The relevance of “relevance”

David Balfour, a well-educated young man living in 18th century Scottish Lowlands, and with connections to landowning gentry, finds himself, after a series of unexpected adventures, in the Highlands. He finds himself in the company of fellow countrymen who are somehow not his fellow countrymen, so alien are they to his own cultural values. And he finds himself a bosom friend of a man whom, in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as a traitor. And with this unlikely friend, he tries to evade the soldiers of the British Army, the redcoats, whom, again in the normal course of events, he would have regarded as being on his side. In the face of all this, the very idea of taking sides, of choosing one’s side on the basis of one’s cultural background, seems to dissolve.

To compound this cultural confusion, in the latter half of the twentieth century, a young lad of Indian background, living in the Scottish Lowlands, nine years of age, and whose awareness of the English language did not extend beyond half these nine years, was thrilling to this tale. Indeed, this Indian lad was David Balfour. His imagination excited, he scoured the local children’s library for books about the Jacobite Rebellion, about the Highland clans, and greedily absorbed what he could. And his primary school teacher, on observing his interest, tried to encourage it, and, indeed, to tell the rest of the class – indigenous Scottish children all – something of what many would term their history. In his mind’s eye, this Indian lad saw himself hiding from the redcoats in the heather with Alan Breck Stewart; he found himself witnessing the assassination of Red Fox, and coming under suspicion as an accessory; he re-lived in his mind meeting with James of the Glens, and felt something of his terror. He was so thoroughly immersed in it all, that the curtain separating reality and fiction seemed unimportant – as unimportant as it can only be in the mind of a child whose imagination has been stirred into action. The fiction seemed more real than reality itself, and, as with David Balfour, cultural affiliations based on the mere accident of birth seemed to dissolve.

I wonder how this child would have felt had he been told that none of this was actually “relevant” to his own life – that he wasn’t a Scottish Lowlander with connections to the gentry, and that he couldn’t really be David Balfour, as David had a white face and he had a brown. That the Highland clans and the Jacobite rebellion should mean little to him as these weren’t part of his history, and that, indeed, for that very reason, these topics should put him off history altogether. That the books that he should relate to most strongly were dreary books about race which would tell him what the various taunts and abuse he and his family experienced regularly had already told him – that racism exists, and is a Bad Thing.

Sadly, this appears to be what new newly crowned Children’s Laureate does appear to be saying, to much approbation, it appears, from newspapers from across the political spectrum. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson? “I can’t be doing with this stuffiness about only reading classics,” she says. What a shame.

(I am not sure, incidentally, who it is who recommends that children only read classics, but an enemy is an enemy, imagined or otherwise.)

I suppose there is no point feeling angry about any of this. One can’t hold back the tide, after all. But perhaps I am entitled to be just a bit sad, as I immerse myself again into Kidnapped, and once again flee the redcoats in the company of Highlander Alan Breck Stewart.

19 responses to this post.

  1. It is called imagination. I was a little girl in southern Ohio but I heard the Mock Turtle sing and I gave up my Christmas breakfast to the Hummels and I fled the winged monkeys in Oz.


    • Absolutely! Why go to literature at all if we aren’t prepared to extend our imaginative sympathies? Malorie Blackman, the new Children’s Laureate, says that in the books she read as a child, she felt “invisible”. I am astonished. She read Jane Eyre and couldn’t see herself in Jane? Even I could: our imaginative sympathies are powerful enough to overlap any gap in race or gender or whatever, and tell us how ultimately unimportant they are in the face of our shared humanity. To read literature is to journey out of ourselves, and see ourselves in others. And not just within ourselves, where we already know we exist.


  2. I cannot tell you how strongly I agree with you! When selecting books for my own son, I don’t bother looking at anything from the last twenty years (generally speaking, of course; there are wonderful exceptions).
    I may be a middle-aged woman, but I still tromp with Bilbo Baggins through Mirkwood forest, argue in my head against Ivan Karamazov, and even sing “Fifteen Men on a Dead Man’s Chest…” even though I’ve never been a nefarious drunken pirate.


    • Yes, me too! I found myself feeling very depressed frankly that a person who has been entrusted with the of promoting children’s literature and children’s reading should think that children can only see themselves in people of their same race. I find it depressing that Malorie Blackman could not see herself in characters who were not of the same race (“I was invisible,” she says). I find it depressing that these statements she has made, which to me are appalling, should be greeted with approval and acclaim. Are there really people out there -influential children’s writers, at that – who think children would be unable to extend their imaginative sympathies to characters of other races? Is this really the way children’s literature is going?


