Not For Children Essay, Research Paper
book reviewsNot for childrenA few months ago, the writer Philip Pullman gave a speech to some booksellers and publishers in which, inter alia, he exclaimed: ‘Down with children’s books!’ To put this in context, he added that: ‘When you say, “This book is for children”, what you are really saying is, “This book is not for grown-ups.’ ” He went on: ‘But I don’t care who’s in my audience – all I care is that there should be as many of them as possible.’ To those who are acquainted with Pullman’s work, this was a slightly puzzling rallying cry. If Mr Pullman is famous for anything (and he is), it’s for two things. First, books for children such as The Broken Bridge and The Butterfly Tattoo, and, second, genre fantasy fiction, notably the acclaimed trilogy, His Dark Materials – Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and now The Amber Spyglass, an ambitious tale inspired by Paradise Lost with a radical view of religion that may well contain the most subversive message in children’s literature in years This week, The Observer has taken Philip Pullman at his word. We have presented our evaluation of his long-awaited, latest novel at the front of this section, just as we might Kazuo Ishiguro, Tom Wolfe or Julian Barnes – ie, like any important adult writer. We are not under any illusion that this will change the way people look at children’s literature, but we do rather fervently hope that it will help to have Philip Pullman evaluated as an important contemporary novelist who happens to write in a certain genre, a significant writer to be spoken of in the same breath as, say, Beryl Bainbridge, A.S. Byatt or Salman Rushdie. As such, Pullman is simply the most distinguished and probably most talented of a bunch of writers whose work is known chiefly to children and teenagers, writers such as Darren Shan, David Almond and Peter Dickinson. In this respect, Pullman has suffered critical neglect in the same way that some very successful crime, science fiction and thriller writers have been overlooked by the bien pensant literary commentariat. Leaving aside the vexed question of modern literary snobbery for the moment, why does Philip Pullman appeal so strongly to such a disparate band of readers, including (I happen to know) quite a number of well-known writers ? Well, you can enumerate any number of qualities that separate Pullman from the herd, but at the end of the day, it’s because he grounds his fantasy in well-observed reality and is not afraid to acknowledge the importance of plot in his work. ‘When you are writing for children,’ he told the Bookseller in 1996, ‘the story is more important than you are. You can’t be self-conscious, you just have to get out of the way.’ Because it is easier to write description and dialogue than tell a good story, very many contemporary novelists write bad plots – bad plots that are full of inexplicable lacunae and wonky motivation. Pullman seems to know this. His writing has the hallmark of work that has been held up to the light and minutely inspected from every angle. Look at it where you like – it is seamless. It’s in the importance he attaches to narrative that sets Pullman apart from all those highly-praised contemporary writers who cannot plot for toffee. And, one might add, it is this that puts him squarely alongside J.K. Rowling, another popular writer for children whose appeal transcends her chosen genre. Pullman, however, is far superior to Rowling. As well as giving his readers stories that tick with the precision, accuracy and grace of an eighteenth-century clock, he also writes like an angel. He may never win the Booker Prize – more’s the pity – but he gives his readers precisely the satisfactions they look for in a novel: well-made, absorbing characters, supreme elegance of style and tone, a richly inventive imaginative landscape, and, finally, some very big ideas fearlessly explored. It’s not too much to ask, but it’s rarer than hen’s teeth. And, by the way, it will more or less guarantee the writer who provides it with a broader audience than children and teenagers.