Opinion //

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a literary classic

What if Diary of a Wimpy Kid deserves a place in the literary canon?

Where were you when you first held a copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid in your hands? This is a question I found myself pondering. At first glance it seems a bit silly. I leapt forward to issue an authoritative answer – an exact place and age where I encountered such an important text, and then I stopped. I realised that I couldn’t answer the question, because I honestly couldn’t remember. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has just always been there.

It’s something of a family tradition now that every year for Christmas my brother receives the latest offering of Jeff Kinney’s long-running children’s book series. Nowadays he reads through it in an hour or two as I anxiously wait for an opportunity to devour what I have often considered as my greatest guilty pleasure. As a result, I have read every single one of the books, including the Rowley-focused Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid spin-off (more on that later). I am hooked.

But another question has been playing on my mind. Why should this body of work be a guilty pleasure? What if Diary of a Wimpy Kid deserves a place in the literary canon?

That sentence may make you scoff; perhaps it made you smile, even just slightly. Please bear with me. I will show you why Kinney’s oeuvre, spanning sixteen books (not including spin-offs) and fifteen years*, is worthy of a place amongst the most phenomenal literary achievements of all time.

But first, what makes a text worthy of such an appraisal? Ultimately, as with any attempt at producing a hierarchy of art, this decision is an exercise in subjectivity. Texts in the literary canon have a few broad similarities. They are groundbreaking in style or substance; they have an immense and enduring cultural impact; and they display exceedingly interesting, thought-provoking, and expressive literary talent.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid almost certainly fits these criterium, and should be elevated to that lofty shelf alongside works like Homer’s Odyssey, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four.

First of all, Kinney has produced a groundbreaking text in a unique literary style. Throughout the books, Kinney pairs reflective, diary-imitating first-person perspective writing with extremely distinctive, stylised illustrations. This produces an incredibly immersive effect – it really feels like we have picked up the Diary of (what at first appears to be) a pretty ordinary American kid. This is carried through in the details: the paper is lined; the prose is written throughout in comic-sans-esque ‘Coop Forged’ font, replicating a child’s handwriting; and chapters are eschewed for units of time.

This represents a major break from conventional literary formats. The contemporary textual landscape is dominated by the novel. The vast majority of these novels look the same: no illustrations, conservative fonts, and relatively consistent chapters, usually numbered and with titles. Kinney, throughout the entire series, embarks on a revolutionary break with literary tradition. When we consider that in the Rowley spin-off, Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid, Kinney uses a different font and illustration style to further immerse us in the mind of a very different child, this groundbreaking technical achievement becomes ever clearer.

Is this enough to make Kinney’s oeuvre a part of the literary canon? Let’s take a brief look at Homer’s Odyssey, a seminal and groundbreaking text within the western literary canon. In writing down a collection of oral stories to produce a prosaic poem of epic proportions, Homer (possibly a wastebasket taxon for a number of historical figures) revolutionised human storytelling in one part of the world. While it was clearly still intended to be read aloud, the act of recording in concrete terms such a story represented a new idea in Ancient Greece that has contributed to our contemporary literary framework immensely.

In breaking with long-established literary convention to pioneer an entirely new style, Kinney has produced a similarly revolutionary work. This alone could be enough to get Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s foot in the door of the literary canon, but Kinney’s genius, and his text’s enduring impact, doesn’t stop there.

The cultural impact of Diary of a Wimpy Kid is staggering. I don’t believe I would be exaggerating if I wrote that every member of Generation Z, Generation Alpha, perhaps even some later Millennials – and of course their predominantly Generation X parents – is at least familiar with the text. The Two-Dimensional silhouette of Greg Heffley is almost universally recognisable. Other characters – Rodrick, Rowley, Fregley, and perhaps most clearly Manny – occupy a similar place in our collective imagination.

The impact doesn’t stop at pure recognition, however. The cultural impact of Diary of a Wimpy Kid is clearly generation-defining.

A week does not go by when some pop-sociologist pokes their head above the battlements to pronounce the overwhelming traits of cynicism and fatalism that apparently define our generation, along with the almost unhealthy level of sarcasm that allegedly defines our humour. I would usually view such pronouncements with scepticism – it is incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to assign uniform characteristics to an entire generation with any accuracy. Also, such an assessment usually relies on a large measure of global-north-centrism. However, I think an argument can be made that Generation Z, at least in the global north, does share a common cynical nihilism, perhaps only especially clear when compared to previous generations.

Usually this is attributed to growing up in an era of increasing (and warranted) despair about the existential threat posed by climate change, or perhaps to the pervasive nature of modern technology.

But I propose an alternate view. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is steeped in Greg’s incredibly cynical, fatalistic worldview. The character views his environment through glasses tinted with disdain for traditional structures of authority, and delivers this with characteristic dry sarcasm. Life is, in general, not taken seriously. To Greg, nothing really matters – and his life is going to turn out the way it will regardless of how much effort he puts in. Mind you, he does believe he will become inexplicably rich and famous – a bit of a departure from the stereotypical doom-and-gloom that allegedly characterises the Zoomer outlook. But regardless, the cultural impact on this front is clearly enormous.