      • Unfortunately, yes. At the school library where I used to teach, the Newberry Award winners (that’s an American award for children’s literature, I think) seemed to be written with an adult audience in mind rather than a child. An adult audience on the Newberry award committee, that is.

      • Sadly, this seems to be the way it’s going everywhere. We all seem intent in passing on our own preoccupations to the next generation.

      • Posted by Carolyn on June 9, 2013 at 6:55 am

        Children can join in in imagination and I have loved especially the American Anne and Katy books as a child, and all those different school-based girls’ books from England. But I do still remember reading a short story by Janet Frame (NZ’s most celebrated novelist) at university and being so taken with a story set in the sort of life I grew up with – barefoot in the paddocks, chasing eels (or trying to keep away from them) in the streams, etc. I had never come upon that before in my reading (certainly kids would nowadays, all the time) and it was quite a revelation; I don’t think I had ever thought that you could write about the ordinary lives of New Zealand people. Everything was exotic to NZ children in literature. There wasn’t anything that was actually real to us, and I think it IS quite important for children to have some reading that speaks absolutely directly to their experiences. Malorie Blackman seems to write plenty of imaginative fiction herself, though I haven’t read it.

        Seeing yourself as Jane Eyre isn’t the same as not feeling invisible in literature. thought I WAS Anne Shirley – it came as a surprise to me in my 20s to realise I wasn’t a feisty religiously and morally minded person at all – but seeing my life in Janet Frame’s writing was something else again.

      • Hello Caro,

        There are many things I am having difficulty with in all this. One of them is the very concept of “feeling invisible in literature”. I ask myself: “Did I feel invisible in literature?” It is difficult to answer this, because visibility for myself was something I did not even think of looking for. Why should I? To engage with literature is to look out into the world. If I can discern the odd image of myself there, then fine: but it’s not something I set out to look for. That is not what literature is for.

        Yes, I can see what’s coming: “Who the hell are you to say what should and shouldn’t be literature?” Not perhaps in quite so rude a manner – certainly not from you! 🙂 – but it’s a fair point. When I say that we go to literature to journey from ourselves into the wider world around us, that is, indeed, an ex cathedra pronouncement. So let me put it this way: I’d contend that to engage with literature in order to find an image of one’s own self is to take a diminished view of literature, and of what it is capable of providing.

        Engaging with literature is an imaginative activity – certainly for the writer, and also for the reader. To place oneself into the mind of another is an act of the imagination; merely to identify one’s own self isn’t. Whatever incidental pleasure we may get from identifying one’s own self in a mirror, to locate a consciousness different from one’s own affords an aesthetic satisfaction that is of a different order. The question, in other words, is not whether I, as a reader, am visible in literature: the question is why visibility should matter at all.

        However, let us concede, purely for the sake of argument, that identifying one’s own self does indeed afford a worthwhile aesthetic pleasure. Is the contention not questionable that racial similarity is sufficient to ensure such an identification? This is certainly what Malorie Blackman is saying: she was “invisible”, she says, because she could not find black people in literature. And this mode of thought is highly questionable, to say the very least.

        I am not saying that our identities do not matter: of course they do. Identity is very important, and some of the greatest works of literature have addressed this theme. But identity is a very complex theme, and to reduce it to a matter purely of race (or of religion, or of gender, or of sexuality, or, indeed, of any single factor) seems to me to have disastrous consequences. There are a great many factors that determine our identities. Is race among them? Why should it be? If we are to concede that the melanin content of our skins is a major factor in determining our identity, why not colour of our eyes? Or of our hair? Why not the size of our feet? Should I complain of being “invisible in literature” because there aren’t enough characters in books who wear Size 8 shoes? OK, that was an example of reductio ad absurdum, but the truth is that it doesn’t really take much reductio to arrive at this absurdum. That our race is a prime signifier of our identity is an assumption made by racists, and there is no reason why the rest of us should wish to follow them there.

