Thursday 19 May 2016

Should There be a Qualitative Distinction between Adult and Children’s Literature?

My piece last week on the tributes to Alan Garner reminded me of the age -old dispute of whether so called young adult and children’s literature can realistically be viewed as mainstream literature. I am reminded on Alan Garner’s Red Shift which – with some discussion - was placed on both adult and children’s lists in libraries.

It’s an old discussion which has never really been resolved.

Of course, well written, perfectly crafted stories touching fundamental issues with poetic simplicity, published in the young-adult/children’s literature field,certainly should count as mainstream literature. Writers like Alan Garner, David Almond, Susan Cooper and Lucy Boston come to mind. Perhaps it’s the elements of magic so clearly intuited by  children and some special adults are a link between these writers.

This discussion means a lot to me. Written simply as novels, my first four books were placed by the publishers into the Young-Adult and Children’s Novel category. These novels were read and enjoyed by adults as well as children. In writing them I never saw then as any different from my later adult novels. I researched and told the story as it blossomed in my mind. I didn’t write them for ‘young adults’ or ‘children from eight to twelve years.’  For me they were just stories I was compelled to write. 

I was reminded of this on Monday when I was sorting out the shelf of my
own books. I came across a novel of mine called French Leave, on the flap of which was the review of the earlier novel The Real Life of Studs McGuire. It was from Growing Point, then a prime review source for children’s books. It said  The Real Life of Studs McGuire states the urban dilemma fair and square in an up-to-date setting and through strongly contemporary characters...the action is swift and exciting enough to carry the message to th0se who read it,...
I like that, It reminded me of the joy of writing about Studs. This one was categorised as ‘Young Adult’... 

Next I came across a novel of mine called Cruelty Games which was
On Kindle and Paperback here 
published as an adult novel. These are very different novels but both of them centre on the inner and outer lives of boys of sixteen and their impact on the lives around them. Interestingly my present novel-in-progress The Blue Pool, centres around Dee, an eccentric girl of thirteen and her impact on the people around her. It will be categorised as an adult novel,

Both Studs and Cruelty Games were  published by mainstream publishers and have been more recently republished by me.  I thought perhaps adults, young  and old,  might enjoy reading them and deciding whether they should be placed in and adult or young adult category.  

Or any category at all?

Monday 9 May 2016

Alan Garner, Elidor, and Me

 Garner lives and works close to the Edge and is neither metropolitan nor provincial, He’s closer to being parochial, in Patrick Cavanaugh’s sense, never being ‘in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish'. But he’s more than that. He goes under the parish to fetch out stones, he cleans them, he inspects them, he turns them into steeples and into walls, he lifts them up to the stars above. He turns stones to words. He is the first in his line to use words not things... David Almond.

The postman – late today – hands over the package. It is beautifully packed, so I open it carefully to find a book that I’d forgotten I’d ordered. It’s a finely produced book – good paper, good bindings. I smell it, as I always do with new books: a seductive smell for a lifelong reader,

I had forgotten it, because it’s months since I made my contribution to this important book – a crowd-funded publication by Unbound of London. My own name is there in the back, with hundreds of other individuals who contributed to the publishing process.

First Light, meticulously edited by Erica Wagner, comprises a series of
celebratory essays and tributes to Alan Garner - that leading shamanistic literary writer of his generation - that magus of the stones and the earth -who can take us back with ease to into the magical ages of bronze and iron and the Celtic sunrise.

Children are at the centre of Alan Garner’s novels which speak clearly to children who read. But he does not speak just to children. He speaks to all of us in the language of storytelling which links the reality of today with the the myths and magic embedded our human identity that we have inherited from with our Iron Age, Bronze Age and Celtic ancestors.

One important element in all Garner’s writing is that – unlike many so-called; fantasy writers today – it derives nothing from the more esoteric escapist fiction of CS Lewis or Tolkien. Looked at properly, Alan Garner – like David Almond, quoted above -  is much better labelled a reality writer than a fantasy writer.,

This volume,First Light, features tributes from a wide range of writers: from
Margaret Atwood to Neil Gaimon, from Helen Dunmore to Philip Pullman, from Rowan Williams to David Almond  

David Almond’s contribution is my favourite. As a writer he is closest to Alan Garner in having the magical skill of using child characters to give us access to the everyday magic all around us.  Children today can do this, still wrapped as they are, in the birth-caul of innocence. We can do it too, using the child inside us as a conduit for wonderful insights.

These days an increasingly rigid desire to catologue literature has led the public imagination to categorise the work of supreme writers such as Garner and Almond as ‘Children’s Literature’. Both of them are garlanded with prizes and awards acknowledging their success specifically in this field. But they are much more universally significant writers than that,

This collection of essays – in which every contributor has her or his own personal story of the impact of Alan Garner on their lives and their writing - convinces me even more that it’s time we stop  marginalising writers inspired by and accessible to children and honour them in the mainstream of literature.