The cultural significance of the text is comparable to the apparently immortal relevance of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four. Modern culture, at least in the global north, is steeped in Orwell’s text – not a day goes by that it isn’t referenced, and it was certainly important in defining a general distaste for totalitarianism (of course alongside the horrific events of the 20th century). In fact, most of the people who quote Orwell’s dystopia probably haven’t even read the book; if that’s not culture defining, I don’t know what is. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is at least on its way to being as culturally monolithic – it has defined a generation and will continue to define it for many years to come.

However, simply being technically revolutionary and culturally significant can’t make a text literary canon material alone. The third element common to pretty much every text in the literary canon is technical brilliance. Every author that has managed to get their work into that exclusive cultural club has a flair for unique and spectacular expression – be that through stunning imagery, rich characterisation, gripping storytelling, or any other exposition of literary talent.

Kinney has accomplished all these things and more. However, it is in the realm of characterisation that his work truly shines. Kinney has, across the entire series, created in Greg Heffley one of the most fascinating characters in western literature.

A large part of this achievement comes in the creation of Greg Heffley as the ultimate unreliable narrator. Yes, that’s right, move over Holden Caulfield, Kinney’s Greg Heffley represents a masterclass in characterisation.

Across all sixteen books – and especially in the Rowley spinoffs – Greg Heffley masterfully emerges as a singularly unreliable narrator. This fact is not so apparent at a first glance. Casual readers, who have not picked up the series since their childhood, may remember the character as an archetypal, average, pre-adolescent boy. A closer look reveals a much deeper character than that.

Greg Heffley is established as a manipulative, narcissistic individual across the series. This manipulation is woven so masterfully through the text that even the reader becomes a victim of Greg’s apparent sociopathy.

The entire narrative is woven around Greg’s warped perspective of the world. This is an environment where our narrator is, according to his words, almost always the victim – even in cases that have clearly involved wrongdoing, such as the Chirag Gupta “prank” (read: vicious bullying) that Greg is a ringleader of, and especially his constant torment of his apparently “best friend” Rowley Jefferson.

The true extent of Greg’s manipulation – and subsequently Kinney’s genius – is only revealed in Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid. Here we see our titular character through the eyes of Rowley Jefferson. Rowley is also expertly characterised – his naivety flows through the text exquisitely. But Kinney invites us to peer beneath the veneer produced by this naive curtain. And what we see is disturbing to say the least.

 Through the eyes of Rowley, we catch a glimpse of the real Greg Heffley – the Greg Heffley that isn’t immediately clear through Kinney’s masterful subjective narration throughout the other entries in the series. We see Greg repeatedly manipulating the naïve Rowley – including one particularly egregious case involving maths homework – for his own personal gain. Rowley believes Greg to be his best friend, but is treated as nothing but a pawn in Greg’s self-aggrandising schemes.

Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid is a key to unlock Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Kinney’s spinoff confirms that Greg Heffley is a masterfully crafted unreliable narrator, and re-reading the series after consuming the spin-off only makes the experience even more enriching.

And yet, throughout the series, one cannot help but sympathise with Greg. We become enthralled in his megalomania, but we also see his humanity. We see moments where he does the right thing for the right reasons. We root for him, and we react viscerally to his many disappointments and embarrassments. Greg is not simply characterised as an arsehole. He is constructed as a complex, often sympathetic, and yet deeply flawed individual. It is the mark of a great writer that despite these flaws, we can do nothing but become enraptured with the boy. In the end, we root for him.

But is this enough to cement Diary of a Wimpy Kid as a member of the literary canon?

Well, there is precedence. J.D. Salinger’s bildungsroman masterpiece, The Catcher In The Rye, is perhaps the most famous example of a modern(ish) unreliable narrator. Throughout the text, we see Holden Caulfield ramble through – often relatively mundane – real events, wild fantasies, and his overflowing perspective on life, steeped in alienation. Kinney’s characterisation of Greg Heffley represents a modern reimagining of – perhaps a complex textual conversation with – Salinger’s work. Yet, brilliantly, it is never derivative, especially in the first four books of the series, and alongside the Rowley spinoff.

Ultimately, this mastery of the literary form solidifies Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s deserved place in the literary canon. Much like Homer’s Odyssey, Kinney’s text is technically ground-breaking. Much like Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Kinney’s text is culturally defining. And, much like Catcher in the Rye, Kinney’s text displays a wealth of talent and represents a truly brilliant literary achievement.

So, is Diary of the Wimpy Kid actually in the literary canon? Ultimately, that’s not my decision. Membership of that arcane order is granted by a broader cultural recognition – often an organic induction into a prestigious literary hall of fame. But I think it most certainly belongs there; and now, I hope you do too.

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