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Martin Amis (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)
Martin Amis (Randy Quan/The Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: On Culture

Kid-lit authors, get over yourselves - Amis has a point Add to ...

I just wrote the text for an illustrated children's book and it was hard - hard to keep the story simple yet dramatic, hard to do it in so few words. It was made harder by the fact that I don't love and immerse myself in children's books the way the best children's writers probably do.

In other words, I am still at the stage of writing as an exercise - as a conscious appeal to a particular audience, as an exemplar of a genre - rather than out of unthinking passion.

Previous columns by Russell Smith

And I think this is close to what novelist Martin Amis was trying to say in his inflammatory remarks on a TV book show last week. He set off an electrical storm of angry kid-lit writers when talking about the possibility of writing a children's book.

He said, "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 … ." Later, he said, "I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write."

The children's authors of Britain only read, as if bolded in red, a few key phrases from these sentences. They saw "brain injury" and "lower register," and they took offence. All they heard was condescension. Their excoriation of Amis has now filled hundreds of virtual pages. This occludes the more serious issues Amis was raising - and the very good advice he has about not writing for an audience.

In all their caustic British fury the children's writers missed the fact that Amis was talking only about himself, about his own interests and limitations. Key to his avoidance of this genre is the phrase "conscious of who you're directing the story to."

Amis is saying that writing to a specific audience is a constraint on his art. This answers a question often posed in creative-writing classes and by novice literary interviewers: For whom does one write? A lot of people believe that a creator must, before starting any project, define its "intended audience," presumably including its education and tastes. This insidiously generates cynicism. I don't think it ever works well.

In fact, the best genre writers have gone on record saying that they never humour an imagined audience or even consciously choose a genre - they are actually writing the highest form of literature they can. (Stephen King has said something like this, as has the children's writer R.L. Stine.)

The best advice to writers is never to wonder for a second for whom one writes, to write only the book that one wants to read. This doesn't mean "writing for myself" - that phrase connotes writing as some kind of catharsis or therapy, writing that is meant to stay in a drawer. Instead, write for a reader who has your tastes and will understand every joke and note with appreciation every subtlety. (You might call this the optimal or maximal reader.)

A lot of Amis's detractors actually confirmed what he was saying: They hurried to proclaim that children's literature was so difficult that they were in fact all writing at the top of their abilities. Which is all, I think, he was suggesting.

It's interesting - anyone in this business knows that kid-lit authors are a particularly sensitive bunch. They are always complaining that they don't get enough attention or respect (or funding). To put it bluntly, they have a chip on their shoulder.

And so no one says out loud that children's books do tend to be quite a bit shorter and not quite as linguistically or philosophically complex as, say, Nabokov. (The kids' book I'm writing is indeed quite difficult to get right, but it is also 537 words long, as opposed to 100,000 for a novel, and so has taken rather less time.)

And after this kerfuffle, we're all going to have to tread extra carefully around these offended and indignant sensibilities, and honestly that's a bit of a bore. I think a lot of this was an excuse to vent the limitless supply of hatred for the guy who spent so much money on his teeth.

 

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