Children’s book author Adam Gidwitz rang in the most wonderful time of the year (October, what else?) with an article about the renowned series, Goosebumps. Marveling at the franchise’s success, Gidwitz posed a contentious question: Do 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/audience.

…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 aren’t likely to care about the moral usefulness of books or how many awards a story wins. Personally, I avoided books with medals because they seemed old and boring, and I read Goosebumps, not because it ‘had something to say’ but because it was a little transgressive and 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. 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 would call “any positive content.” Goosebumps offers instead ‘negative content’—not that they critique or satirize anything; but as art their pages invite the reader in rather than reach out with some proffered code or worldview.

image_417In his “Concept of Irony,” Kierkegaard helps illuminate this business of art. To Kierkegaard, irony is “infinite absolute negativity.” Translation: irony is negative in the way that Goosebumps is negative, not putting forward “positive content”; infinitely so. Art with an agenda—political, social, religious—is limited by that agenda. Kierkegaard argues that “irony establishes nothing, because that which is to be established lies behind it.” Whatever it establishes exists outside the system, without trying to. “It is a divine madness that rages…”

Many modern artists justify their work by making it ‘worth something,’ economizing what by nature belongs outside the world of economics (admittedly, artists do this to survive). I was almost an art major, and in my first year of undergrad professors would squint at the canvas and say, “What are you trying to accomplish with this?” The best-received art, of course, offered ‘positive content’. One thing about that, as I discovered in my spring semester, is, if you know your audience well enough, you can make it up on the spot. If I just said, “I drew an apple,” professors looked on with horror. What does the apple mean?

Earlier this week, over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova posted a few quotes from 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 a thought? Not even cognition? Not even Talent? Or Skill? Or a Vocation From God?

Some of the most beautiful art I’ve seen has been made by adults with disabilities. Their paintings, often done on cheap computer paper, will rarely be admired for beauty. These artists, too, are people for whom society has little use.

With the rise in preference for useful art, we’ve also seen a rise in irony. The irony lauded by hipsters is mostly the same irony that makes DFW turn in his grave; but that’s not the irony that Kierkegaard was describing. Kierkegaard’s irony—which has a lot in common with Arendt’s 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.


But is uselessness something to be feared? Christians should, before anyone else, understand that uselessness isn’t necessarily bad; good things need not have a discernible 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 mimic an unjust manager. He praised Mary for non-productivity and kept his healing powers a secret. He was expected to lead a revolution but got arrested and killed instead. Also, he handed his legacy to a friend who betrayed him three times and whose nickname was The Rock. Now that’s irony.