Book Festival review: Childhood adventures | Neil Gaman
Neil Gaiman on drawing inspiration from his childhood for The Ocean at the End of the Lane; children’s writers discuss the abundance of “strong” female characters in children’s fiction; BBC arts editor Will Gompertz shows off his stand-up skills. By Susan Mansfield
HEROES and heroines came under the spotlight on Thursday at the book festival in the last in a series of events curated by the novelist Kate Mosse. Why, Mosse asked, are there more dynamic female protagonists in children’s fiction than there are in books for adults? Why do adult writers lose the plot?
Her guests were all children’s writers: Gruffalo creator Julia Donaldson, John Marsden, a best-selling Australian writer for teenagers, and Samantha Shannon, a debut novelist in her early 20s whose first book, a fantasy story for young adults, has just been published. The extent to which they agreed with the question wasn’t clear, and none put forward an answer, but it did lead to an interesting discussion.
Donaldson spoke of the pressures of political correctness on children’s writers: heaven forbid that a little girl should be seen helping her mother in the kitchen, she must be out having adventures. And, now the girls are all having adventures, many feel it’s time to boost the image of boys in fiction.
Shannon’s novel The Bone Season has a “strong female character”, but she explained that she has become increasingly uncomfortable with the description. The implication is that a feisty female protagonist is an exception. No writer is praised for having written a “strong” male.
“We need to get to the stage where women no loner surprise us with their strength,” she said. The underlying message from all three writers was that literature is best served when writers can write what they want to write without being constrained by issues of gender.
Later the same evening came the first in a series of events curated by Neil Gaiman, in which he was interviewed himself by psychologist Charles Fernyhough about his new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman, who has worked across fantasy, graphic novels and children’s books, has been called “the most loved living writer”, and his fans were out in force: this journalist was almost trampled underfoot in the stampede for the signing.
A mysterious little story of remembered childhood, The Ocean at the End of the Lane would seem to provide ideal material for questioning by a psychologist, with its deeply symbolic imagery and atmosphere of lingering sadness. However, Fernyhough preferred to focus his questions on the nature of memory rather than get into overly Freudian territory.
The subject of memory – Fernyhough calls it “a machine with many moving parts” – is a profound one which tends to produce more questions than answers: why do we remember some things vividly and have no memory of others? Why do two people present at the same event remember it completely differently? And what of “ghost memory”, an experience which feels “remembered”, though we know it never happened?
Gaiman admitted that he “plundered” his own childhood in writing the book, which began as a short story for his wife and has a protagonist who is “basically me at the age of seven”. Not a children’s book, it is rather a book about what it is like to be a child, having to learn how to live in an alien world controlled by adults.
It begins with an epigraph from Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, about a child who feels he must protect the adults around him from the difficult things he knows. Yes, Gaiman said, he felt like this too, about bullied friends and tyrannical teachers if not about winged creatures from the beyond.
Meanwhile, BBC arts editor Will Gompertz showed off his stand-up skills in an event about understanding modern art. Gompertz appeared on the Fringe in 2009 with a comedy lecture about art, and it seemed as if he was channelling that at the book festival as much as his book on the subject, What Are You Looking At?
After the “Manet or Monet?” quiz, he invited three volunteers from the audience up on stage to act out the opening section of his book, in which he describes how Marcel Duchamp purchased his famous urinal. Was this the moment when the history of art changed irrevocably?
Perhaps, but then Picasso was doing something equally unique. And then there’s Cezanne, a reluctant revolutionary who did not intend to change the course of history, but might just have been more radical than all of them. The evidence suggests that Gompertz could have happily talked all night, and we would happily have listened. Surely, art history was never this much fun.