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?


Keren David said...

There was also this very telling comment in the Guardian article, from a teacher : 'Before I Die is apparently about a teenager who does lots of things like have sex with various people because she knows she is about to die.'

Apparently? So she's prepared to condemn a book without having read it?

Great post Gillian and I agree completely about 'manhood'. Will now never be able to read it without imagining the little cape.

Stroppy Author said...

Hear, hear! We're both prone to a little violence :-) I find there's more hostility to injury and death. Maybe because we don't have to see the suffering of the victim for long. (Latest editorial comment - 'why don't they just kill him'?) That's going the sanitisation route, I feel - and we justify the violence we write by NOT sanitising. It has to have nasty consequences which we confront head on.

It is horrendous that people will condemn books without reading them. Keren's example is rather chilling.

Anonymous said...

So shall we deduce that this whole sorry state of affairs is down to one person who has now written a couple of dubious 'quotation' articles for the Guardian? Or is there more?

I'm too busy blogging about it to complain to the Guardian. is anyone actually complaining officially?

Maybe we don't need to get worked up. Maybe no one said any of these things?

And then we can go into detail with what does happen, or not, in Before I Die. Like, yes she did have sex with more than one person, but on the list was simply to have sex. (Teachers don't read books, much, so will need to guess at what apparently happens in lots of them.)

kathryn evans said...

I find this astonishing. Before I Die is an exquisite book about humanity, heart-breaking and joyous, full of life in the shadow of death. Crossing the Line is an honest book about the devastating effects of violent crime - even the structure says 'this is a book about what happens when....' It must address the reasons why violence happens, and it does, with blunt honesty - anything less would be deceptive. It's like telling kids 'don't take drugs, they're bad for you'. The first question any astute kid will ask is 'why do people do it then' and you better be ready to answer because our kids aren't stupid.

It's all very well for people to take the moral high ground - meanwhile, in real life, our kids are having sex, drinking too much and brushing with violence ALL THE TIME. Wake up Guardian - writers aren't encouraging this - they are responding to it.

Nick Green said...

Something I find most amusing is that sex is more taboo than violence and murder. You can have blood and guts galore in a book for 10 year olds, but sex is off limits. That says a lot about what's wrong with us as a society, or as a species - I'm not sure which.

In my first book, I had cruelty to animals, domestic violence, child imprisonment and vivisection, and murder (well, nearly), and my agent didn't flinch. In my second book I have an oblique reference to abortion, and my agent got uneasy. As they say in the US, 'Go figure...'

Nicola Morgan said...

Completely agree, Gillian. A very common topic of conversation in school libraries - why we can or can't have a certian book on our shelves. But it's most often because they're very understandably worried about "what parents will say" because parents so often do. And I guess whether a librarian can face dealing with that will depend on how supportive management are. I had a librarian saying she couldn't have Monday are Red "because of the swearing" - there's PISS OFF (nothing worse!) but she happened to have opened it at that page and she thought parents would complain. God. Better keep kids out of the playground then.

And the idea that a story that features knife-crime/drugs/sex/murder is therefore going to encourage those activities is so absurd and utterly depends on the story and context. Gah.

John Dougherty said...

But it's true! Books have a pernicious effect!

For instance, I read Lord of the Flies recently, and next thing I knew, I'd abandoned my children on a desert island with a fat kid and a boys' choir.

Then I read Oliver Twist, and found myself inspired to entice orphans off the street and train them into a gang of pickpockets.

And then I read A Clockwork Orange, and was gripped with an irresistible desire to listen to some classical music.

And you don't want to know what happened after I read Watership Down...

Brian Keaney said...

I suspect Alison Waller may have been quoted out of context. She has also said, 'In a society that worries about its own infantilism there is a general atmosphere of uncertainty surrounding the concept of adolescence. These anxieties are crucial to understanding modern subjectivity and they result in extreme - often nostalgic - attempts to fix adolescence as a separate state' (Constructing Adolescence In Fantastic Realism).

megrosoff said...

Alison Waller has been quoted out of context. As has Anne Fine. And yes, it is much too much to ask teachers and librarians to read books before they comment, because something like 20,000 YA books are published every year. I figure if we have the right to write what we like (which we do), librarians or parents have the right to disapprove with whatever prejudice they can bother to dredge up. It won't necessarily make a blind bit of difference in terms of what their kids read in any case.

I do sometimes wish YA authors (and I'm not particularly singling you out, Gillian, promise) would direct their outrage at something slightly more socially useful than so called restrictions on what they/we write.

It's an open marketplace -- as long as you can find someone to publish and read your books, you can do and say whatever you like. Which is more than you can say for the vast number of countries in which extreme censorship is the standard.

Keren David said...

It's reasonable to expect thazt they won't comment on one particular book if they haven't read it, surely? No one's expecting them to comment on or read 20,000, just to limit their opinions to things they've read.

Nick Green said...

>I'd abandoned my children on a desert island with a fat kid and a boys' choir. ... Then I read Oliver Twist, and found myself inspired to entice orphans off the street and train them into a gang of pickpockets.

John, you'd better hope that the CRB haven't worked out how to surf the internet yet, or it's no more school visits for you.

And Meg's right I suppose - we can write more or less what we like. We have that right, in this country, and we can always get around so-called restrictions by a few cunning disguises. 'Piss off!' is in Watership Down, incidentally - but no-one notices because a seagull says it.

John Dougherty said...

"John, you'd better hope that the CRB haven't worked out how to surf the internet yet, or it's no more school visits for you."

EEEEK! Ed, it's satire, honest! I didn't really!

