Three years of my life as an EU student of English Literature at the University of East Anglia,England.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to write the profile of an author of children’s literature as part of my application to the Fly Festival Press Traineeship. I had no idea what to do and couldn’t think of an author of children’s literature. As a kid, I’d read a couple of book series and some comic books (in French) but that’s as far as my literary knowledge extended at the time. I hated reading until the age of 14 when I had to read a book for school that moved me to tears (ironic for someone who then did two literature degrees). But suddenly, I had an epiphany: Lemony Snicket!
To be honest, I never think of him and his fantastic Series of Unfortunate Events as children’s literature — which I why I didn’t think about it straight away. I read the Series probably much later than everybody else: I was 18 or 19. I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but as I wrote in the discussion below, I think reading it this late allowed me to truly appreciate the writing and the dark sense of humour. I have an excuse anyway: I wasn’t bilingual until my late teenage years and the books aren’t really known in France. I’d obviously seen the original film many times though. It had really caught my attention thanks to its French title, Les Désastreuses Aventures and Orphelins Baudelaire (“the disastrous adventures of the Baudelaire orphans”) — because I was very intrigued by the French poet Charles Baudelaire and had asked my mother to buy me Les Fleurs du Mal.
When I was in college, I decided that if I wanted to become very good in English I needed to read books in English. And so I did — starting with Roald Dhal, thanks to an English friend from school, and then jumping to things that were way too difficult for me at the time such as Brave New World and Alice in Wonderland, or things I’d already read in French such as The Catcher in the Rye and 1984). Then, in 2012, I started studying English at university in France and my boyfriend lent me the Series of Unfortunate Events. I instantly fell in love with those books and have amazing memories of reading them all the time and in one go, on the bus to university, outside during lunchtime, and at night in the living room, listening to the very Gothic soundtrack of the video-game Binding of Isaac.
Like most people of my generation, I was extremely excited when I learnt that Netflix were making a series! And I adored the first season, although my main and only criticism is the fact that nobody can do a better job at being Count Olaf than Jim Carrey.
Anyway, for these reasons, I decided to do my application task on Series of Unfortunate Events (I’m not even sure I did what they were asking for) and I thought I’d share it on my blog so it doesn’t end up buried among many other files in obscure folders 😛
Daniel Handler, best known under the pen name “Lemony Snicket,” proves once again that his success is unalterable. Indeed, the recent release of an adaption of his Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix demonstrates that there is still a wide market for this kind of story. The oeuvre of this American author is, nevertheless, sometimes problematic in its categorisation. Classified as a writer of children’s literature – under his pseudonym – and marketed as such, there is one question we need to ask ourselves: is his writing truly aimed at children? This raises the further question: what is children’s literature? His debut novel, The Basic Eight, was rejected by many for the issues it raises and its dark tone. This tone, or style, is exactly what made the success of his Series and yet raises issues when discussing the genre. Is a children’s literature book a novel that deals with particular subject matter (often a group of children or a story typically set in a school) or is it to do with the language or tone used? While this dark tone, combined with the author/omniscient narrator’s humorous voice is what made the success of the Series among children and perhaps teenagers, can it really only be for children? Reading the series for the first time as a young adult, I remember being unable to stop laughing upon discovering his brilliant – and cruel – epigraphs:
‘For Beatrice –
My love for you shall live forever.
You, however, did not.’
I read those epigraphs dozens of times and still chuckle at them. While his Series of Unfortunate Events remains easy to read, playful and highly entertaining for a young audience, the series is also the work of an excellent writer. Borrowing postmodernist conventions and making extensive use of absurdism, metafictionality, metatextuality – Charles Baudelaire and the books’ gothic aesthetic being the primary example of this – Lemony Snicket constantly challenges, overturns and destroys traditional writing conventions. As a result, as the series goes on, the moral lessons traditionally taught through children’s books become themselves increasingly ambivalent, blurring the distinction between good and evil, children and villains. We might even say that the use of subversive techniques and fictional narrator reflect Handler’s own resistance towards children’s literature: indeed, the author’s initial goal when trying to publish his first novel was not to write children’s literature and he was, in fact, ambivalent to his publisher’s suggestion. Many critics have therefore addressed the question of genre and suggested its classification alternatively as gothic fiction, absurdist fiction and even black comedy. When asked about it in an interview published in The Guardian (“Daniel Handler: ‘How old does a child need to be to appreciate Lemony Snicket?’”), the author answers: it depends.
Although children have enjoyed and will still enjoy this delightful series, I maintain that their target audience might not be children but, rather, teenagers and young adults – able to truly appreciate the novels’ sarcasm, irony, and the (typically postmodernist) rejection of literary conventions. Whether a publisher would accept to market such a series as adult fiction and whether it would succeed as such is, however, another issue.