He doesn't actually use the word 'gatekeeper', but it seems to me that in this article from the Guardian, Anthony McGowan is also writing about the problems of delivering books - either as a publisher or a writer - to an audience of which you are not a member: i.e. adults writing and publishing for children and young people.
I agree with him that in YA fiction, where the boundaries become blurred - adults frequently enjoying books written for young adults, and vice versa - it is also a problem of categorisation. I work in a charity bookshop, and quite often find books I know to be written by so-called YA authors misshelved amongst the general fiction. I tend to leave them there, especially if there's also a copy in the children's section. I believe if a book is in the right place if it is somewhere where it might be picked up and read.
But I digress. McGowan is concerned about adults missing out on
authors they might appreciate (Meg Rosoff and Patrick Ness to name but
two: amongst my favourites as well); and indeed authors missing out on
readers. But he also seems to suggest that teenagers should be writing
for teenagers, and there I'm not so sure I agree: at least, not to the
exclusion of older writers.
Like so many other things, there's a continuum. I wouldn't disagree that there are likely to be teenagers who could write highly publishable books for their own age and others, but where should it stop? 12 year-olds writing middle grade?
One thing I am sure of, no-one is going to suggest the very youngest children create their own stories. Not only is the writing and design of picture books a sophisticated skill, the very act of reading together is linked to the ancient art of storytelling: and maybe that is something that deserves to be remembered.
The old have always told stories to the young, and it has been a relationship treasured by both, for many good reasons. Let's not stop.
Well, at the moment it's a young adult female, as it was when I was writing Better Than Stars; but I wrote Timehikers for a 9-12 audience, and people told me it would appeal mostly to boys: in which case, I am also a boy - which, if you haven't noticed, actually I'm not. Sorry, getting off the point - or maybe not as much as it might appear. I write for young people, or more accurately for the young person who still exists inside me.
And who out of the people who've read your book for 9-12 year-old probable boys is actually 9-12 years old?
Interesting you should ask that. Timehikers has been read - in full, not just a sample - by a lot of different people:
and one ten year-old boy;
and - you've guessed it - the only reader who belonged to my target audience was the last one. And, since you ask, yes he did like it. All the other people were adults like myself; and quite a lot of them were what we call "gatekeepers": people who control access to the child audience. Had the book passed that first circle of gatekeepers and been published, it would still have had to pass the second circle. Although some books are chosen by children for themselves, a significant number are selected by parents, teachers and librarians. As writers, we have to have an eye to pleasing them as much as our "real" readers.
Don't worry, this isn't going to become a moan about my own experience: rather, it was stimulated by discovering a delightful book which would probably be marketed today to 9-12 year-old boys. You can find out more about The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively here. It was originally published in 1973, and reissued in the edition I've been reading by Egmont in 2006. I loved it, but I'm a bit suspicious of my own enjoyment as a recommendation. After all, I'm typical of many gatekeepers, and I've a feeling the book was appealing to the wrong bits of me, the bits no child would share.
So there you have it: the curse of the gatekeeper. We want to write for people who are children today, but we can only reach them through a narrow entrance controlled by people who were children yesterday.
I suppose it works the other way too. I imagine there may be a few gatekeepers cursing us, the writers, for our inability to deliver what young people really want. But until 10 year-olds develop the ability to write their own publishable stories, it looks like it's always going to be that way.
... but is anyone listening? Teaching is no longer about education: it's
become training to undergo increasingly worthless tests and exams -
worthless because they have become a test more of how well you've been
trained and how well you follow instructions, than of what you've
learned. And it's children who are suffering, from increased and
unjustifiable stress, and from decreased enrichment. Shame on you,
Government, and well said Meg.
Are you one of those writers who likes to write in cafes? If so, you're in good company. Philip Pullman is so appreciative of the Cafe at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art, he acknowledges it in his Dark Materials trilogy. If the stories are true - and I think they are - JK Rowling wrote at least some of Harry Potter in the Elephant Cafe in Edinburgh. But a good writing cafe isn't just any cafe.
