It is always a joy to see children completely absorbed in a book, but joy can give way to consternation when closer inspection reveals exactly what they are reading. That is the case, I’m afraid, with the highly popular Lemony Snicket series, which traces the fortunes of three orphaned children: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Beaudelaire.
Without exception, the parents and teachers in my life who are avid readers have expressed grave concerns about these books. The early volumes in this series of fourteen have titles signalling its overall tone and thematic focus: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, The Miserable Mill, The Austere Academy, The Vile Village. Their covers resemble the ghoulish creations of the celebrated New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams.
Collectively titled A Series of Unfortunate Events, the Snicket series arrived on the publishing scene in the midst of global excitement about the imminent release of another Harry Potter novel. Soon afterwards its youngish American author, Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket is a pseudonym), appeared on Australian television — presumably, to promote sales. His performance did not ease anybody’s serious worries.
Now that the series is complete, with sales remaining high, concerns about its nastiness continue to surface with disturbing regularity. These concerns differ markedly from those expressed about J. K. Rowling’s brilliant series: most obviously because it is experienced readers of world literature who voice them, and magic is not an issue. What teenagers and adults who have been nurtured by fine children’s literature all their lives say is that Lemony Snicket makes a sick joke out of the plight of three seriously at-risk children.
In each fairy tale, the thin plot revolves around the helplessness of the Beaudelaire orphans in the face of unrelenting adult brutality. Murder, threats of terrifying violence, cold indifference to the feelings of others, endemic media slander, wildly false and rash accusations, child labour practices that make Blake’s late-18th century chimney sweepers look fortunate, medical ineptitude, bureaucratic circumlocution, an Orwellian intercom system, and a host of other horrors propel the narrative.
The crassness of a morbidly satirical prose is missed by most youngsters because its clever, designedly “entertaining”, purportedly sympathetic-to-Cinderella veneer bamboozles them. Indeed, some avid older readers speak about the attractiveness of the style. Even youngsters who should know better are impervious to the cumulative effect of page after page of dialogue like this, taken from Book Number 8, The Hostile Hospital:
(A man purporting to rescue Violet, Klaus, and baby Sunny, who have been called murderers by The Daily Punctilio): “If the newspaper says somebody is a murderer, then they are a murderer and that’s the end of it.”
(Klaus, on the chief guardian of Mulctuary Money Management): “Mr Poe has never done anything except send us to one disastrous home after another.”
“Kids,” the shopkeeper said. “The murderers are kids?” “Yep,” the deliveryperson replied. “See for yourself.”… “Plus,” (the deliveryperson said in a sneering voice) “if you’re not murderers, why are you hiding and running?”
(Klaus again): “If we can sneak aboard that van, we can escape from the police, at least for now.”
(Violet): “We’d better make up false names… so no one will learn who we are.”
“Now you know what it feels like to be a villain,” (the bald man chuckled.)
“No one will ever believe you,” (Esmé said in a sinister whisper.)
And here is a typical sentence of the narrator’s, which begins Chapter 4:
Whether you have been sent to see the principal of your school for throwing wet paper towels at the ceiling to see if they stick, or taken to the dentist to plead with him to hollow out one of your teeth so you can smuggle a single page of your latest book past the guards at the airport, it is never a pleasant feeling to stand outside the door of an office…
All of the voices I have heard in these books, most of the time, sound remarkably similar. This is never the case in superior literature. In the finest satire, as in “straight” realism or fantasy, the authorial voice can be clearly distinguished from the voices of unattractive characters; and each heroic character (if there is more than one, as there often is) sounds appreciably different. Since many well-intentioned adults without sound literary training and experience do not know this fact about dialogue and narration, child readers cannot be expected to.
From the word go in the text itself, Lemony Snicket cynically and cleverly warns his audience not to continue reading. His clear expectation is that because children are being told how bad the books are going to be for them, they will rebel against his injunction, laugh wickedly to themselves, and demand more, parodying Oliver Twist. Knowing that children will be interested in the plight of three orphans facing gross injustice and cruelty, he counts on the fact that they will fail to perceive that the case being put against adulthood and the world is skewed.
Although defenders of Lemony Snicket are likely to insist that this young man hates cruelty to children and wants to expose it in its most unpleasant forms, what has to be said against this claim is that great children’s writers — for instance, E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web — never load the dice as Snicket does. They depict much more than Flowers of Evil (the title of the real poet Beaudelaire’s most famous work). They don’t appeal primarily to the lowest, most suspicious, impulses in their reading audience. Their exposure of serious danger is balanced by their depiction of goodness and beauty.
Indeed: the finest artists for children (and adults) do not relish scenarios that are depressingly bleak and nasty. They have too much authentic modesty to refer in earnest to a major satirist like William Congreve as a writing “colleague”. Through dialogue that immortalises inimitable voices, they dramatise the fact that the human scene is agreeably diverse. Without sentimentality (which falsifies reality), they show that decency can be counted on — even if, as in tragedy, wickedness wreaks havoc in the lives of the innocent.
On the back cover of the first book in the series Lemony Snicket advises readers like me to stop reading. I’m afraid that soon after starting Volume 2 the first time round, out of a sense of literary/critical responsibility, I took his advice. This time I got half-way through Volume 8 and skimmed other bits in it and in Volume 6. Although I intended to have a look at the very last volume, which I was told on good authority is for adults and not for children, I cannot bring myself to wait for it to be returned to my local library. Enough is enough.
Dr Susan Moore is a retired teacher educator who has published widely on literature, education, religion, and culture. She taught at the Sydney Institute of Education for 14 years and worked for the Institute of Public Affairs as a research fellow and as editor of Education Monitor. Raised in New Jersey, she has lived in Australia for 40 years.