Blyton, new mistress of the existential

Geraldine Brennan finds a master of suspense speaking out in defence of an expert in the art of children's fiction,and attacking literary pretension.

The assault on the literary snob has gathered momentum, with a bestselling author and member of the Government's literacy task force declaring war on pretentious, tedious and over-refined works of fiction.

Hard on the heels of Roy Hattersley's startling defence of Mills and Boon (TES, October 17), comes Ken Follett - a master of suspense thrillers - celebrating Enid Blyton as "a truly existentialist novelist".

In a lecture at the Royal Society of Arts this week, Mr Follett argued that Blyton's Noddy stories are the reader's first passport to enjoying fiction that taps directly into the psyche. He sees the absence of the rational world from Noddy Goes to Toyland as an advantage - Noddy reflects the universal predicament of the child learning to survive without its parents.

Those who have grown out of Blyton may safely reach for genre novels - bodice-rippers, Westerns and nurse-doctor romances. These, Mr Follett said, provide something akin to a social service - an outlet for indulging the readers' terrors and fantasies.

He believes that his own books are successful partly because they allow readers to deal with their fear of violence. Hence the tendency for fashions in suspense-thriller plots to mirror the shifts in the sources of society's unease - he pointed out that the Fifties threat-of-nuclear-annihilation novel (by Ian Fleming and numerous imitators) has given way to laboratory-bred plots about killer viruses and runaway DNA.

Weariness at cultural pretensions - "The literary snob values fiction that is difficult to read purely because the reading of it will make him or her appear cultured" - does not mean the classics are outlawed.

Mr Follett praised Tolstoy's Anna Karenina as "one of the most scandalous bestsellers ever . . . about a wife and mother who falls in love with a rogue" and applauded Charles Dickens for "the richness of his comic invention".

Meeting Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett's target of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds reading at level 4 was, he said, essential. "Every child is entitled to the pleasures of reading, the benefit of our literary heritage and the skills in written communication that are essential to other education and training, and to rewarding employment.

"Reading is the fastest and most effective way to acquire linguistic skills, particularly the ability to write . . . no substitute is as powerful a teacher as fiction in print. Oral storytelling, books on tape, radio, theatre, movies and television all teach less than a book."

It is crucial, he said, that the element of play involved in reading fiction was retained for new readers or adults rediscovering the printed page. Children have the advantage over adults as they are more prepared to become absorbed in a story they know is not true.

The suspension of disbelief required to enjoy a novel, he argued, is no greater than that required at a football match, in which "thousands of spectators pretend that it is important whether the ball goes to one end of the field or the other".

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