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.