Monday 9 August 2010

The pram in the hallway

In a recent Guardian article, Frank Cottrell Boyce took on Cyril Connelly's famous quote "There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway."

Boyce writes engagingly about being, simultaneously, a father of seven and a full-time writer:

For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your "work" is actually fun. And for it to stay fun, you have to be unafraid of failure. It's very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctuations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

In another take on parenthood and reading, Lauren McIntyre interviewed Kat Falls for the New Yorker book blog at the end of June. Falls took her 14 year-old son as her target reader:

He has a short attention span with books. Back then, he would have the computer screen open while he read, and I’d hear the IMs pinging. I always knew it was a good book if he ignored the pings. Now he has a cell phone. I watch him reading all the time with his cell phone next to him, and it buzzes when he gets text messages. It’s the same thing. I know he’s into the book when he ignores his phone. So that was my bar. You have to have a bar to set and that was mine: no boy is going to put this book down to answer his phone.

Falls also comments that the layout of the book contributes to the feeling of reading it:

I kept it very white on the page, intentionally, because I think your eye moves faster when it’s got lots of white space and it adds to the feel of the speed. You can rip down a page fast. I just know that when a boy sees a giant block of description that’s the first thing he skips.

If I think of some of the books aimed at teenage readers I've enjoyed the most, this is true of them too, especially the innovative type-setting of Patrick Ness's 'Chaos Walking' trilogy.

The product of parenthood, of course, is children, who grow from little creatures who you read to, sharing the experience with them, into people who have their own, secret, interior relationship with the written word and fictional places, people and situations. Perhaps this progress - from knowing what's going through their heads to not knowing - explains why the topic of what kids are reading is often discussed with some concern. I thought of this this morning when, digging through my Instapaper folders for the above links, I found this old one for Jill Lepore's feature on Anne Carroll Moore, the doyenne of New York's children's libraries at the start of the 20th century. Moore wielded huge influence over not just what was stocked, but what was published:

She never lacked for an opinion. “Dull in a new way,” she labelled books that she despised. When, in 1938, William R. Scott brought her copies of his press’s new books, tricked out with pop-ups and bells and buttons, Moore snapped, “Truck! Mr. Scott. They are truck!” Her verdict, not any editor’s, not any bookseller’s, sealed a book’s fate. She kept a rubber stamp at her desk that she used, liberally, while paging through publishers’ catalogues: “Not recommended for purchase by expert.” The end.

The story of Moore is also the story of E.B. White, that - to me, anyway - curious figure who both children and grammar fanatics hold dear. As Lepore writes:

The end of Moore’s influence came when, years later, she tried to block the publication of a book by E. B. White. Watching Moore stand in the way of “Stuart Little,” White’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, remembered, was like watching a horse fall down, its spindly legs crumpling beneath its great weight.

I'm currently reading a history of 20th century British publishing and - with the Second World War - women are finally beginning to figure (beginning with Eunice Frost at Penguin, and Diana Athill at Andre Deutsch). So to finish off this tangentially linked series of articles: a recent profile of Frost from the Telegraph.

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