        (I realise that this is perhaps too obvious to be said, but it’s nonetheless worth mentioning that the reason “people of colour” – i.e. people who aren’t of European descent – are so rare in English literature is not in any way sinister: it is because the overwhelming percentage of Britain’s population, until fairly recently, was white; and even now, white people form a significant majority. I think we’ll find that Japanese literature is almost wholly populated by Japanese people, Indian literature by Indian people, and so on. And there is nothings sinister about any of this either.)

        If I were to consider my own personal identity, say, to what extent is my racial origin (Indian) of any great significance? There are, as I said, a great many other elements that define me as a person. I am in advancing middle age; I am an operational research analyst, with an academic background in mathematics; I enjoy watching football; I am keen on malt whisky; I love Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Tagore; I am clumsy with my hands and poor at DIY; I am a family man, have been married for over a quarter of a century, and am a proud father; I have a big beard; my political views are to the Left; I love Mozart’s operas and Schubert’s string quartets; I enjoy chatting with friends over drinks; I am of a Hindu family, and while I do not accept any established religious dogma, I do feel it important to acknowledge the concept of spirituality; I’m absurdly absent-minded and forgetful; I support the Scotland football team; I love browsing in bookshops; I hate gardening, and dislike sitting in the hot sun; and so on, and so forth. The list could extend almost indefinitely. There are so many things that go into making me what I am, and it is entirely up to me how much weight I give to each of these factors in defining my own identity. It is entirely my choice. Given that this is so, why should I give any significant weight at all to the melanin content of my skin? Is that not an utterly irrational thing to do?

        Of course, there are occasions when one has no choice in this respect. If a woman is unfairly discriminated against because of her gender; if a person is abused on account of race, or assaulted on account of sexuality; then, at that point, those at the receiving end have no choice but to see themselves, primarily, as a woman, or as a black, or as a gay, or whatever. It is, indeed, not the least of the deleterious effects of prejudice that we are at times forced to see ourselves as those who are prejudiced against us see us – i.e. purely in terms of one single feature of our individual identities, and at the expense of all others. But must we do this the rest of the time as well? If we do, the racists have won.

        This is why identity politics is so disastrous, both socially and culturally. It is reductive. To insist that we are invisible unless we see people of our own colour in literature is not only to reduce literature itself, it is also to reduce ourselves to being no more than our skin colour. In claiming that young black readers will be “invisible” from literature were they not to encounter black characters in literature, Malorie Blackman may think she is empowering young black readers, but she isn’t: she is doing quite the opposite. This is why I am appalled by what she has been saying.

        But what about “speaking absolutely directly to [one’s] experience”? This is an expression that is often used, but rarely scrutinised. So let’s scrutinise it. “Speaking absolutely directly” – or, without the adverb, “speaking directly” – I think I understand. Some works do communicate with us more strongly than others: these works may be thought of as “speaking” to us. And “directly” means “without mediation” – i.e. without notes and glossary, and, perhaps, with the minimum of interpretation. It can’t, of course, be entirely without interpretation, since even the most basic writing requires at least some modicum of interpretation; indeed, the more basic the writing, the less the interpretation required. Which naturally raises the question: is that which speaks to us directly necessarily the best, or the most important, or the most likely to provide us with an aesthetic experience? I accept that this may be the case, but is it necessarily the case? Are The Wings of the Dove or Ulysses lesser experiences because they require much interpretation? Well, let us leave that one aside for later. It is the second part of the expression – “to our experiences” – that I don’t really understand. The author is speaking to us, the readers, and not to the readers’ experiences. The author may well be speaking of the readers’ experiences, and that, I assume, is what is meant here. So, “speaking directly to one’s experiences” means “speaking, in a manner that requires little prior knowledge or interpretation on the part of the reader, on matters that the reader is already familiar with”. And if this is indeed what it means, I find myself asking “What’s so great about that?” Reading literature, at its best, is an imaginative act: it is through exciting our imaginations that it elicits an aesthetic response from us. By merely talking about what we already have experienced, we merely find ourselves saying: “Oh look – that’s just like us.” Whatever incidental satisfaction this gives us, it cannot begin to compare with the finest of literary experiences in which we imaginatively reach out into the minds of others.

        In the meantime, I find Malorie Blackman’s attempt to introduce identity politics into children’s literature unsavoury: the landscape into which this leads is a bleak one.

      • Posted by Carolyn on June 10, 2013 at 1:24 am

        How’s about you tell me not to reply to these posts of yours, Himadri! I didn’t mean to make you spend all your leisure time replying, and then for me to have to defend what I have said!

