Hazel McHaffie

Howard Jacobson

My guest today … Mal Peet

As a children’s writer Mal Peet is used to condescension, but in the most recent edition of the newsletter from the ALCS (Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society) he had some important messages to give on the subject. I was so impressed by the eloquence of his arguments that I sought permission to reproduce it for you. He and the ALCS graciously agreed, so here is my very first ‘guest blog’!

YE GODS! by Mal Peet

A few weeks ago, in a television programme, Martin Amis put a host of backs up. Most, but not all, of these backs belonged to my fellow writers for the young.

Asked by his chum Sebastian Faulks if he had considered writing a book for children, Amis repeated his assertion that he could do so only if he incurred brain damage. I was surprised. Not by the assertion, obviously, but by all those raised hackles. Surely Amis’ condescension could not have come as a shock. Were we not already deeply familiar with Olympian Disdain Syndrome, pandemic among our great ‘literary’ novelists? Sneering is, after all, one of its common symptoms. Not long ago Howard Jacobson, who still refuses to recognise that being male and Jewish in contemporary Britain is unremarkable and not of itself especially interesting, took a gratuitous sideswipe (just like that one) at ‘would-be serious’ children’s writers. Will Self is of course sui generis, being professionally disdainful about anything with, or without, a pulse. Children’s writers are inured – or so I’d thought – to being on the receiving end of this kind of hauteur. Hence my surprise at the ruffled feathers; the bilious blogs.

In part, I guess, the rumpus was a response to the smug assumption behind Faulks’ question: that Amis – or anybody else, really – could write a children’s book if he had nothing better to do. And indeed Olympians, in moments of remission or impecuniousness, have been known to knock out a kids’ book, thinking it an easy way of making a bob or two. (This delusion is, by the way, a symptom of another nasty but common disorder known as Rowling’s Chorea.) Almost always, these efforts are feeble but the reviewers genuflect and the gods return to Olympus rubbing their hands together and muttering “That’ll show yer.” This can, of course, occasion resentment in certain quarters.

Acid Off A Duck’s Back

As a writer of Young Adult Fiction (whatever that is) I’m used to condescension. Immune to it. Acid off a duck’s back, mate. However, the Amis fuss has excited my hobby-horse, and it needs a little canter.

… the books we put into our children’s hands are immeasurably more important than the latest works of high-profile novelists.

In terms of sustaining a literate and literary culture, the books we put into our children’s hands are immeasurably more important than the latest works of high-profile novelists. I have no trouble believing that Amis Junior sprung from the womb clutching Ovid’s Metamorphoses in one hand and Nabokov’s Ada in the other, irritated by the obstetric interruption of his reading. But most children need literary nurturing, and the quality of that nurture is crucial if they are to grow into readers of Ovid and Nabokov. And, of course, Amis.

The press regularly publishes Jeremiads on the subject of our children’s downward spiral into illiteracy. Our schools are failing. The book is dead. Print is obsolescent. We are evolving into a race of pasty-faced strangers to the sun with overdeveloped thumbs and atrophied legs and minds.

The past 20 years or so have seen a truly remarkable flowering of writing for the younger reader.

Experimental And Beautiful Work

Nevertheless, something between a fifth and a quarter of all UK book sales are of children’s books. Worth something like £800 million. And most children’s books are purchased for them by adults. The past 20 years or so have seen a truly remarkable flowering of writing for the younger reader. I won’t name names because I’ll get reproachful emails from those I omit, but there are children’s and teenagers’ writers out there who are producing challenging, experimental and beautiful work. True, there’s also a lot of dross about vampires and suchlike, but when I look back at what was available to the young me in the 1950s and early 60s, I grieve. I feel like poor old Larkin (or Amis Senior) lamenting the arrival, too late, of bold and bare-legged young totty. And when, as I do (I can’t help myself) I read the adult books shortlisted for the big prestigious prizes I find myself thinking “Really? This is ‘ground-breaking?’ My editor would never let me get away with toss like this.

