martin amis 13-02-2011

martin amis on the bbc other day: if i had a serious brain injury i might well write a children's book... i would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register that what i can write.

wind in the willows: one, time's arrow: nil.

though i'm never sure whether he actually means these things or suffers from a form of intellectual tourette's.

the weasly word is register, self-aggrandising whilst being vague about his own superior skills. register meaning more intelligent? register meaning more sophisticated?

because there there's an interesting debate here which has been sidelined by the entirely justifiable fight to raise the status of writing for children. yes, writing for children is as difficult and as valuable and as worthy of praise as writing for adults. but it is nevertheless different. with exceptions (mostly when it comes to writing for teenagers) it's shorter and simpler and tends to avoid certain subjects, not just sex and death but more often the tedious pre-occupations of grown-ups. there is sometimes heroin-addiction and sexual abuse in children's books. but there are seldom mortgages and office politics.

there's something else, too, something which fascinates me, something i have never been quite able to put my finger on and which i find myself calling charm, meaning both the warmth given off by certain people (or books or illustrations) and the elusive faerie quality of a spell. because it seems to me that the younger the readers of a book, the more its success depends on this charm. it's easy enough for most readers to say why they like, or dislike, Tolstoy or Evelyn Waugh, to explain how their novels work, and which aspects of them work well and less well. but you can't do the same thing for where the wild things are or winnie-the-pooh, or if you do it's mere post-rationalisation of a gut reaction. and the quality is most noticeable in books which, by any other standard measure, should be dreadful. reverend audley's thomas the tank engine series, for example.

i teach creative writing every now and then. i feel reasonably confident that i can steer most students towards writing better for an adult audience. but if a student is writing for children and their work doesn't contain that charm (whether sweet, or quirky, or surreal, or transgressive) i find myself completely at a loss. at some level, i think it is a quality that writers simply have or don't have.