Schools for Desire
Are children’s books today excessively consumerist? Do they reinforce materialism? Alison Flood reports that some scholars say yes. And maybe not just materialism.
In his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children,” C. S. Lewis makes a very shrewd argument about these concerns, and he does it by way of defending fairy tales and fantasy. “The fairy tale,” he writes,
is accused of giving children a false impression of the world they live in. But I think no literature that children could read gives them less of a false impression. I think what profess to be realistic stories for children are far more likely to deceive them. I never expected the real world to be like the fairy tales. I think that I did expect school to be like the school stories. The fantasies did not deceive me: the school stories did. All stories in which children have adventures and successes which are possible, in the sense that they do not break the laws of nature, but almost infinitely improbable, are in more danger than the fairy tales of raising false expectations.
And later in the essay he continues,
I do not mean that school stories for boys and girls ought not to be written. I am only saying that they are far more liable to become ‘fantasies’in the clinical sense than fantastic stories are. And this distinction holds for adult reading too. The dangerous fantasy is always superficially realistic. The real victim of wishful reverie does not batten on the Odyssey, The Tempest, or The Worm Ouroboros: he (or she) prefers stories about millionaires, irresistible beauties, posh hotels, palm beaches and bedroom scenes — things that really might happen, that ought to happen, that would have happened if the reader had had a fair chance. For, as I say, there are two kinds of longing. The one is an askesis, a spiritual exercise, and the other is a disease.
So many books constitute schooling in desire. Of any given book we might wisely ask, What does it want me to want?