Modern) a little sad because we weren’t allowed to keep on playing with the speculations. Post-Modernism can be a lot of fun. Personally I really like thinking the Post-Modern way. It provides a lot of completely alternative perspectives. You can sometimes see the cracks in the Modern system really clearly. Is it true that Western Civilization is more accurate in its description of the natural world than Shamanistic Animism of the oldest variety? Post-Modernism permits us to consider that Western Civilization could be a Gnostic Illusion. Isn’t that delightful?

    I think the Bush Administration is a case of someone’s sci-fi imagination getting its fists full of a lot of explosive devices and wildly setting them off. Letting the Post-Moderns play with the arsenal has turned out to be a problem. I don’t want them in power. So I have to sadly agree that Modernism or Beyond Post-Modernism had better hurry up and get their anti-relativist acts together and kick the bums out. Meaning that in an era when the Post-Moderns have obtained political power, Didacticism (for the rest of us) is just fine. It does turn out that there are morals to human stories. Aesop’s Fables is a bestseller because it is quite helpful, and also satisfying entertainment.

    Fine literature may or may not set out to instruct, but our natural tendency to seek out morals and instruction ensures that we do find ourselves somehow instructed: when we need to have someone preaching at us, we will go so far as to see a book as preachy no matter its author’s intentions. We’ll play didacticians to ourselves. (What IS Beyond Post-Modernism, though, aside from its evident anti-relativism? Is it some version of old-fashioned Idealism? The Post-Moderns are opposed to Totalitarianism (the Bushies are opposed to Totalitarianism!): could Al Gore with his Certainty turn out to be the stalking horse for (benevolent) Despotism? We learned from Ricard that while right-wing despots killed 50 million in the 20th century, left-wing despots killed 100 million. I do home Beyond Post-Modernism isn’t just a return to Modernism with its programs and its plans!!)

  65. Tobin Anderson says:

    >Well said, Andy L.!

    The similarity between totalitarian regimes — right or left — is of course the refusal to recognize that their truths are constructed and contingent, and the willingness therefore to violently align reality to match. This explains the explosive force that absurdist writers have in these societies — I’m thinking of people like Can Xue in China or Viktor Erofeyev in Russia — or, even better for this blog, Daniil Kharms, a writer of nonsensical picture books who was tortured and killed by the Soviets. The totalitarian state finds political opposition less threatening, in a way, because it still operates in a realm of dogmatism. Absurdism, on the other hand, suggests that all meaning is constructed, which is far more dangerous to a state based on a notion of truth.

    This is why I believe it is necessary to move forward politically in the knowledge that our goals are constructed, and therefore demand revision and watchfulness.

    I would say that the Bush conservatives (who are not, in any real sense of the word, conservatives) are not so much Post-Modern or Post-Modernist as Sophist: They believe that reality is created through words, that through mere spin, one can cause the physical world to come into alignment with one’s wishes.

    And I would say that in contrast, we could learn from the Skeptics, who originated the idea of relativism in the West: They saw that relativism is in the end self-devouring, because — as in the case of our disgruntled anonymous poster — skepticism can be dogmatic — it can become its opposite. Therefore, the true Skeptic always keeps as a possibility the idea that something may just be true and real.

    This is what kept the Greek Skeptics from walking off cliffs or eating rocks. And it’s what allows us to presume (for the moment) that CO2, and not adultery, is causing global warming.


    PS. Hey, thank you, Jeanne Birdsall!

  66. >Roger: I’ve been following this debate with great interest. It’s been an excellent one! (Andy L.–loved your last comment. I work in academia and the post-modern has infected everything like a virus.)

    I agree, Roger, that you can’t reign in the anons, because it won’t work anyway (especially as you have some idea who anon is). I also agree that you do a splendid job in responding to them level-headedly.

    But, just as a general aside to this debate I have to mention that being anonymous on the internet is so over. The internet is part of public life now and if you don’t have the cajones to say something under your own name I don’t think you should say it at all. I’ll allow one exception: people who may lose their jobs (BitchPhD, Miss Snark) if they post under their own names. But notice something about these exceptions: BitchPhD and MissSnark have recognizable personae and can always be traced back to their home on the web. Anon is untraceable and, therefore, cowardly.

    No hijacking meant, Roger, but I realize this debate has reached its logical end and just wanted to pipe in with this comment.

  67. Roger Sutton says:

    >I don’t mind anonymouses except when a) I can’t tell them apart, which is why I’ve asked all posters to initial themselves (consistently) or b)they attack others who have identified themselves. That’s just cowardly. I also feel free to ignore an anonymous post, for what that’s worth.

  68. Anonymous says:

    >Tobin and Andy
    There are a lot of isms going on there but the point I was making was that I understand the impulse very well to think something is true and right and want to enlighten others. I have it as much as anyone else or more. The difference between Tobin and Jeanne and me is that they think this impulse is noble and I do not.

  69. Anonymous says:

    >Pertinent to that and to Roger’s comment, I believe I have been attacked much more frequently and more harshly than I would have had I used my name, so I think, interestingly that it cuts two ways, athough I do understand people’s objections to someone coming on anonymously. I did so from the outset because I admit I think blogging is fundamentally an icky thing to do and I couldnt believe I got sucked into some of these discussions, which are very stimulating but because I also think the impulse to enlighten is icky, a clarification for me, as many have been, thanks to all the varying voices on the blog and their willingness to speak (with names or not) I am going to get off the blog. This seems something of a paradox, but there you go. The best waters are always murky. If you clean them up the ponds die.

