Talking trash: literary perspectives

Passing criticisms of Blyton’s ‘mediocrity’ as a writer can be found as early as the late 1940s, but they began to gather pace in the early 1950s. At that time, much of the concern about children’s reading focused on so-called ‘horror comics’ imported from the USA. As Martin Barker has described, these comics were the focus of a concerted public campaign, which eventually resulted in the passing of the Children and Young People (Harmful Publications) Act in 1955. In this context, the work of writers like Blyton could well have been seen as a wholesome antidote to such harmful alien influences – and indeed, Blyton herself was keen to present it in this way.

Yet as the market in children’s books expanded during the 1950s and 1960s, attention focused not so much on the distinction between books and other (allegedly more harmful) media, but on the nature of the books themselves. Press reports about the ‘banning’ of Enid Blyton’s work by librarians began to appear in the late 1950s, and gathered pace in the 1960s. In her book The Blyton Phenomenon, Sheila Ray (a librarian herself) traces the evidence for this in some detail, and remains somewhat sceptical. It wasn’t until 1963 that the first well-documented evidence of a ban – or at least of librarians refusing to purchase Blyton’s books – can be identified in the UK, beginning in St. Pancras in London, and then apparently extending to Birmingham and Nottingham. Ray argues that the sheer quantity of Blyton’s output posed problems for librarians: they had to be selective in their purchases, not least in the interests of stocking a range of authors. While the librarians involved in such ‘bans’ were certainly critical of Blyton (along with other popular children’s authors such as Richmal Crompton and W.E. Johns), their main concern was as much to do with retaining a balanced and diverse stock. Meanwhile, other librarians were wary of the charge of censorship, and of snobbery; while some argued that there was little justice in singling out Blyton, given that there were so many other ‘bad’ books on their shelves.

Ray argues that these stories about bans in libraries were featured because they made sensational and entertaining copy for newspapers. While Blyton herself was clearly angered by them, her publishers might well have realized that a shortage of her books in libraries would have driven sales to individual children. As Ray indicates, such stories could still be found in the late 1970s, although a growing panic about levels of illiteracy had contributed to a relaxation in attitudes. By this point, some teachers and librarians had come to regard Blyton as a kind of gateway drug: any reading was better than none at all, and Blyton was seen to be particularly useful for engaging reluctant readers.

Nevertheless, there is good evidence of bans elsewhere. Papers released in 2009 showed that the BBC operated an effective ban – by simply ignoring Blyton’s work, and rejecting her proposals for radio adaptations – for several decades. Memos from BBC executives described her books as lacking in ‘literary value’, as ‘second rate’, ‘small beer’ and ‘mediocre’. Meanwhile, publishers seeking to establish a reputation for ‘quality’, like Puffin (the children’s brand of Penguin) and Bodley Head, took pride in proclaiming that they did not include Blyton titles on their lists. Blyton was excluded from lists of recommended reading published by national Library Associations, and by the National Book League. Meanwhile, in a 1975 Schools Council report on children’s reading, led by the critic Frank Whitehead, Blyton was unquestioningly dumped into the category of ‘non-quality’ books.

The attitudes of parents are harder to document, but there is little doubt that (as Nicolas Tucker suggests) middle-class parents at the time tended to prefer more ‘demanding’ literature. Nevertheless, their children almost certainly read Blyton, and may even have seen it as a variety of ‘forbidden fruit’. By the early 1960s, when Armada began to publish cheap paperback editions of Blyton and other popular writers – books that children could easily afford to buy with their own pocket money – adults generally had much less say in the selection of children’s reading.

At this implies, these judgments about taste and value were very much tied up with social class, as well as age. Yet the reasons for banning Blyton were expressed primarily in terms of the apparently objective grounds of literary quality. While some librarians expressed concern about the danger of ‘addiction’, the main objection was that Blyton was just a poor writer: her plots were contrived and predictable, her characterization was weak, and her language was restricted and unimaginative. Rather than offering the depth and richness of great literature, Blyton’s work was merely formulaic trash.

