Nicholas Tucker reflects on the changing status, and situation, of the children’s author
Cricket and children’s literature are two of Britain’s most notable gifts to the rest of the world. They also have in common a past in which those individuals most famously associated with them tended to fall into two different social groupings. In the world of cricket, the game at county or national level was traditionally played and captained by amateurs, who ostensibly did it free and for fun, and professionals, who did it for a living. Perversely, this arrangement sometimes meant that amateurs like W G Grace still managed to make vastly more money than did his poorly paid professional colleagues. But in principle, the distinction between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ lasted for over 150 years.
Children’s literature shows a similar pattern. Prominent amateurs here have been Oxford dons (Lewis Carroll, C S Lewis, J R R Tolkien), a secretary of the Bank of England (Kenneth Grahame), career civil servants (Richard Adams) and ladies of independent means (Beatrix Potter). None of them wrote principally for money, although some found the extra income very handy. Walter de la Mare, for 18 years clerk in the offices of the Anglo-American Oil Company, reputedly saw one son through boarding school largely on the royalties of his much-quoted poem ‘The Listeners’.
Freedom from commercial pressure gave these authors extra confidence in their own aproaches. Lewis Carroll drove his illustrator, Tenniel, to distraction with his constant criticisms. Beatrix Potter also insisted on interfering with the finished published article until she finally approved of it, roundly declaring to her publisher, ‘You are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared a twopenny button.’ She and other famous amateur authors also set new standards of plot and imagination by writing chiefly for themselves and a few loved ones rather than for the market. Indeed, most of them knew nothing about contemporary children’s books, being interested only in those stories heard or read long ago in their own childhood.
Now enter the professionals: those who have a good idea of the market and write to earn their living. These have been around since John Newbery first set out his stall in St Pauls Church Yard in 1744, selling popular children’s books plus the option of a ball or pincushion for an extra twopence. Sometimes these professionals wrote for children as their principal source of income, making no bones about trying to earn as much as possible. As Frances Hodgson Burnett firmly stressed in her letter to an editor accompanying an early story: ‘My object is remuneration.’ E Nesbit was also pushed financially when young, churning out couplets for Christmas cards before discovering the more lucrative world of children’s literature.
Others turned to writing for children as one good commercial option among others. Jasper Milvain, the pushy young literary entrepreneur in Gissing’s late 19th-century novel New Grub Street, is one such. ‘I’d make a speciality of Sunday-school prize-books: they sell like hot cakes,’ he enthuses. And later on, ‘It’s obvious what an immense field there is for anyone who just hit the taste of the new generation of Board school children.’ Successful literary men can still be heard giving similarly worldly advice today. Thus Roald Dahl, recorded in Kingsley Amis’s memoirs: ‘What you want to do is write a children’s book. That’s where the money is today, believe me.’ When Amis objected he had no feeling for that sort of thing, Dahl was typically forthright: ‘Never mind, the little bastards’d swallow it.’ Here he was wrong; when Amis eventualy wrote his We Are All Guilty for teenage readers, it was a flop critically and commercially.
In cricketing terms, it was once thought that only the well-born amateur had the leadership qualities and disinterested belief in the values of the game to set the right example. Technically, amateur players were also the ones who were supposed to go for their shots and set bold declarations to opposing sides, since unlike professionals financially dependent upon the game they could afford to take risks. In cricketing life, such distinctions were very confused. The amateur captain of England, D R Jardine, master-minded the bodyline bowling that shamed Britain’s sportsmanship in the 1930s. Before him, W G Grace – the most famous amateur of all – indulged in the type of gamesmanship unthinkable for any seasoned professional operating under orders.
In the world of children’s literature, there is also no easy line to be drawn between fearless, exploratory amateur authors writing for love and market-oriented professionals writing principally for money. Full-time writers like Arthur Ransome and Noel Streatfeild produced deeply felt fiction which also greatly extended the scope of pre-war children’s literature. By contrast, Enid Blyton – the first millionairess of children’s books – kept to a rigidly unimaginative writing style throughout her life and always drove a hard bargain with publishers. Despite never being dependent upon the money she earned, she worked at a pace whose speed rivalled any 19th-century penny-a-line hack writer. The desire to have a children’s story in print can be very intense: it is not only those who rely financially upon their royalties who yearn to produce a story pleasing to the market.