And, Kehaar! Yes! I remember being taken aback by that 'Piss off!' because, I think, it had never occurred to me before that you could put a 'rude word' in a book. I suppose I'd always imagined that 'they' would stop you.

It didn't turn me into a foul-mouthed little urchin, though.

Gillian Philip said...

First off, chaps, nothing in my post is about Anne Fine - she was mentioned in passing in a quote I used. That quote may well be out of context (or indeed misreported - nothing in the Guardian would surprise me now), but if it IS accurate, the context is rather beside the point. Alison Waller, if she (a) said and (b) means what is reported in this quote, is being unfair and pretty insulting.

Meg, I hope you noticed that I used the word 'denounce', not 'ban'. Everybody's shelf space is limited and everybody can choose what they put on it. What I have a right (indeed an obligation) to complain about is being accused of 'encouraging knife crime'. It's absurd, it's untrue, and it's based, presumably, on looking at a book cover. No teacher or librarian has a right to accuse me of that, any more than anyone would have a right to accuse you of encouraging incestuous underage sex. Seriously, do these people understand the meaning of fiction? And how are they defining it to children?

Besides, I can direct my anger and energies in many directions at once (I often do). It's like walking and chewing gum - not that hard. I must say I find it an odd argument that because there's censorship in other countries, we should be timidly grateful for whatever state of affairs exists here...

John, you shock me. You haven't started burrowing, have you? Overdoing the silflay?

John Dougherty said...

Not yet, but I have lost the ability to count past four.

Michael Malone said...

Gillian, well said that wummin. Fascinating what goes through your head. As for the wee cape...did you not know that we are issued with them at birth?

Nicola Morgan said...

Good answer, G - I also felt that the main point of your indignation was being accused of encouraging knife crime just because your novel told a story in which it featured. I still haven't read C the L (on my pile ...) so I'm only ASUMMING (slap on wrist) but I'm assuming you didn't say your readers should go and knife people. If you did, you're a very bad person indeed.

I too can get indignant about many things simultaneously.

Nick Green said...

Out of interest I wonder how one WOULD glamorise knife crime in a work of fiction?

I suppose 'A Clockwork Orange' comes closest. But the weird thing is, no matter how much we sympathise with Alex, we still instinctively know that what he does is wrong.

I don't think anyone sensitive or empathic enough to get involved in a work of fiction would seriously start to think that knives were a Good Thing just because a sympathetic character uses them. We're capable of that doublethink, of liking the character while deploring them - the 'Magnificent Bastard' type. (Am I allowed to write that?).

Meg Harper said...

Excellent post Gillian and I'm with Nick on this. I get the same weirdness in complaints from parents about the youth theatre I produce. We once wanted to feature a paedophile. Complaints, complaints. But when we turned the character into a murderer that was OK. ??? And then in 'Fur' my editor got very worried because my female lead's dad noticed that she wasn't a little girl any more when she was wearing her swimsuit - she thought he was having incestuous thoughts!!! But in 'Piper' my male lead set fire to someone and small children were enslaved - no problem! It's all bonkers!

Alison Waller said...

I realise I’m a little late in joining this conversation, but I would like to try and address your concern about my quotation, Gillian. The words attributed to me in the Guardian piece don’t quite sound like those I remember saying (and I am extremely grateful to Brian Keaney for extracting some of my actual published sentences!). However, I am not an expert on journalism and don’t particularly want to engage with the whole debate about accuracy here. What I did worry about when I first saw the piece some days after it was published was the fact that the quotation is pretty ambiguous without the context of my much longer conversation with the journalist. It looks as though I am suggesting we pit authors like Anne Fine – who care about their readers and the effect their writing might have on them – against other YA authors – who don’t give a damn. Of course not. In fact, I think there are certain writers who have an acknowledged sense of responsibility towards their young readers and craft stories very much with an awareness of a young sensibility and a sense of social responsibilty: Fine is one of these authors, although this does not mean she avoids difficult topics or open endings (as she says herself on Anne Cassidy’s blog post, Tulip Touch is hardly easy reading or simplistic). I think there are other authors who prefer to focus on the technical business of creating involving narratives without necessarily being constantly aware of the psychological needs of any particular child reader. Not all authors fit into one category or the other at all times (although books probably do) and I definitely admire both types!

Anyway, I said much more interesting things that might have been quoted if the original article was really concerned with ways that children’s and adolescent literature can include sex, violence and all kinds of difficult stuff and still offer more than nihilism (was that what it was about?). Most importantly, I think much recent children’s and YA literature has explicitly explored difficult and contentious issues but has done this using a range of formal and stylistic devices that demand an active and questioning kind of reading (and I think this relates to your point about the creative potential of restraints in writing for YA). Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go is a good example in this respect, since it uses fantasy to build a world of horror and asks the reader to consider ‘is this really how things would be?’ That novel is also incredibly inventive in its use of language, so that a reader alert to sound and pattern might become more aware of the power we all have to describe and create reality. Other writers are playful and comic in their telling of troublesome things. Melvin Burgess is a master of toying, mischievously, with his hard-hitting subjects, for example. There also seems to be a rich seam of fiction for children – such as David Almond’s lyrical narratives – that presents young protagonists in the face of trauma turning to forms of imagination as possible solace or sources of strength (Nicola Morgan’s fab Mondays are Red can be read as an interesting commentary on this trend, I think). Books that imply that the answer to life’s challenges is always found in artistic fulfilment can appear rather self-validating I suppose, but at least young people and those of us who love their literature are not floundering in a mire of hopelessness. Not that anyone with any sense ever thought we were.