Sunday, February 17, 2008

Exploring Childhood - A British Genre?

This post guest-blogged by Preeta Samarasan, whose first novel Evening is the Whole Day is published by Houghton Mifflin (in the US) and Harper Collins (in the UK) in May.


Reviewing UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion’s memoir, In The Blood (what a great title for a visceral meditation on family, no?), Richard Eder begins thus:
"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."The British novelist L .P. Hartley was referring to childhood or, more exactly, to the memory of childhood. It’s the foundation of any explored adult consciousness, of course, and particularly that of the poet and often the novelist. It is most particularly true of British writers, who have made a virtual genre of traveling back to that foreign country and treating it as Arcadia.
(Read the whole review from the New York Times here.)

The quote is the famous opening of Hartley’s masterpiece, The Go Between. I’ve always been partial to novels that revolve around children’s mistakes, so Eder’s observation got me thinking: is it true that British writers tend to explore childhood more than, say, American writers? And the more interesting question is: if so, why? (I’m talking about writing that is for adults but about childhood, of course, not writing for children, which is a different subject entirely and obviously as popular in the US as it is in the UK.)

I’d always assumed that few of my examples in this “genre” were American because I’m less familiar with American literature, but I think of contemporary American novels and few are about children or from a child’s point of view. I even skimmed the lists of Pulitzer winners and National Book Award finalists. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; possibly The History of Love; can anyone think of others?

On the other side of the Atlantic -- for the purposes of this post I’m going to include Irish writers as well, though I know they’re not British -- childhood continues to be a popular subject not just among serious novelists (McEwan, Frayn, Roddy Doyle, Jeannette Winterson, Trezza Azzopardi, M.J. Hyland, and this is just off the top of my head -- I’m sure you can come up with lots more!) but among poets we well, as Eder says. One of my favourite Seamus Heaney (yes, Irish, I know) poems is Mid-Term Break, with its chilling closing rhyme.

What is that drives some writers, but not others, back to childhood for inspiration and insight? In Heaney’s case -- and Motion’s, too, as you’ll see if you read the whole review -- it’s a traumatic event that seems to need “processing,” to use the psychological term. But this isn’t always the case, and certainly not for writers of fiction. Is it cultural? Linked in some way to geography or history? I really shouldn’t attempt to draw grand conclusions when I have only two American examples, but I’m going to throw this final question out there anyway: is it possible to make any distinctions between American and British styles of writing about children? (I think it is, but I’m not going to say anything more because I’m curious to see what other people think!)


Jordan said...

How about The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King? Yes, yes, I know...not exactly a literary heavyweight. But it's as American as apple pie.

Then there's The Kite Runner, which brings up your question of whether the difference might be cultural.

Not sure about American authors, but Canadian authors do indeed delve often into the shadowy mists of troubled childhoods. At least, they do in Atlantic Canada, and particularly Nova Scotia. My own little Cape Breton Island (again we're getting into whether or not it might be some magical cultural element at work) has produced 'look what happened when I was a kid' stories (or at least their writers) like No Great Mischief (Alistair MacLeod), Fall On Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald) and Tarcadia (Jonathan Campbell).

Next door, in Newfoundland, there's Kit's Law (Donna Morrissey).

There have been others elsewhere in Canada. I risk being challenged for invoking the names of Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, and of course Michael Ondaatje; all of them have given us tales at least partly powered by the steam of the 'wonder years' (not all of these people were 'produced' by my home, but they're all Canadian anyway, eh?). (Oh, and the ones not from my part of the country may have written about childhood but didn't seem to do so as much as those from my neck of the woods.)

The question you've raised about a possible difference in British and American writing leads me to wonder about an even more interesting possibility, of such a difference existing between two countries that rub up against each other.

Of course, my perception of a comparative wealth of childhood novels north of the 49th parallel is undoubtedly skewed by the fact that I'm from there. But still, you've got me thinking.

bibliobibuli said...

you've got me thinking too, preeta. this wasn't something that had occured to me before.

we're not just listing novels about kids, but about novels in which kids are drawn into an adult world in a way they cannot understand and witness something terrible they cannot cope with which then in some way ruins their later life

khaled hosseini's "the kite runner" would fit this very well

when though is a novel an american novel and when is it british or other. these days it's hard to know. khaled hosseini is afghan but did an MFA i think and resides in the US.

hisham matar is libyan but published in britain which i suppose in a way makes him a british author. "in the country of men" is a beautiful example of this genre.

another novel i can think of - john banville's "the sea" - irish

another american author i could make a case for - carson mccullers in "the heart is a lonely hunter" but it's a long time since i read it (getting on for 3 and a half decades!)

maybe the british and irish are more ghost ridden than the gung-ho americans??