A few of the most successfully innovative post-war children’s writers have also been the best paid professionals. Roald Dahl’s stories and rhymes significantly pushed out the boundaries of language and good taste in children’s literature. He was able to defy disapproving critical opinion because he was so commercially successful. In America, best-sellers like Judy Blume and Robert Cormier have taken children’s books into controversial new areas, their high sales providing a shield against critical unease. American comic-book illustrators, not always particularly well paid, have also produced high-quality imaginative work. Writing directly for the market does not necessarily have to mean low standards and a craven devotion to well-worn approaches.
The distinction between amateur and professional in cricket was abolished in 1962. At around the same time, the concept of the amateur children’s author also more or less disappeared. Wives stuck at home who may once have seen writing for children as a way of earning pin-money now considered themselves professionals in their own right, eager to make money and then to hang on to it. The leisurely lifestyle that enabled former dons, civil servants and clergymen to pen the odd children’s book or detective story began to disappear. Those who still put aside what time they had left for writing novels tended now to do so in more earnest hope of publication.
Publishers too began to change. New, bigger firms sometimes with increasing cash-flow problems were less concerned with nurturing early talent in the hope one day of bigger sales. There was also more reluctance to stick by older but increasingly unfashionable children’s authors, however well they had served in the past. Names more renowned for quality than for high sales began to disappear from publishers’ lists. Sometimes their works were replaced by low quality material whose only justification was to make as much money as possible over the quickest period of time.
In cricket, the abolition of the professional-amateur distinction has made for much fairer terms of employment for players, but has not led to greater sporting achievements or to more entertaining matches. What has been the effect of similar changes in writing for children? Authors of great talent but little commercial success like William Mayne and Alan Garner are still around, but if they were starting again it is unlikely they would receive the support from publishers that they did before. Artistic progress does not only come from publishing high quality writers of limited appeal like these two, but such authors are an invaluable part of any literary conspectus and deserve to be cherished, both for what they have to say and for how they choose to say it.
But the need for bold, unfettered children’s writers is always an important one. Unofficial taboos on certain attitudes in children’s literature still remain of the type that may once have been challenged by writers more concerned with saying what they think than with staying within the confines of current attitudes. This is nothing new: in the 1930s Geoffrey Trease complained in a letter to George Orwell about the difficulties of getting across any reasonably left-wing views in children’s books. Today there are other limitations. Richard Adams, one of the last amateur best-sellers for children, had to try over 20 publishers before his rousing tale Watership Down got into print. It is in fact a somewhat sexist and backward-looking story, whose lowly rabbit characters are addressed very much as privates on parade. The fact that some of its attitudes did not fit into current publishing trends at the time almost certainly worked against its early acceptance.
Anxiety about the way some publishers now try to impose politically correct attitudes upon their writers was the subject of a special report by the PEN Committee on Censorship, which appeared a year or so ago. This document also discusses interference coming from the right wing. Christian fundamentalists in America now bring considerable pressure to bear upon publishers. Although this has not happened in Britain, there are indications of publishers becoming concerned about losing their lucrative American sales. Numbers of British writers have been asked to make various textual changes to suit the American market.
One example of where British teenage fiction is now playing extra safe is in the area of abortion. While there are numbers of teenage novels dealing compassionately with a young, unmarried mother’s decision to have a baby, there are hardly any stories where the decision to have an abortion is treated with similar understanding. There are also few novels about a young unmarried mother’s subsequent struggle to bring up a child on her own with adverse consequences for both parent and child when the going gets tough, as it often does. The sympathetic fictional treatment of abortion is of course deeply unpopular among the American right wing. But stories offering a different point of view surely need to be written in order to balance other novels giving a more optimistic picture of birth outside marriage in the life of an ordinary teenager.
Each generation has some such gaps in its literature whether for children or adults. But fewer publishers, attempts by government to influence the choice of literature within the National Curriculum and a greater need for writers to get a good financial return could eventually lead to children’s literature that always stays within broadly predictable channels. Amateur writers, occasionally in league with semi-amateur publishers, have always had the most potential for striking out against current attitudes of their own day. The economic conditions that once made their survival possible have now changed. So it’s extra important that – especially during a long recession – there should still always be room somewhere for high quality but also high-risk children’s literature, however much it may challenge the present status quo.
Nicholas Tucker is Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at the University of Sussex. He’s written several books for children as well as books about children’s literature including The Child and the Book: A Psychological and Literary Exploration (Cambridge, 0 521 39835 5, £6.95).