I’m a little late to this, but it seems that Martin Amis, the bad boy of British letters, has upset some children’s writers with the following remarks:

“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. I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”

I don’t plan to go into high dudgeon about Mr. Amis’s comments. The man’s just trying to make a living like the rest of us, and the occupation of enfant terrible can’t be an easy one for a 61-year-old.

I agree with Amis that being forced to write at a lower register than what one can write is no fun. I know from experience. I have found myself in situations–either in work-for-hire writing or copywriting–in which I was called upon to dumb down my writing. I assume that’s what Amis means by “writing at a lower register.”

I have never, however, felt the need to write at a lower register when writing for children. I don’t, for instance, sit at my desk and try to think what might be funny to an eleven-year-old so I can write that into a story. I write what’s funny to me. Or poignant. Or true. I wouldn’t expect any eleven year old to enjoy a book that I couldn’t enjoy myself. Or, rather, I wouldn’t trouble myself to write a book for an eleven-year-old that I couldn’t enjoy myself.

On the other hand, there are stories that I as an adult enjoy and/or benefit from that a child wouldn’t enjoy or benefit from. One of these days I may write novels that fall into that category. But I don’t think one has to have suffered a brain injury in order to limit oneself in any given book to that rather large portion of the Venn diagram in which “Adult Stories” and “Children’s Stories” overlap.

“Fiction is freedom,” Amis says. I agree with that. But I don’t believe that freedom is the only good or the highest good of writing. If it’s true, as Amis says, that he won’t tolerate anything short of total freedom in his writing, then he’s right to believe that “being conscious of who you’re directing the story to” is anathema. In writing, as in any other area of life, we limit our freedom when we give a thought to other people.

Let us forget for a moment about brain injury and children’s literature. Let us forgive Amis for his use of hyperbole. I appreciate the honesty and energy with which he speaks his world-view. My real issue with Amis’s remarks is the fact that they seem to grow out of a conviction that writing is and ought to be an act of unadulterated self-indulgence. A certain amount of self-indulgence is, as far as I can tell, a necessary part of the artistic temperament. But if that self-indulgence not overmatched by a love for one’s audience, one’s work is forever in danger of collapsing on itself rather than reaching out into the wider world.

  • Jess
    5:55 PM, 22 February 2011

    That’s weird. I always thought that writing was a selfless pursuit, since you’re losing yourself in order to give everything you have into the story for an often critical audience. I guess I have to scratch that off of my spiritual resume. Darn. 😉
    But, in all seriousness… personally I think the kids get the cream off the top with their “children’s literature” when it comes to writing. Imagine if the Narnia books had been written as “adult books”. And Narnia is just an example–think of ANY good “children’s book” and try to think what if it were written for adults. Now, I don’t mind a good deep-thinking adult book every now and again, but to tell the truth, I find the deeper meanings easier to grasp and celebrate when they are part of the simplicity of a “children’s book”, thrown in amongst roaringly fun feechies.

  • Dan Kulp
    9:05 PM, 22 February 2011

    Ah poor Martin Amis,his mother did not kiss.
    “Fiction is freedom”
    but not to write to some.

  • Hannah
    11:17 PM, 22 February 2011

    You know, I’ve tried reading “adult fiction,” and even “teen fiction” and not much compares to kids books. I figure that if the books got a special label like that, it should be something special, but too many times, guess what, it’s not. Of course, as a thirteen year old, I’m not perhaps the best judge, but when I was younger, I looked at those “you can read this when you’re older” books with awe, wishing I was old enough to read them, and when I did come of age, I was disappointed with them.And I agree with Jess, the meanings are easier to grasp (and perhaps more beautiful in the process?) in the simplicity of a kids book.
    BUT I have read some “adult books” that I have enjoyed thoroughly as well, don’t get me wrong.
    Interesting thoughts have been provoked. 🙂

  • Canaan Bound
    12:25 AM, 23 February 2011

    Never heard of this Martin Amis before…but I sure wish he’d smile. He looks like a Grouch.

  • Patrick
    2:11 AM, 23 February 2011

    So, fortunately for the children of the world this particular author is too self-absorbed in his Narcissistic Personality Disorder to send his worldview of self-indulgence their direction. And, fortunately for Mr. Amis there are people in the world who support his writing career by reading his work, even though he is indifferent to their existence. With all this good fortune you think he’s at-least LOOK happy about it.

  • Jonathan Rogers
    2:51 AM, 23 February 2011

    It’s always clerihews with you, isn’t it, Dan? Well, you’ve inspired me. Here’s mine:
    Amis, Martin,
    Played a part in
    Edifying millions–
    None of them chilluns.

  • Canaan Bound
    3:06 AM, 23 February 2011

    Haha, great clerihews!

  • Dryad
    6:10 PM, 23 February 2011

    I personally spend more time in the ‘juvenile fiction’ section of the library–at least I did, until I discovered that the Sci-Fi/Fantasy (their terminology, not mine) section was basically the same books, except TEN TIMES LONGER! Excluding those weird ones by people with names like Asimov, Clarke, and Bradbury…

  • EmmaJ
    1:55 AM, 28 February 2011

    Jonathan, I very much agree with your comments on a) the quality of writing necessary in works intended for children and b) the matter of freedom being voluntarily curtailed for better purposes than self-indulgence.
    As a person with a special admiration for good kid lit, I have oft had occasion to note that there are people who seem to think that all that is necessary in a book for kids is silliness, but that is so untrue. There are plenty of lousy children’s books out there (some of them penned by celebrities), but the best kids’ books are, as you say, stories that can be appreciated by people of any age.

    I would even go so far as to say that writing for kids requires an extra measure of creativity. Not only does the story need to be clever, that cleverness needs to be conveyed with a word palate spare enough to be accessible to new readers. Good telling of a good story with vocab that isn’t totally out of reach (though a bit of reaching is healthy) to young readers seems like a pretty good challenge to me (Arnold Lobel deserves props here – he’s a master of the craft). I should think such a task would be difficult for someone recovering from a head injury.

    I would suggest Lobel’s “Owl at Home” and “Grasshopper on the Road” as an antidote to whatever ails Mr. Amis enough to make the face in this photo. After a few days, measured doses of Daniel Pinkwater and Jack Prelutsky may be administered, along with shots of Roald Dahl, but only if he’s feeling up to it. One must be careful not to rush these things.

  • Kelly M.
    7:15 PM, 28 February 2011

    “I never wrote down to anyone; and whether the opinion condemns or acquits my own work, it is certainly my opinion that a book only worth reading in childhood is not worth reading even then.” – C.S. Lewis (http://bit.ly/hcPOnT)

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