As part of her English composition exercise, our eight-year-old is required to write stories. Each assignment specifies – in the tradition of the best of genre fiction – whether she should write a ‘funny’ or ‘scary’ or ‘adventure’ story. Oishi largely enjoys this bit of homework, but – in the tradition of all those who are ‘forced’ to write rather than those who write because they believe they can’t but write – she hopes that writing will bring her plaudits.
For the most part, she also – and this is in the tradition of most writers, especially those with day jobs (including Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens, Anton Chekov and Franz Kafka) – writes rather slowly.
So there she was on a Saturday morning, labouring over a scary story. Or, there she was at any rate, more wandering around the room than sitting at her desk, looking out of the window with fierce concentration, with a story that was meant to be scary barely begun. (Imagine how intimidating this can be: You are condemned to write a story of a certain kind. It had ‘better’ be scary.)
“Why are you taking so long?” my wife asked our daughter, predictable and familiar overtones of sinister inquiry in her voice.
“I’m thinking,” Oishi replied. “Sometimes, writing can be hard.”
Recognising in this the ring of absolute truth (‘sometimes’? Oh, it’s hell most of the time), I leaped to our daughter’s defence.
“Look, it’s a ‘story,’. Vikram Seth would take a day for a couple of sentences.”’
“She doesn’t ‘have’ all day,” my wife said, predictable and familiar overtones of scornful disgust in her voice. “I’d like to see the story in half an hour,” she said, and, with an ungentle elbow, made sure that I left the room.
The story did get done in half an hour. And it turned out quite well, I thought. It had a well-paced plot: dramatic beginning, meeting with ghost, fright, and adequately feelgood ending. But – in the tradition of much fiction – it had its flaws. The inverted vowels in a particular word; a misplaced apostrophe; and, in presumably the hurry to finish in half an hour, a rudimentary error or two.
I was tempted to give it the praise it deserved. Yet, I wanted, too, to point out the mistakes. If I did, the praise would be forgotten, I knew; I would be seen to be a quibbler.
But it isn’t merely quibbling. It’s a wish, I think, to pre-empt dispraise from others; an attempt to protect her from someone else saying something cruel or rude.
John Updike puts this paternal anxiety, this combination of protectiveness and possessiveness, very well in his almost-forgotten 1965 classic, Of the Farm: “Nothing is more surprising in children than the way…they give us the courage we need to defend them.”