Thursday, 13 May 2010

George Saunders - 'How To Write a Kids' Book' / Baby Translator? There's An App For That!

In this Guardian article posted in May 2007 taken from George Saunders' 'American Psyche' series, he focuses on teaching readers how to write a childrens' book. He claims that that it's easier than writing an adults' book due to children being "dumber" and knowing "fewer words than adults". Saunders continues to condescend children by describing them as "powerless" as they "toddle through an oversized world without a clue as to what's going on" and having "such limited experience of the world that it's easy to trick them". To illustrate this point, he suggests if a talking rat with dreams of becoming a great poet appeared in an adult book, the adult reaction would be of surprise at the rat's choice of occupation since "no one wants to be a poet any more" whereas children wouldn't have an opinion about it since "they don't even know what a poet is". This absurd example emphasises Saunders' satirical tone in regards to the contemporary American vision of super-intelligent youth.

Interestingly in his follow-up article, Saunders' deliberate underestimation of children is clearly intended to provoke a sensitive reaction as he recalls reactions to his previous article. These reactions range from parental defensiveness due to their children being described as "dumb", to sudden realisation from parents that their children are smaller than they are, to the concerns revolving around writing a story about a chair as the main character being a simple task yet writing a story about an animal is not so simple. Once again, these absurd "reactions" appear to be fictious, but their meanings satirise the American stereotypes of pride and stupidity. This is emphasised by Saunders' step-by-step instructions on how to write a story about an animal which is referred to as a "freak" due to his physical appearance which resulted in his community being glad when he had "flown the coop" to southern California, a place known for its "openess". The satirical nature of this plot is targeted at the American stereotype of superficiality while the animal's choice to move to California in order for acceptance is ironic as California is notoriously known to be a superficial state flocked with "beautiful people".

Both of these articles relate to the story I have chosen from Saunders' collection of stories 'In Persuasion Nation', 'I CAN SPEAK!'. This story is written as a rambling and oddly personal business letter in response to an unsatisfied consumer who has purchased an 'I CAN SPEAK!' system, a mask which is put over the heads of infants to make their voices come out. The intention of this is to make the customer feel as if they have an intelligent baby, however the letter explains how the system only gives that illusion. This mask can be seen as a metaphor for America's descent into a fictional world of consumer bliss and ignorance as the role of children are merely sources of entertainment and distraction for parents.

Saunders is not the first person to satirise America's contemporary perception of infants, however. Homer Simpsons' brother Herb regains his fortune through his baby translator invention in an episode of The Simpsons, 'Brother, Can You Spare Me Two Dimes?' in 1992. A similar and more contemporary example is from Saturday Night Live's 'Weekly Update' where one headline includes a new baby translator application on the iPhone. These can be seen as simple parodies of American consumerism as they derive from TV comedies, but the baby translator is clearly an idea that is ingrained in the American consciousness which emphasises how Saunders' vision may be satircal, but somehow seems frighteningly inevitable.

Funnily enough, after writing this I searched for a few more baby translator clips and realised that the baby translator application for the iPhone really does exist after watching a review of it on KLTV News - neither though it is a novelty app, it is clearly intended to impress people and therefore suggests that Saunders' 2006 vision has indeed become inevitable!

As its product description states:

"Impress your friends and family with the latest electronic gizmo that us Americans humans have been dreaming about for generations!" - George Saunders in disguise?

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