Friday, May 20, 2011

Self-Conscious of the Audience: Talking down to Children

Free-form Friday

The folks at The Appendix podcast recently (episode 12), discussed writing down to kids. They took up the topic, as have many others, after reading what Martin Amis said in a February article in the Guardian:
"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."
I couldn't help smiling at what Amis said because I've long been convinced that Madeleine L'Engle came much closer to the truth when she said:
"You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children."
But there's something deeper here than an I'm-right-you're-wrong tempest in a teapot. Amis said, "the idea of being conscious of who you're directing the story to is anathema to me." In children's literature, the worst kind of talking down to children comes from authors who are conscious--or, more to the point, self-conscious--of their audience.

So does that mean Amis is right? That you should be unconscious of your audience?

No, quite the opposite.

You need to know your audience so well that addressing them in appropriate and evocative ways is simply second nature. One of the hallmarks of a master is that they make what they do look easy--as if they didn't give it a second thought.

Amis can say, "fiction is freedom and any restraints on that are intolerable," because in the first case he knows his present audience so well that he is effectively unconscious of them, and, in the second case, coming to know another, younger audience would, for him, be a process full of self-conscious restraints.

Children's authors feel none of the restraints that worry Amis because they don't talk to their audience, they talk with them. And the very best are, themselves, still very much a part of their audience.

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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