Articles By Welwyn on Her Books

Literary Criticism of Children's Books: A Flawed System

I am reminded of those antique tin cans of corned beef. Are any of you old enough to remember them? They came with a key, and you had to attach the key to a metal tab in the side of the tin. Then you turned the key, and kept turning it, and a horrible long strip of extremely sharp metal wound itself around the key and around it, and in the end there was that key wound about with sharp, wounding metal in one hand and an open "cap" which was equally sharp and dangerous in the other, while the meat lay temptingly inside. In this dialog I intend to begin the dangerous process of getting to the meat, which is literary criticism, while running great risk of damaging myself (and maybe you too) in the process.

Some people felt bothered, offended, threatened, or hurt by what I had to say in the interview between Marianne Micros and myself in the last issue of CCL. That is a pity, because it was the truth as I see it about the kind of reviews or articles a number of critics have written (or whispered) about my books. Along with many thoughtful, conscientious literary reviews that I have received on my books over the years (not all of which were positive, I hasten to add), I have received literary criticism that has bothered, offended, threatened, or hurt me very much as well. So, what kind of literary criticism do I consider thoughtful and conscientious? What kind do I consider offensive and hurtful?

In my interview, I said very clearly that I have written literary reviews of books myself and that sometimes I had to write negative remarks about the books I reviewed. I thought I made it clear that this happened when in the book the author had done something that for me broke the book's "magic" (that nearly indefinable thing that keeps me in the world of the book from beginning to end, that makes me believe I am there, that I am even one or more of the characters.) When I begin to write a literary criticism of a book I always begin by asking myself the question: Was there anything inside this book that took me outside the world of the book? And if I must answer Yes to that question, it is time for the all-important question #2 which is: "Did the thing that took me outside the world of the book do so because of the author's error, or did it do it because I am particularly aware of an issue in the world at large that somehow this book brought to my mind?"

If the answer to question #2 is that I was torn out of the book because the author did something wrong with point-of-view, or the events didn't connect in an overall cause-and-effect manner, or because the author didn't notice a terrible inconsistency in the logic of the events, or because the author made the characters his/her puppets instead of letting them be real people with needs and wants of their own that the author should have served (while allowing those needs and wants to dictate the course of the author's plot), or because the author preached to me, or because she/he didn't respect my ability to read and draw my own conclusions and so underlined what he/she wanted noticed in a thousand or even one too many ways, or if the author didn't bother writing dialog that was consistent with character, etc. etc. etc. -- well, then, it was the author's fault that the book world was broken for me and I have to say so.

But if I am drawn out of the world because I say to myself something like "Look, an archaeologist in Peru gets killed in this book by the Shining Path -- ARRGH!" (something of great personal interest to me because my husband is an archaeologist who will be going to the northern Andes of Peru to do archaeological survey work this summer) -- well, it's not the author's fault that my husband is going there, is it? So I was drawn out of the book, but the book wasn't at fault.

Or let's say I've got this deeply held personal belief about the way books should be written: never in the first person, never in the present tense. (I don't hold this belief -- see my own short story "You Can Take Them Back" -- but I prefer to use this less charged example instead of political correctness or voice appropriation.) So let's say I really don't think anyone should ever write in the first person present tense and somebody gives me a book to review that is written in the first person present tense. Am I being fair to say that this book is no good because it kicked me out of its magical world, when in fact I never allowed myself to enter the book's magical world in the first place?

What I believe about literary criticism is that it must come from within the integrity (wholeness) of the book, not from without, where the critic's own biases or personal beliefs reside.

I always welcomed literary criticism that came from within my books, as I'm sure all writers do. The reason I always welcomed it when it came my way was because often my themes or my characters' actions "push the envelope" in order to explore some of the raw edges of the human condition. If a reviewer notices that and deals with it in the review, then something important has been done for the book and for readers as a whole, and maybe even for the human condition.

Look at Mrs. McIntyre in False Face, for instance. How responsible is she for her own actions? That is one thing I would dearly have loved the critics to examine. It is an important question about the human condition generally. She has been "taken over"; so is she bad? Or is she just weak? Or is she not responsible at all? No one, not one literary critic, ever addressed this issue in False Face. And the ending: Laney has to stay with Mrs. McIntyre. Was I right to believe that that was the way things would have to happen? Was my decision there true to the book? Was it fair to Laney? Did Laney learn anything in the course of the book that made it even possible for her to keep living with her mother?

