Children’s book author Adam Gidwitz rang in the most wonderful time of the year (October, what else?) with an article in The New Yorker about the world-renowned series, Goosebumps. Marveling at the franchise’s unparalleled success, Gidwitz posed an unexpectedly contentious question: Should good children’s books teach a lesson?

revengeofthelawngnomesThe conundrum of the “good” children’s book is best embodied by the apparently immortal—or maybe just undead—series “Goosebumps,” by R. L. Stine. “Goosebumps” is a series of horror novellas, the kid’s-lit equivalent of B-horror movies. It’s also one of the most successful franchises in the business, selling over three hundred and fifty million copies worldwide—which is a ludicrous, almost obscene, number. And here’s a secret from the depths of the publishing industry: neither marketing nor publicity nor movie tie-ins can move three hundred and fifty million copies. The only way to sell that many copies is if millions of kids actually and truly want to read the books. The conclusion is obvious: “Goosebumps” books are good, right?

Maybe, but kids have weird ideas of quality.

What makes Goosebumps ‘good’? More broadly, what makes art good? Notice the question is more for the creators than the kids.

…there has been a broad resurgence of the idea that children’s books should be “socially conscious,” which isn’t that far from morally instructive. Vast numbers of children’s books these days are somehow “timely” and “relevant,” taking on issues like discrimination or animal cruelty….

“I think,” said [Laura Amy Schlitz, winner of the 2008 Newberry Medal], “you’re really dealing with two questions here: What makes a children’s book good, and what makes a children’s book lit-ra-cha.” She went on, “Some children’s books are like children’s shoes: they fit children perfectly, but they don’t fit adults, and in time children outgrow them. ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ on the other hand, is literature. It has breadth and depth, and it’s beautifully illustrated and cadenced. I’ve read it hundreds of times to children, and every now and then I take it out and read it to myself. I never grow tired of it.” Sendak? Again? Damn you, Sendak!

What good, though, is calling a children’s book “literature”? Doesn’t that just permit us to alloy children’s opinions with adult ones? We give children’s shoes to children because they fit children’s feet.


What Gidwitz doesn’t outright say is that the itch to make a children’s book socially conscious is mostly part of the social ladder of grown-ups. Kids don’t care about the moral usefulness of books or how many awards the story wins. Personally, I remember avoiding books with medals on them because they seemed old and boring. I read Goosebumps, not because it ‘had something to say’ or because it ‘spoke to me’ but because it was dangerous, a little transgressive, and it kept my interest in a way that few other things could.

I can’t say that the books I read as a kid taught me much about God, politics, or society, and if there was a hidden agenda in them, I missed it. Often the books that kept (and still do keep) my attention don’t have what Kierkegaard calls “any positive content.” In terms of content, books like Goosebumps provide ‘negative content’—not in the sense that they critique or satirize anything; but, as books, as art, their pages invite the reader in rather than reach out and try to control how the reader sees his or her world (despite what the movie adaptation might show!).

In his university dissertation, “The Concept of Irony,” Kierkegaard defines irony in a way that also illuminates the nature of art. To Kierkegaard, irony is “infinite absolute negativity. It is negativity because it only negates; it is infinite, because it does not negate this or that phenomenon; it is absolute, because that by virtue of which it negates is a higher something that still is not.”

To translate: Irony is negative in the way that Goosebumps, and a lot of other controversial art, is negative: It is not putting forth any “positive content.” And if it has an agenda—whether political, social, or religious—it can’t be infinite; it is limited by that agenda. This might explain why it’s hard for many of us to love Third Eye Blind’s newest work. Its political core may be very moving for some but not for others; “Semi-Charmed Life” on the other hand will always have a home in the hearts of 90s babies (“I believe in the sand beneath my toes”). A song like that is infinite. And it is absolute because it isn’t threatened by whether or not it holds sway among its semi-charmed listenership. Kierkegaard argues that “irony establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.” It exists outside the ‘system’ without trying to. “It is a divine madness that rages…”

image_417Sadly many modern artists feel the need to justify their art by making it ‘worth something’, whether esoterically or economically. We begin economizing something that by nature belongs outside the world of economics (admittedly, artists usually have to do this to survive).

I was almost an art major, and in my first year of undergrad my professors would squint at the canvas and say, “What are you trying to accomplish with this, what are you trying to say?” The best-received art, of course, had ‘positive content’. One thing about positive content is that, as I discovered in my spring semester, if you know your audience well enough, you can make it up on the spot–in other words, I got out my shovel and piled on the BS. If, instead, I just said, “I drew an apple,” my professors would look at me with horror. So what does the apple mean? By imbuing the apple with positive content, I would be hindering the infinity it naturally enjoys by forcing it into my own agenda: “using” it.

Earlier this week, over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted a few quotes from self-proclaimed “thinker” Hannah Arendt, about the difference between the functions of art and science.

[Artworks’] durability is almost untouched by the corroding effect of natural processes, since they are not subject to the use of living creatures, a use which, indeed, far from actualizing their own inherent purpose — as the purpose of a chair is actualized when it is sat upon — can only destroy them.

Art need not be subject to the use of human beings, especially if it contains negative content. Whereas positive content is finite and limited to a particular audience, negative content may be infinite. Ironically, the source of this “infinity” is somewhat humble:

The immediate source of the art work is the human capacity for thought…

Thought and cognition are not the same. Thought, the source of art works, is manifest without transformation or transfiguration in all great philosophy, whereas the chief manifestation of the cognitive processes, by which we acquire and store up knowledge, is the sciences. Cognition always pursues a definite aim, which can be set by practical considerations as well as by “idle curiosity”; but once this aim is reached, the cognitive process has come to an end. Thought, on the contrary, has neither an end nor an aim outside itself, and it does not even produce results.

Moreover, from an artist’s perspective, Arendt is setting the bar insultingly low. Does she mean that the only thing anyone needs, in order to be an Artist, is the capacity for thought? Not even cognition? Not even Talent? Or Skill? Or a Vocation From God?

Some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen has come from the minds of adults with disabilities, who often possess a way of rendering the world that requires thought but that doesn’t always make it to what Arendt calls “cognition”—the practical considerations of the point of art. Their paintings, often done on cheap computer paper, stack up in the corner, rarely even admired for their beauty. These artists, too, are the people for whom society has little use.

With the rise in preference for useful art, we’ve also seen a rise in preference for irony. The irony lauded by hipsters is mostly the same irony that makes DFW turn in his grave; but that’s not quite the irony that Kierkegaard was describing. Kierkegaard’s irony, which seems to have a lot in common with Arendt’s understanding of art, is free, suspended, un-self-conscious. It doesn’t try to be ironic. It doesn’t have to have an aim. “[The ironist’s] undertaking was not to make the abstract concrete, but to let the abstract become visible through the immediately concrete.” The un-self-conscious move of the concrete to the abstract, no matter which way you slice it, is pretty useless.


And is uselessness something to be feared? It seems that Christianity should, before anyone else, understand that useless art isn’t necessarily bad art; that good things don’t have to have a point in order to be good. After all, Christianity is centered around a man who stood trial and provided no positive content whatsoever: “Are you the Son of God?” “You say that I am.” When Pilate asks him, “What is truth?” he gives no answer.

This was the same man who told spooky stories of Satan falling from the sky like lightening; he was the same man who told his friends to act like the unjust manager. He praised Mary for her laziness and kept his healing powers a secret. He was expected to lead a revolution but got arrested and killed instead. And he handed his legacy to a friend who betrayed him three times and whose nickname was The Rock—now that’s irony.