I wonder if, sometimes, we’re too early in assigning a work of fiction to the children’s section. We tag it as a Timeless Classic, nevertheless it remains a Timeless Children’s Classic.
Upon a friend’s insistence, I read a colourfully illustrated Charlotte’s Web and by the end of it, I realised that the book could very well be for adults too. It led me to think that Charlotte’s Web and all such works of fiction are only masquerading as books for the young.
Charlotte’s Web finishes on a deeply meaningful sentence: It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.
I’m willing to bet that the line would not have had any major impact on me if I had read it at a pre-pubescent age but now, endowed with the experience that a decade of life brings, this sentence strongly resonates with me. There are many such wise sentences scattered throughout the text that the young would not pay attention to, but the adults – the adults would be forced to survey its deeper meaning.
It is in the nature of fiction to be interpreted differently by its reader (let alone all readers – each with a varied life experience) depending on the point in her life that she reads it. Every time I read Harry Potter, I learn something new, I understanding something that until then was unknown to me.
The larger point that I wish to make, however, is do books really need to be quartered and classified?
Neil Gaiman summarises my feelings perfectly in his introduction to his book Trigger Warning. An excerpt is as follows:
There are things that upset us. That’s not quite what we’re talking about here, though. I’m thinking about those images or words or ideas that drop like trapdoors beneath us, throwing us out of our safe, sane world into a place much more dark and less welcoming. Our hearts skip a ratatat drumbeat in our chests, and we fight for breath. Blood retreats from our faces and our fingers, leaving us pale and gasping and shocked.
And what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this: the past is not dead. There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives. We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong. They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.
The monsters in our cupboards and our minds are always there in the darkness, like mould beneath the floorboards and behind the wallpaper, and there is so much darkness, an inexhaustible supply of darkness. The universe is amply supplied with night.
What do we need to be warned about? We each have our little triggers.
I first encountered the phrase “trigger warning“ on the Internet, where it existed primarily to warn people of links to images or ideas that could upset them and trigger flashbacks or anxiety or terror, in order that the images or ideas could be filtered out of a feed, or that the person reading could be mentally prepared before encountering them.
I was fascinated when I learned that trigger warnings had crossed the divide from the Internet to the world of things you could touch. Several colleges, it was announced, were considering putting trigger warnings on works of literature, art or film, to warn students of what was waiting for them, an idea that I found myself simultaneously warming to (of course you want to let people who may be distressed that this might distress them) while at the same time being deeply troubled by it: when I wrote Sandman and it was being published as a monthly comic, it had a warning on each issue, telling the world it was Suggested for Mature Readers, which I thought was wise. It told potential readers that this was not a children’s comic and it might contain images or ideas that could be troubling, and also suggests that if you are mature (whatever that happens to means) you are on your own. As for what they would find that might disturb them, or shake them, or make them think something they had never thought before, I felt that that was their own look out. We are mature, we decide what we read or do not read.
But so much of what we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings or alerts beyond, perhaps: we need to find out what fiction is, what it means, to us, an experience that is going to be unlike anyone else’s experience of the story.
We build the stories in our heads. We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered, because I was not ready for them and they upset me: stories which contained helplessness, in which people were embarrassed, or mutilated, in which adults were made vulnerable and parents could be of no assistance. They troubled me and haunted my nightmares and my daydreams, worried and upset me on profound levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the Web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change.