On gateway drugs

It all began with Dr Seuss. ‘Big D. Little d. David Donald Doo dreamed a dozen donuts and a duck dog, too’. At three years old, without realising it, I was hooked: as easy as ABC.

Sure, everyone says children’s books are benign, but make no mistake: reading is a gateway drug. I was doing poems by the age of five. At ten I had read every book in the house. Every cent of my pocket money went to support my habit. I fooled around with writing a novel, but back then I still had some sense of self-preservation. I threw it out and stuck with poems. Everyone said poems did no harm. I told myself I could give it up any time I liked.

As experts warn, a tolerance builds up. The Treasury of Children’s Verse can lead users to consume stronger literature to achieve the same high. When the effects start to wear off, the user may turn to more potent narratives to stimulate the imagination that caused her to read in the first place.

Studies show that reading itself doesn’t lead to writing. People read to explore confusing situations or feelings. Why is this funny? Why am I sad? What is the meaning of life? Reading masks the problem for a time. When the ‘high’ fades, the problem returns more intensely than before. The user may then turn to writing, since reading no longer ‘works’.

The vast majority of writers (99.9 per cent) began by first using a gateway drug like picture books or comics. Of course, not everyone who reads goes on to write avant-garde poetry. Some never do. Others quit reading altogether. But some do turn to harder literature. One study found that youth (twelve to seventeen years old) who read are eighty-five times more likely to become writers than kids who do not, and that 60 per cent of kids who read before the age of fifteen move on to Thomas Bernhard.

There is no safe level of usage. You might think a child giggling at fart jokes in an Andy Griffiths book is just ‘having fun’, but parents must be vigilant. Dealers, motivated by profits, will stoop to any deceit. ‘Just try it once,’ they say. ‘It’s good for children to read.’ But dealers know if they hook their clients early, they’re assured of an income for life. Teachers can be almost as bad as authors. Some do their best to combat the lures of creativity and imagination, but many are pushers themselves. Teachers and book dealers just don’t care if you become a writer and ruin your life.

Writing affects every aspect of your daily existence. You might think all writers are millionaires like EL James or JK Rowling, lounging by the pool in between dictating a few sentences to a phalanx of naked male secretaries, but this is a pernicious myth. The truth is much more ugly. Many writers can’t even afford to brush their own teeth.

I didn’t realise that I was an addict until I finished my third novel. As the seductive high of writing ‘the end’ ebbed in my bloodstream, I looked around my rented house. The only things I owned were books and a computer. By then I had too many enablers – an agent, international publishers, invitations to writers’ festivals, contracts for a fourth book. I was padlocked to the wheel of doom, and I had no key.

I didn’t know it then, but I was already at about stage six of The Rake’s Progress: still kidding myself that everything would be okay, dicing away my future in a gambler’s den, too obsessed to notice that the house was burning down. Okay, it wasn’t my house – no-one would give a loan to a writer – and it wasn’t exactly burning down. But metaphor abuse is only part of a much bigger psychological problem. If only I had listened to my inner accountant and had mended my ways, I might have a proper job now. But the addiction burned out every shred of financial common sense. And here I am, a decade later, still writing. I just can’t give it up.

Don’t let this happen to you. Get the facts. Did you know that anthologies of children’s poetry often include William Blake or Stevie Smith, which are powerful hallucinogens? Romantic poetry is known for inciting antisocial behaviour and creating severe physical reactions including pleasure, thought and even terrible rhymes. That innocent ‘picture book’ can lead to hard novels. Ursula Le Guin. Victor Serge. Marguerite Duras. WG Sebald. One minute your child is reading with a torch under the bedcovers and the next she is writing fan fiction on the internet. If you are not careful, she will become a writer.

The scale of the problem is daunting. Last year, 28,234 new titles were published in Australia alone. This is dwarfed by the United States, with 304,912 publications, and China, the worst offender of the lot, with 440,000. The Minister for the Arts, Senator George Brandis, is to be congratulated for his recent innovations on arts funding: the War on Literature is long overdue. It may already be too late. It’s certainly too late for me.

This essay is from Overland’s new print issue. Copies are available for individual purchase or by subscription.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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