Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Dangerous Article for Boys: Why boys don’t need to get in touch with their feelings and how you can protect them from people who think they do (with a list of books to help you fend these people off).

The following article contains some elements from past posts, but it mostly new. It is the monthly article for the Memoria Press August E-Newsletter.

It is now well-recognized that boys are not reading. What is the problem? Most commentators want to say that boys have an aversion to books. But the problem is quite the opposite: books—modern books, that is—have an aversion to boys.

A recent edition of The New York Times Sunday Book Review featured an article by Robert Lipsyte that attempts to address this problem. Here is the proffered solution:
[B]oys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships — the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.
Excuse me while I dab my eyes delicately with my handkerchief, touched as I am by this tender thought.

Okay, let's get something straight here: solutions like this are part of the problem. I'm normally against shooting spit wads in class, but I am willing to make an exception in this one case. The entire educational establishment has tried for over 50 years to force boys into their effeminate mold, and in the process, they've succeeded in evacuating literature of all the things boys like in books: action, adventure, danger, bloodletting--and an iron moral code that is taught, not by smarmy sermonizing, but by immersing them in the moral universe of a story about a hero who not only believes in this code, but enforces it with a vengeance.

Boys now seek refuge in cheesy horror novels because the Cultural Authorities won't give them the adventure books that were once staples in every boy's life. It is to this I attribute the popularity of vampire novels (and movies and television shows). But even here a boy is destined for disappointment.

The crisis of wimpy vampires 
In fact, the extent of our modern cultural crisis can be at least partly measured by the plight of the vampire. The vampire of yore was an evil and only partly human creature. He sucked peoples’ blood and didn’t second guess himself. The modern vampire is the pure creation of the modern therapeutic mindset: a tortured emotional soul dealing with his vampire condition as if it were some kind of psychological neurosis.

The vampire of old was a danger to others; the modern vampire is a danger primarily to himself. The vampire of old looked into the mirror and saw nothing; the modern vampire looks into a mirror and sees the other part of his bi-polar self. The vampire of old required only a stake through the heart; the modern vampire requires months on the psychologist’s couch.

The pure evil of the traditional vampire is a rebuke to the modern relativism that dominates our literature, which avoids unadulterated evil because it implies an equally unadulterated—and unacceptable—good.

Morality has been replaced in young adult literature by therapy, and boys have fled in droves.

Heroism can never be completely eliminated from literature because we are naturally attracted to it. And so, when it is repressed (if you will forgive my commission of psychologism in the very act of criticizing in), it always comes back in some other form.

The pathogenesis of the superhero 
This accounts for the continuing popularity of comic books and the more recent phenomenon of superhero movies. Our culture has never fully recovered from the demise of the classic Western. We have to have heroes, and in an age in which we were not ashamed of it, we put them in a historical context. These were things that really could—and in some cases actually did—happen.

But in the modern era, we are not supposed to admire great men, largely because we are uncomfortable with the whole idea of greatness. So today we must relegate our heroes to the realm of the fantastic. They are now figures who could never really be, doing things that can never really be done. And even here, the therapeutic is never far off.

Every modern superhero must deal with the psychological consequences of something from his childhood: for Spiderman it is the murder of his uncle; for Batman the death of his parents; and, of course, Superman’s planet has been blown up. The modern superhero wreaks havoc on the bad guys less because he is pursuing truth, justice, and the American way than because it is the only way he can work out his angst.

The mother of a friend of mine in high school was a famous psychologist. One day I noticed padded bats propped up against the wall and asked, “What are those?” She told me they were for her mom’s patients so they could express their anger without hurting anybody. All we common people get to work out our anxiety are padded bats—and we don’t even get to destroy anything. Batman, on the other hand, gets a helicopter, a fast car, and a cool costume—and destroys half a city.

Life just isn’t fair.

Hands off my psyche
I have three boys, mostly grown now. Not a one of them ever needed to be lead into “deeper engagement” with his life. Had you asked my wife about it at the time, she would have told you that they were all way too engaged in their own lives and that they needed to think about something else—like cleaning their rooms or mowing the lawn. And I hate to think of what would have happened if anyone had tried to “prick their dormant empathy.” To any healthy boy, those are fighting words.

