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Going Low-Brow at the University of Kent

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Everyone knows that children's literature can't possibly be high quality, right? It doesn't count as proper literary fiction, does it? It can't make people consider big issues or challenge ideas of genre, can it?

This week, the University of Kent's creative writing programme embarrassed itself by its advertising strategy, followed by a series of rather ignorant tweets.

In the promotional material on their website, they wrote, "At Kent we are committed to high quality literary fiction, and the most exciting and experimental contemporary poetry. We love great literature and don't see any reason why our students should not aspire to produce it. We are excited by writing that changes the reader and, ultimately - even if it is a very small way - the world. We love writing that is full of ideas, but that is also playful, funny and affecting. You won't write mass-market thrillers or children's fiction on our programmes."

Right. So basically, the University of Kent is implying that children's lit and thrillers can't possibly be "full of ideas", "playful, funny and affecting", or "great literature" (or, for that matter, that good fiction can be mass-market and can actually make some money). They seem to have quite a limited and limiting idea of literature in that case.

What's especially intriguing is that they go on to list some of their favourite writers, and some of those authors are genre-breaking, creative writers who force readers to reconsider what literature is and how we write it. Art Spiegelman, for example, is named on the website - funny how the folks at Kent are happy to accept a writer of comics, but somehow consider children's literature to be beneath them. They also claim to be "excited" by travel writing, but that too would traditionally not be considered "high-brow" literature. They seem a little confused, and more than a little snobbish.

Kent didn't make things better by responding to the criticism on Twitter, "Sorry for slow response. We were writing adult novels. To answer your question we don't teach YA or children's fiction. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is one of my favourite novels, and I admire Pullman. But both of them write brilliant novels that transcend any generic labelling. I agree that the sentence you cited is oddly sneering, but there are many CW courses that claim to teach a bit of everything. We don't. We teach literary novels."

Not only was their promotional material "oddly sneering", but they continue to be "oddly sneering" in this follow-up discussion. They're too busy to respond to questions because they're writing for adults (that apparently is, after all, the most important thing one could do with one's time), and the only children's books they respect are those that "transcend...generic labelling" or, in other words, that could potentially be described as works for older readers.

Certainly, many books - including some for children - that get published each year aren't necessarily well written, engaging, and/or challenging. But likewise many books are, and more than a number of them are marketed towards children (yes, there's Alan Garner, and Philip Pullman, as the people at Kent acknowledge, and there's work by Patrick Ness, children's laureate Malorie Blackman, B. R. Collins, Lewis Carroll, and many, many more). Being written for and/or marketed to young readers doesn't make books automatically lower quality or less worthy. After all, what could possibly be more important or more interesting than what texts we offer young readers? And why wouldn't young readers also want to read "literary novels" that are "full of ideas", "playful, funny and affecting"?

One worries about a literature and creative writing department such as Kent's that has such a narrow, elitist view of what literature can be and what it can do. No one would claim that a single department needs to offer "a bit of everything", but I would certainly argue that a department that professes to teach literature and writing ought to at least have a solid understanding of texts from a wide variety of genres, and to not fall into old-fashioned high-brow/low-brow debates.

As it stands, the average book for children is arguably more "full of ideas" than some of the people at Kent.

Note: Thanks to UEA PhD student Alex Valente for calling this to my attention!

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