Review Blog

Jul 30 2011

Mary Hoffman, guest blogger

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It is a thrill to have Mary Hoffman, author of the new historical book David, as the ReadPlus guest blogger. I loved her Stravaganza sequence and Stravaganza: City of Secrets was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. Troubadour was another favourite and it was nominated for the 2010 Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Costa Book Award. The Falconer's Knot was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award and winner of the French Prix Polar Jeunesse 2009.
Here is a thought provoking article from Mary on versatility:

Michelangelo was immensely versatile - a sculptor, painter and architect - he even wrote poetry! That was not considered so unusual in Renaissance Florence, where Lorenzo de'Medici, Michelangelo's patron, known as 'the Magnificent,' had set the bar pretty high.
More importantly, the arts as we know them had not separated out into the distinctive disciplines we recognise today. Indeed the terms 'artist' and 'work of art' had not been invented. Leonardo da Vinci was another versatile man of what we now call 'genius,' who might be engaged on a painting one day and designing fortifications the next.
The more specialised the separate branches of the arts have become, the less likely is it that anyone will excel in more than one. I've tried to think of twenty-first century examples and failed. But in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries they were not so unusual:
William Morris was a writer, painter and designer; John Ruskin a critic and an artist too; David Jones a poet and painter; Wyndham Lewis a painter and novelist; Mervyn Peake an artist as well as a fantasy writer. Just a handful of names and all male, but it's hard to think of anyone so versatile across the arts today. (Oh, but Philip Pullman and J.K.Rowling can both draw - rather well).
At some point in the history of European culture, and specifically British culture, a mistrust of too much versatility crept in: a horror of dilettantism, leading to that most ungenerous of appellations - 'Jack-of-all-trades, master of none'. We are supposed to learn how to do one thing and stick at it. Hence the focus on 'specialising' in schools by taking 3 or 4 A levels, as opposed to the European system of the Baccalaureat.
Would a Michelangelo or Leonardo be welcome among us today? Or would he or she suffer from 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' - a desire by other people to cut the outstanding down to the same size as everyone else? I remember this happening to Kenneth Branagh, the actor, when he started his own theatre company as director and dared to write his autobiography in his twenties.
Even within the small cultural subsection that is children's literature, I have noticed a mistrust of those who don't stick to one genre or age-group. They often have to use pseudonyms, especially if they are prolific. Whereas my heroine and role-model is Margaret Mahy, a writer who excels in picture books, junior fiction and wonderful teenage novels like The Changeover and is as at home in poetry as prose. Dammit, she even wrote a reading scheme and made it funny and memorable!
I interviewed her once and praised her for her versatility. She said that if she was lucky, when she had an idea, it brought with it a sense of the length and genre that it would fit into - a marvellous answer.
I think versatility will make a come back; it's no good being a one-trick pony in a recession. People will have to turn their hands to lots of things and the world might end up being a better place for it.
Mary Hoffman

You can find Mary at the following places:

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