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Reply to Diana West

Diana West's article, "The horror of shock fiction," is silly. Here is why:

West has three complaints about R. L. Stine. First, that he sells well. To that, all I can say is "May the same thing happen to more of us."

Her second complaint is that he's not a very good writer. To that I reply, "So what?" Most mysteries are poorly written. Most westerns are poorly written. Most adventure novels, romance novels, lawyer novels, and literary novels are poorly written. It's a reality; get used to it.

Her third complaint, the one with which I take real umbrage, is that Stine writes horror. Here West reveals a profound lack of knowledge about horror fiction.

Let's start with this bit:

...As one 10-year-old girl, a veteran of 40 Stine titles, put it to a Canadian newspaper, "I like how the creepy feelings and shivers go through your whole body." And so, reading becomes a crude tool of physical stimulation, wholly devoid of mental, emotional, or spiritual engagement.

Does that sound like a working definition of pornography? ...

The answer is, no. It isn't a definition of pornography at all. "Pornography" has a well known meaning -- pornographic works have explicit sexual content and seek to produce sexual arousal. I have, during my life, been aroused at times and scared at other times. I've never had the slightest difficultly in telling the difference. West's purpose in calling young adult horror "pornography" is purely to shock.

Further, it isn't even a working definition of reading. Reading cannot possibly be "wholly devoid" of "mental ... engagement." The very act of interpreting arbitrary black marks on a white page into pictures and sounds in one's head requires mental engagement and the exercise of the imagination.

To say that Stine's works are "wholly devoid" of "spiritual engagement," while at the same time claiming them to be filled with "peaceful neighborhoods where youngsters live in jeopardy, helpless against an assortment of evils" means to me that West has never run into Jonathan Edwards' famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. There is a strong Calvinist streak in American horror literature, and it's as present in Stine as anywhere else in the horror field.

West's greatest hypocrisy is in claiming that Stine's works are "wholly devoid" of "emotional ... engagement," then scoring points against him for engaging the emotions:

... the aim of all shock fiction is the same: to set off a bodily response which debases the act of reading -- and, more importantly, the reader himself.

So do books that make us laugh and books that make us cry debase the act of reading as well? Clearly not. Had West bothered thinking this part of her proposition through she might have dropped the entire line of reasoning.

West doesn't seem to know much about children's literature, either:

In works ranging from Grimm's Fairy Tales to Huckleberry Finn to Booth Tarkington's seminal coming-of-age novel Seventeen, childhood and adolescence have been seen as a journey, a passage to adulthood. Moments of truth, phases of growth, discoveries of a wider world all transform the characters and enrich the readers, young and, in the best works, old.

Never mind that Seventeen has aged badly, or that Mark Twain stated emphatically that his book was not intended for children. West must have a different copy of Grimm than the one the rest of us have read. Kinder und Hausmärchen comes from a society in which our concept of "childhood and adolescence" was unknown. While we're at it, I'd like to hear West explicate the "moments of truth," the "phases of growth," and the "discoveries of the wider world" in Grimm's "The Jew Amid the Thorns" or "The Children Who Played At Butcher." It should be enlightening.

West's enthusiasms lead her to unsupported -- and unsupportable -- statements:

Even where such non-literate pursuits as baseball card statistics and comic books may lead to more literary endeavors, shock fiction would seem to be a retarding, pre-literate experience.

That this is nonsense hardly needs to be pointed out.

But enough. There is scarcely a paragraph in "The horror of shock fiction" which stands up to critical thought.

What does West want us to do? Does she want Stine's books to be banned? Fortunately this is America, where book banning is seen as the loathsome evil it is. Does she wish a magician would wave a wand and grant everyone the gift of good taste? Sorry, that is impossible.

No, West doesn't suggest a solution. But the solution to West's problem is really quite simple: in the future she should refrain from buying any of R. L. Stine's books. That way she won't contribute to his status as a best seller, or be offended by his lack of literary quality, or have to deal with a genre she neither likes nor understands.


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