Wednesday, 2 September 2009
Past the point of the blade: Gillian Philip
You could have knocked me down with a very small feather. (Fortunately I was sitting down at the time.)
I had my first ever Edinburgh Book Festival event this year, and I loved every minute, even the fear and trembling in the yurt beforehand (none of which was necessary, since my audience was terrific).
So there I was signing books after the event, and a friendly teacher told me she knew of schools that won’t have my novel Crossing The Line on the premises, because it ‘encourages knife crime.’
Now, I think there’s a lot to be said for the unofficial ‘filtering’ system that exists for children’s and young adult fiction. I was asked to write a piece just the other day on a nearby topic, namely the constraints on sex and profanity in YA books. And on the whole, I think this one of the (many!) areas where YA writing actually has the advantage on adult writing.
I’ve lost count of the adult books I’ve read where the curse-count becomes yawnsome (and believe me, I’m not averse to some choice language myself). Or where a profanity sounds awkward and giggle-inducing in a character’s mouth, like that buttock-clenching bit at Live 8 when Madonna tried to be Bob Geldof.
And when it comes to book sex, we’ve all bumped into those explicit episodes where you get the feeling the author was asked to up the word count (and again, I’m not averse to a sex scene. Mind you, I don’t think there’s a single profanity that should be banned, but the word ‘manhood’ definitely should. It always makes me imagine it’s wearing a little cape.)
Writers for children and teenagers always have to have, in the back of their mind, the limits of what their publisher will accept – and beyond them, the teachers, parents and librarians who often buy or recommend this fiction. That’s a good thing. I do believe we have to take particular care in our writing.
(And then I read this in Tuesday’s Guardian online: ‘Alison Waller, senior lecturer at the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at Roehampton University, says: "As a children's writer, Anne Fine has a very strong sense of a pastoral obligation to her readers... But many writers for children and young people don't feel like that. They believe they should just write what they want and leave it up to the reader to interpret."’ Hmm. Perhaps Alison Waller has been misquoted? Because if not, that’s an astonishing, unfair and inaccurate assertion. But I digress, and maybe Ms Waller's reported statement doesn't deserve the digression.)
When you meet a choice bit of swearing in a YA book, or some underage sex, you know that thought and care has gone into that moment. We don’t chuck this stuff around lightly. And the same applies to violence.
I have some violence in my books, and that includes descriptions of how violence feels for the perpetrator. To avoid the kick of brutality, to pretend it doesn’t exist, is not only to patronise your audience, it’s to lie about humanity and how we got here.
What you do, then, when you’re a YA writer, is you follow it up. You follow your line of sight past the point of the blade and you take a hard look at what came next. For everyone.
I think hard about every blow. I don’t wallow in violence-porn; I’m not an ‘adult’ writer. But YA writers don’t give moral lectures, either. We look at the evil that men and women do – even the young ones – and what comes after. And personally speaking, I look for some hope.
So given the thought that goes into our work, is it honestly too much to expect that the gatekeepers – much as we appreciate and value them – take a moment to read a book before they denounce it?