A mother who tries to kill her daughter: this pushes the envelope in fiction (though it happens all too frequently in real life). A daughter who has to continue to live with a mother who tried to kill her. This pushes the envelope in fiction. Why do I push the envelope like this? Well, it isn't because I'm trying to preach my own personal "truth" about an issue. If I knew the "truth" about such an issue what would be the point of writing about it? I learn from what I write: that is one reason I am a writer. I learn from what I write because I live the characters' lives as I record what the characters do and say and think and -- yes -- learn. I am hopeful that my readers too will learn something of their own from what I write. But I would be horrified if anyone thought I was preaching to my readers or deliberately teaching my readers what I have learned over the course of writing my book. What I want, really all I want when I push the envelope as I do in so many of my books, is simply for people to think for themselves about these issues, these dilemmas, these knotty human problems. And I do not want them to think about these things until they have experienced them for themselves fully; that is, until they have lived the world of my book and finished it and come out of it and become themselves again.

I would like reviewers, when they review my books, to deal with the books from the inside the way I review other peoples' books. That's all. Just that. If I make mistakes within the book world I write, mistakes that tear readers out of that book world and make them shake their heads over those mistakes, I deserve to be taken to task for it. If I don't do that, but a reviewer approaches my book from an outside stance he/she has taken before even reading the book, looking for something she/he hates for whatever reason and so never allowing him/herself to be taken into the world of the book at all, then that, in my opinion, is unfair, unethical, and extremely wrong-headed criticism.

I do not accept criticism of the latter sort. I will never accept it. I will never, ever, let political correctness or postmodern desires to deconstruct (destroy) the integrity of my stories in order to prove or disprove someone's fancy theories about literature as a whole, affect what I choose to write or how I choose to write about it. Does that make me a controversial writer? Or am I just stupid? Or maybe -- am I -- perhaps -- just a little bit brave? Go figure.

I will always push the envelope, at least I will if I ever write another children's book. Critics should be glad of that. The reason they should be glad is because my pushing the envelope, my going to the very edge of the human condition and sticking the reader with its problems, gives the critics a lot to write about. But do they write about it? The good ones do. But so many do not. Oh, how I would love to see some of the "edges" I've explored in my books analyzed and thought about with the dedication that the deconstructionists and the voice-appropriation specialists have devoted to these same books!

I think critics are most useful when they don't just summarize the plot of a book and say whether they like it or not, but rather when they discuss the important moral issues that come to the reader's attention because of the strengths of the book, or the important moral dilemmas that do not get the attention the author should have given them. What is literature FOR if not to help us to think about the human condition? And so I push the envelope: I go to the nasty sharp edges of humanity, and there I begin to explore. I don't expect other writers to do what I do, and I don't review books from the point of view that they should. I just wish that the critics who review my books would pay attention to that aspect of my books, and decide from their own experience (having allowed themselves a fair stab at living in my book-world at least at the beginning of their reading), whether I was honest in my exploration and true to the characters right to the end, or whether I failed as a writer because something I did wrong kicked them out of the world I was exploring.

I might cut my fingers to the bone on the sharp metal edges of this one, but here goes. There is a mostly wonderful book on the market right now that for a hundred plus pages went right to the messy edge of the human condition. It was a "push-the-envelope" book, at least in its beginning. (Not that that matters to whether it was a good book or not.) You will all have read this book: it is The Maestro, by Tim Wynne Jones. I loved that book, right up until the moment of the fire. And then, sadly, the book threw me out of its world. You see, to me (though clearly not to Tim, who is far too good a writer not to have thought of it and tried to deal with it with integrity) it was all wrong that the boy hero, Burl, saved his horrible father instead of the single copy of the sheet music of a genius. It seemed to me all wrong not because it is better to save priceless music than a callous, abusive drunken human being, but because nowhere in the book before the fire could I see that Burl came to value the apparently valueless (which his father certainly seemed to him to be). Had I reviewed this book I would have spent a great deal of time on this issue. Yet as far as I know, no review or academic paper has ever discussed the issue of Burl's decision to save the father instead of the music in relation to Burl's development as a character and to the integrity of the book as a whole. Unless I'm way out of touch here, the hard questions about the relative value of things and people in The Maestro were simply not asked.

