My daughter wanted to talk about worthwhile careers - but not with me because I’m clearly not qualified to judge. Huh?
‘You’re a children’s writer,’ she said.
‘Isn’t that a worthwhile occupation?’
‘Duu-urrrr!’ (I’m not sure how to indicate that undulation of the word that carries all the weight of disdain – but you know how it goes.)
I asked what she thinks my job entails.
‘Telling lies about an imaginary bird’, she answered without hesitation.
Ever since Plato banished poets from the true Republic, writers have had to answer the charge of untruthfulness. Usually, it has been leveled against loftier works.
‘They’re not lies, they’re stories,’ I said.
‘But they’re not true,’ she countered.
I tried the line about deep psychological truth versus literal truth, dragging in Boccaccio as witness for the defence: ‘There was never a maundering old woman, sitting with others late of a winter's night at the home fireside, making up tales of Hell, the fates, Ghosts and the like … but did not feel there was a grain of truth in them.’
She eyed me suspiciously.
Oh God, now she thinks I’m a maundering old woman. I wanted her to think I was Boccaccio.
‘He’s wrong,’ she said, with the inalienable confidence of the teenager. ‘They’re lies; they’re not true.’
Ah, but we know they are true, somehow. That’s why books are dangerous. It’s why books (and writers) have been burned throughout history. It’s why Arthur Miller faced the House of un-American Activities Committee, Salman Rushdie got his fatwa and the fabulous Wild Swans was banned in
. We liars tell dangerous truths that some people – tyrants, the Church, Americans – don’t want voiced. I imagine a bonfire of the vanities, with first-readers about luckless birds prominent. China
But writers can’t be subversive all on their own. Writers rely on intelligent readers. If the book-banning authorities thought readers would be blind to the message, they would have no reason to worry. Writers know their readers want the key to the secret room; the best writers know how to slip them that key, even under the harshest regimes. And childhood can be one of the most repressive.
Some children feel they are in solitary confinement, locked away from anyone who can explain what is happening in their lives, to their bodies, in their minds. A story can show them that their experience is universal. Some children need not just a key, but a file hidden in a pie. A good book, whether it’s a story or a fact book, can be the pie. That’s why the job is worthwhile. We don’t only tell lies about imaginary birds – we try to hide files in pies, too. We don’t need to make the files – they’re universal – we just cook the pies. Which is lucky, as I have a cooker but not a furnace.