Friday, 4 September 2009

It's a violent world - get used to it! by Meg Harper

Tonight I've been reading Gillian's excellent post about knife crime, hot on the heels of the horribly disturbing report about the two brothers who attacked two other boys, hitting one on the head with a sink, forcing them to commit sexual acts and leaving one so battered he was unconscious. Last week I was at the Edinburgh Fringe watching a profoundly moving piece of theatre entitled 'In a thousand pieces' about sex traffiking – girls lured into thinking they will be moving to education and a better life and ending up being carted from British city to British city where they are raped 50 times a day and never see the outside world. As a volunteer school counselor in an inner city school, I have heard stories not so disturbing that they'd hit the Misery bookshelves, but far too violent and unpleasant to be accepted by a YA publisher. One of my own sons has been mugged twice. At the weekend I was at the Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival, listening to a talk about the myth of redemptive violence in Disney movies – time and again we see the only solution to the bad guy being to kill him or her. You worry about violent video games? Saturation in violence starts much younger than that – aren't you worried about that? That was the question being raised.

'But,' said a teenage voice from the floor, 'it's kill or be killed.'

'It's a violent world,' said another young man. 'You've got to get used to it – the sooner the better. Then it's not such a shock later.'

I got chatting to the latter young man on the way out. 'You really think that, do you?' I said. 'That it's a violent world – get used to it?'

'Yeh,' he said. 'There's nothing you can do – you've just got to get on with it. It's human nature.'

'But,' said a friend who was with me (a published poet incidently!) 'so's adultery. Should we just get used to that too?'

'Yeh,' said the young man. 'You might as well.'

On the other hand, I had a youth theatre parent complaining about the use of the word 'bastard' in a YT play being created by 12-14 year olds because she didn't want her daughter to grow up too soon- and I'm sure the editors I've met would be on her side.

I find all this profoundly depressing and I'm sure we all ask ourselves about our role as writers here – observers, moral guardians, activists, entertainers? But my other question is where are the books that reflect this world? I haven't read 'Crossing the Line' but it sounds like it does. Bali Rae's books do I think and possibly Kevin Brooks' and Keith Grey's – but there aren't many. When I suggested a series of books about a gang of young kids, such as those who kick around our estate, unsupervised and at hours of the night abhorrent to parents who are doing bedtime routines which end in a story and a kiss, my agent just laughed. No publisher would publish them because it is middle-class parents and librarians who buy books and they wouldn't want young children reading about dodgy street gangs, apparently. So we all end up reading about a very nice world inhabited by remarkably nice people to whom nothing terribly beastly ever happens – or we read fantasy. Sorry – is there a difference? Isn't it all fantasy?

I haven't met many editors but inevitably they've all been very well- educated and have been well and truly middle class. (They've all been stick-thin too, which is very annoying seeing as they have a sedentary lifestyle!) Most of them have been young and haven't had children. A significant number seem to be products of independent rather than state education. Do they know what it's like to be a kid growing up in today's violent world? I only have the vaguest of insights myself, despite having 4 teenagers and despite spending a large part of my working life working with young people. And we wonder why such a minority reads books.

It's great that 'Crossing the Line' is out there. But where are the books for younger children reflecting our modern world? Is there a raft of books that I have missed? Who is going to publish them? Supposing they are published, which librarians will stock them and which teachers will be bold enough to read them to their classes? And, most importantly, who is going to write them?

One of the endless conundrums of fiction. Do we read it to escape reality – or to embrace it? Do our readers want time away from their lives – or the reassurance that others have been there too?

PS. Sorry there's no picture! My computer died today and I'm using my husband's - and he doesn't have photos of me!!!


Stroppy Author said...

Brilliant post, Meg. I live in a middle class area, but my kids have been through state school and some of the stuff their friends get up to is closer to Skins than Enid Blyton. There's some quite hair-raising abuse going on even amongst the middle classes, too - gangs may stalk the estates, but domestic abuse is all over the place.

I agree - there is violence in song lyrics, on TV, in the streets. Surely there is space for books to be a haven for those that want one and yet a reflection of reality for those who want their world acknowledged?