Now I am personally very happy to have read this book, even though it did kick me out of its world. As a person it made me think about the relative value of priceless things compared to apparently useless people. As a writer it made me wonder how I would have ended the book, if it had been mine to write and I had chosen to let Burl do what he really wanted and save the music. As a writer also, I imagined the battles I would have had to fight with the editors to be allowed to let Burl save the music instead of his father. Editors know what most people like to read about, and this is generally not someone letting someone else die merely to save some sheet music. People like their heroes to be noble. People like to think human beings are more important than sheet music. But are they really? Are all people more important than all things? I'm not saying they are, and I'm not saying they aren't. What I'm saying is that this is an important question about the human condition that was absolutely implicit to the integrity of The Maestro, and no one that I know about except me seems ever to have asked the question.

Literary reviewers have a responsibility to look past the surface of their own likes and dislikes, their own pet projects and personal peeves. They must first decide if a book is worth reviewing at all. Then they must ask themselves whether the book succeeds or fails. Then they must ask themselves why. (They could do worse than to ask my Questions #1 and #2.) Too many reviewers do not review the book from inside that book's integrity, its wholeness as a book. Too many bring baggage of their own from outside. And not enough, not nearly enough critics think deep and hard about what the book is really saying (or asking) about the human condition.

What's Canadian about Canadian Children's Literature

The most importantly Canadian aspect of Canadian children's literature, in my opinion, occurs when the work is written by a Canadian. By this I mean a writer who has grown up in Canada, absorbing largely by osmosis the feelings, beliefs, national pessimisms and optimisms, the contradictory awareness of our geographical largeness and our population's smallness, our huge political weaknesses and much smaller strengths on a world scale, our national self-consciousness, our lack of respect for our own culture even while we defend it most vigorously, our lack of a distinctive and universally accessible cultural history, our divided country with its refusal to be a melting pot, combined with a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that we actually are the best country on Earth and very lucky indeed to live here. Writers who are Canadian-bred will bleed their Canadian beliefs and fears and self-importance and smallness and contradictory hugeness into their writing; it can be no other way. It is not that new Canadians cannot write very good children's books, even books set in Canada and about Canadians, but these new Canadian's own early years will have made them what they are, different from Canadian-bred writers, and their books will consequently be less Canadian literature than "about" Canada.
--CCL #87, 1997

My Own Story: Plain and Coloured

A week or so ago during one of many sleepless nights -- there now, I've given you a bit of an autobiography already! -- anyway, there I was, lying in bed while the clock ticked on, worrying because I hadn't the faintest idea what I was going to say about my own story. Gracious! As someone once said to me, "You are an ordinary, middle-class lady who does ordinary, middle-class things and who just happens to write books that are banned in Rainy River!" With a background like that, where do I begin?

All the while I lay there worrying about the main event, so to speak, three bits of seemingly unrelated information were squirreling around in my brain. The first was very recent: an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail about a white woman who had written a story about a black, a story which had been removed from an anthology because, and I quote, the author had been "racist" to write a story about a culture not her own. The second was an anecdote told to me about a story-tellers' session held for professional librarians a few months ago. A native woman had spoken for an hour or so about the telling of native legends, and at the end of the session she shocked the entire room of predominantly white librarians by saying, "We don't want White people to tell our stories."

The third incident doing ugly polkas in my brain with the other two was something that had happened to me, personally. (No, not the banning in Rainy River. That was a rather predictable reaction of an overly-zealous library board to my book Witchery Hill -- or rather, to its cover, for none of them had read the book itself. Though quite disgusting, their actions had more to do with preventing students from reading my books than with preventing me from writing what I chose. Though I suppose, of course, one could lead to the other...)

No, the incident I'm referring to is one that happened to me after the publication of my book False Face. False Face is a novel for juveniles and young adults about Iroquois masks and traditions and their impact on a modern white girl and a half-Iroquois boy. The real villain of this book is prejudice in all its forms, whether racial or the much broader kind involving pre-judging someone by any kind of external characteristic at all (For example, my heroine's resemblance to her father prevents her mother from seeing her as a person in her own right). Before I wrote False Face I researched all the Iroquois lore very carefully. I took the greatest care in the actual writing to treat the Iroquois beliefs with respect. I deliberately made my hero only half-Iroquois, to avoid creating a character who could be seen in any way to speak for a minority group whose culture I do not intimately know. And yet, when False Face was nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Children's Literature earlier this year, a local Iroquois group protested my nomination, on the basis that this was a story I had no right to tell, a story of someone else's beliefs.

When I first heard about this, I was horrified. False Face tried to say that people are just people; that it doesn't matter whether someone is native or white; that the basic issues of life are the same for everyone. Those few Iroquois who protested my nomination were denying this. They were saying that a white person couldn't write about what matters to natives. They were saying that the theme of my entire books was in error.

