Sunday, 13 February 2011

Apparently Martin Amis's

father Kingsley was once nudged off a list of literary greats by the late, great Rosemary Sutcliff.
It does not surprise me. Rosemary Sutcliff knew how to write. Reading her books about Roman Britain is rather like being there.
Reading Cynthia Harnett is also rather like being in the Cotswolds of old or Caxton's London too.
You can almost smell the smells and feel the discomfort of these places. There are descriptions of food and you suddenly realise there are no potatoes or tomatoes in Britain at that time. The barber is also the dentist and the modern technology of the time (in this case an early printing press) threatens the employment of others.
The journeys undertaken by Barbara Leonie Picard's characters are full of the dangers and discomforts of the times. There are also the Victorian discomforts and restraints on Gillian Avery's characters. These things are an integral part of the plots. The books could not have been written without them.
I was talking to someone yesterday who said, "It must be much easier to write a children's book now than it was a few years ago."
When I asked why she said, "Well now you can give them computers and mobile phones and so on. You don't have to work out ways for them to get information and talk to one another behind the backs of adults."
To me that makes it much more difficult. I do not necessarily want my characters to have the ease of communicating by mobile 'phone. Indeed, if they can communicate in such a way there might be no need for a story at all. If they can just look up information on the internet it may spoil the story line completely.
Of course there are writers who handle mobile 'phones and computers and other modern technology as essential parts of the story. There are many detectives who use computers - and there are others who do not.
Recently there has been a rash of books set in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The person I was talking to saw this as a serious restriction on the writer's ability to plot a story.
I am not wildly keen on the writing of new "Sherlock Holmes" novels or another book about Jane Austen's "Mr Darcy" but I can understand the attraction of doing it. I can understand the attraction of returning to an earlier time.
Modern technology can restrict the plot just as much as it can enhance it. I am certain Rosemary Sutcliff wanted the freedom to explore issues that would not - for her - have been possible if she had set the books in her day and age. Other writers can handle those issues set in the computer age.
I was told "you have to keep up with the times because kids these days won't want to read about anything set in history. Remember children do not get taught history in school any more."
I do not agree. History is important. Children can find it fascinating. They do get taught some, although probably not the right sort or nearly enough.
I also think children will, just like adults, be happy with something set in another era as long as it talks to them. It is the writing that matters.


Sheep Rustler said...

History most certainly is taught in schools in Victoria! Not enough, admittedly, and not necessarily well (though my children have experienced excellent history teachers).. I did a double major in history and it remains a vital interest of mine. I grew up on those novels you mention and acquired a huge amount of knowledge from them. I dragged my poor husband around England looking for sites connected with Sir Thomas Fairfax because of Rosemary Sutcliffe!

Frances said...

Is the dilemna that the child in the book faces, and the author's ability to create empathy with it, a major factor?

Rachel Fenton said...

I read Amis's most recent publicity grabbing attemp, in the guardian, too. It's the only thing of his I have read, or will.

Anonymous said...

I agree children are not taught enough history and often not the right sort. Rob came home at the start of term complaining, "Guess what, we are doing those boring old explorers all over again." I sympathised. This is the fourth year in a row that they have had the likes of people like Blaxland.
Rob wants to know how people lived, what they ate, what school was like, what sort of jobs they worked at. He wants to know more about the rest of the world, not just Australia and Asia. He has yet to do anything about Africa, the Americas or Europe.
Idiots like Amis have far too much influence on what is taught in schools and what is placed in school libraries.
There is, by the way, no Sutcliff, Harnett or Avery in the local library. I know you cannot have everything but kids are missing out on so much!