Perhaps the attention that a book gets when it is ‘challenged’ is a good thing. It opens up avenues for debate about why books work and why they fail, what we want to share with our children and why, sometimes, we want to withhold things from them. This in no way means I advocate banning or even ‘challenging’ books (ie requesting their removal from shevles) but it did make me think a lot about how we subtly support wowserism if we don’t stand up to it and how important it is to engage in lively discussion about books. It also made me think of how loathe most children’s book reviewers (and authors) are to say anything negative.
Recently in Australia there’s been a lot of fuss about the work of the artist Bill Henson who created some contentious images of teenagers. A lot of ill-informed assertions were made about his work, the nature of art and teenagers in general. The debate has blown over now and a lot of people are feeling either embarrassed, vindicated or are continuing to seethe with outrage. But for all the grief it caused, the debate it aroused possibly led to a few good things in that many Australians had to think more deeply about both art and life.
Julie Hearn‘s novel Ivy perpetuates a lot of tired ideas about the relationship between an artist and their model. I loved Hearn’s earlier novel The Merrybegot (entitled The Minister’s Daughter in the USA). The Merrybegot was a romp of a story with great characters and plenty of interesting historical detail even if there was a bit of fantasy mixed in with the fact. But I found Ivy a huge disappointment. Worse, I felt incredibly cross about the book and when I was just over half-way, I threw it across the room. Which is why I decided not to review it when I read it a few months back. I’ve never felt there’s much point in reviewing books that I seriously dislike. Yet thinking about why books are ‘challenged’ made me rethink the notion of writing negative reviews.
For me, there are two types of ‘bad books’. The ones that are badly written, which are mostly not worth paying attention to, and the ones that perpetuate falsehoods or ‘bad’ ideas. Do we want to draw attention to books that fall into either of these categories? I suppose this is where the debate gets interesting. The real dilemma arises when a book is well-reviewed and widely read, yet full of lies (or misleading information). It’s a scary phenomenon.
I don’t think Ivy particularly falls into either of those categories. Or perhaps it nudges at the edge of them both. It’s not very bad writing, though Hearn can do better. What prompted me to write about it was reading a very positive review of the book and realising that some readers imagined the book to be credible. Apart from the fact that the ‘Dickensian’ characters are pretty tired and cliched (if you want Dickensian characters, read Dickens – no one can best him) I found the young protagonist, Ivy, completely implausible. She is meant to be an artists’ model. From my childhood up until I was in my mid-thirties I modeled for literally hundreds of artists and yet there was nothing familiar in Ivy’s circumstance, historical perspectives aside. For me, much of Ivy’s story lacked credibility. I know from experience (on both sides of the easel) that dreamy, limp characters, like Ivy, aren’t particularly nice to draw or paint no matter how pretty they are, mostly because they have a lot of trouble sitting still and often aren’t sharp enough to follow instruction. The truth is that life-modeling is very hard, demanding, physical work. Good life-models and true ‘muses’ need to have their wits about them. Try sitting still for 20 minutes without flinching and you’ll quickly get a sense of how demanding hours of life-modeling can feel. The pre-Raphaelite models that Hearn based her story upon were actually much tougher, smarter and more complex characters than Ivy. After reading the positive review of Ivy I realised that a lot of readers will pick up a book like this in good faith and not realise they are being sold short. Truth may be stranger than fiction but good fiction has to have, at the very least, the ring of truth.