Why? I kept asking. Why can't I write about what matters to natives? And what other stories can't I write, if I can't write this? Are there stories that are my stories, and stories that aren't?

I thought about the books I had written to date. Almost all of them involve things I have not experienced myself at first hand. Sun God, Moon Witch is based on the pre-Christian European religions of the Moon Goddess and the Sun God. Was I wrong to have invented a plot featuring two gods I have never myself worshipped? In Witchery Hill, my heroine, Lisa, is a diabetic. How dare I go into the mind of a girl with an incurable illness that I do not (thank God) have? In the same book Lisa and her friend work against some nasty people who are practicing witchcraft. I am not, I do assure you, a witch; I have never been to a sabbat. What right, then, did I have to write about witchcraft? My latest novel, The Third Magic, uses Welsh mythology and legend to invent a prehistory for King Arthur's sword Excalibur. Despite my Welsh name, I don't think I have any Welsh ancestors. Genetically I am as close to being pure Celt as is possible in the twentieth century, being Irish, Cornish, and Highland Scot on both sides of my family. The Welsh of the time of King Arthur were Celts too, but is that common bond enough for a modern Canadian writer to take on what was originally a legend of Wales in the Dark Ages?

The ramifications began tumbling in, thick and dizzying. I do not hate my sister, or no a mother who could harm her child; how dare I then write (as I do in False Face) about people who do? I am not a boy (another bit of autobiography, you see!); yet I use boys as main characters, and I go into their minds and speak their thoughts and feelings. I am no longer a child, and I have never been a child of the 1980s, yet I write about those children; they are my focus and my audience; I speak for them. Should I give it all up because I am telling stories that are not my own?

What then is my story? Am I stuck with writing things based on my own rather ordinary middle-class experiences? Or may I -- please! -- be allowed to invent and imagine?

"My Story: Plain", or "My Story: Coloured"; it all comes down to that.

There is no creative art that can function without raw materials. The raw materials of fiction are people (or anthropomorphized animals), as well as all the things that matter to people: their strengths and weaknesses, their beliefs and their needs. A writer takes these things from the real world, because there is no other place to get them. A writer is an architect, using real-life building blocks to create an original construction of her own. It is an amazingly personal act, this picking and choosing and discarding and re-forming of real-life things. It is why no piece of writing, not even non-fiction, can be seen as completely independent of its author.

One of the dangers, of course, is that the real-life things the author chooses to mold may matter rather a lot to other people. To these people the author may seem presumptuous and egotistical in the extreme. After all, they reason, how can one person's self-invented plot and characters and theme be important enough to justify using as a mere building block a piece of an entire people's soul? One answer I can make to that is that if the author didn't use a piece of somebody's soul as a building block, the book wouldn't be worth reading. Another answer, an easier one, is that yes, of course it is presumptuous, and of course it is egotistical. But in a way it is presumptuous and egotistical to write a book at all.

When I think about it, really think about it, I quail at the thought that I have imagined myself as having had ten books' worth of things to say. But the truth is that most of the time I don't see myself as actively saying things or not saying things in my books at all, though of course I am. Even while I'm writing them my books seem to exist apart from me. They seem to want to be born in the same way that babies want to be born, conceived by me and yet independent of me, with their own needs and requirements that must be served. In False Face, for instance, when children ask me what parts of the Iroquois legends I mention are "real", I tell them that everything I wrote about the legends is accurate except for the way the masks change ownership. Then I tell them I had to invent that part because of my plot. Had to. Not wanted to. Had to. That is the driving force behind all writers, I believe: that the book must be served. One does one's best to make everything as accurate and real as possible, but if in fiction some aspects of reality must be distorted for the sake of a larger and more sweeping truth, then the author has no choice in the matter; she must distort reality.

In an article in CCL last year, Jill Paton Walsh discussed this very point. Fiction is fiction. In fiction every fact, every bit of physical reality, must be suspect, because all of these facts are chosen and shaped by the author to fit her own -- and the book's own -- purposes. Everything we see in fiction is second-hand, seen through the author's eyes; and everything we don't see is invisible either because the author hasn't seen it herself or because she has chosen to keep it invisible. In fiction, therefore, the author is omnipresent.