These objections were especially evident among the growing numbers of literary critics and book reviewers who began to address children’s literature from the late 1950s. Most reviewers tended to ignore Blyton, despite her popularity: if it was mentioned at all, her name was mainly used as a byword for rubbish. Actual reviews were rare and almost entirely dismissive. Blyton was routinely omitted from the critical and historical works on children’s literature that were beginning to appear, as though she were simply beneath consideration. Some noted critics did engage with Blyton a little more directly, although hardly in detail, and their observations were mostly excoriating. Probably the earliest example can be found in a ‘parent’s lament’ in the upmarket literary magazine Encounter, published in 1958. Here, Colin Welch expostulated about Noddy – that ‘unnaturally priggish, sanctimonious, witless, spiritless, snivelling, sneaking doll’ – and expressed a wider suspicion about the extent of Blyton’s industrial-scale productivity. A few years later, the educational writer David Holbrook in English for Maturity was condemning her work as ‘bloodless and fleshless’; while Margery Fisher, the author of the influential Intent on Reading, described Blyton’s work as a form of ‘slow poison’.

Such criticisms continued until well into the 1970s and beyond. In 1973, the critic Aidan Chambers was complaining about Blyton’s ‘triviality, linguistically impoverished style, anaemia in plot and characterization, and clichéd, stereotyped ideas’. In a BBC TV programme the following year, Brian Alderson echoed these observations, lamenting Blyton’s ‘lack of substance’ and her failure to develop the child’s reading. A few years later, the critic Fred Inglis shame-facedly recalled reading Blyton as a child, accusing her of ‘representing the crude moral diagrams and garish fantasies of her readership’. In their book about girls’ fiction published in 1976, Mary Cadogan and Patricia Craig flay Blyton with a torrent of criticism: her work is crude, commonplace, sentimental and trite; her characters are flat, unmemorable nonentities, and her plots are unrealistic and contrived; her writing is careless, shoddy and undemanding; and she ‘writes down’ to children, combining a ‘specious jollity’ with some very simplistic moral values. Cadogan and Craig also add some ideological criticisms into the mix, accusing Blyton of promoting chauvinistic and anti-feminist attitudes – criticisms we will consider in more detail in a later section.

Despite her more distanced account of the controversies surrounding Blyton, Sheila Ray’s analysis of her work (published in 1982) is similarly withering. Like many other critics, she contrasts Blyton unfavourably with older ‘classic’ children’s authors, such as A.A. Milne and E. Nesbit. She too largely condemns Blyton’s work as bland, simplistic, contrived and stereotypical. She accuses her books of failing to enrich the child’s experience or knowledge, or their love of language. Somewhat grudgingly, however, Ray admits that Blyton might help to prepare children – and particularly reluctant readers – for the demands of more serious authors: by successfully giving children what they wanted at a particular stage of their development, she could provide useful ‘reading practice’ that would eventually lead on to better things.

Although Blyton’s reputation in literary circles has begun to recover somewhat in more recent decades, these kinds of criticisms frequently recur. Other children’s authors seem particularly keen to differentiate themselves from Blyton’s work. In a BBC Radio broadcast in 1997, the writer Jan Mark condemned Blyton’s work as empty and meretricious: according to Mark, she had ‘no interest in language’, and no idea about how to develop stories. More recently, in 2008, Philip Pullman greeted one of Blyton’s periodic comebacks with the claim that her work is ‘rubbish’, by contrast with more literary children’s classics:

The characters are two-dimensional and the stories are mechanically recovered, like mechanically recovered meat. There’s no lasting quality in it whatsoever. Take Swallows and Amazons or Tom’s Midnight Garden and you can read them for the pleasure in the style. There’s no pleasure in reading Enid Blyton’s style. There’s no sense of delight or joy in the language.

Meanwhile, in a radio broadcast that same year, Anne Fine (the former Children’s Laureate) asserted that Blyton’s work was ‘not literature’: true literature, she argued, would be richer and deeper, with more complex characters and more detailed descriptions, rather than the superficial and obvious approach of Blyton.

Although these criticisms are diverse, their shared concern with literary quality clearly derives from the style of English literary criticism dominated by F.R. Leavis. Leavis himself was primarily concerned to identify and extol the artistic and moral value of what he called the ‘great tradition’ of English literature: his canon of great authors included Austen, Dickens, Eliot and Conrad, although it took him a little longer to come to terms with modern writers such as D.H. Lawrence. More important in the debate about popular literature, however, was his wife Q.D. Leavis’s book Fiction and the Reading Public (1932), a wide-ranging condemnation of the mediocrity of popular taste. The work of the Leavises was a direct influence on several of the critics I have already mentioned, several of whom were their students, including David Holbrook, Fred Inglis and Frank Whitehead.

