Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Hardly Remember The Blow To The Head

The renowned British author Martin Amis created a bit of a kerfuffle last week with these comments:

“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’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable.”

Right. Now, it's going to be a pretty uncomfortable life for us all if we get our britches in a knot every time some preening adult literary fiction writer sniffs that children's literature is written by the brain-addled. And Martin Amis, in addition to all his literary acclaim, has a Nobel in sneering. And never mind the inherently masturbatory act of writing without awareness of the reader--calling to mind Woody Allen's quip that masturbation is "Sex with someone I love." The point is, Amis' comments get to a perception of children's lit common among people with a lot of opinions and no actual knowledge.

Children's books are remarkable exactly for the freedom they allow the writer--the young reader doesn't have the same preconceptions of what a story should be. There's so much more room for innovation and experimentation and play, so many more ways to explore the themes that preoccupy writers, so many more ways to tell a story. Philip Pullman creates a world that externalizes the soul and expands across multiverses to explore issues of free will and humanism in His Dark Materials. Kate DiCamillo deliberately employs a narrative technique that whispers something about the act of storytelling itself in The Tale of Desperaux. Rebecca Stead manipulates conventional expectations of genre to tell us to question our assumptions in When You Reach Me. Louis Sachar's omniscient narrator shows us that what seems to Stanley Yelnats to be bad luck--and what seems to the reader to be haphazardly linked episodes--are all the product of fate, a master plan, someone pulling the strings.

Usually when adult authors poo poo children's books, you can roll your eyes and pat their heads and remark at how well they do within the binding constraints of the genre of adult literary fiction. That's not Amis, really. He's an experimental writer whose books feature finely wrought caricatures set loose in a world of malaise and decay. The novels are relentlessly, aggressively brilliant, with the showy testosterone-y literary gamesmanship that marks a certain generation of postmodern writer--sort of like Jonathan Franzen meets Michael Bay. Amis has an awareness of the uses of genre, a facility for playing with language, an eye for structure and its meaning, an ability to see the elements of storytelling many people take for granted as tools to be manipulated. In fact, I dare say he has the sense of play and ability to see outside the bounds of conventional fiction that could mean he's got a future in children's books. If he can outlast the brain injury.


  1. For an excellent response to Martin Amis look up Charles London's piece from yesterday in The Huffington Post: Why I Write For Children.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Met him once at a reading. Seemed ok, but obviously he has left his imagination at the door of the corner pub.

  4. Ok, I swore in the first post and thought of how my mom would react if she saw me swear.

  5. Next up: Amis goes after those brain-damaged poets for scrapping freedom for working in harness on silly things like sestinas.

    If he'd had the imagination of a children's writer, he could have come up with a better insult than that. Brain damage -- bor-ring! Any insufferable ass could have come up with that. He'd be better off sticking with writing.

  6. That picture of Martin Amis is really starting to bug me. I have to come up with a new blog to post so that I can get his image out of my brain...

    He is the epitome of a classic children's book writer (think Roald Dahl, Edward Gorey...)

  7. I'm using both A Wrinkle in Time and When You Reach Me in my (college) Freshman Seminar class. My students are learning how delightfully rich and complex children's literature can be, and how much more is in the stories than children (and they) see on first reading.

    We are revealing the depth of craft as we see how the writers have woven their stories. [And I use JRT's "argyle sock" analogy often--giving credit of course!]

    Take that, Martin Amis.

  8. I should like it very much if somebody could Photoshop a clown wig on Amis's head in the pic that's on this post. Any takers?