On discouraging the young from becoming a writer

When, on the letters page of the last issue, Mr William Stevenson of Edinburgh wrote, ‘I have long felt that what The Author needs is an Agony page,’ he was representing the views of many readers. This column now and then offers emotional, therapeutic advice to writers, as a result of which the Endpaper office is inundated with letters, emails and telephone calls, covering every kind of authorial agony. Frankly, if I were charging basic Hampstead rates for this counselling service, I could have put my laptop on permanent suspend months ago.

The problem is that, frankly, other people’s problems can be a bit of a bore. Whenever I have tried to move into Dear Marje mode, the editor has returned my first draft with tetchy notes of criticism in the margin – ‘Gimme a break’, ‘Who cares about this loser?’, or, his favourite, ‘Booooring!!!’ Off the record, he has told me that, because, by its nature, The Author is essentially one long agony column, most readers are in a pretty rough shape by the time they reach this page. My job is to cheer them up, crack a few jokes and get them back to the writing desk until the next crisis.

But Mr Stevenson’s agony is so heartfelt and personal that I have found it impossible to ignore his plea for help. He told us that his six-year-old grand-daughter has announced that, when she grew up, she wanted to write stories for a living. ‘Where have we gone wrong?’ wailed Mr Stevenson. ‘What can we do before it is too late, to steer her away from this dreadful fate? She seems otherwise quite normal.’

Of course, she does. Would-be writers are always deceptively normal, particularly in their early years. One day they will be innocently writing a story for school. Then, quite casually, they might reveal they are keeping a diary. Suddenly, before anyone can do anything about it, they are reading Dorothea Brande’s On Becoming a Novelist or Annie Dillard’s The Art of Fiction under the duvet, sending off short stories to Granta, going on Arvon courses, checking out The Writer’s Handbook for the addresses of agents – and another promising young life is well on the way to being blighted by a full-blown writing addiction.

What can be done? Fortunately Mr Stevenson has identified the problem at an early stage. It is not too late for him to take these few basic and easy steps to control or even cure his grand-daughter’s dependency.

1 Enlist the help of primary schools
The good news for concerned adults like Mr Stevenson is that a service for curbing excessive enthusiasm for reading and writing in children already exists. It is called the ‘literacy hour’ and is part of the primary school curriculum. By placing the emphasis on reading a prescribed list of books with a view to gaining something called ‘literacy skills’,
the government has been fighting back against the pernicious idea that reading can be ‘fun’. Child psychologists now recognise that, once a promiscuous, uncontrolled desire to read infects young people, the writing habit will not be far behind.

2. Remember your own reading habits when young
Sometimes, regrettably, the literacy hours regime is not enough to discourage children from regarding and writing, and that is when schools need help from parents and friends. In these instances, I advise adults to look back to their own childhood and ask themselves which books did they particularly dislike? Ant and Bee? The Water Babies? Little Dorrit? Make sure you give the would-be writer an expensive edition of your own least favourite read and earnestly discuss it whenever you can.

Beware the nostalgic idea that there was once a golden age of unreadable books. Today’s authors also have much to offer. Although children’s writing is thought to be going through a boom at present, some commendably dreary, ill-written books are still being published.

3. The role of technology
TV and computers can play their part, too. They should be banned during the seductive Neighbours to EastEnders period in favour of quiet reading in the bedroom. After a while, anything with a screen and pictures, and no written or pages, will become irresistibly attractive.

4. Make use of the educational system
If Mr Stevenson’s grand-daughter is still wilfully clinging to her literary ambitions in ten years’ time, she should be encouraged in the study of literature. Many teenagers are finally weaned off the reading habit when taking English ‘A’ level – the formulaic, question-and-answer approach to modern exams is likely to knock the stuffing out of all but greatest works of literature. A university course where the emphasis is on literary theory and deconstruction can also be invaluable in snuffing out what remains of literary enthusiasm.

5. A career for the would-be writer
If they emerge from university and while their contemporaries are finding healthy, normal jobs in the City, the law, TV or PR, they are creeping away to satisfy their harmful solitary vice at their desks, sterner measures must be taken.

Encourage them to spend some time in publishing. It may seem heartless and excessively harsh but few jobs douse the desire to tell stories more effectively. Whether they end up leafing through unsolicited manuscripts before throwing them in a jiffy bag with a brisk rejection note, or trilling platitudes in the publicity department, or listening to sales people drone on about shelf units and returns, the effect will be the same.

Of course, at the end of it all, there is the faintest danger that the famous Stevenson grand-daughter might actually decide to abandon her writing ambition and stay in publishing – at which point, Mr Stevenson, you are on your own.

Autumn 2001