Thursday, 9 October 2014
Innocent and heartless - Anne Rooney
Those are the closing words of Peter Pan. It's interesting that 'heartless' is the very last word, as that's the word that has been unspoken throughout the book and is uncomfortably central to it. Children will have dangerous adventures. Children will grow up and leave. They must. Peter Pan is a freak, and real children aren't like that. They are, instead, like Wendy and John and Michael. They will torture their parents by going off and doing stupid things with no thought for their parents' suffering, putting themselves in danger and just thinking it's jolly good fun. And - worst for parents - that's how it should be. Because children are 'gay and innocent and heartless.' And it's both delightful and unbearable.
I read a very interesting blog post by Clementine Beauvais last week which was really about open-access academic articles, but it described an article she had written some time ago (not much time ago, as she's very young for someone so accomplished!) The article discusses the power children have or don't have in literature, and how children have a particular type of power because they have more potential than adults: they have more life ahead of them, can do more stuff than we will be able to, and will be around after we are dead (in the usual run of things). She is clearly right - this is an extremely important part of the power dynamic between adults and children. I'm not sure it's one that finds much expression in children's books, though - but perhaps Clem can point me in the right direction. It's rather undermined in the dead-kids genre currently in vogue.
Another important source of the child's power is that they can destroy the adult's life at a stroke, just by choking on a peanut, falling under a bus, getting diphtheria or walking through a wardrobe into a non-existent land. Adults are scared of their children because the children hold ALL the important power. And children are at least subliminally aware of it. Children's literature plays with that dynamic to a greater or lesser degree depending on the perspicacity and courage of the writer.
In the nineteenth century, children's books (and children in adult books) generally end up being absorbed into 'normal' (thank you, Clementine) adult society - what we could call an aetonormative resolution if we wanted to be jargonish about it (thank you, Maria Nikolajeva for that word). But today we tend to write books that leave the future more open for children, perhaps because the real future looks so uncertain (although futures have always been uncertain). Or perhaps because we don't like to endorse a 'normal'.
When we, as writers, exclude parents from the picture - sending them to work, killing them off, making them neglectful, leaving them asleep in the cave, or whatever - we give the stage to the child characters. I think most of us do it, if we think about it, to free the child to act. In Arthur Ransom's day, it was fine to give your kids some sandwiches and stick them in a leaky boat, not expecting to see them for a few days. Now it's not. To do so (in a book) would be to make an issue of irresponsible parenting. So we need another way to give children the freedom to have adventures. But why ever we might think we do it, one of the undeniable results is that the parents, once out of sight, are out of mind. And not just the reader's mind. I'm writing something set in the late 19th century at the moment. The hero is an orphan, with an abusive guardian. No one cares what he does. But, perhaps more importantly for me as writer, whatever he does can't harm anyone who loves him. I can have him chased by a murderous villain, threatened with drowning, cut to ribbons by a slasher robot, and not have to worry about a grieving or angst-ridden parent behind the scenes.
I'm struggling to think of a children's book in which loving parents are present and respond realistically to the dangerous exploits of their children. Children don't want to see that, of course - it's either not interesting to them, or would detract from the joy of the story, depending on the child. But neither do we want to write it. We don't want to think about it. There's a terrible tension at the centre of exciting children's books, as in real-life parenting, between wanting the child to have exciting adventures and not wanting them to die. Every parent draws their own line of acceptable/unacceptable risk. Every story-teller pushes the risk and harm as far as they can/want and usually stops just short of death (if we exclude Edward Gorey from the mix). And they are freest to remain gay and innocent and heartless if we don't have to think too much about their parents as we write.
Latest book - Evolution, Octopus, September 2014