Every reader will have their favourite in this collection. As I have said my favourite is David Almond’s .And I was touched by the very different contributions from two of Alan’s children the novelist Elizabeth and the scientist Joseph.

Philip Pullman, in a fine appreciation, embraces the difficult task of analysing the depth and complexity of Garner’s craft: ‘There’s an area of human activity where wiliness and cunning share a border with magic and the ability to call spirits from the vasty deep, and to call a storyteller crafty is not to disparage his craft but to acknowledge the borderland between conscious skill and inspiration from somewhere unreachable by logic and reason.’ He goes on: ‘There’s much I’ve stolen from Garner but this interest in craft, and the craft of story-telling has been the most rewarding.’

As T S Eliot once said, ‘All good writers steal. The trick is to steal from the best…’

For me, as a writer, the most inspiring words come Alan Garner himself. At the bottom level, my stories have to work as entertainment, keep a reader turning the page to find out what happens next. At the top level, they have to work for me, say what I want to express. In fact, I must write poetry, making words work on more than one level, subjecting myself to the poetic disciplines - pace, compression, simplicity.

Most of all I hope First Light will send shoals of readers back to reading the excellent novels of Alan Garner.

My favourites are  the fabulous Elidor 

and The Stone Book QuartetWhat’s yours?

Personal note: My novel The Pathfinder also draws on Iron Age and Bronze Age and Celtic identity colliding with the Roman occupation of Britain, See in side panel,      wx

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Identity, Reading in Prison, and the Novels of Charlotte Mendelson

I first encountered the work of Charlotte Mendelson in a woman’s prison. 

I was reminded of this when I came across an announcement about 
the setting up of a partnership between. The Booker Prize Foundation and Prison Reading Groups to support books and reading in prisons. 

I’ve written here and  here before about my adventures involving reading and writing in prison, reflecting on my views that reading good literature can change lives in an out of prison,

In prison a group of us read, discussed and reviewed the novels on the 2008 Orange Prize short list. (It’s now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction). Charlotte Mendelson’s novel When We Were Bad was on the shortlist. Of course the very title caused ripple of ironic laughter among the women the group.

We voted this novel the winner and were disappointed when the judges’ insight was not as good as ours. The women loved this novel; they really ‘got’ this deeply felt, beautifully written story growing out of the complexity of North London life. This specifically located novel really struck a chord with these women, from all kinds of background and areas of the country,

Wherever they are now (most will be ‘on the out’) I hope they get hold of Mandelson’s 2013 Booker long-listed novel Almost English. This excellent novel didn’t win that prize either. What are these judges up to? I wonder.

Almost English is a literary and psychological tour de force focusing on the politics and privileges embedded in close family life, especially in the lives of the women in a certain family with sixteen year of Marina and her mother Laura at the centre.

As the title suggests the story focuses on the nature of individual identity in a changing world. Marina’s family has roots in Hungary. Or is it Czechoslovakia? Or is it the Ukraine? In Marina's family this complex identity is embodied in Marina’s grandmother and two great aunts who speak Hungarian with each other and their own quaint version of English (Hunglish?) in the wider family. Very kindly Mendelson provides us with a glossary of Hungarian words and also a list of English as she is spoken by Hungarians. This lingua franca allows us to access with more insight the self-confidence of such a family stubbornly refusing to give up their way of speaking, their way of thinking. The writer also provides us with sources on Hungarian cuisine and history. (Food is important in this novel).

This information does not distract us from the narrative, rather it involves us more, deepening and strengthening our understanding of lives lived - even to the present generation - on the rich margins of so-called British culture. Our cities are enriched by generations of man ‘almost English’. I am ‘almost English’ myself, my family having been extracted from Wales two generations ago.

This book is a great read:

Marina, the sixteen year old at the centre of this story, is clearly English. Her mother is English. And her grandmother and great aunts are clearly and proudly not English and still an intrinsic part of the cosmopolitan nexus that is London, that most English of cities. This writer expresses the comedy and the subtly hidden tragedies of this cultural paradox.

Coming from the complex institution of this Almost English family Marina finds herself in the ultra-English institution of the English Public School with its own arcane rituals, meanings and dark areas. What happens when Marina and her mother Laura deal with this paradox is at the core of this novel.

My comments here might make this novel somewhat earnest. Nothing is further from the truth. This writer’s accessible style, her great prose, her fluid storytelling, her intricate humour and the meticulous attention to colourful detail makes this a great novel.

Those women in prison would have relished this novel, with their experience of negotiating lives as outsiders, inside and outside prison.

It makes me think that Almost English should have won the Booker prize just as When We Were Bad should have won the Orange Prize.

Ah, well.  Almost there. Perhaps the next novel?

After-note:  I wrote a novel called Paulie’s Web. inspired by my prison experiences.  It might appeal. 


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