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Between children’s and adult literary fiction

January 5, 2013

I rather like Philip Pullman’s Carnegie Medal Acceptance Speech (Ref: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/pullman/author/carnegie.php). I’m not reproducing all of it here, just certain of his jabs:

There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.

The reason for that is that in adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness. Adult writers who deal in straightforward stories find themselves sidelined into a genre such as crime or science fiction, where no one expects literary craftsmanship.

But stories are vital. Stories never fail us because, as Isaac Bashevis Singer says, “events never grow stale.” There’s more wisdom in a story than in volumes of philosophy. …

…what characterizes the best of children’s authors is that they’re not embarrassed to tell stories. They know how important stories are, and they know, too, that if you start telling a story you’ve got to carry on till you get to the end. And you can’t provide two ends, either, and invite the reader to choose between them. Or as in a highly praised recent adult novel I’m about to stop reading, three different beginnings. In a book for children you can’t put the plot on hold while you cut artistic capers for the amusement of your sophisticated readers, because, thank God, your readers are not sophisticated. They’ve got more important things in mind than your dazzling skill with wordplay. They want to know what happens next.

Now I don’t mean children are supernaturally wise little angels gifted with the power of seeing the truth that the dull eyes of adults miss. They’re not. They’re ignorant little savages, most of them. But they know what they need, and they go for it with the intensity of passion, and what they need is stories. Why do they spend so much time watching TV? They’re not watching documentaries about Eastern Europe or programs about politics. They’re watching drama, film, story. They can’t get enough of it. There’s a hunger for stories in all of us, adults too. We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it; cultured adults, on the other hand, those limp and jaded creatures who think it more important to seem sophisticated than to admit to simplicity, find it harder both to write and to read novels that don’t come with a prophylactic garnish of irony. ….We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.

 

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