Tuesday, 15 February 2011

It's That Man Again... Celia Rees

Lucy Coats has already blogged (Wednesday, 9th Feb) about the remarks that Martin Amis made when he was interviewed by Sebastian Faulks for the BBC 2 programme, Faulks on Fiction. Her blog has attracted 60 comments and the outrage felt has resonated as far as the national press and the Huffington Post. Martin Amis, as the Guardian on Saturday pointed out, is no stranger to controversy.

I, too, saw the programme and after the first dropping of the jaw, I thought that he actually had a point. Just in case anybody doesn't know, or does not want to scroll down the page and see his words in purple 18 point type, he said:

'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."'

So far, so insulting. He then went on to say:

'The idea of being conscious of who you are directing the story to is anathema to me because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable. I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.'

Once I heard that, I could see where he was coming from. I did not think he was saying 'all children's writers have half a brain', that would be false logic. He was just explaining his own writing stance and he is entitled to do that. He writes literary fiction for adults, as such he sees it as his task to write to the top of his register and would not, could not accept any restraints on that.

The disregard for the reader that Amis expresses is just not possible when one is writing for children. Children's writers, and I include writers of Young Adult fiction, are ALWAYS aware of what their readers will and will not tolerate, or will or will not understand. Anyone who denies this is being disingenuous. Quite apart from the target readers themselves, there are other agencies involved. We have to worry about things that would not trouble writers of adult fiction in the least - see Leslie Wilson's blog below. How many writers for adults would feel the need to explain and justify their use of swear words or the incidence of sex in a novel? How much we take these factors into consideration, how much we allow them to limit our fiction, is up to us, but those limitations are there. We do not use our full palate, as Patrick Ness would say. How can we? We have to write at a lower register because we are adults and our readers are children.

There are other pressures on us, too. Pressures that have nothing to do with our writing but everything to do with the market place. In a squeezed market, there is more and more demand from publishers for novels that will sell. Books that fit into an obvious, popular genre - action, dark romance, whatever. A book that is perceived as 'too literary' is seen as problematic. The equivalent of the literary novel is a rare beast, and becoming more endangered by the minute. If one or two do sneak through, they usually turn out to have been written for adults in the first place and tweaked a bit in a bid to capture that holy grail, the crossover market.

In an interview in the Observer Review (13th February, 2011)) Nicole Krauss attests that the comment she heard most frequently on a U.S. book tour for her novel, The History of Love, was: 'this book is difficult'. Krauss worries that 'we are moving towards the end of effort'. Readers don't want to have to think too hard, it appears, whatever their age. That is the spectre that frightens me. In the hope of keeping that at bay, I actually want Martin Amis to write to the limit.


Anne said...

For me the problem is Amis's 'lower' register. The idea of a 'lower' register implies a hierarchy. Children's and young adult fiction are 'lower' and adult fiction is 'higher' by implication. Amis did not equate brian injury with 'mainstream' as opposed to 'literary' fiction. He equated it to writing for children. Amis, it seems is tolerated for these views and I am insulted by them.

Steve said...

With respect, I don't believe Amis should be given the benefit of the doubt re: his remarks about children's fiction. While it could be argued that there's been some overreaction to his comments, Amis has too long and notorious a track record when it comes to tactless, thoughtless commentary; in the interest of genuine fairness, his history should be borne in mind. Amis knows full well that every author, consciously or otherwise, tailors their work for an appropriate readership, so his position is disingenuous in the extreme. Sadly, I suspect that Amis's remarks about the absence of constraints in his fiction are an example of his air of superiority and pretentiousness - all that's missing is a sweep of the smoke-filled air with an elegant hand - after all, these are the kind of self-indulgent conversation pieces that an amateur poet might stoop to. Finally, even his few champions do him a disservice, and display the kind of condescending conceitedness natural to the man:

'Like any ace reporter, I Google Martin's name and find that a fatwa has been declared against him over shock-horror comments he made an interview that have inflamed fine-feeling people everywhere and could easily be interpreted as an insult to the unborn, if they knew how to read.

Because of this, entire villages have risen up in wrath and occupied Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square too, demanding that he recant or face witch trial for being conceited.'

More talk of proles and their literary and social superiors here:


Steve said...

Ps I'd like to point out that I actually agree with much of Celia's post (which I think is both articulate and well-written); I'm just not so sure that the reaction against Amis's comments should cause children's fiction authors to examine themselves and their work. As one can see by the clumsy and insulting 'religious fanaticism' analogies of the article I linked, Amis and his champions have little interest in truth, let alone the truths revealed by introspection.



Nicola Morgan said...

Celia, that was also the meaning I took from his remarks. (I was watching the original programme and the person I was watching with also didn't think he was saying anything disparaging, though the use of the word "brain-injury" was very misguided.)

I also, to be honest, am not as offended as some by the use of the phrase "lower register". As long as we don't think that it's easier to achieve - but the problem is that too many people DO think it's easier to achieve. And that is what makes us all most angry, I think.

But I agree with your comments.

Katherine Langrish said...

If - and it has to be true - writing for children involves writing within certain constraints (re: a child's understanding, descriptions of sex, swearing, etc), then it is a form which demands as much, if not more, technical skill as writing for adults. There should be less of this tacit assumption that writing for children is somehow easier. I mean, why? Because children's books are shorter? Sonnets are shorter than epics, but that doens't make us despise them. Because children are smaller and less experiences than adults? Does that make books written to delight and thrill them, and expand thier imaginations, automatically puerile?

