(This speech was presented at the Voices on the Coast opening night on Thursday, July 18. Photo to right by George Ivanoff.)
I’m deeply honoured to be talking here tonight, on this occasion acknowledging twenty years of turning the spotlight on kids and reading, books and writers. It’s a significant issue affecting all of us in this room. The other testimonials this evening have been incredibly moving. I applaud the tenacity of everyone working in this industry. Knowing we’re not alone is the first step.
More people should be exposed to the truth regarding the profound effect books have on our children. Fully half of the young people in Australia read a book at least once every two weeks. The more books there are in a house, the more likely children are to read for leisure – as many as thirty percent admit to doing so. The statistics for library visits are even higher.
We are raising a generation of literate children with a strong interest in story. Isn’t it time someone did something about that?
Oh, there are those who claim that literature is good for children. What harm could it possibly do? (they say) Those who have been afflicted by literature know better.
It starts off small. Picture books, Mister Men, Dr Seuss. It’s amazing just how much ready access children have to books, when you start looking, and as time passes they begin to seek out their own sources, taking their first steps on a path that never ends.
There are lots of reasons why children read. Out of curiosity, because their friends are doing it, to fit in, because they see their parents do it. Reading for pleasure is a habit that, once formed, is difficult to break. And make no bones about it: it is a habit. Or to use a more loaded term: an addiction.
Symptoms of addiction to literature include:
- spending long periods of time utterly immobile
- refusing to play sport or go outside
- losing the ability to distinguish the real world from false
- dressing up in costumes signifying belonging to a particular clique
- learning fake languages and codes to ensure that those around them can’t understand what they’re saying
- frequenting chat rooms devoted to the manufacture and distribution of stories
- badgering authors for being too slow in delivering their latest fix
(Here I am reminded of that educative documentary Breaking Bad. As Jesse Pinkman might have said, paraphrasing Neil Gaiman, “George R R Martin is not your bitch, bitch.”)
Addiction to literature follows a similar path to that of crystal meth. It leaves the addict unable to control the impulse to use, even if it is harmful to their pocket money or homework. It changes the structure of the brain, which does more than just perpetuate these harmful behaviours.
Literature, my friends, is a gateway drug, leading to something much more serious.
Lured by the promise of fortune and infamy, seduced by the apparent ease of fan fiction, hard-core users of literature inevitably become suppliers: writers, people whose mission it is to create a whole new generation of readers by, to put it simply, lying for a living.
US novelist and short story writer T. C. Boyle, winner of the PEN/Faulkner award in 1988, once confessed: “Writing is a habit, an addiction, as powerful and overmastering an urge as putting a bottle to your lips or a spike in your arm. Call it the impulse to make something out of nothing, call it an obsessive-compulsive disorder, call it logorrhea.”
Call it what you will. In many ways, writers are the tragic figures in this scenario. Doomed to a life of unhappiness, torn between delusions of grandeur and self-loathing, they spend their days complaining about being unappreciated, annoying friends and families with tales of woe and RSI, begging for column inches or likes, slaves to social media, often starving, antisocial, or insane.
Yet “Everyone has a story in them,” they claim. How is this different from “The first one is free”?
“Say my name.” That’s the catchphrase of Heisenberg, the villain of Breaking Bad. He was beaten to it by 160 years by Herman Melville’s “Call me Ishmael”.
Many here will remember the days when librarians acted as gatekeepers, responsible for the children browsing their shelves. I was actually turned away once, at the age of ten, from the adult section of a library in Darwin, where I had been hoping to get my hands on some science fiction. Until I had a letter from my parents, I was told, these books would be denied me. Sadly, that was not enough to save me from the perils of the written word.
What more can we do to protect our children from literature? Vast conglomerates have sprung into existence solely to traffic in this deadly substance, with sinister names like Penguin Random House and Black Inc. Growing ever more sophisticated with each passing year, they peddle devices designed to streamline the reading experience directly into homes via mobile phones and other devices: Kindle is the e-cigarette of literature.
The government is doing everything in its power to rein in the spread of this mind-opening plague. Cutting funding to the Australia Council for the Arts, to public libraries and schools, to the universities whose creative writing departments function as sweatshops in a terrible dark economy of letters – all this will make a difference. Encouraging greater focus on such officially approved topics as ANZAC history or the biographies of particular prime ministers – this too will help.
But we must be vigilant.
As you move through the next few hours, and the days that will follow, you will hear the testimonies of others deeply affected by the power of the written word, as hundreds, thousands, of children are exposed to all things literary, from all walks of life.
I ask that you think of me, along with the other writers in this room. I was raised by school teachers who, thinking themselves hip and cool, never denied me anything literary. Any book I wanted to open was available to me – Agatha Christie, Roots, Doctor Who novels – and before I was in high school I had been transformed from a perfectly ordinary child into a shut-in, mute teen, one more interested in hammering away on a manual typewriter than playing football or dating people my own age. God only knows what my parents thought of the noises coming from my bedroom.
I stand before you now, fifty books later, a man stricken by more than just jet lag. In my life I have visited more imaginary places than actual ones – other worlds, other times, even other universes. I know the names of more fake people than real – including Twinmakers, Troubletwisters, and Spirit Animals. Wookieepedia, the repository of all things Star Wars, has a page on me and the things I have created for that universe. When friends try to escape their own addiction – friends like Garth Nix, themselves addicts from an early age – when they try to escape, I reel them back in with the lure of collaboration, because like misery, writers love company. Twenty-five years of writing my own stories has left me utterly unfit for any other career.
If I had known, the first time I picked up a book, where it would lead me, would I have changed anything?
Yes. Yes, I would.
(tears up speech)
I would’ve done it much sooner.
(throws pieces of paper in the air)
My name is Sean, and I am a literature addict.
Thank you, Voices of the Coast, for understanding.
(Image from morguefile.)