Fiction for adults, fiction for children – which is more complex?
The obvious answer is that books for adults are generally more complex than books for children. They use a wider vocabulary, more sophisticated language, deal in “adult” concepts and experiences, are fluent in abstract ideas and thoughts, and assume a familiarity with literary genres and devices that cannot be counted on in the average child reader.
Once we look carefully at this list, however, some of its items appear rather less solid. First, not all books for adults are in fact particularly sophisticated. Literary fiction of the kind that makes the Man Booker shortlist represents only a small percentage of the adult fiction published and sold, and it would misleading to take Hilary Mantel and her peers as representative of “adult fiction”. Moreover, if the vocabulary of (some) children’s books is limited, this need not imply simplicity: ask Hemingway or William Blake. Nor are sophisticated post-modern devices such as intertextuality, frame-breaking, genre-mixing and mise en abyme
the preserve of adult literature: in fact, they are probably found more often in picture books for young children, from Lauren Child’s Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Book
to the Ahlbergs’ Jolly Postman
It’s true that children’s books don’t generally deal with specifically adult experiences such as old age or marital infidelity (although some do); but equally, adult books don’t in general deal with the specific experiences of children, such as going to school for the first time. None of these experiences is more, or less, deserving of treatment in fiction than the others.
What about plots, though? Are the plots of adult books more complex than those of children’s books? Here I’m reminded of an article written by Diana Wynne Jones
shortly after she started writing adult fiction in the early 1990s, having already been a children’s writer for almost twenty years. She explains that her assumptions were in fact the opposite – that a point she would have explained only once in a book for children she felt the need to repeat several times for adult readers: “These poor adults are never going to understand this; I must explain it to them twice more and then remind them again later in different terms.” This idea derived from her experience of being told by adults that they found the plots of some of her children’s books hard to follow (and that therefore they must be "too difficult for children"). Children themselves, however, never seemed to have any difficulty. Jones’s explanation is an interesting one:
Children are used to making an effort to understand. They are asked for this effort every hour of every school day and, though they may not make the effort willingly, they at least expect it.
Adults, by contrast, are used to knowing things already, and their tolerance for uncertainty – negative capability would be a good term, if Keats hadn’t already nabbed it – is correspondingly less. All of us, when we read a novel, will encounter unfamiliar ideas and unexplained facts. I suppose we must have a kind of mental “holding pen” in which to place such items, in the hope that they will be clarified and resolved at some later point. But perhaps children’s holding pens have a greater capacity than those of adults, simply because they are more accustomed to dealing with new experiences? If so, we might expect them to be more able to deal with complex plots – and, in that sense at least, to be more sophisticated readers.
I don’t think that’s a complete answer to the rather silly question with which I started – because of course complexity is multifaceted – but I do find it an intriguing idea. In any case, if I ever see an adult book with as complex a plot as Jones’s Hexwood
I'll be very surprised.
Have been thinking about this as I am doing both – sometimes concurrently.
When I started writing The Butterfly Heart I did not have in mind a target audience, it was just a story I wanted to write. It was when I came to my characters that I realised this could be a story that children would read. I am happy however that both children and adults have read it.
I think there are different freedoms in writing for different audiences – I definitely find myself freer in language use when I am writing books specifically geared to an adult audience, I do not check myself as often. The only question I would be asking myself is whether the language I have used is the best it can be.
I would ask myself a similar question when writing for children – but added onto that would be whether it would allow for easy pleasure in its readers. There is a different freedom I find in writing for children – not sure what to call it other than flights of fancy, a freedom of imagination. Maybe I should feel that freedom in writing for adults, and I do to a certain extent, but more so with children.
One of the greatest writers ever (to my mind) is Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and I have only ever read him in translation. He combines everything in one – beautiful use of language, wondrous flights of fancy and great storytelling. There is no one writing now who comes close to him in the way he blends magic and reality, who so seamlessly takes you into a world that is real but which shimmers with a sense of unreality. Can you just imagine what it would be like to read him in Spanish?
For me he has all the freedoms combined in writing for children and adults – a freedom with language and imagination combined with a powerful storytelling ability – that ability which is at the core of any good book.
His titles alone are wondrous – has there ever been a better title than One Hundred Years of Solitude? Love in the time of Cholera? Chronicle of a Death Foretold? Memories of my Melancholy Whores? Strange Pilgrims? I’ll stop now – but can you imagine the fun that illustrators have had with designing those covers?
Here are just a few of them for One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I have a secret life. There – it’s out. Now, I don’t mean I am actually a man (although if you have ever arm wrestled with me you may question that); I don’t mean that I am a closet libertine or a have a covert taste for leather and chains. But I do have another life, outside my usual description as ‘prolific writer of books for children’ (I think they mean ‘Her again? Ho hum...’): I write books for adults.
I have had several non-fiction ‘self-help’ books published including subjects as diverse as self-sufficiency and organic living, pregnancy and parenting teenagers. I enjoyed writing them; they were quite lucrative. The weird thing is, many people seem to think these books are somehow worthier or more valid than my writing for children. Mind you, these people are the type who sidle up to you at drinks parties and say either a. (in jokey voice) ‘Are you that JK Rowling, then?’ Or b. ‘I’ve always wanted to write a book...’ Personally, I get the urge to stab them with a cocktail stick at that point.
Guess what? It’s much easier to write for adults. You don’t have to worry about word levels, or references to rude things, and it’s a good job – my new organics book includes a section on phthalate-free erotic toys. That was great fun to research! I love writing for adults; I am currently writing (slowly) an adult horror story. But I love writing for kids more. I think writing for children is more challenging than any other writing I have done, including my forays into journalism. I suppose the reason for that can be found in my farts, bogies and poo blog earlier – my inner child has a very big gob and shouts incessantly about the stories I should write. I’d better go - think I hear her calling...and she’s a bad tempered beast if I don’t just give in and write.