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Due to time pressures, I am unable to commit to reviewing books at the moment. However, please feel free to recommend or discuss by tweeting @MsTick68 or commenting on here. Thank you!

Wednesday 23 February 2011

What is Martin Amis reading?

On the recent Faulks on Fiction BBC TV programme, Sebastian Faulks contended that since the First World War, literary fiction has turned its back on the traditional hero, leaving him or her to "genre" fiction and children's fiction. In an odd exchange, Martin Amis, interviewed on his anti-hero John Self, announced that when asked whether he would write a children's novel, he answers: "... '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".

Understandably a number of children's novelists and academics were annoyed about these comments. As well as those quoted in the Guardian piece linked above, academic and children's novelist Charles Butler wrote in his blog that if he cannot envisage writing for an audience of children, presumably he is denying consciously writing for adults- and specifically an audience who enjoy reading about the marital and sexual foibles of middle aged men.

In a slightly cynical Twitter conversation with the good folks of SA4QE (fellow Russell Hoban fans), we wondered firstly how well Amis's latest tome had sold, and secondly whether the enthusiastic feuder (Julian Barnes, Anna Ford, Terry Eagleton) had recently fallen out with other lit-fic stalwarts Jeanette Winterson and Salman Rushdie, who have both produced critically acclaimed children's novels without any suggestion of pandering to lesser intellects.

I was fascinated to read recently about Canadian novelist Yann Martell's What Is Stephen Harper Reading? project, where he sent 100 books to the Prime Minister, one a fortnight, after being unimpressed by Harper's reception of Canadian artists at an event to mark 50 years of the Canadian Council for the Arts, and I started to wonder which of my favourite children/ Young Adults books I would send to Amis, to convince him that simple writing need not be simplistic; that writers for children habitually do so because of the freedom of imagination that such writing affords. And I came up with the following list:

1. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I have already written about this book here, so I hope that it is obvious why I would choose this. Hoban is a widely acclaimed (although under-read) novelist who rates his children's fiction as no less important than his novels for adults, and his next novel will be a Young Adult novel, Soonchild.

2. Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve, the first in the Mortal Engines series, is a dystopian fantasy about the world far in the future, after a devastating war. Natural resources are at a premium, and cities have become scavengers. They are traction cities, swallowing smaller cities and taking their resources. The protagonists, Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw, are thrown together to survive. I admire this series, because there is a perception (even in this BBC Open Book programme) that children's books should have a happy ending. Hester must make a decision to ensure her's and Tom's survival. However, the consequences of this decision are far reaching, and the effects of it are terrible.

3. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This is an example what I believe great children's books do so well- they convey a profound message in a simple way. In this novel, the message is about the importance of love in the development of children. Mary and Colin have been emotionally deprived, and this has had a dreadful effect on them; Mary is close to being completely emotionally stunted due to the neglectful behaviour of her parents. Colin is a hysterical hypochondriac, convinced that his father's inability to connect with him is because he (Colin) is about to die. The garden is both an embodiment of the children's emotional growth, and of the importance of children to connect with other children, to see the success of their own labours and follow their interests without undue interference from adults.

4. Skellig by David Almond. Again, I have written about it before. It is a rich, layered novel, written in simple, clear prose, drawing on a range of literary sources to tell a truly beautiful story.

5. Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer- a sort of ghost story, or a time switch novel about which I intend to write more fully in the future. It can be seen as the disintegration and re-integration of a personality, but it is much more than that. It rejects simple classifications. I would try to send Amis the pre-1980s edition, as the ending is far better! Edit: since posting this last night I've been hearing Charlotte Sometimes by The Cure in my head!

6. Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver, another that I have already written about. I would hope that Amis would be impressed by Paver's creation of an imaginary world; something that children's writers do so well. In my opinion, outside genre fiction many adult writers do this less than successfully; perhaps why many of them write about marital difficulties in North London or New York?

7. The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff, part of the Eagle of the Ninth series. This is a perennial favourite, from the 1950s/ 1960s era of children's fiction from which I could have chosen any number of fantastic authors- Phillipa Pearce, Alan Garner, Henry Treece, as well as Penelope Farmer above. This novel examines the invasion of Britannia by the Saxons, and the conflicts between duty, family loyalty and the bitterness, estrangement and a desire for revenge that Aquila, the protagonist of the novels, experiences when the two areas collide. Like Wolf Brother, Amis might be impressed by the recreation of a world, but the recognisable conflicts that Aquila experiences.

8. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman. I very nearly chose The Ruby in the Dust from Pullman's earlier quartet about Sally Lockhart, an unconventional nineteenth century orphaned 16 year old, who may be lacking in knowledge or art, music, languages and history, but is an excellent shot with a gun, expert military tactician and highly successful stockbroker, who gets involved with City corruption and the Opium trade, but instead I thought that there can be no other example of the incredible creativity, depth and breadth of vision and the richness of a masterpiece of children's fiction. The story of Lyra and her daemon (the physical embodiment of her soul) and their adventure to the North to rescue the children stolen by the General Oblation Board on behalf of the Magisterium, the theocratic government system of Lyra's world. Drawing on Milton, Blake and often seen as a rebuttal to CS Lewis' Narnia series, I can't believe that anyone could read this book and believe that good children's literature is lacking in serious intent.

9. Maus by Art Spiegelmann is arguably one of the greatest graphic novels ever written. It is the story of Spiegelmann's father's survival of the Holocaust, with the Jews portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats (the Katzies). Vladek's survival is interwoven with his son coming to terms with his family's tragic story, and his family's survivor's guilt. It shows unflinchingly that suffering extreme trauma does not make us a better, more likeable person; in fact the direct opposite.

10. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. It has won the Hugo, Newbery and Carnegie awards. The story of Bod, the boy who survives the murder of his family and is brought up in a graveyard by the dead who live there. It is inspired by Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Books, and to some extent is Gaiman's re-writing of them. Again, I hope to write on this novel at a later date. The book is illustrated by Dave McKean, the illustrator of Wolves in the Wall, which I wrote about here along with Coraline), and the illustrations are as worthwhile as the prose. Ultimately, it is a story about finding love, security and acceptance in a world where there are many dangers, but also the sad truth that to grow up, we must leave behind some of the security of childhood, however odd it must be.

I hope that on reading these books, Amis would have a little more respect for the power and creativity of good quality children's literature. Perhaps he and Jonathan Myerson could share the books?


  1. I read a Julian Barnes novel once - it was awful!

    I love The Secret Garden. I went to a really interesting paper a couple of years ago about rickets in children in the nineteenth century (it was a forensic arcaheology paper). I didn't know anything about rickets before, but when I discovered that the condition is caused by lack of Vitamin D, i.e. sunlight, and can cause sever disability especially to the legs, I suddenly realised that Heidi and The Secret Garden weren't borderline fantasy as I'd always thought - if Colin and Clara were kept indoors all the time, they would develop rickets and become wheelchair-bound, and if they were then taken out into the sunlight on a regular basis, their bodies would heal and they'd be able to walk again! I was absurdly pleased with this theory!

    I'm not sure what books I'd send to these idiots - perhaps something by E. Nesbit.

  2. Thar absolutely makes sense, especially when you think that even in the heat of summer, C19th chidren wore hats, long sleeves and stockings, meaning that vitamin D had no chance even with the healthy children.

    I love the first chapter of Heidi, when she takes off a layer of clothes every few yards up the mountain, arriving at her grandfathers' hut in her petticoat! A lovely image of the freedom she has there, as opposed to the restrictions of the city.

    Ooh, E Nesbit- yes, maybe The Enchanted Castle?

  3. I love that book! It's my favourite. The Railway Children is always a classic as well, of course, and Five Children and It.

  4. I like The Railway Children, and The Treasureseekers, but I prefered the accidental magic ones. The Phoenix and the Carpet!

  5. Fantastic post. Martin Amis' comment really bothered me too. You've summed it all up well and what beautiful books you've used to do that! The Secret Garden, Charlotte Sometimes & Skellig are three of my favourite childhood stories.

  6. Thank you so much, YA! I really want to re-read Charlotte Sometimes, but can't find my 1970s copy- it was revised in 1980s I think with what I consider an inferior ending. I have Marianne Dreams on my mind at the moment- have you read it?