Tuesday, November 5th, 2019
Recently I have noticed theme among reviews of my books. A number of recent reviewers gave them 3 to maybe a grudging 4 stars and called them things like entertaining, quick, fun, a pleasant time filler, but dinged them for not really “delving deeper” into things.
And I’m fine with that. I don’t think there’s any shame in writing the literary equivalent of a popcorn movie. Entertaining, fun and quick aren’t always bad things. I’ve certainly been called worse. Most of my favorite books are fun and entertaining and quick. The very best might have some insight mixed in, but if it’s not fun and entertaining, I’m not interested.
That got me thinking about my earliest reading. I grew up before fantasy was mainstream, and long before there was anything like today’s YA fantasy. You can probably count The Hobbit, and maybe Lewis’ Narnia stories or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, but there was nothing like the vast amount of YA fantasy available today. What was readily available for my young, impressionable mind, were Big Damn Adventures for Boys.
I devoured stories of Robin Hood, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Dumas’ Three Musketeers, Jules Verne, H G Welles. and the like. But the first real book I remember reading over and over again in all its glory, not as a watered down adaptation for kids, was Treasure Island.
For ten year old me, Treasure Island had it all. Pirates, buried treasure, mutiny, swordfights, battles, escapes, betrayals, rescues, dark secrets, a real honest “x marks the spot” map with an actual skeleton left as a marker, one of the greatest ever villains turned allies but maybe not and the basis for most pop culture pirates to come, Long John Silver, all told from the perspective of a young boy who goes along as cabin boy on a grand adventure, onto whom it was so easy to project myself.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for the book. Because it was fun and entertaining and filled with action. It certainly didn’t delve into deeper issues. And while there was all the violence and horror a ten year old could hope for, it wasn’t dark or heavy. It was the violence of Saturday afternoon westerns, nobody died kicking and screaming in agony or begging for it to end. There’s no gore or viscera. Death is something that happens mostly to bag guys or to extras. The action is just enough to make a young reader’s heart beat faster, but not enough to scar.
Which brings me to the second half of the post. While the book was all my ten year old heart desired, there are some things it wasn’t. The writing certainly wasn’t very sophisticated. Stevenson admitted as much. There isn’t a whole lot of character arc or growth. Even our young protagonist starts out as a brave young man, and ends up as a more experienced brave young man. Silver is nicely multi faceted, he’s charming and appealing even as a villain, and he does turn into an ally, but whether that’s a real change of heart or just a pragmatic instinct for being on the winning side isn’t ever really clear.
And, to look back at the title of this post, it was a book for boys. Not for children. Stephenson wrote it at a time when it was expected that adventure fiction would be read by boys and not girls in the same way Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women for girls. Women more or less don’t exist in Treasure Island. The family of Jim Hawkins, the protagonist, runs an inn where he meets an old pirate an begins his adventure, and after his father dies, his mother continues to run it, but I think she may be the only woman with a speaking role, and it’s not much of a role. The book isn’t misogynistic in any active sense, it just doesn’t bother to include any women. It also avoids sex. Not just active sex or the mention of sex, but any hint that sex is a thing that exists. There are no tavern wenches, the pirates never speak of women, only of wealth and ease and rum, there isn’t even a chaste love interest that our hero hopes to return to. Certainly no sex between the pirates, which one wouldn’t expect to see in a book written in the Victorian age, but something a cabin boy in the ages of sail might well find out about. Again, that was fine for ten year old me. I would have been the grandson in The Princess Bride, suspicious of any kissing books.
And while I’m not going to defend Treasure Island’s lack of female characters, I will ask if anyone can make a list of female characters in The Hobbit. Adventure stories had yet to grow into a place of inclusion until I was well out of my childhood.
There is also no cultural diversity. There’s no real racism, it’s just that everybody in the book is white and British. And while a few characters make the occasional disparaging remark about the French, that just seemed authentic for a British character in the 18th Century. It certainly wasn’t enough to bother me, and I’m Franco-Irish, a people not known to be the biggest fans of the Brits.
So I will be the first to admit the book has its shortcomings. It’s not representative of a lot of people, and there’s no attempt to address and social or political issues. Young readers today have a lot more options, and that’s a good thing.
But it was a revelation to me. It showed me that reading can be fun. It kindled a need for adventure fiction. It’s what propelled me toward fantasy and s/f. As far as its impact on literature and culture as a whole, its been adapted countless times, and it’s served as inspiration for every pirate story that followed.
And it did all this despite the fact that it was never grim or dark or political. It was an entertaining, fun, quick read. I’m sure I internalized that. I’m sure in some way, I’m trying to capture that kind of magic in my own writing.
So fun, quick and entertaining isn’t really a terrible thing to be.