The escape/embrace dichotomy brings us back to Aristotle and catharsis, surely? In books, we experience fear and terror in a safe environment. Some people also experience them in an unsafe environment. It is all part of the human experience, as your teenager noted. Whether we respond with hope, despair, rage or whatever is personal, and all art has a role in reflecting and suggesting responses.

Keren David said...

My book (When I was Joe, to be published by Frances Lincoln in January) touches on gangs and knife crime and suchlike. I've tried to convey the fear that children can feel on the streets, and the solutions they come up with. I do hope you're not right about the middle-class parents!

Nick Green said...

I don't think fiction should reflect reality. It must do something more sophisticated than that. It must focus on aspects of reality and infuse them with meaning, and by so doing add something of value to the world.

A book that just showed a violent reality (as it exists on our streets, for instance) would be worthless. But fiction does more than show; it also comments, however obliquely. It selects, it spins, it finds the unexpected good and the lurking evil. It (why not admit it?) teaches.

A popular theory as to why we dream suggests that dreams are lessons fashioned by our brains, to better prepare us for harsh reality without always exposing us to its dangers. Dreams teach and train us in a safe environment. I believe that stories evolved for a similar purpose.

So: we must never shy away from hard reality. But neither do we merely reflect it. Stories are worth far more than reportage.

Gillian Philip said...

Such a great and thought-provoking post, Meg, and thank you for your comments on mine.

I think it's not so much the distinction between fantasy and reality as between sanitised violence and the true kind with all its consequences. You get the latter in fantasy fiction too. I don't know when it's appropriate to introduce children to the real horrors of the world - I'm flying by the seat of my pants with my own two - but I do know I want them to learn that death is not dealt out by magic wand, instantaneous and bloodless (and transient, in the case of Xbox games, which is the part of them I find alarming). I want them to learn it gradually, and I hope gently, but I do want them to know it.

(I'm not having a go at Harry Potter though - I don't see why children can't have both.)

Keren, I'm really looking forward to 'When I Was Joe'. It sounds fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Nick - you just told me why I have a slight problem with the film Fish Tank, which I saw the other day. It's very good, but I didn't enjoy it. It's too realistic. And only realistic.

Lee said...

I've got a fair amount of violence in my writing (I can get away with exactly what I like, of course), but it has nothing to do with reflecting reality - rather with reflecting my characters' reality.

Linda Strachan said...

I was speaking to some teenagers the other day and asked them how they would feel if the main character in a book died. I mentioned that one author I had spoken to told me her publisher had asked her to change the ending because they didn't think the character should die in a book for teens/YA. Their response was that this kind of thing was treating them like babies. They could handle it and wanted the opportunity to make their own choices, not to be spoon fed.
In my book Spider the characters have to deal with the consequences of their actions, sometimes ill-judged actions and unpleasant consequences but I have had young people tell me that they hadn't considered what might happen if they went out 'joyriding' but the book made them realise what could happen.

I feel that is what fiction is all about - allowing young people to experience things through the characters and to see beyond their own life experience. It can perhaps give some insight into the lives of others.

We are not there as gatekeepers or to educate or expose but we lay out possibilities and experiences to allow others to try on someone else's skin for a bit.

Meg Harper said...

I'm reading all this and I'm thinking 'Yes, yes, yes!' to all of it! I once got a review in the TES which didn't like my too evident 'moral purpose' in one of my books. I wanted to jump and down and object vociferously - OK, if the reviewer had read 'moral purpose' I had to take the rap but it wasn't what I was intending - it was what Linda is saying about laying out possibilities and experiences and allowing others to try on - not being didactic but creating an ambiguity in which issues are raised to be pondered upon. But that there is story too, is crucial - or who wants to carry on reading? Who will remember? I don't remember much of what Paul writes in his epistles but I remember Jesus' parables! And I really hope Keren's book sells loads - sounds like just the sort of thing I'm hoping gets published! I'll order a copy!

Keren David said...

