The first way in which children’s fantasy influences adult fantasy is that it acts as a gateway drug for readers, who as they grow up desire more sophisticated fantasy to read. At the same time children’s fantasy causes little story-telling fantasy readers to grow up telling fantasy stories which develop from children’s to adult fantasy.
One of the worst influences on modern literature is the academic study of it. Whole departments of PhDs and PhD candidates, poring over stuff that writers were hacking out to amuse their friends, or support themselves and their families, excavating for the deepest meanings, lauding and deifying the writers, has changed our culture’s view of fiction. From Aphra Behn to Mrs. Gaskell, fiction was railed at from the pulpits and condemned in the parlor as a form of entertainment that could rot your brain or subvert your moral tone (and where do we hear this nowadays? Gods help us, in fifty more years I’ll bet there will be academics studying video games). Now, because of academia, fiction is taken very seriously indeed.
Children’s fantasy, on the other hand, still enjoys its status of being overlooked. Fairy tales, magical adventures, encounters with talking ducks and flying trains, are obviously not to be taken seriously. This gives the story-teller a world where nothing she writes is held to any special account, where she can try anything, and if it doesn’t quite work, well, it’s just a fairy tale, it’s just a fantasy, you know, for children. The talking duck is dumb, and trains can fly. Amidst this benign neglect, where there’s no place to fall, (I mean really, a talking duck?) the writer is given scope and depth to explore wonders without fear or hesitation.
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” “Chrestomanci! Chrestomanci! Chrestomanci!” The Moon is a Harsh Mistress . . . Because it doesn’t matter, we can go to our limits. Because isn’t not important enough to take seriously, we can reach out to the silliest, wildest, craziest wonders of our imagination. And with that material, we can make anything we are capable of.
Oh, all right, yes, that time when fantasy was not taken seriously is actually past. But as long as we have our separate shelves in bookstores and libraries, as long as we’re not “mainstream,” we can still go our lengths. We can go on writing children’s fantasies, for our childs’ hearts.
Children’s fantasy is story-driven. Adult fantasy still follows in that tradition. And neither, for the most part, has yet been poisoned by that most insidious gift of academia, The Theme.
Academics, making a study of fiction, discovered The Theme. They realized that stories create nuances, and powerful stories can in fact be interpreted as a metaphor about human conditions, and human lives. This metaphor is sometimes mind-blowing, life-changing, personal and powerful. “Ah hah!” cried the academics, none of whom had ever written a work of fiction in their lives, “Great writers of fiction are not actually writing stories, they are writing THEMES, which they clothe with their stories. It is actually a secret communication to people who are as smart and wise as we are. Fiction is all about THEME!!!” Okay, they didn’t say that. But they sure act like they did.
But it is not true. Themes are a by-product of story. If you make up a story, and it’s a good story, and you think it through and write it tight and fine, you will find, when you finish, that you have also written a couple of themes. Be True To Yourself. Stay the Course. We Don’t Always Know As Much As We Think We Do. Whatever. The bigger and stronger your story, the more numerous the themes you can find in it. But here’s the catch. If you start with the theme, “I’m going to write about Friendship!” your story will come up empty. Because you’ll be walking cardboard characters through a made-up construct in order to illustrate your theme. (You can see this in a lot of mainstream “literature.” And in a lot of bad plays.)
Unfortunately, Creative Writing teachers, and English teachers, are all trained by academics. When teaching story-telling, you’ll often hear them say (these people who, like their teachers, may never have written a story in their lives), “The first thing you do when you start to write your story, is choose your theme.”
Nooooo! Don’t do it! Please! You can just bet that Homer, when he wrote the Iliad, did not sit down first and think, “Now what is my theme?” And yet the Iliad is stuffed with ‘em.
Write the story. If you are writing with passion and honesty, you can try and shut the themes out, but they’ll crawl through the windows and under the doors. You can’t get shut of the things — if you do it the right way ’round.
Let us cleave to our position in the ghetto, outside the mainstream, where what we do is not important literature, and thus academics do not study it and take it apart, and then come and tell us (the next generation of us) how it is to be done. How it looks when it’s done right. What it should be about. We are the lucky ones, because we are all, still, just writing for the children.