Boys, though they cannot articulate it, can usually see right through the modern psychobabble. In fact, say what you will about the Harry Potter books (and plenty has been said), they at least betray a consciousness of the old adventure ideal, and are light on the psychological reflexiveness—at least in the early books in the series, although I am told (I have not read them) that the later books portray a much more effeminate Harry.

We have the mistaken impression that it was traditional children’s literature that was preachy. This is not only untrue, it is almost the exact opposite of the truth. It is precisely the preachiness of politically correct modern literature that offends their innate sense of honesty and justice—a human instinct that we do our best to educate out of them.

Boys are not interested in getting in touch with themselves, and it is particularly off-putting when they are told that it is good for them. The minute the politically correct schoolmarms approach, they head for the woods, where they are free to pick up sticks and pretend they are swords and fight monsters and hunt frogs and swing from trees--anything but be preached at by people whose sermons consist of high-minded meaninglessness.

Most boys are born cynics and are rightly suspicious of moralistic platitudes. They respect words only to the extent that they see them followed by actions. Tell them (in mere words) what the right thing to do is, and they will look at you suspiciously and walk away. Do the right thing—preferably at the risk of your own person or reputation, and they will follow you in zealous allegiance.

The older authors of books for boys knew this: they forsook the sermonizing for the story of men in action. G. A. Henty, Johnston McCulley, Anthony Hope, H. Rider Haggard, P. C. Wren, Howard Pyle, C. S. Forester, as well as Western authors like Louis L’Amour and Max Brand—these were authors boys not only didn’t avoid, but sought out. Even a few female authors were on to this secret about boys: Baronness Orczy, she of Scarlet Pimpernel fame, being the most notable, as well as Laura Ingalls Wilder. These were books once illumined by flashlights under bed covers so that, late at night, when they were supposed to be asleep, the young male reader could find out what happened next. To do the same with most modern therapeutic fiction would be a waste of batteries.

This is not a romantic discourse on the nature of the boy and how we should leave him to develop on his own, but merely a defense of the idea that he has a nature, and that it should be taken into account in how we deal with him. A necessary part of this (given that his nature doesn’t always lend itself to doing what the dictates of civilization require) is a straightforward and honest discipline, something which too often these days has been replaced by psychotropic drugs.

Boys needs to be tamed, not treated.

Good books for boys
But in addition to restraint, a boy needs inspiration. And one way to do this is to give him books that meet him where he is, which is far from the place that most professionals (who are admittedly only trying to help) think he is. In addition, of course, to the great classic hero stories of Homer and Virgil, as well as the various books of the authors I mentioned above, here is a short list of books to utilize that predate the Conspiracy Against Boys, in the general order in which they should be read:

Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder (and anything else Wilder ever wrote)
The Jack Tales, by Jonathan Chase
Call it Courage, by Armstrong Sperry
Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green
King Arthur, by Roger Lancelyn Green
Adam of the Road, by Elizabeth Janet Gray
Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi
Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lost in the Barrens, by Farley Mowat (and anything else Mowat ever wrote)
Goodbye Kate, by Billy C. Clark (and anything else Clark ever wrote)
The Bronze Bow, by Elizabeth George Speare
The Mask of Zorro, by Johnston McCulley (and the rest of the Zorro books)
The Scarlet Pimpernel and El Dorado, by Baroness Orczy (and the rest of the Scarlet Pimpernel books)
Men of Iron, by Howard Pyle (and anything else Pyle ever wrote)
Shane, by Jack Shaeffer
The Hobbit, by J. R. R. Tolkien
Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
Old Squire’s Farm, by C. A. Stephens
Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow, by Allan French
Little Britches, by Ralph Moody
Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
A Texas Ranger, by N. A. Jennings
Penrod, by Booth Tarkington
The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling
Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Edison
The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Tell your boy to read them. And when you send him to bed, tell him to go to sleep—but make sure there are plenty of flashlight batteries around the house. Just in case he needs them.