The Leavisite approach is informed as much by morality as it is by aesthetic (or even linguistic) considerations. The problem with popular literature is that its pleasures are too easily gained. The cheap ‘railway novels’ available on station bookstalls and the popular journalism Q.D. Leavis was so keen to condemn lacked any moral complexity or ‘difficulty’: this kind of stuff was just too easy to read. As subsequent critics have argued, the Leavisite approach is overtly and unashamedly elitist: it scarcely conceals its contempt for the ignorant, unwashed masses and the superficial, escapist rubbish they seem to enjoy. Yet there is also a kind of anti-capitalism about this argument as well: Q.D. Leavis’s criticism of popular literature was directed at the publishers who produced these popular texts just as much as the readers who were apparently manipulated by them.

Blyton’s work represents an obvious target for this kind of criticism. As Robert Druce points out, part of the problem Blyton has posed for her numerous critics has not just been to do with her sheer popularity, but also the industrial scale of her production, and her skill in branding, formatting and promoting her work. As Druce suggests, Blyton would have attracted much less criticism if she had simply published much less.

Yet when it came to children’s literature, these arguments also took on a more psychological, developmental tone. Writers like Blyton were condemned because they didn’t offer sufficient ‘challenge’ to younger readers, and failed to ‘stretch’ their imagination. According to the children’s author Geoffrey Trease, Blyton’s language was ‘drained of all difficulty until it achieved a kind of aesthetic anaemia’. Her books might conceivably help to lead children on to more ‘demanding’ texts, but they were worthless in themselves. Yet others feared that this kind of literary graduation might never occur: children might not move on to great literature, but to a diet of popular romances, pulp fiction, strip cartoons and trashy newspapers.


Literary reappraisal

Towards the end of the century, Blyton’s work began to be reappraised by critics. I’ll consider some of the underlying reasons for this in later sections, although it is notable how much of this reappraisal remained within the terms of the Leavisite tradition. Peter Hunt was one of the earliest critics to adopt this approach. In a 1997 BBC broadcast, for example, he argues that in terms of traditional literary values such as symbolism and moral ambiguity, Blyton is actually a somewhat complex writer. Although her stories might appear simple, he suggests that young people read them in thoughtful and serious ways. In an earlier article (published in 1995), he compares a Blyton story with Kenneth Grahame’s accepted classic, Wind In The Willows, arguing that it can be read thematically and ideologically – in terms of its symbolism, its narrative voice and its psychological complexities – in much the same literary manner.

However, the leading voice in this critical re-evaluation has been David Rudd. In his book Enid Blyton and the Mystery of Children’s Literature, as well as in numerous articles, Rudd directly challenges the main arguments of Blyton’s literary (and other) critics. He points out inconsistencies and inaccuracies in their arguments, condemns them for their partial and limited use of evidence, and even notes their grammatical and spelling mistakes. Rudd rejects the claim that Blyton’s language is limited and cliché-ridden, that her characters are flat and stereotyped, and that her plots are repetitive and contrived. Significantly, he also challenges the developmental assumptions on which such criticisms are based: he cites a great many writers who recall their childhood enthusiasm for Blyton, and suggests that reading her books does not preclude a later interest in ‘great literature’. He also contests the assumption that children’s fiction should necessarily always ‘stretch’ or make great demands of the child reader.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Rudd’s argument here is his claim that Blyton belongs more to the tradition of oral storytelling, rather than the written literary one. Within the oral tradition, he argues, the emphasis is not on a polished style, rounded characters and complex themes, but on action – on relating what happened ‘then… and then… and then…’ Oral storytellers are not expected to be cerebral or introspective in the manner of literary authors, nor are they required to be original. In the oral tradition, stories can draw on other sources, and use language that is simple and repetitive rather than calculated and precise. The oral story is much more improvised and ephemeral: it is told off-the-cuff, as a kind of first draft. The storyteller is not as detached from their story or from their readers as the literary author. In some respects, Rudd’s defence of Blyton (like Hunt’s) seems to rely on demonstrating her literary quality; yet his argument here also offers a more direct challenge to the basic assumptions of the Leavisite approach.

There is another broader argument here, to which I’ll return in a later section. This is the claim that Blyton is a fundamentally ‘child-centred’ author. Clearly, part of the problem her work poses – especially for traditional literary critics – is that she appeals directly to children themselves. Unlike other ‘children’s writers’ like Grahame or Milne, she does not attempt to write for adults at the same time. Blyton appears to address children at their own level – although as we’ll see, that is not the same as saying that she writes as a child herself.


Read more…