I agree Amis may have been thinking about himself much more than he was thinking about children's authors (quite possibly he's never even met one, and I wonder how long it is since he read a book for children?) but I think the disparagement and disdain in his comments was quite real and unthinking.

Katherine Langrish said...

Typos... sorry.

adele said...

You have expressed very well, Celia, what I wanted to say. Thank you.

Celia Rees said...

I do strive to produce work that is 'articulate and well written' because... I'm a professional, adult writer, even though I write for children. Far from being crass and stupid, I think Amis was being rather clever (a trait clearly not shared by his 'supporters' - as quoted by Steve). I don't think he is saying that, as writers for children, we have to use a lower register, but that we choose to, because of what we do. Also, I'm sure he would acknowledge the problems we face, the difficulties, the challenge of what we do, but would probably reply that he would not choose to use his writing ability in this way. His choice - and ours.

Nicky said...

But isn't everyone constrained by something? I think it is the constraints that tend to make the best art - the need to write for an audience tends to limit self indulgence. None of us are free and he himself confines himself to a narrow range of milieus and types. For me the great skill of great children's writing is its exploitation of the constraints to produce something that appears simple on the surface but which has been shaped by adult intelligence and insight.
I think to call that writing at a 'lower register' is not entirely accurate as it suggests the lowering applies to everything.

Charlie Butler said...

As I mentioned in my own blog - http://steepholm.livejournal.com/156057.html - I think it would be idle to deny that Amis was being intentionally snotty about children's writers with his 'brain-damage' remark. Nor was it off-the-cuff - he's used it before, and knows exactly what kind of reaction it's likely to provoke.

The idea of not writing for an audience but for oneself is of course a widespread one, and in one sense I think it's something we all do. But the opposition between that and having an idea of one's audience in mind is a false one, and in any case it's a stick one could equally well use to beat Shakespeare, Virgil, etc ad nauseam, all of whom tailored their work for an audience. Amis may imagine that his indifference makes him their artistic superior, but we don't have to share his New Critical delusion.

As for 'lower' register, I don't believe, having watched the clip carefully, that he was talking about children's literature at all at that point, but about the language of his protagonist John Self. But it's really an example of trying to make a virtue out of what is in fact a stylistic limitation - the fact that Amis can't create a voice like Self's in a manner that is both convincing and interesting from a literary point of view. In this case it's not a matter of not using the full palate (which no writer or artist does at any one time, of course - the result tending towards brown sludge), but of arguing that a small palate is superior to a large one. Personally I don't buy it.

Leslie Wilson said...

I agree with what many people have said: children's writing is just a different art-form. A lower register? That does seem disparaging to me. There are, as has been said, constraints in writing a sonnet; in a short story or a novella you can't allow yourself the same spread that you can in a novel. That's not to say that these forms aren't worth practising.
However!! Amis can say what he likes. I get artistic satisfaction from writing my novels, I got artistic sustenance from reading children's books when I was small. And whatever the constraints, someone like Tove Jansson, for example, can put a world of feeling, aching, yearning and humour into the Moomin books which is the artistic equal of a lot of literary fiction.
incidentally, a lot of very distinguished authors for adults have produced wonderful kids-lit. Look at Ted Hughes's The Iron Man.
So why should we make the man's vapourings so important, one way or another?

Leslie Wilson said...

While pottering down to Waitrose, I had the following additional thoughts: I doubt whether adult literary fiction has always been so very free of constraint. Even ten years ago, there was a demand for a recognisable product, for a book that was 'like' the previous one. That's the market side. On the other side, there have always been subtler cultural pressures; the kind of things other people write; the kind of subject matter and mode of writing that the reviewing (and prize-awarding) establishment regards as cool. There is never any need for anyone to consciously censor themselves ; it's implicit in the literary climate, which is not, and never has been, I suspect, immune to fashion.

John Dougherty said...

Celia, he may not have been saying "all children's writers have half a brain", but he was quite clearly saying:
"Writing for children is so easy that I could, and probably would, do it if I had a serious brain injury."

He was certainly, as you say, making another point besides this, but that doesn't mean he should be allowed the insult.

And I agree with Anne & others about the implied hierarchy. What does it actually mean, to write in one's highest register?

Steve said...

A very good post by Charles London:

Why I Write for Children: A Response to Martin Amis


Neezes said...

Well done for trying to see where Amis was coming from. You have helped to make some sense of it, but I still think his comment that "fiction is freedom..." is arrogant nonsense!

Just imagine him coming to your house and swearing in front of your kids, then explaining 'sorry, but conversation is freedom to me and any restraints on that are intolerable'. :D

Anonymous said...

Amis is a very intelligent and eloquent man. If he had wanted to say "I don't write children's books because I just don't have the knack for it" he could have easily said so. He chose those specific words because he knew they would provoke. Had he simply just stated clearly that he did not have the gift and/or the desire to write for children, none of us would be having these conversations. (And actually, perhaps we should thank Amis for having these conversations, which are always worthwhile).

I think the better response, rather than using the the words 'lower register' would have been 'different register'. Writing for children is like writing in a completely different language.