        But one or two bits. Re race: it is part of our identity, not just the colour of the skin, but the culture behind that colour. I can only know about Jamaican life in Britain by reading about it – it’s not part of my experience at all. There aren’t many Jamaicans in my country and of course, no Britain. I could read about these things in a non-fiction way, but I feel novels give you the feel of people’s lives so much better. I have a daughter-in-law who has Maori blood (though no dark skin, and you wouldn’t pick her as Maori, so race isn’t just a matter of skin colour) and she is influenced by that in a way the rest of my family isn’t. Just some simple things – washing her hands after visiting a cemetery, never sitting on a table or where food might go, etc. Little practical things, but still important to her, and generally until recently, more or less unknown to
        the rest of us.

        I presume that is what Malorie Blackman means by being invisible – it’s not the colour of the skin, it’s the power of the living behind that skin. Of course you can enter imaginatively into other lives, but for every reading experience? But apart from that, she is black, so naturally she will write from that perspective, just as you said it is natural for European Britons, Japanese, Indians etc to write about themselves.

        The other reason for her to want to redress this balance is that when people of colour have been put into literature it hasn’t always been benign. Often shown as inferior, dark-skinned people have every right to feel a little slighted. (I feel I shouldn’t really be addressing you on the subject of race, but hopefully I can use my imagination to see how other people not of my colour feel. I did think that when reading the comments here, that people talked about putting themselves imaginatively into reading but no one seemed able to put themselves imaginatively into Malorie Blackman’s shoes!)

  3. Posted by alan on June 7, 2013 at 11:03 pm

    “Either take to the heather with me, or else hang”.
    It is possible that the new Children’s Laureate would argue that was the choice you had, but now it should be different.
    Naturally I’m just stirring it, I agree with you.


  4. Posted by Michael Harvey on June 8, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Absolutely agree with you, Himadri.


  5. Mother: Didn’t you enjoy the book?
    Child: No.
    Mother: But why not?
    Child: Because I’m not a bear and I don’t live in a forest. And my friends aren’t a piglet and a rabbit and an owl and a donkey and a tiger and a kangaroo.


  6. Hello, I have an aversion to that terribly overused term “relevance.” It’s used by dreary and unimaginative people who want to take the fun and creativity out of life. They say things such as “Is this old book relevant to life in the 21st century” or “Is traditional folk music relevant today?” And so on…They do it with religion, morals, music, literature, everything. I wonder why they place such importance on it? If it is good and one derives knowledge or enjoyment from it, then it is relevant. Instead of that term, what they really mean is, is it modern enough for them; for people like that have to have everything brought down to the sad level of the world in 2013. I would advise anyone, children and adults, to read lots of old books to broaden the imagination, improve knowledge and outlook. Reading old books help one to think more independently, sanely, and to not be ruled by the so-called progressive thinkers. Best wishes, Lori


    • Hello Lori, and welcome. Like yourself, I too have an aversion to the term “relevance”: using that term in the context of literature seems to me to indicate a lack of understanding of what literature is. As a good friend of mine (he reads this blog and knows who he is!) said to me recently on this matter, “relevance” is but a thing of the moment: it’s “irrelevance” that nourishes us for a whole lifetime!

      All the best,


  7. Posted by Carolyn on June 10, 2013 at 1:42 am

    For some reason the computer started dancing around and I couldn’t finish that post. I was going to add that there IS something sinister in people writing from their own race/culture if others are downgraded by it.

    The other thing I was going to comment on was literature itself. Literature can take your out of yourself into other worlds but it can also take you INTO yourself and make you question aspects of your own living. I am reading at the moment We Have to Talk about Kevin. I can’t say I like it and I am not very far through it and it is set in an America which has elements quite foreign to NZers (specifically the constancy of litigation), but it is not possible to read this and not question your own attitudes to your children and family relationships (I would say the same about Anna Karenina too). You have to think of yourself to gain the most from these books, I think.

    And of course, sometimes people are not talking about literature at its best. Children in particular are often quite happy to read something which is not the highest literature. Otherwise no one would have read The Hardy Boys or Sue Barton or even Swallows and Amazons. As for identifying with people I am often surprised when I hear or read of a young person saying they had not realised other people felt like they do, for whatever reason. As you get older, you meet or read about people in all sorts of lives, enjoying them or suffering them. But for youngsters it can be a life-saver to realise they aren’t the only people who feel rejected for their looks, or who hate their parents, or who don’t like sport or pop music, or whose friends seem bitchy.