These things considered, the discrepancy between the importance of children’s literature and its coverage by mainstream media is weird. Grotesque. A couple of column inches here and there in the national press. The Jeremiahs appear to see nothing inconsistent in their moaning about children’s literacy and their lack of interest in children’s books. Since the demise of Treasure Island there is nothing on BBC radio. Nothing on any of the 10,000 TV channels. Then Channel 4 finds occasion to give the subject 30 seconds of Sebastian’s middle-brow ramble through the pastures of literature, and what does it do? Gives the precious moment to Martin Amis who uses the opportunity to trash children’s literature on the altar of his own ego.

It’s the squandering of that rare opportunity that – forgive me – really pisses me off.

Mal Peet is the author of several novels for young adults, including Tamar, winner of the 2005 CILIP Carnegie Medal, and Exposure,which won the 2009 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. His latest novel, Life: An Exploded Diagram, came out this June.

PS. As for me …

While Mal’s been talking to you I’ve been gallivanting off to the Royal Highland Show. Wow! What a feast of excellence. The sheer breadth of potential of the human mind and hand was both inspiring and humbling.

And as Voltaire said: Appreciation is a wonderful thing: It makes what is excellent in others belong to us as well.

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Better to remain silent

I’m a subscriber to the old English proverb: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

And I love Ecclesiastes‘ lyrical ‘To everything there is season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …’ which includes ‘a time to keep silence, and a time to speak …

But I suspect Harper Lee took this a bit too far. She was a literary sensation with her 1960 debut novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. It became an immediate classic; she had the world at her feet. After winning the Pulitzer Prize no less, she talked of becoming the ‘Jane Austen of south Alabama.’ No pressure then.

But … there was no next novel. The author (who’s now 85) hasn’t agreed to an interview since 1964 at which time she was writing her second book, The Long Goodbye, and expressed a pious hope that she would do the best she could with the talent God had given her. She’s won numerous awards since but yet maintained her silence. Theories abound: fame killed off any subsequent masterpiece; she couldn’t face a loss of prestige; she had a serious case of writers’ block lasting decades; she hadn’t actually written Mockingbird; the manuscripts are stacked up not to be published till after her death … Who knows?

Now, apparently, she’s cooperated in a forthcoming biography of her life by journalist Marja Mills, so we could soon know the truth. But doesn’t this underline the truth of the proverb? Once she opens her mouth and explains the mystery we will know if she was indeed a fool. Until then there is still room for doubt.

As for me, I shall endeavour to remember the adage about keeping silence if/when I win the Man Booker. (Cue muffled snorting.)

No danger there, of course, but I must confess, I have no ambitions in that direction. The Man Booker titles rarely do anything for me – with a few notable exceptions. You’re too low-brow by half, I hear you cry. You’re right; I know I am. A literary philistine, a heretic – you name it, I am it. I do try to take an intelligent interest in what’s deemed good writing, returning to the lists with monotonous regularity.

The Finkler QuestionIndeed, I’ve just finished reading The Finkler Question, which according to the Guardian is ‘full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding. It is also beautifully written with that sophisticated and near invisible skill of the authentic writer. Technically the characterisation is impeccable, the prose a subtle delight, the word selection everywhere perfect, the phrase-making fresh and arresting without self-consciousness.‘ And in the opinion of the Independent: ‘Jacobson’s prose is a seamless roll of blissfully melancholic interludes. Almost every page has a quotable, memorable line.

Hmmm. Let’s just say I struggled to stay attentive. I was sorely tempted to wander off and do other things like dusting or weeding or cleaning the shoes, by way of light relief. Every now and then I thought, Wow, beautiful writing, or What a penetrating insight. Several times I laughed out loud. But overall, it’s been something of a slog. Me, I like a book to hook me in and not let me go until the last page. How the judges trawl through a stack of these tomes one after the other is beyond my comprehension. Could this be a factor in the final decision, d’you think?

There, I’ve tolled my own death knell.

Like I said: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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