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Can you spot the difference?

I’m a big fan of Will Self.

I love his novels and short stories.

I enjoy his TV appearances.*

I follow his contributions to my beloved BBC Radio 4; particularly his slots on A Point of View.
On Sunday mornings on the way to work I pray the train reaches Waterloo by ten to nine so I can get a steady signal to listen.

But something has upset me. It regards the Point of View he delivered on the 20th of April this year called “Challenging Intellect”.

In this piece he argues in support of “difficult art”. He remembers how, in times gone by, authors could find acceptance for difficult subject matter if that subject matter was clothed in impressively high-brow language. Nabokov’s Lolita is a fine example.

Nowadays, when there seem to be almost no taboo subjects left, it seems as if the dynamic may have been at least in part operating in the reverse. Perhaps audiences allowed the difficult language if it was served with the sauce of the taboo subjects. It has become difficult to find acceptance for difficult language or artistic experimentation.

He argues very convincingly that we expect our athletes to be better than the average person in their chosen field. We do not want to be as good at sprinting as Usian Bolt. Why should we not welcome the idea that intellectual endeavour can be equally rigorous and demanding. If someone uses a word with which we aren’t familiar we can look it up in a dictionary and learn something or we can, and often do, take the “is she calling me stupid” approach.

You’ll find a similar attitude amoung some novices in any boxing, wrestling or martial arts gym, especially with the men. Most men understand that a trained and experienced golfer will be better than them at golf on their first day. Many men find it difficult to accept that a trained and experienced fighter will be better than them. We all like to think we are just as tough and just as smart as anyone else.

Will Self’s own work very easily drops into the box marked difficult. His work is difficult in the best sense. I find it takes at least 100 pages and a couple of days to really burrow deep into the flesh of one of his novels and become accustomed to the density of language and depth of ideas. His short stories can be difficult in the sense of being deeply disquieting- I give you the first and last stories in “Tough tough toys for Tough tough boys”. You take them at your own risk.

I note that works of ideas are far more likely to be discarded into the box marked difficult than work more concerned with psychology which fit more happily on the shelf labeled “A damn good read”.§

I agree with Mr. Self’s arguments but there was something in there, an aside in a way, that got the hairs on the back of my neck shivering.

“The displacement of aesthetically and intellectually difficult art as the zenith has led to all sorts of sad and inter-related phenomena. In the literary world, books intended for child readers are repackaged and sold to ‘kidult’ ones..” That perfectly reasonable statement, straw like, broke this camel’s back.

Actually, I must admit that this is not such a harsh or pejorative statement in itself. The repackaging of children’s fiction as pretend adult fiction is problematic but it touches a certain nerve with me. That is the assumption, often made, that adults should not read children’s fiction or that children’s fiction is the reading hideaway of intellectually unambitious adults. That is the idea which really makes me bristle.

It has been often repeated.

Sandi Toksvig recently joked about adults using Kindles to read children’s stories without the shame of others noticing on The News Quiz (yes, I have an unhealthy attachment to Radio 4).

The News Quiz is, in my opinion, the funniest thing on radio at the moment so I don’t like having to turn around three times during it to regain my cool. Let’s leave the middle class smugness to The Now Show.

The very first time I remember this opinion coming to my notice was a long time ago. So long ago that it’s a little blurry but it involved Howard Jacobson in his even more prickly and sharp pre-Booker prize win phase and it was on Channel 4 TV. I remember that he was on a railway platform and he was complaining about adults not doing their duty to serious artists by putting down and stepping away from the Harry Potter. I reacted quite badly at the time. The force of his opinion was inclined to produce an equally powerful reaction I suppose.

I don’t want to get into a debate on the merits or otherwise of the Harry Potter books. Actually, I’d like to remind the reader that those tomes are not the zenith, ne plus ultra, or be all and end all of fiction for the child reader.

So J K Rowling is off the hook, and writing adult work at the moment I understand.

The point is that children’s fiction, like adult fiction, is a broad church and across both denominations the only really important distinction is between good and bad.
Now good and bad are subjective and that makes it much more difficult to discuss but as I’ve suggested difficult can be rewarding. One of the reasons I read children’s books is that it seems to be a safer place for ideas to live. The bulk of fiction written for adults is fiction based on psychology. Only difficult adult work and children’s work seem to rely more on ideas.

I sense I have some explaining to do and I’m going to remind you of that word- subjective.

It seems to me that most books meant for the adult market (and market may be a more telling word here than I have so far acknowledged. The main difference between children’s literature and adult literature being how it is marketed and to whom) rely on engaging the reader with a central character and then cataloguing that characters feelings through a number of different situations or dilemmas.

We think, I would feel that too or act in the same way; or we wonder if we would react better or worse to a situation.

This is clearly not how books like Naked Lunch or The Atrocity Exhibition work. Books like this don’t allow a central character even to coalesce therefore completely aborting any possibility of identification. These two books are particularly extreme examples but they illustrate the archetype of books which centre their interests in the play of ideas.

Most adult literature doesn’t do that. You will find more ideas per page in the Moomins or His Dark Materials than in the short-list for most literary prices. The simple characterisations in children’s books often mirror the simple of incomplete characterisations in Nabokov, Hrabal or any number of interesting adult authors. They serve the same purpose too; to express ideas and let ideas interact.

Let’s look at the use of language. Words are the building blocks of books and the creative use of words is surely one of the ways we can investigate the good/bad distinction in literature. Perhaps there is a difference in the breadth of vocabulary you would use when writing for children and adults or adults only but even a large vocabulary must be wielded with skill, humour, creativity. This is something Will Self does very well but many adult authors do not. It is just as true to say that many children’s writers are just as skilful as the best writers of books for grown-ups.

“‘You might as well count them anyway,’ said Moomintroll to the silk-monkey, who had joined them in the wood, ‘you’re the treasurer.”
She counted them four times and then once more for luck, but she always got a different answer. ‘How many were there before?’ asked Moomintroll.
‘I can’t remember,” said the silk-monkey, ‘but the answer was different every time I counted them then, too.’ :- Comet in Moominland by Tove Jansson, published by Puffin Books.

I think that passage stands up well against the Goons with the time written down on a piece of paper and might not even be out of place coming out of the mouths of a certain two tramps in a play by Sam Beckett.

I don’t expect this will convince everyone to start reading the Moomins immediately (although you should) but I do hope it encourages people to think beyond the categories of literature that are sold to us.

I wait in hope of comments in a mood of the keenest appetency.

* I still think Shooting Stars when Self and Johnny Vegas were the team captains was the funniest TV show on air. I also enjoy watching Will Self on political shows. It’s that delicious moment when he turns and looks at some MP just before he destroys some idiotic and ill thought through statement they’ve just dropped.

§ There is a visible line running through William S. Burroughs and J G Ballard through Self along which everyone is called difficult. It extends to any art form or media. David Cronenberg has been ploughing that furrow for years in the cinema.