MRSA looks like a ball. Bacilli look like a rod. You can tell the difference between them using 100x magnification – the ‘Edu Science Microscope Set’ at Toys’R’Us for £9.99 will do the job very well (if you buy one, with the straightest face in the world, I recommend looking at your sperm: it’s quite a soulful moment).
This passage is taken from Ben Goldacre’s fascinating, important but occasionally smug book, Bad Science (page 282, to be precise). I quote it here merely as the most recent example I happen to have noticed of a widespread phenomenon – the assumption by writers that their readers are, in every way that matters, rather like them. Here, Goldacre is clearly addressing an audience of adult, fertile men – much like Ben Goldacre, in fact, though less well informed about microbiology. Women, children, and vasectomy veterans amongst others will not be in a position to carry out his suggested experiment, and if Goldacre had stopped to think for a moment I like to imagine that he would have realised this, and edited his sentence. However, he didn’t stop – he didn’t have to stop – and neither his editor nor anyone else involved in the book’s production seems to have brought it to his attention. Perhaps they were all men too?
Now let's look at another book. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses is set in a world in which white people are considered inferior to blacks. At one point her (white) hero Callum has to put on a sticking plaster. But all the sticking plasters in this world are brown, to match the skin colour of the dominant group. It’s a neat way of bringing to the attention of Blackman’s white readers the fact that, in our own world, the situation is exactly reversed, with plasters coloured pink to match the skins of white people. But how many white people have noticed this without prompting, or thought about its implications?
Obviously it would be better if they did notice, and were aware of the many ways in which the world was arranged to suit them, but when one is running with the grain of the world it’s hard to stay continually aware that it could be otherwise, and that for other people it is otherwise. How many right-handed people notice that the flexes of electric irons are designed with them in mind, but are hard for left-handers to use without scalding themselves? How many straight people notice that fairy tales only tell of straight romance? How many people who don’t use a wheelchair habitually take note of the height of doorbells, or the places in the street where the pavement is lowered? Why should Ben Goldacre need to remember that not everyone who's interested in science is male? And so on. Everyone is privileged in some way or other, and privilege means, to a large extent, not having to notice. Privilege is oblivion.
One corollary is that, when you notice your own privilege, or someone else points it out, it’s not a cause for breast-beating or melodrama, or ‘making it all about you’. Just note it, act on the knowledge, and try to be more aware in future. It happens to all of us.
Unfortunately, books can perpetuate and even entrench privilege, by making the privileged position appear right, natural and 'obviously' desirable. It’s easy to scoff at Enid Blyton for making her villains into aitch-dropping oiks – something far more visible to us than it was to her – but there are some similarly disparaging tropes at large today in the world of children’s books that are very rarely challenged. Fatness is one such. Too often, and too easily, fatness in children’s books is used as a marker for moral character. The fat are stupid, the fat are either bullies (like Rowling’s Crabbe and Goyle) or victims (like Piggy in the Lord of the Flies), the fat are filled with self-hatred – and of course, and particularly in books for Young Adults, the ultimate redemption for a fat character is to become thin. The growth of their self-confidence coincides with a shedding of pounds, a sudden looseness in the clothes and a re-notching of the belt. Losing fat becomes at once the sign of, the means to, and the reward for, a sense of self-worth.
It’s not only bad writers who do this. I yield to few people in my admiration, this side idolatory, of Diana Wynne Jones, but her latest book, Enchanted Glass, is guilty of casual fatphobia, being sprinkled (I almost wrote ‘larded’) with such phrases as ‘the fat of stupidity’ to describe someone who is, as it happens, both fat and not particularly bright. I should add that I didn’t spot this until someone else pointed it out to me. I’m privileged that way, you see.
On the other hand, literature can also help make us more aware of other people’s unprivileged realities. Blackman’s book does that, of course, but there’s no need to create a whole world for the purpose. I love the wheelchair-bound Sarah in Hilary McKay’s Casson family books, partly for herself, but partly because McKay gets exactly right the balance between acknowledging the realities and restrictions (and in some few cases the advantages) of being disabled, on the one hand, and on the other reducing her character to that disability - and her book to a patronising parable. Few writers are as deft. As for fat-friendly books, I’ll refer you to a list compiled by my friend Rebecca Rabinowitz, writing at the fat-politics blog Shapely Prose, and taking in both picturebooks and books for older children (all right, including one by me).
Could her list be extended? Can we at ABBA be part of the solution? Or have we added to the problem?