    Anyway that’s enough from me. (I do like reading of people who I can ‘identify’ with, though they don’t have to be the same sex, colour, eye colour, shoe size – they have to have feelings that I have held. People whose feelings I have never felt are a bit harder to understand, though that just means the reading experience is a bit more challenging and maybe more worthwhile, though not necessarily so by any means. An alien with no feelings doesn’t seem worth my reading about at all, though other aspects of such a book might be.)

    Cheers, Caro.


    • Hello Caro, I am sorry my last comment was so long. It had to be so, as identity is a very intricate matter, and thoughts on it cannot be adequately addressed by merely stringing together pre-fabricated buzzwords and catchphrases . I think the points I presented in that previous post all still hold, so I won’t repeat them here.

      In contrast to my last comment, I’ll try to keep this short. A few points:

      1. What Malorie Blackman said, though expressed with an inarticulacy I find shocking in a professional writer part of whose job it is to understand the power of words and to use them carefully, is sufficiently simple – indeed, sufficiently simple-minded – not to require detailed exegesis.

      2. It is not the job of literature, whether aimed for children or for adults, to “represent” (whatever we may consider “representation” to be) the various different races or cultures of those who may be reading it.

      3. Literature can indeed take one deeper into one’s own self, but it is to misunderstand the nature of literature to imagine this is achieved by readers identifying replicas of themselves in fiction. The process is far more intricate than that.

      4. The suggestion that a reader is best “represented” by someone of the same race as the reader – irrespective of all the various other elements that go into making up one’s personal identity – is demonstrably wrong, and is itself racist.

      5. If Malorie Blackman felt “invisible” in her reading, and, further, felt the need to be visible in terms of race (and with any element that race may or may not be correlated with), then that is her problem, and not one that need be communicated to a new generation of readers. I continue to find her statements deplorable.

      6. Finally, a point of agreement:

      I do like reading of people who I can ‘identify’ with, though they don’t have to be the same sex, colour, eye colour, shoe size – they have to have feelings that I have held. People whose feelings I have never felt are a bit harder to understand, though that just means the reading experience is a bit more challenging and maybe more worthwhile, though not necessarily so by any means.

      That’s the point, isn’t it? The characters we encounter in fiction “don’t have to be the same sex, colour, eye colour, shoe size…” So why insist they do?

      Literature allows us to make other people’s experiences our own. Let us value that.

      All the best, Himadri


      • Posted by Carolyn on June 11, 2013 at 9:27 pm

        “I do like reading of people who I can ‘identify’ with, though they don’t have to be the same sex, colour, eye colour, shoe size – they have to have feelings that I have held.”

        “That’s the point, isn’t it? The characters we encounter in fiction “don’t have to be the same sex, colour, eye colour, shoe size…” So why insist they do?”

        They don’t HAVE to be of the same sex or colour, but I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to only read about young boys when I was young. They have and had difference experiences and different attitudes from young girls, even tomboyish ones like me. And so I am sure Jamaican culture in Britain has quite a different set of attitudes and experiences from white Britons, and I have no problems understanding why Malorie Blackman would feel excluded if there was NO literature which showed her experiences.

        I wouldn’t have wanted to read a complete diet of Hardy Boys or Biggles or Treasure Island or Lord of the Flies (shudders at the thought of this!) or similar. I was lucky to be able to read Anne of Green Gables, Malory Towers, romances, Sue Barton, What Katy Did, Abbey Girls, and those ‘smaller’ stories about people in ordinary situations rather than adventures. Still outside my life experiences in whole, but closer to them and more enjoyable for me.

      • Hello Caro,

        I too enjoy reading about other cultures, but, at the risk of repeating myself, it is not the job of literature to ensure equitable distribution in depictions of cultures. To insist that literature does so is to demand of literature that it fulfil a non-literary expectation.

        We have already agreed that we may see ourselves, often with startling vividness, in literary characters who are very different from ourselves. This being so, there is no need for anyone to feel “invisible”. Those who do clearly place identity politics above literary values. I continue to find this dismaying.

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