Cindy said...

Because I am in the midst of school planning I am mostly just hanging out on my Google Reader. My ears always perk up when boys are mentioned as I have 8 of them.

Your psychologist story reminds me of a visit to a woman doctor's office in Massachusetts (probably means something) when my oldest was a toddler. In the office I said somewhat proudly, "No-no," to my son and he stopped what he was doing. The doctor was not impressed with my display. She said, "Oh, we never say no-no. I wish all mothers had a rubber room in which to put their children or themselves if necessary." Not being able to find a rubber room, I kept up with the no-nos among other things :)

Great list. My guys like John Buchan and Raphael Sabatini too.

Singring said...

An interesting article, with some astute observations of modern pop culture, but it misses the main point:

Comic books are not 'continuing' to be popular. Marvel was in administration before it was bought by Disney. The industry is collapsing and if it weren't for licensing income (primarily movies), it would probably be defunct at this point. The only reason Wonder Woman is still being published is to keep the brand alive for a potential feature film. Hardly any teenage boys read comic books any more. The reason? Ask comic book fans and they will tell you that it is because, in an effort to appeal to their ageing fanbase, they have become too violent, too exploitative and just don't tell engaging stories anymore (I don't quite a agree, but anyway). So violence or 'effemination' is not really the core issue.

To really notice this, all you have to do is play a few current video games (try 'God of War III' or 'Call of Duty') - the entertainment boys today are actually consuming en masse, contrary to your and my higher hopes.

They are almost uniformly violent to the extreme featuring the kind of heroes who enforce their 'moral code' by slaughtering a few dozen enemies per second. It's great fun, but hardly illustrative of an 'effemination' -rather the exact opposite (I'll warn you - it's very graphic):

So with that in mind, I submit that the problem today with getting boys to read is not so much the supposedly 'effeminate' content of the books (or any other medium, for that matter), but the actual medium itself - reading about adventurous journeys through fabled lands printed on a grey piece of paper is just not as immediate as actually traveling through a fabled land on a widescreen TV.

That makes for an incredible uphill battle for books - and one that won't become any easier, if teachers insist on sticking to books that, on top of everything else, boys these days will simply be less likely to relate to.

SPWeston said...

I agree.

ZPenn said...

Singring is right, books are fighting an uphill battle against a culture that wants instant gratification. I'm glad I fell in love with literature at an early age, because if I hadn't I probably never would have had such an appreciation for it (including many of the books on Martin's list, which are excellent). I'm not a proponent of eliminating violence from video games, either, I think the consumer should be allowed to purchase the kinds of video games they want to buy, but I certainly wish more people wouldn't throw away the opportunity to become enchanted by the depth of Middle Earth, or to forgo a cautionary trip to a dystopian future painted by Bradburry or Orwell.

JenBusick said...

To your list I would add one modern author in particular: Spain's Arturo Perez-Reverte. The Captain Alatriste novels, which have a teenaged narrator, are gripping adventure tales.

Bill Robinson said...

Great read. Thanks to my good friend Alan Cornett for pointing me in your direction!

Lee said...

To this list, I would suggest that you add...

Anything by Robert Heinlein written before about 1964, before his sexual obsessions ruined his otherwise sterling narratives. Say yes to "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress", no to "Stranger in a Strange Land."

If you can find old science fiction by Clifford Simak and A.E. Van Vogt.

For younger boys, if you can find the Rick Brant Adventure Series. Rick and his pal Scotty make the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift seem like sissies.

KyCobb said...

When my brother-in-law was a child, he refused to learn to read, until he was introduced to "Cowboy Bob" books.

Anastasia said...

I enjoyed this article a great deal. However, I have one minor observation to make on the topic of comic book heroes and angst. It's true that the eighties and nineties Batman films played up the psychological theme: Batman is working out his childhood traumas in donning the suit. The recent Nolan films, on the other hand, depict Bruce Wayne as Gothams de facto prince, who cleans up the streets out of a sense of noblesse oblige. He fights crime to better the city, as his family has always done one way or another. A young friend of mine explains it here.