Readers seem to know this, and as a result they are always trying to draw personal conclusions about an author based upon her stories. This process an be very unreliable. I have a school talk last year in which the students videotaped a debate for me: Resolved, that Welwyn Wilton Katz doesn't like dogs. Of course they were basing this idea on the puppy sacrifice in Witchery Hill and on the way the family dog is beaten by the mother in False Face. But two nasty things done to dogs by the authors' characters does not mean that they are done, in a form of wishful thinking, by the author herself! In reality, I love dogs and have a darling Sheltie of my own. Even more important, any form of cruelty to animals nauseates me. It is for that very reason that I wrote those two horrific scenes. Something really terrible had to happen at those particular points in those two books, and I simply couldn't think of anything more terrible than hurting a helpless living creature. Those students were clever, in a way; for they picked out scenes in two of my books that did reveal something important about me as a person, even though what they thought it revealed was wrong.

Sometimes, readers will look at the characters of an author's books, and conclude that they are based on real people the author knows. In False Face, for instance, my family went through a guessing game, trying to figure out who everyone "really" was. When my sister Robbie said who she thought was really Laney, my mother, who is a pretty smart lady, said, "Don't be silly, Robbie. Welwyn's Laney."

My mother was right -- almost! There was a part of me that was Laney. But there was also a part of me that was chip-on-his-shoulder lonely Tom, and a part that was the revolting Rosemary, and one that was Laney's uptight, implacable mother and one that was her stubborn, self-defeating Dad. The germ of all these characters comes from my own character. It is the only way I have found to create characters that are "real". What I do is look inside myself and find bits that are sad or angry or needy or arrogant or stubborn, and then I look at them for a long time, and imagine what would happen if those specific bits were faced with certain specific challenges. And then, somehow, those bits grow and change and become separate people with more characteristics than the ones I started them with. Myself, and not myself. My own story, plain and coloured.

Other personal conclusions can be made about an author who notice recurring themes or situations in her books. For instance, people often ask me if there is a personal reason why I write about troubled families. I can only answer that I have had a very happy and fulfilling marriage myself, and that my own family life seemed quite normal all the years I was growing up, but it is a fact that my parents were divorced the year after I was married. Was their hidden unhappiness something I sensed and worried about while I was growing up, and is that why I write about kids in unhappy families now? I don't know. I do know that I choose to write about difficult family situations for a number of practical reasons. I do it to give my child protagonists the freedom I need them to have from "proper" parents who would send them to bed at eight o'clock and make sure they stayed there; I do it to force the child heroes to be self-reliant (instead of turning to their parents to solve the whole problem); I do it to provide some relevance for a large number of my readers who will also be members of broken families; and I do it to provide interesting conflicts. They are good reasons, but all the same, I wonder. Is my interest in broken families part of "My Story Plain" or "My Story Coloured"?

Or, maybe, is it both?

Which brings me to the true title of this essay: -- not, My own story (plain or coloured), but My own story: (plain and coloured). I think the latter has got it right, you know. There is authorial invention and there is authorial experience in every piece of writing there is. Mine is certainly no exception.

Lying there in bed, thinking about the people who had said to me, and to other authors, "No, this story is ours, not yours, you cannot tell it," I woke up my husband by suddenly laughing out loud. How could False Face be anything but my story? The plot of False Face was of my own construction and imagination entirely: it was "my story coloured". The setting was real: places I knew, a city I'd lived in all my life. "My story plain", with only a few minor colourings. The theme was universal, neither Iroquois nor white, and my own choice: "story coloured", again. The characters were extensions of myself: "story plain and story coloured". What then was left? Some building blocks, merely; important, as are all building blocks, but chosen and coloured and shaped by me to fit the construction I was making. Some of the building blocks were Iroquois, and some were not; I used calculators and land developers and breakfast cereals as well as Iroquois masks. Does that make False Face belong to Texas Instruments or to Sifton Construction or to Kellogg's? No. False Face was my story, because no one but me could ever have told it the exact same way.

That's why I laughed, lying there in bed that sleepless night. I knew, suddenly, that any story I chose to tell would be my own story. Because the moment you write a story you become a part of it, and it is changed forever by your presence. You are the story, and the story is you.

I leapt out of bed, ran to my office, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find (which happened to be coloured, by the way), and wrote the heading: My story, plain and coloured.

--CCL #54, 1989

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[Beowulf] [Out of The Dark] [Time Ghost] [Come Like Shadows] [Whalesinger] [The Third Magic] [False Face] [Sun God, Moon Witch] [Witchery Hill] [The Prophecy of Tau Ridoo]