Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Giving Tree: Hate Is a Strong Word For Excellent Literature

I found this article lying around on Twitter attached to a message about how much the Tweeter HAAATED the book The Giving Tree (it was one of my favorite authors, which kind of disappointed me).

I do see the problem with the perceived message of The Giving Tree.  I get it.  As a child, I didn't, really, and I thought that the story was very sad; I still think it's sad, but I don't hate this book.  Because books are supposed to talk about these sorts of human behaviors.

Can you, or should you, hate a book?  I'm sure I've said that I've hated a book before (hellooooo, The Kite Runner (AKA Gratuitous Butt-Rape Will Solve All Your Plot Problems!)) but on reflection I think this is a really irresponsible thing to say, especially for a writer.  A book can be bad: i.e., it doesn't achieve what it set out to achieve, or is executed poorly.   A book can have a terrible message: e.g., Robinson Crusoe (message: white people everywhere are superior to brown people everywhere, especially when they manage to find a cabin full of newly-sharpened hatchets hiding in their shipwreck).  But hating the book and hating the message are two different things.

The Giving Tree is certainly not poorly executed, nor does it fail to achieve what it set out to achieve.  So it's not bad.
But finally, I'm not sure that the message is bad, either.  I unfortunately don't have a copy of it handy, so I'm working purely off memory and this article.  From what I can recall, though, it's really just a really great character portrayal.  The tree gives.  The boy takes.  The boy is never satisfied.  The tree stunts itself by giving endlessly, but is satisfied by that.
But I don't recall any part of the text ever passing judgment on that. Nowhere does the text say, "giving endlessly until you are a stump is a good/bad thing." It lets you say so yourself, one way or another.  I never thought the ending was all that "happy."  It was just true to the characters. 
And for me, that makes it a great work of literature.  

As a writer, I feel that my job is to portray accurately the world around me as I see it.  I don't feel like my job is telling people what to think.  I want people to find themselves in my work, not to forge themselves out of my judgments; I want my portrayal of what I see to speak honestly to someone, and to present the world in a new, fresh way.  But expecting a work of art to tell you what to think about the world is lazy reading, and saying that you "hate a book" because of your reaction to a well-executed portrayal of the way love sometimes happens is thoughtless and irresponsible.  As far as I'm concerned, if you feel that strongly about a book, that author did his job really, really well.  Which makes it a good book.

Finally, and on a totally different note, just because a book is written in cute rhyming verse doesn't make it a kid's book.  Shel Silverstein also wrote the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue."  Stop reading adult-themed literature to children, or if you do, make sure you freaking talk to them about what you think it means.

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