Friday, 12 September 2008

Arming the Imagination - John Dougherty


Boys like guns.

I know I’m dealing in generalisations here; but by and large it’s true to say that most boys, however gentle and peaceable, are fascinated by weaponry and in particular by weapons that go ‘bang!’ Give them the chance and they’ll play with toy guns; deny them the chance and they’ll build them out of Lego.

And yet for some reason the current consensus seems to be that they shouldn’t have the chance to read about them.

I say ‘for some reason’; I assume the rationale is that we don’t want guns to be glamorised. I don’t want that either; but the problem is that, to most boys, guns already are glamorous, and making them a taboo subject - no playing with them; no reading stories containing them - will only serve to deepen the mystery and attraction surrounding the things.

Current thinking, however, is that guns are Bad (with which I agree) and that reading about them will turn children into Bad People (with which I don’t). And therefore we shouldn’t let guns into children’s books.

This way of thinking can lead to problems for the author trying to write for boys. Ever noticed how the British Secret Service is happy to send the fourteen-year-old Alex Rider into all kinds of potentially lethal situations, but won’t ever give him a gun? I think Anthony Horowitz has handled that particular dilemma very skilfully, but for me it requires disbelief to be suspended just that little bit more than should be necessary.

I didn’t realise how much of an issue guns in children’s fiction had become until, as a newly-published author, I showed my agent an idea I was working on and was told, “You won’t be able to get that published unless you get rid of the gun.” Since it was hardly plausible that my imagined villain would be able to keep four hundred people quiet, compliant and unresisting with the threat of a good hard smack, that was the end of that idea. It stung all the more because I’d intended, when my hero was faced with the gun, to draw a contrast between the fantasy of such a potent weapon and the reality of being threatened with one.

This wasn’t always such an issue, of course. In Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins is armed; the Famous Five are threatened with guns more than once. Yet now it appears that children must be protected from so much as thinking about them - although it’s apparently okay to give an eleven-year-old fictional hero a weapon which can be pointed at someone else and discharged with lethal force, just as long as it’s made of holly with a phoenix feather core. But is there any significant difference? Some will say yes, guns are real and wands aren’t; but as a child I never equated the toy guns with which I played, or the fictional guns I read about, with the very real armalite rifles carried around the streets of my home-town by the soldiers from the nearby barracks.

Now let me just reiterate: I’m not in favour of glamorising guns. But in a time when research is suggesting that maybe letting kids play with toy guns is not such a bad idea (see here, here or here), perhaps we should think about the possible benefits of allowing them to read about fictional guns, too - or at least the disadvantages of not allowing them.

Because as Steve Skidmore said to me recently, stopping boys from reading about guns won’t make them non-violent. But it may make them non-readers.

10 comments:

Lucy Coats said...

Your posts are always a thought-provoking pleasure to read, John, and I agree wholeheartedly with your views in this one. I haven't yet felt the need to put a gun in a book I've written or am writing. But if I did, I like to think it would be in a responsible way. I was insistent my own son should not be given a gun. On his first day at playgroup he came back, picked up a piece of wood and said 'bang bang, you're dead'. A good thing? No, of course not. But no editor or censor will stop it by not letting authors write about guns. They are a fact of life--one we all hate--cf all the teen drive-by-shootings of recent years and months. If we ignore them in books and pretend they don't exist somehow, the mythic glamour of action computer games will grow even further--to the detriment of readers once more.

Charlie Butler said...

My sympathies on the deleted scene, John! I wonder if it would have been allowed through had your villain been threatening to throw a switch that would a) set off a bomb or b) release a cloud of brain-melting spores over central Birmingham? Is it violence in general or guns in particular?

Lee said...

Guns a fact of life we all hate?

I'm going to sound a decidedly contrarian note here. I'm not sure that guns as such are Bad, though access to them needs to be handled with great care and strictly regulated. Basically, I changed my mind after my daughter spent the last school term in rural Montana, where she learned to shoot and hunt. Many teens there do so - not just boys - and though I wasn't at first happy about her handling a lethal weapon, I left the decision up to her (her guest family's grandfather trains and tests gun use). The community is mostly composed of ranchers, and they eat the meat they hunt as well as what they raise. Unless you are a vegetarian, for the most part your 'hunting' is sanitised. And there is no more violence in this small town than where we live in Germany, and appreciably less than in London or Berlin.

John Dougherty said...

"I'm not sure that guns as such are Bad, though access to them needs to be handled with great care and strictly regulated."

Lee, I can't disagree with this comment. It's the inappropriate use of guns that is Bad; I'm quite partial to a bit of venison myself and would rather it was hunted than factory-farmed. I was using a slightly lazy shorthand here.

Actually, I wonder how the children's publishing world would react to a story in which guns were only used for hunting but a ten-year-old was allowed to use one?

Lee said...

Hi John, that 'you' was generic!

And how glad I am that I can use all the guns & sex & Bad Words I like - one of the compensations of being an indie.

John Dougherty said...

Oh, and Charlie - I think it's guns (and probably knives) in particular. I think unlikely violence is seen as okay, but more possible violence isn't. The worry is probably about copycat behaviour.

But I think that fiction - and play - can be great ways of exploring ideas and situations without the need to experience them in real life. I read once that after the Dunblane incident, teachers noticed an increase in the number of 'gun' games in the school playground - presumably the children needed this to help them come to terms with and make sense of what had happened.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Great article, John. Very thought provoking.
I've always had guns that look like the real thing banned in our house, but am happy with water pistols (cos they're fun!) and pretending that sticks are guns, because that nurtures imagination. And boys, as you say, will be boys and are fascinated. Never thought about guns in books.

Nick Green said...

It's odd that swords are okay, and that parents who'd ban a toy gun might well consent to a toy sword. If I had to choose, I'd rather get a nice quick gunshot wound than be on the receiving end of three feet of sharpened steel. Swords are utterly horrible when you pause to think about them...

LynnHC said...

yes - we had a blanket ban on toy guns that looked like the real thing in our house...so Alex (eldest) made lego guns, plasticine guns and on one momentous occasion a teddy gun! We bought a pair of great space guns that shot sparks at each other and had hours of fun...

By the time my daughter came along I was less uptight and had actually parented a child (or was tired and let things go - you choose)so guns were allowed. Abseiling barbie was armed to the teeth and made for brilliant 'spy' play...

Ms. Yingling said...

We had a policy in my house that only historical or futuristic weapons were allowed, so at one point there were about 20 light sabers, bubble swords, ray guns, etc. in a bin in my basement. I wasn't too concerned about books with guns in them until I had one student who requested them repeatedly (and I had been told to get rid of mine years ago), and found out that this child had brough a weapon to elementary school and been suspended! I try to steer children toward gadgets. Young's STORM series has been good. Or swords. Hopefully, none of them will bring a sword to school!