Oh thank you Meg, how nice of you!
I think it's interesting that a dystopian novel like The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire are such big hits, absolutely full of violence - very cleverly so - and yet seemingly uncontroversial.

For me, I know my children live in a violent world and they know it too. It seems natural to write about it.

Anonymous said...

That there is violence in the world, and that the world is violent are two different statements. The media would certainly have us believe the latter.
In writing as in painting, it is much easier to create dramatic impact by violence than otherwise. The impressionist painters are so widly loved at least in part because they painted happiness, beauty and love with impact and without banality. How hard is that? Very.
Whatever happened to Anne Shirley? Would she be published today?

Nicky said...

I think Anne Shirley is of her time but there is plenty of feel good fiction out there. It tends to sell well and I wish I could write it.
I write fantasy violence because I think children live with the reality of physical threat a lot of the time and deaing with it in fantasy means that you can make it real but in a diferent space, without the familiar context. It is removed, slightly sanitised and maybe cathartic because of that.I don't feel I could do what I do in a contemporary setting.

Gillian Philip said...

Got to disagree with you, Frances, that creating dramatic impact with violence is easy. Done badly it can be just as boring and banal as sweetness-and-light done badly. I don't think anyone who has commented here does write violence in a banal way - yes, it does take time and effort, and it is hard. The quality of the writing is nothing to do with the degree of violence. There are some pretty bad pseudo-Impressionist paintings, after all.

It comes back to the old story - there is room for both.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that anyone who has commented here has done violence in a banal way". Oh, I do hope that I didn't suggest such.
Violence is obviously open to very wide definitions: my cat crunching the baby bird: darfur: tutsi: afghanistan etc. What word can encompass such? A death may be quite acceptable, indeed inconsequential, as Linda Strachan says.Indeed.

I'm a non-author, just musing: are violent video games and films ok? Quite possibly yes. If violence is suitable for the mainly middle-class children who read books, shouldn't it also be suitable for others, including the illiterate? (And yes, I do know that maybe all children play video games.) Iwould think that many contributors would agree with that.

At the same time, as society changes, as it does, it seems that all media must be contributing to that change, to some extent. Should they take responsibility for this? Should they be interested in the direction of change, and concerned as to what extent they are orchestrating and signposting the change? I would think that they should. Of course those sections of the media concerned just with profit will have different agendas from those of authors. I think.
I happen to regret that so many young childre's films, eg, even apparent innocuities such as "Nemo", start off with the death - usually violent, car crash or such, - of a parent. This often seems gratuitous...but, it grabs attention, does it not? It's hard to find a child's film without this violent intro. If anyone can suggest to me films of real people, suitable for babes, and lacking these horrors, I would be grateful. And yes, I do understand that this is a different media from fiction.
Will baby fiction catch up to film and YA soon? Of course. Under the guise of "reality" that YA operates under, I expect that enterprising authors will hit younger and younger children with "reality". I recommend that you get in quickly, to catch the wave. Frances

Katherine Langrish said...

I agree with so many of these thoughtful comments. And I believe that as Nick suggests, there is less of a gap between 'fantasy' and 'realistic' fiction than is often thought. All fiction is make-belief: it answers or attempts to answer the 'what-if's' in life.

I find that themes emerge in my books as I write, which were never consciously planned but rather a consequence of following my characters through sets of circumstances, and seeing how they behave. Subconsciously, however, they must stem from my own concerns or observations about the world. So in 'Troll Blood', a theme emerged of violence and how my main character (a quiet, unassuming lad)was going to deal with someone very violent and also very charismatic, in a culture (the viking culture) which made heroes out of men we would now regard as murderers. And I wanted to show that a sword (an iconically glamorous fantasy weapon: think Excalibur or Anduril)is just the same as a gun or a knife. The book ended up being, for me, a serious exploration of attitudes to violence, and the elements of fantasy and self-deceit implicit hero-worship.

Nobody has ever criticized the book for being too violent, despite its several murders - and I think this is because, cloaked as 'fantasy', critics automatically assume the book cannot be relevant.