a great story it was. A former children’s laureate, slagging off depressing modern fiction? While sitting next to a master of the form Melvin Burgess? Cue frenzied blogging debate and tongue-in-cheek newspaper follow ups.
Except, that’s not quite how it was. Anne Fine protested (in a comment on an excellent blog post by children’s crime writer Anne Cassidy) that her quote was taken out of context. She wasn’t deploring unhappy endings, nor calling for a return to the middle-class values of the Fifties. She pointed out that she was addressing an audience of social workers responsible for caring for children in care. “I was simply asking if these bleak endings had any effect on their young clients, and if so, what it was (if they indeed read the books at all). I was not advocating any particular sort of endings.”
Melvin Burgess was quoted by The Times as saying “I have had letters talking about the humanity of my books, even when the situations the characters are in are very dark and difficult. Just the fact that they are still making jokes and falling in love. Perhaps the light of hope comes from the reader and not the story.”
On his blog he said perhaps the furore was more about journalism than children’s writing. ‘The fact that the angle wasn’t Anne’s wasn’t something the journalist probably even thought about, any more than the fact that the whole thing was presented as some Great Statement by the ex laureate, rather than what it really was - an answer to a question from a social worker in the audience, about the effect dark stories might have on vulnerable readers.’
And he adds: ‘There’s a new story if I ever saw one, a real one abut real people and how they really feel. I wonder if any of the journalists involved would be wiling to run a story about that … or are they too chicken to subject themselves to the same kind of scrutiny they put the rest of us through?’
Now, as a journalist and a writer I found that a fascinating question. In my experience most reporters don’t give too much thought about the power they have - mainly because they feel too powerless in the face of slammed doors and cut-throat competition - but contrary to general opinion, most do care about accuracy and fairness, if only because you won’t have a very long career if you collect too many complaints and libel writs. Why would an arts journalist want to mis-represent Anne Fine? Was the fault with the reporter at the meeting, or the editors in London? (by the way many people tend to blame sub editors for this kind of thing, although it’s really the page or section editors that should be asking questions about context and meaning).
Anyway the reporter at the meeting was Jackie Kemp, and she told me: “I guess it was taken out of context - that is the nature of the beast. It was a small part of a 90 minute discussion in answer to a social worker. It seemed to me that she was really asking herself the question, how do we offer children hope and how do we encourage their aspirations without retreating from complexity?”
As someone who has written a novel that could be described as ‘gritty realism’ - although I don’t really think it’s that gritty myself, if gritty means uncomfortable – I became aware very quickly that ‘hope’ was a quality that both agents and publishers looked for and commented on. It surprised me because it wasn’t something I’d given a minute’s thought to in writing the book - I was more concerned about keeping things exciting, interesting and real - oh and funny too – while not losing sight of the serious moral and philosophical questions thrown up by the plot. I still don’t really know where ‘hope’ comes from, unless it’s hanging on somehow to the idea that things might get better.
One person I’d have loved to hear from in this whole debate was the third writer on the panel at the meeting, Rachel Ward whose debut novel Numbers has been very successful. (UPDATE: See comments below!) It tells the story of a girl who sees numbers on people’s foreheads, and then realises that they show the date of their death. It’s a taut emotional read, with well-drawn characters and memorable prose – but ultimately I was depressed at the idea that we are all slaves of destiny. Reviewer Philip Ardagh - probably a jollier person than me - found it 'life-affirming'. There you go. Hope is in the eye of the reader.