BookendsChildren's literature

Weekend Bookends # 2

Farewell to Nobel giants

This week saw the death of one Nobel literary award winner and the commemoration of another. Neither attracted anything like the media coverage as the death of Sue Townshend, author of the Adrian Mole series.  I’m not decrying Townshend’s popularity or her achievements, just baffled at what kind of news judgement is being exercised among members of the Fifth Estate.

Doris LessingSt Martin-in-the-Fields church in central London was the venue for a celebration on Monday of the life and work of Doris Lessing who died in November 2013 at the age of 93.  One of the speakers, the biographer and critic Hermione Lee remarked on how Lessing had throughout her work asked “ruthless questions about the way we live now”. As a young woman she rejected the brutal, racist colonial system into which she was born becoming a vociferous and life-long campaigner against apartheid and discrimination and having embraced Communism she came to question its teachings and indeed all other other codified political systems.

The event passed almost unmarked by the mainstream media however – only the Daily Telegraph seems to have shown an interest with this personal reflection by Gaby Wood. 

Gabriel Garcia MarquezOn Thursday, the death was announced of a writer considered to be one of the greatest writers to emerge from Latin America, Gabriel García Márquez.  Few other writers did as much to change the course of a region’s literature but that’s what Márquez did with the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. It marked the beginning of a long association between the genre of magical realism and Latin American authors. Most of the leading publications have run obituaries and tributes in the last few days but one of the most interesting pieces I’ve come across was a 1981 interview with the great man in Paris Review in which he talked about the differences between his work as a journalist and as fiction writer and the many authors and books that influenced him in his younger days. He was almost knocked off his bed when he read the opening line of Kafka’s Metamorphosis he said, not realising until that point that it was permissible to write in that fashion. Check out the Paris Review article if you can.

Should celebs write children’s fiction?

Madonna’s done it. So have Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Ferguson (the former Duchess of York); Katie Price; Paul McCartney and Sting.  Some of the ventures by these celebs into the world of children’s fiction have been rather more successful than others. But what makes a singer or actress pick up a pen and begin writing (other than the very obvious reason that they want to keep their name in the public domain and they can trade on their celeb status to earn even more money). More to the point, should they? That’s a question tackled in a debate between Tom Lamont, the Observer newspaper’s commissioning editor and author Robert Muchamore. 

Muchamore is very pragmatic about the whole celeb thing:

…while a celebrity name might sway a few parents into buying a picture book, the kids who read them not only don’t know who the celebrity is, but usually don’t even understand what an author is.

Lamont’s point is along the lines that the celebs think writing a children’s book is easy, an attitude which is disrespectful to the skills of ‘real’ children’s authors and also to the child readers.  I couldn’t agree more — just because we were all children once doesn’t automatically give us the skills to write for them or to understand that what interested us as children will interest young people of today. There’s an art in finding the right  voice and language so that you neither patronise nor confuse, and an art in deciding what would or wouldn’t interest children.  Oh and then there’s the whole complicated issue of what topics are ‘appropriate’ for children.  Melvin Burgess and Jacqueline Wilson have shown that children’s fiction can tackle emotive subjects like adoption, drugs, divorce but they do so with a huge amount of sensitivity honed over many years of experience.

The one point I was surprised not to see discussed was the issue of funding. If publishers pay large advances to politicians and stage/screen stars who want to dabble in the children’s fiction field, doesn’t that mean less funding is available to support full-time writers?

If you want to join the debate, go to the Observer article

Inevitably the announcement that Donna Tartt is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer generated a lot of buzz this week – with many tweeters complaining a) the wrong persoon won b) the wrong Tartt novel one.




What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

10 thoughts on “Weekend Bookends # 2

  • The Literarium

    I rarely get sad over celebrity deaths, but Marquez’s passing truly saddens me. He was such a great talent and mind, the world is worse off without him in my opinion. I felt the same way about Lessing.

    I read her novel The Fifth Child and it’s one of my all-time favorite books. It’s due for a re-read.

    I won’t know what to do with myself when the day comes that Rushdie and Murakami pass on. Hopefully that won’t be for another thousand years. 😉

  • I celebrated Doris Lessing’s life by finally reading one of her works. I chose her short listed Booker Prize novel “The Good Terrorist”. I recently reviewed it as well. She seems to have drawn on her own experience in crafting the compelling daughter and mother characters.

  • Marquez’s death was barely covered here too and that’s awful considering his books are quite popular here. To be fair, Indian elections are going on and probably that took center-stage, but still, it was unforgivable not to have a write-up in the weekend magazine section at least.

    I found out online while reading a wonderful tribute in Time magazine.

    • I’ll have to go looking for that Time article Nish. thanks for the tip off

  • Marquez’s death did not receive any coverage in the mainstream media here in the US. It irked me that I found out more or less by accident. Whether you like his and Lessing’s writing or not, they both won a Nobel price, which makes them a little more important than the latest reality TV star, in my opinion.

    • The fact they Marquez won the Nobel surely should have garnered some attention in any newspaper that considers itself a paper of record. Surely the Washington Post or New York Times would have found it a news item worthy of comment??

      • I guess I should have been clearer. Both newspapers’ websites reported and commented on his death, but it wasn’t “front page” news. I don’t know about the print edition of either newspaper, but online, the pregnancy of some reality star was apparently deemed more important than the death of a Nobel price winner.

    • The Literarium

      I think the fact that Marquez’s death was so under-reported is a testament to the troubled times we face as a society intellectually. The fact that mainstream media cares more about reality stars’ lives and less about true art and talent is very, very irksome. It’s frightening. Thanks for mentioning it; it should be shouted from the rooftops.

  • I have only really come back to Lessing in the last couple of years or so. I read ‘The Fifth Child’ about twenty years ago and it scared me rigid so I put her aside.

    And I do so agree about celebrities writing for children. The very fact that they think it’s easy shows just little they know about it.

    • I’ve only dipped into Lessing but really want to read more by her. Well said re the celebrities Ann.


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