Monday, 11 February 2013

Constructing Complexity - Cathy Butler

Fiction for adults, fiction for children – which is more complex?

The obvious answer is that books for adults are generally more complex than books for children. They use a wider vocabulary and more sophisticated language, deal in “adult” concepts and experiences, are fluent in abstract ideas and thoughts, and assume a familiarity with literary genres and devices that cannot be counted on in the average child reader.

Once we look carefully at this list, however, some of its items appear rather less solid. First, not all books for adults are in fact particularly sophisticated. Literary fiction of the kind that makes the Man Booker shortlist represents only a small percentage of the adult fiction published and sold, and it would misleading to take Hilary Mantel and her peers as representative of “adult fiction”. Moreover, if the vocabulary of (some) children’s books is limited, this need not imply simplicity: ask Hemingway or William Blake. Nor are sophisticated post-modern devices such as intertextuality, frame-breaking, genre-mixing and mise en abyme the preserve of adult literature: in fact, they are probably found more often in picture books for young children, from Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book to the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman.

It’s true that children’s books don’t generally deal with specifically adult experiences such as old age or marital infidelity (although some do); but equally, adult books don’t in general deal with the specific experiences of children, such as going to school for the first time. None of these experiences is more, or less, deserving of treatment in fiction than the others.

What about plots, though? Are the plots of adult books more complex than those of children’s books? Here I’m reminded of an article written by Diana Wynne Jones shortly after she started writing adult fiction in the early 1990s, having already been a children’s writer for almost twenty years. She explains that her assumptions were in fact the opposite – that a point she would have explained only once in a book for children she felt the need to repeat several times for adult readers: “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” This idea derived from her experience of being told by adults that they found the plots of some of her children’s books hard to follow (and that therefore they must be "too difficult for children"). Children themselves, however, never seemed to have any difficulty. Jones’s explanation is an interesting one:

Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it.

Adults, by contrast, are used to knowing things already, and their tolerance for uncertainty – negative capability would be a good term, if Keats hadn’t already nabbed it – is correspondingly less. All of us, when we read a novel, will encounter unfamiliar ideas and unexplained facts. I suppose we must have a kind of mental “holding pen” in which to place such items, in the hope that they will be clarified and resolved at some later point. But perhaps children’s holding pens have a greater capacity than those of adults, simply because they are more accustomed to dealing with new experiences? If so, we might expect them to be more able to deal with complex plots – and, in that sense at least, to be more sophisticated readers.

I don’t think that’s a complete answer to the rather silly question with which I started – because of course complexity is multifaceted – but I do find it an intriguing idea. In any case, if I ever see an adult book with as complex a plot as Jones’s Hexwood I'll be very surprised.


Stroppy Author said...

Wonderful! I agree entirely. And I'd add that children don't have established methods of constructing 'complexity' so they are more mentally nimble. An adult will pick up a book such as Tristram Shandy or Ulysses and think 'this doesn't fit any of my models for stories - it's going to be hard', and then there is automatically a barrier. A child is used to newness and to adjusting their mental models all the time. So a child picking up The Stinky Cheese Man will think 'oh, another kind of book!' and extend their mental model to accommodate it.

Which I suppose is unpicking the question really and asking whether complexity mean different things to adults and children. And so does a children's book have to be more complex in adult terms in order to be even a bit complex in children's term?

Catherine Butler said...

An adult will pick up a book such as Tristram Shandy or Ulysses and think 'this doesn't fit any of my models for stories - it's going to be hard'

That's an excellent point!

catdownunder said...

We were discussing this Downunder recently - and I mentioned some of the "adult" books I read as a child. Someone said, "But you didn't understand them!" I think I did - perhaps not in the way an adult would understand them but I still understood them. My father actually read a passage from Ulysses to us at school (he was also my teacher)when I was ten and I have never forgotten it.

Catherine Butler said...

"Understand" is such a weasel word, isn't it? It comes in many different kinds and degrees, but we tend to use our own understanding as the standard by which to judge that of others. Half of language is rhythm, and that can be "understood" long before any individual words.

Clémentine Beauvais said...

This is SUCH a great post, thank you. It always annoys me when people don't realise how difficult it is to plot, write, edit and illustrate children's books - the fine-tuning involved.

And exactly spot-on re: children being used to making efforts. This is particularly true for vocabulary. Children are ALWAYS learning new words - that's what they've been doing non-stop since they were born. They can be trusted with not freaking out if a new, 'hard' word appears on the page, because that's what their everyday life is like. The same can't be said of adults.

Savita Kalhan said...

Excellent post. In my experience, kids are definitely more 'mentally nimble' as the stroppy author says, adjusting to change and to new things far more quickly than adults. I think they are more of a challenge to write for than adults.

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Watching my five-year-old at the very start of learning to read, I can see when he doesn't 'get' the story, but what I like is watching him - if the book has his interest - pluck what he does understand from the words and the pictures, the rhyme play, the fun of it. Children are often underestimated (although not by children's writers).

Lynne Garner said...

Wonderful post. I read adult books when I was a kid and today read kids books as an adult. If I understood everything I read when I was a kid I can't tell you. All I can say is I enjoyed the experience - which I think is one of the most important parts of the reading experience.

Maxine Linnell said...

Thought provoking post, thank you. I think it was Meg Rosoff who said that she wrote the stories she'd like to read, now, as an adult. As far as young adult fiction's concerned, I try to do the same.
My 14 month old grandson loves a book called Hug, by Jez Alborough, which has a word on every page, but only three words in all - I love it too, as I can make up the rest from the pictures to suit him as he grows.

adele said...

WOnderful, Cathy! I gave up on Hexwood because it was FAR FAR above my head and out of my reach. And same with Red Shift...and lots of others.You are quite right about this, I think. The average book read on a commuter train to work is easy peasy in comparison to many children's books!

K.M.Lockwood said...

A cracking post - I often think of this quotation:
“And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”
― Madeleine L'Engle

Thanks for the post.