Anonymous said...

Jordan, good point -- I don't know where to place Canada either! The Anne Marie McDonald example made me (for inexplicable reasons) think of Michael Cunningham's A Home at the End of the World, which I think I liked even better in its short-story version, "White Angel," but definitely fits into this category as you describe it above, Sharon.

And of course there is To Kill a Mockingbird, which I thought of when writing the post but I was concentrating on recent fiction so left that and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter out -- these are both very important books, but why have there been none like them more recently?

Yes, more ghost-ridden is a good way of putting it, and this may be fanciful of me but I think it has to do with Europe being more ghost-ridden, having a longer history and having been more directly affected by both world wars but especially WWI which I think of as a major loss of innocence that coloured all the arts....

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

yes "to kill a mockingbird" too ... but even this and the mccullers seem ... gentler, less dark than the british examples

Anonymous said...

Sorry to pop by with a quick post, but wanted to suggest a title: Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. I instantly thought of it when I read Sharon's comments: "We're not just listing novels about kids, but about novels in which kids are drawn into an adult world in a way they cannot understand."

I love Tartt - and her first book, The Secret History, is one of my favourites. The Little Friend is not *quite* as gripping, but I still found it pretty creepy at times... I'm still not sure if it's Southern Gothic, exactly, but it was incredibly dark in some parts and left me reeling. Definitely recommended.

Some don't quite like Tartt's style, I believe, and think she's too *too*, but I love her gorgeous prose. She clearly loves language and maybe does go over the top at certain points, but I'll take her kind of writing over any type of contemporary "minimalist" writing any day... the writers who have their characters staring at a half-faded lipstick stain on a glass of wine at 3 in the morning and *pondering* the meaning of their sorry lives, the sounds of urban NY city fading into the background.... and bla bla bla.

Sorry, I digress. Back to Tartt, the story does take you back to the unpleasantness of childhood - the ways in which children have to create meaning out of half-understood truths, untruths, and buried secrets. Half the time you're taking stabs in the dark and suddenly adults don't seem so benign and helpful any longer.

Tartt does a wonderful job of writing from the point-of-view of a young girl, about 12, I believe. This is a story that's haunted by "ghosts"... so I'm offering it as a recent American example!


Anonymous said...

Interesting that you chose husband and wife Foer and Krauss. History of Love shows some of his influence on her writing, I think.

How about Myla Goldberg's Bee Season? Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. McCullers' Member of the Wedding. Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible. Gish Jen's The Love Wife (some of the narrators)Pete Hamill's Snow in August. Mark Twain' Tom Sawyer.


Anonymous said...

Subashini -- thanks for your long comment! You're the second person to recommend A Secret History to me in a span of 2 weeks, so I'll definitely have to check it out.

Minna -- yes, Foer and Krauss are married, but isn't it interesting that people therefore always assume that he "influences" her? Couldn't it just be that they had a lot in common, stylistically, aesthetically, and so forth, and that that's what might have brought them together in the first place? Writers tend to get along well with people who write like them, and I'll just lay my cards on the table and say that I'm a wee bit prickly about people who assume that a woman writer must always have a Great Male Mind behind her. But maybe I should've mentioned in the original post that they were married -- I didn't meant to be hiding that fact, just didn't think it was relevant.

That said, yes, those are all great examples though there is a substantive difference between childhood as it is portrayed in any of those books and childhood as it's portrayed in the British examples -- I think Sharon put it best. Tom Sawyer has some deep themes running through it, of course, but at the same time it's the quintessence of kind of optimism and grand adventure that you don't find in the British/Irish books.

The Poisonwood Bible does a great job with multiple points of view.... But I'm not sure I think of it as a book about childhood.

Housekeeping, of course, I should've mentioned it, especially since Jeannette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping draws from it in several ways.

Great examples all, keep them coming!

-- Preeta

bibliobibuli said...

i started "my secret history" and was loving it when *sigh* the usual thing happened and i had to put it down to review something or because i was interviewing someone or because of the next book club read (i forget) ... it got put back in the bookshelf with all the other screaming yelling novels (krauss and foer among 'em i'm ashamed to say)

i'm happy for the nudge.