The master has done it again. No one – not even Stephen Fry – has perfected the art of snagging public attention with a deftly timed provocative remark quite like Martin Amis.
The subject might be women, or euthanasia, or terrorism, or England, or sex, or Muslims, or age, or himself, but the effect is always the same. A flotilla of opinionators and media moralists sets sail, transmitting the only message that really matters – “Martin… Martin… Martin….”
But let’s pretend that his latest foray into the newspapers is more than self-promotion by controversy. For the hell of it, let’s assume his eyes weren’t fixed on the PRometer when he said these words to Sebastian Faulks on the BBC programme Faulks on Fiction:
“People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children’s book. I say, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book’, but otherwise the idea of being conscious of who you’re directing the story to is anathema to me, because, in my view, fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable. I would never write about someone that forced me to write at a lower register than what I can write.”
Amis has written two or three of the funniest and most cleverly written novels of the late twentieth century, and so perhaps we should take this point seriously. Is he right in saying that those writing for children are setting the bar intentionally low, that they are fearfully limiting their own fiction? Does the very fact of writing for readers of a certain age curtail the glorious freedom of the novelist?
I suspect that many distinguished writers may have thought along those lines. It is why so many of them have been tempted to have a go at children’s fiction themselves. Short words, short sentences, lost of story: how difficult could that be?
One after another, they have discovered that it is quite a lot trickier than they thought. The number of well-known writers who have written one, or at most two, stories for children before giving up is a long one, and includes James Joyce, James Baldwin, John Updike, Patricia Highsmith, Garrison Keillor, Ian McEwan and Amis’s father Kingsley.
It is just possible, I suppose, that each of these writers were less respectful of their talents than Martin Amis, more cavalier with their writerly freedom, but it seems likely that at first they saw writing for young imaginations not as a limitation but a challenge. When they tried it, though, they discovered that the idea that writing for children is easier than writing for adults is a cruel illusion. It is really rather difficult. So they went back to writing for grown-ups.
Perhaps that is what lies behind this rather odd and chippy remark. Amis has not written children’s fiction simply because he senses it will be beyond him.
And he may be right. The talents that keep his fiction afloat (when they do) are a flashy, look-at-me prose style, preening sentences that disappear up themselves in an ecstasy of self-excitement, a cheerful contempt for plot, a chilly, sardonic wit. These things tend to bore the young reader. In other words, it seems likely Amis would not have to lower his register, but raise it.
I think he should have a go. On the evidence of the genuinely reader-proof Yellow Dog (have you ever honestly met someone who managed to finish it?), that treasured freedom of his is doing him no favours. A few restraints might do marvels.
Here is what Ted Hughes, another writer had no problems in lowering his register, said about writing for children:
“Children’s writing must be very simple and immediate…You’re just playing. I suppose with a lot of adult writing that sense of play goes out and serious responsibilities arrive. Play: maybe that’s what all literature is, or should be.”
Amis has often said that you have to feel playful to write fiction. Now is his chance. But has he got the nerve?