  70. JeanneB says:

    >Anonymous, do not tell me how I think. I do not think my impulses noble. (How ridiculous) I write the only way I know how, and I believe in trying to make better in some small way a frighteningly imperfect world.

  71. Anonymous says:

    >Tobin said: “The similarity between totalitarian regimes — right or left — is of course the refusal to recognize that their truths are constructed and contingent, and the willingness therefore to violently align reality to match.”

    This seems to me to be an apt description of the current administration, actually… and I’m not sure that a “Sophist” manipulation of language and logic doesn’t always play a part in that endeavor. The effort to force reality into accordance with a dogmatic ideology seems generally to encompass language… For some reason I’m reminded of a scene in the movie The Lives of Others, in which the interrogator tells a prisoner– who has avowed his innocence– that if he believes himself to be innocent then he is implying that the State has been mistaken in arresting him…which would in itself be a traitorous criticism.

    You know, I wonder if the power of absurdist writing in such an environment comes partly, also, out of the fear that such a state evokes. A totalitarian government, in its extreme attachment to a particular worldview and its willingness to subvert reality to support that view, *is* absurd. And a truly absurdist atmosphere can be terrifying– maybe absurdist literature expresses some of that horror, and with it the hope of returning to a more ordered world?

    I wonder, too, whether that sort of dis-ordering of language and meaning– a Clean Air bill that is in fact a measure to lower the standards on harmful emmissions, for example– isn’t more unsettling and upsetting than overt didacticism.

    As to whether this is in some way similar to a “Post-Modern” philosophy… I agree with those above who’ve argued that, when taken to an extreme, any ideology has a Shakespearean tendency to resemble its opposite. Though, you know, that very idea could be called kinda Post-Modern. I think, though, that many of the original writers who’ve been labeled PMs did try to get at something more subtle than the criticism of total relativism would suggest… though maybe this is just my interpretation…Still, old Jacques Derrida did write quite a bit about the need for political action…

    I also can’t help thinking of the Mahayana Buddhists, who argue that a pure vision of the world as being in change and flux, without central order or meaning, is ultimately a nihilistic view… unless one adds the practice of compassion.

    But now I’m going way too far afield!

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion,

  72. rindawriter says:

    >WHEW!!! The squeaking in the sandbox has been deafening today…and there’s so much sand being thrown that I got something in my eyes and can’t seeEEEEEEH……Wah! Wah! Wah!

    I will say this: I will be willingly lured without any ability whatsoever to resist by any book, ANY book that ENTERTAINS ME FULLY, satisfies me wholly, pleases me exquisitely–no matter how didactic it appears to others or how didactic the author might have intended it to be. I only care that I, me, myself, and mine experience enormous pleasure in reading it.

    I am frankly bored by a lot of the YA and the fantasy for young folks out there because the books contain either no humor at all or else are swamped by the sort of derogatory, demeaning, insult humor without compassion, without gentleness that seems to be so popular on sitcoms and R-rated comedian shows these days….

    Lloyd Alexander’s work is didactic, and I can feel that in his work, see it, pick it out, but I also can’t stop reading it and I can’t stop loving to slurp it up yet one more time, and I can’t stop forgiving him over and over again for minor faults becuase his work contains such compassion and such a tremendous sense of humor. I can’t stand HP because I can’t stand the author’s brand of insult humor-frankly. It’s not fun, not enjoyable to me. All too common already… and below the belt for my money.

    I LOVE Gone with the Wind. I especially LOVE hating and admiring Scarlett all at one time, but I also suck up the lush word pictures and the way the action NEVER stops and how cleanly, concisely that author still writes for all the lushness…she never, NEVER makes me wait until I’m bored…superb plotting, superb sense of audience in that book…no wonder young girls have loved it so.

  73. Andy Laties says:

    >I love Daniil Kharms, too.

    For instance — is there a moral to this story, below? Is it didactic? Yes and no. Given that it was written in the late 20s, in Russia, is it political? Yes and no. Isn’t it simply perfect, so that its political meanings perfectly merge with its beauty and humor?

    A Sonnet

    An amazing thing happened to me today: I suddenly forgot which comes first – 7 or 8.

    I went to my neighbors and asked them what they thought on the matter.

    To their and my surprise, we suddenly discovered that they too couldn’t recall the counting order. They remembered 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, but they’d forgotten what comes next.

    We all went to the overpriced grocery store, the one that’s on the corner of Znamenskaya and Basseinaya Streets, and asked the cashier to resolve our dilemma. The cashier smiled sadly, pulled a small hammer out of her mouth and, after twitching her nose slightly left-right, said: – In my opinion, seven comes after eight, whenever eight comes after seven.

    We thanked the cashier and cheerfully ran out of the store. But then, thinking carefully about the cashier’s words, we got sad again since her words were void of any meaning.

    What were we supposed to do? We went to the Summer Garden and started counting the trees. But upon reaching six in count, we stopped and begun to arguing: in the opinion of some, 7 went next; but in opinion of others, 8 did.

    We were arguing for a long time when, by some sheer luck, a child fell off a park bench and broke both jaw bones. This distracted us from our argument.

    And then, we all went home.

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