Adèle Geras asks ‘What’s the Rush?’
Overcoming the urge to begin this article with the words: ‘why, oh why?’, I would like to try to enlist some support. Is anyone else out there irritated by the current lust for speed in children’s books?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing the matter with speed in the right place at the right time. Of course there are plenty of books which whizz pleasurably along at a fair old lick, and that’s fine. There does seem to be, though, a growing dread of the SLOW, the leisurely, the atmospheric and the very detailed which strikes me as sad. It goes along with a terror of the complex, the ornate, the problematic and the ambiguous. Incidentally, it emphasises the modern, the relevant, and the new and overlooks the historical and the foreign, but that’s another whole article! It’s almost as though some publishers are saying: ‘Children watch a lot of TV and movies; they play a lot of video games, therefore what they expect from their reading matter is exactly the same instant gratification: speed, thrills, incessant action, constant high excitement, etc.’ I call this a positive reinforcement of the famous three-minute attention span.
I have to exempt from this diatribe my own British publishers (Hamish Hamilton and Heinemann) who have never uttered the P-word in my presence. A US publisher, however, has recently turned down my Fantora books because they were ‘not Pacey enough’. I think she meant they were not wham-whizz-whoosh in the best cartoon-style, and, of course, she’s right. They amble along fairly gently, it’s true, and this is because Ozzy is a narrator who refuses to be rushed, being a sensible sort of chap and a cat to boot.
I wouldn’t want anyone to think that what I’m after is the plotless, the meandering, the BORING. A book needs a firm narrative line; believable, full-drawn characters, and lots of strong emotions and conflicts. Still, I think it’s time that those of us who are not afraid of descriptions, who revel in meals, clothes, conversations and trying to create a world so that others may inhabit it, come out and say so – LOUDLY.
‘But the children won’t read such stuff!’ I hear someone cry, and to this my answer is: try. They certainly can’t like it if it’s never presented to them at all. Try reading aloud the slow beginning of a book such as The Bear Nobody Wanted by Allan Ahlberg, or The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban. I would also say: children are often under-estimated and surprising, so try.
Fantasy buffs, Tolkien lovers, and SF fans have no trouble at all with long descriptions, detailed topography and proper nouns which tax me to the limit. Therefore I’m pretty sure that as long as the narrative thread is strong enough to hold, a writer really doesn’t have to provide a body on every page, or someone doing something overheated to someone else.
The trouble with speed is this: unless the writer is very good indeed, the book is in grave danger of THINNESS. By this I mean: language is reduced to easy words, sentences cropped to Hemingway shortness, and all problems posed simplistically. For example: which of two suitors should she choose is a strong plot element in Jane Eyre and also in countless Sweet Valley High books. The difference lies in the way each is written. Well, (you may say) Charlotte Brontë was a genius and the SVH writers are not. That’s true, but any SVH book could be improved 3000 percent if the writer had the leisure to go more deeply into character and motivation and spend more time on ‘thickening’ the physical detail of the book. Okay, we wouldn’t end up with Jane Eyre but we’d be some distance away from complete drivel.
This desire for speed doesn’t only happen in children’s books. There are many adult novels that are little more than movie outlines; skeleton stories waiting for actors to clothe them with flesh.
I’m a great believer in ‘the drunkenness of things being various’. There ought to be room on the shelves for books of every sort of pace. How would it be if composers were allowed to write only up-tempo songs with a catchy hip-hop rhythm? Music is marked with a neat word in Italian to tell you how it should be played. I don’t at all object to some books being marked ‘allegro con brio’ or even ‘prestissimo’, as long as we may still be allowed to read and write stories and novels labelled ‘andante’, ‘adagio’ and even ‘largo’, if we feel so inclined.
Details of books illustrated:
The Fantora Family Files, Adèle Geras, ill. Tony Ross, Lions, 0 00 673348 4, £3.50
The Bear Nobody Wanted, Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Puffin, 0 14 034809 3, £3.50
The Mouse and His Child, Russell Hoban, Puffin, 0 14 036455 2, £3.99
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, Puffin, 0 14 036678 4, £2.75
Sweet Valley High titles are available from Transworld.