I wrote this article originally for the British children's writing blog An Awfully Big Blog Adventure. It created quite a stir globally...so I thought Redroom readers should have the opportunity to see what I said.
One Saturday night Martin Amis was talking about his antihero, John Self, on the BBC's new book programme, Faulks on Fiction. During his piece to camera, apropos of nothing the interviewer had said or indicated, he laid into children's books:
"People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say, 'If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book,' but [here he shakes his head] the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable."
Now, Amis is entitled to his opinion, (we live in a democracy after all) and he was, of course, speaking only for himself. However, I too am entitled to an opinion, and my thoughts when I heard Amis spouting this arrogant twaddle from the rarefied upper reaches of his ivory tower are unprintable here. No doubt he would consider that to be an intolerable restraint. However, for the moment, I'm going to ignore the implicit insult to those of us who do write children's books (and, as far as I know, none of us have serious brain injuries, though I have often been told I am off my rocker) and concentrate on the last part of his sentence, because it made me ask myself some questions about how I write.
Am I conscious of who I am directing my story to? No. At least not in the sense of 'writing down' to an audience that is obviously, by its very nature, younger than I am. Children are astute observers of tone--they loathe adults who patronise them with a passion, adults who somehow assume they are not sentient beings because they are children. When I write fiction, I research and plan just as (I assume) Amis does. When I'm doing that plotting and planning and researching stage, that's when I think about which audience each particular book is going to be for. By the time I've got to the stage of writing, I am already deeply involved with the audience in my head--and so the whole thing evolves onto the page without my having constantly to hold up a particular set of readers in front of my eyes, because it's already been downloaded onto the hard drive of my brain and is part of the whole organic process of the writing itself. Then, after all that, I sit down and let what comes, come. The story generally tells itself without any inner voice saying 'oh, but you're writing for children--you mustn't say this, or--oh goodness, certainly not that!' Amis says of the process of writing Self that, "I was writing about his subconscious thought--nothing he could have written down for himself...he's an ignorant brute." Well, goodness. Writing subconscious thought? Does that never happen in children's fiction? We are all the amanuensis for our characters--and yes, often we do use language they never consciously would. It's not a feat of the writer's art exclusive to highbrow literary fiction. When I write, I think about language, the richness and complexity and wonder of it, and I use it to hook the reader into my story, to ensnare them in my net of words, to take them so far that they forget that what they are seeing is only print on a page of dead tree. I say the reader--and that means whoever is reading my book regardless of age. Fiction is indeed freedom--and I have never felt constrained or restrained when writing it--though generally my work doesn't have as much swearing in it as Amis's does. I don't find that a particularly intolerable restraint.
Amis went on to say:
"I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write." Leaving aside the slightly questionable structure of this sentence--I have a nasty feeling that this is another dig at us brain-dead children's authors. Not living up in the thin, sere air of an ivory tower, I am not quite sure what to make of this idea of a lower register. A lower register of what? Intensity? Talent? Literary merit? For me, characters come, sometimes whether I want them to or not. Would I choose not to write them if I somehow saw them as inferior to my 'great and shining talents' as an author? No one forces any author to write anything or anyone--and if Amis thinks that children's books are somehow unworthy of the application of his own great and shining talents, without any of the kind of literary merit he recognises as such, beneath contempt, lower than the dust, then he is welcome to do so. But he would be quite wrong.
Sebastian Faulks said at the end of his programme that "John Self looks like the end of the line for the hero...for literary novels, it's over. The hero is dead. End of story." He also said something else. He surmised that the hero hadn't vanished completely, but had just moved further afield into children's fiction. In fact, "the modern novelistic hero is...well...Harry Potter." Oh dear, Mr Amis. Perhaps you'll have to write a children's book after all. I dare you to try.
*Addendum* There's now been a lot of media comment on this article/subject. I've added links to just a few of the various newspaper articles it spawned below. Eventually I was quoted in 5 languages including Vietnamese and Hungarian.