I've been to the Elephant Cafe, and I can see what JK liked about it. It's big enough to be anonymous, but quirky enough to be friendly. There are private corners, a jumble of chairs and tables of all sizes, and big windows that let in light and views. It's full of people who seem to like being there, and also - less predictably - elephants. Not live elephants, obviously, but ornaments and quite a lot of elephant-themed furniture. You can even sit on a chair shaped like one. It's easy to see how your imagination might be set free in a place like this.
Where I live, we're enough to have several cafes that provide good coffee (essential), and room to sit and let your mind wander. In fact, I try to match cafe and book, and may change cafes when I change book, like some people start a new notebook. But I do have one I keep coming back to. It's not unique like the Elephant Cafe - I don't think there can be many of those around; it's not even independent: it's part of a well-known chain. But like the cafe in Edinburgh, it has a big secondary room that is irregularly shaped, well-lit and comfortable, and the background noise is just right. I can't actually remember whether there was music in the Elephant Cafe, but that is as it should be. The soundtrack here is at exactly the right level: unintrusive, but to my taste if I want to pay attention to it. Otherwise, the chatter of other customers merges into it to become the sort of white noise against which I like to write.
What about you? Are you a cafe writer, or do you have somewhere else you prefer to write? Or do you just snatch time when and where you can?
Well, I suppose he's built his career on people who think they can perform because they've seen the professionals do it, and it looks easy ... although maybe it wasn't a good strategy to start by antagonising the entire children's book publishing industry.
Or, hang on, do people tune into The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent just to see undiscovered brilliance? Or is it true that the "talent spotters" seek out the dreadful as well, because audiences like to laugh at people making fools of themselves? - sad people who have no perspective on their own unpractised ability, or the difficulty of what they're taking on. I'd hate to see something like that happen to Simon.
Maybe we should just be glad that he's reading to
his son: a joy for both of them, and with a bit of luck the child will
grow into someone who loves books.
I do occasionally post reviews of books I think might interest you, but that's not really what this is: it's more like a fairly self-centred analysis of Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus from the point of view of a writer - one specific writer, i.e. me. Like I say in the title, I'm interested in what we can learn from reading other authors ... but if you read on you probably will get a flavour of the book, which might lead you to want to read more, in which case you will find a link at the end of the blog.
I picked it up because I thought it would be my kind of book. From the cover I could see it was a playful novel set in a fantastical circus, in the nineteenth century: right up my street, especially as one of the WiPs currently lurking in my head is a fantasy set in a nineteenth century theatre. To be a writer I think you must first be a reader; and to be a writer of a particular genre, you must first be an appreciative reader of that genre.
That may sound obvious, but it's an easy truth to overlook: especially if you're a novice writer beginning to take yourself seriously and looking to make your first professional choices. When I first started, I thought romantic fiction for magazines would be an undemanding place to learn my craft and earn a few pennies while wrting the Great Novel. I don't particularly like romantic fiction, and it was not a success. Now I concentrate on trying to write what I would like to read, and reading what I would like to write ... not in order to copy, of course: but the more ideas I am exposed to, the more I generate; and there is often something to be learned from the writing.
At the heart of The Night Circus is the circus itself: described with a bewitching mixture of exquisite detail and evocative allusion - so allowing every reader to create their own imagined venue for the story. This confirms an existing belief of my own about successful fantasy: the importance of specifically imagined, graphically realised place. The real star of the Harry Potter books is Hogwarts; of the Narnia books, Narnia, etc. Some fantasy writers also express themselves visually: Tolkien created pictures and decorative maps of Middle Earth; Philip Reeve is an illustrator. To have an "eye" and be able to articulate it is critical.
But then with The Night Circus everything I thought I knew falls apart, and it links to one of my own struggles as a writer. I find intriguing situations and beguiling worlds easier to dream up than stories, which is tough because it's pretty fundamental. Every one of the authors I have already referred to has created page turning adventures to inhabit the places we want to share with them, except Morgenstern.
There is a central narrative to the book, which becomes increasingly compelling as you read, but it's initially dissipated amongst multiple characters, only one of whom I felt real human sympathy for - Bailey - and he doesn't appear until p.57; and confusing timelines. It's never a good sign when you have to keep turning back to the beginning of chapters to check where and when you are. And yet, and yet ...
You'll have gathered I found much to admire in the book, and in the end I could hardly put it down. So what did I learn? That there are no such things as rules, and just as you think you've found the formula, something will come along and disprove it?