I came across this article in the NYT last night: Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)
First of all, let me say that Christopher Paolini notwithstanding, there are teenagers out there who can write, and I see no reason why they should have to wait until a certain age to pursue traditional publication or self-publication.
That being said, these parents are paying vanity presses to publish their children’s works at ages like 10 and 12.
What was I doing at age 12? I was writing a serial novel with my best friend. I wrote the odd chapters, and she wrote the evens. While I planned out and plotted my story arc, she just wrote whatever she darn felt like at the time, and as a consequence, our characters interacted less and less with each other as time went on.
I continued to invest my time in making the story work as a cohesive whole. After all, if R. L. Stine could write from a dual point of view, why couldn’t we? Of course, R. L. Stine wasn’t two different people, but hey, what’s good for the goose must be good for the gander, right? Meanwhile, my friend became bored (possibly because she had ADD) and started three other stories, one of which she wrote even more for than she had for our co-authored story, and all of which were pretty terrible. In fact, all of our work was pretty awful. Looking back, I would be ashamed of anyone reading my trite, badly clichéd generic fantasy story trunk novel, much less having it on sale to the entire world.
In the article, author Tom Robbins makes a nonsensical assertion that literature is unlike any other art form:
“What’s next?” asked the novelist Tom Robbins. “Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional.”
“There are no prodigies in literature,” Mr. Robbins said. “Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.”
Robbins’ point here, I suppose, is that although Mozart could compose concertos at age 5, there will never be the equivalent of a pre-teen Shakespeare. Perhaps not, but I’m not willing to make the presumption that such an occurrence is impossible.
These seems even more ironic (and makes Robbins sound even more like a nitwit) when you consider that a 14 year-old in Colorado just built a working nuclear fission reactor. Never say never! *insert lame Bieber joke here*
Poorly made justifications for ageism aside, however, this trend IS troubling: not because of the lack of gatekeepers, but because indulgent parents are mistaking hobbies for professions.
If your child is both a literary and a business prodigy, if your child can take editorial criticism and harsh feedback that can and still does turn otherwise well-adjusted adults into curled up, weeping balls of insecurity, if you could enter your child’s work blind into a fiction contest and not tell it was written by someone not yet out of puberty, then by all means, go ahead and post that child’s work on Amazon.
If, however, you are simply proud of your child and want to stroke her ego and pretend she’s as good as someone who has worked to make writing their sole profession, you should be dragged out into the street and beaten with the manuscripts from an agent’s slush pile.
Consumers deserve better. More importantly, your child deserves better. Most children are not precocious, and if they are, it is even rarer that they are multi-talented enough to both perform on Broadway and write publishable fiction. Most people are not and never will be good storytellers, because the skills needed to string together coherent sentences and school papers are only the foundation of the set of skills a person needs to inform and entertain in a cohesive and professional manner.
Building up the self-esteem of children with warped, unrealistic perceptions of their talents and places in the world is one of the worst disservices you can to them. They are not all winners or special little snowflakes. They need to continue to study and work toward their goals with the effort and dedication that those goals deserve.
There are ways to inexpensively produce professional-looking print-on-demand books without foisting your child’s amateur hour on the rest of us. Try Lulu.com. It’s fast and easy, and you can order as few copies of a project as you want.
Most importantly, they need perspective — and perspective only comes with the judgment of impartial strangers and the wisdom from making mistakes. Don’t force them to learn these lessons the hard way. Don’t leave them unprepared for the arbitrary and cruel expectations of other human beings. Prepare them instead, and exercise some common sense, for all of our sakes.