Hazel McHaffie

Voltaire

‘Perfection’? or ‘Good enough’?

A couple of weeks ago I happened to catch a bus into the town centre already crowded with students from a science faculty outside the city boundary. There was a healthy buzz of conversation everywhere but the voice of the girl behind me dominated because she was speaking loudly into her mobile (as people tend to do).

She appeared to be agonising over some end-of-term exams they were taking and suddenly said: ‘Why am I putting myself through all this stress? I could have been an artist! … No, I’m too much of a perfectionist to be an artist.’

Hello? You think creative people don’t suffer stress? Aren’t perfectionists? Why, only this week I was reading about an author, Madeline Miller, who took ten years to write her first novel, five of them spent writing and rewriting the first few chapters over 50 times! She describes herself as an ‘incorrigible perfectionist’.

It was Voltaire who allegedly first penned the famous aphorism: perfect is the enemy of the good, although other well known writers and philosophers have come to a similar conclusion.

We all have to achieve a balance between our ideals and our realities, don’t we? I first really absorbed the concept of ‘good enough’ when I was a researcher looking into parenting issues. I remember in 1988 quoting in my PhD thesis, the British pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who coined the phrase ‘good enough’ mothers way back in 1953.

And all through my academic life I had a post-it on my screen: Perfection is always one more draft away. Theses, journal articles, books, conference presentations – there came a point with everything, when I had to say, ‘Stop! It will do’. No merit in constantly striving for perfection and never letting anything try its luck in the real world.

It hadn’t occurred to me until that student’s conversation impinged on my brain in the bus, that here I am, right now, in my fictional world, worrying away once again at what constitutes good enough parenting.

My protagonist is a new mother, a perfectionist, a brilliant academic, stressed by the demands of a fretful baby who simply hasn’t read the manual! And when bad things start happening to the infant, the professionals responsible for safeguarding have to decide where the line can and should be drawn between the ideal and the realistic. Get it wrong and a baby’s life might be in jeopardy as well as a mother’s mental health. We’ve all seen the vilification of social workers and community health professionals when a child is horrendously abused and dies in real life; the press have a field day.

I’m also somewhat preoccupied with the point at which the current novel itself is good enough to publish; it’s far from that point at the moment. Indeed I’ve scribbled several possible new opening sentences just over Christmas – the brain doesn’t recognise official holidays! And I know it won’t ever be perfect; they never are. It just has to be good enough to satisfy the reader that it’s a tale well told and worth writing. And believe me, young-angst-ridden-student-scientist, artists most certainly are perfectionists too!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Borrowers and lenders

Has anyone out there got my signed copy of … No, I won’t embarrass you.

As Voltaire said in the early eighteen century: What we find in books is like the fire in our hearths. We fetch it from our neighbours, we kindle it at home, we communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.

Brilliant. OK, so we don’t carry live coals from house to house any more, but we’re all familiar with the concept, I’m sure.

I confess I used to be rather precious about my books – taking the old axiom, neither a borrower nor a lender be, rather too far I suspect. But of late I’ve become much more blasé. Maybe it’s the influence of Amazon? Maybe it’s advancing age – you can’t take them with you. Anyway, there’s something warming about sharing a thumping good read with friends. It bonds one with like-minded book-lovers. I visit several people who don’t get out or who are terminally ill, and there’s something confirming about leaving a book with them; a sort of unsaid promise that we’ll meet again and discuss it. As indeed we do.

But of course, there’s a downside. I’ve ‘lost’ a number of treasured tomes. Initially I kept tabs on those I lent to others, but the more I gave away the slacker I became. I’ve forgotten to whom I lent them in some instances. And I’m not brazen enough to pursue them when I do remember. Forking out again for a title when I’ve read it already seems like an indulgence too far, so I simply mourn silently and try to be magnanimous about the written word being ‘the property of all’.

And very occasionally I accept books generously lent to me too. I’m currently ploughing through three volumes of a trilogy by Gerald Lund. Lund trilogyI was loaned them an embarrassingly long time ago in fact, but had to do some serious psychological work to get past the sheer size as well as the off-putting covers. They measure a whopping four inches in thickness, each book just a tad too thick to accommodate comfortably on the trusty book-deckchair. I live in constant terror of creasing the pristine spine. (I’m a bit fanatical about returning books in the same condition they came to me.) But six hundred and forty pages in, I’m really into the story – no mean feat with a cast of over thirty characters and lots of summer visitors to distract my attention. Only 1,250 to go … pages I mean, not visitors!

Lund’s story is set in the time of Jesus Christ and brings the familiar stories to life, giving a different slant on what it might have felt like to see and hear amazing things without the benefit of hindsight.

So I am now both a borrower and a lender. Voltaire would be proud of the new enlightened me!

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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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