Friday, 11 February 2011

Contains Language and sex

I have had a complaint about my writing, from someone who wanted to know why I had to include 'contrived' sex and swearing into my novel Saving Rafael. I was a bit puzzled by the 'contrived', I must say. Did she think it was artificial in some way?
I don't actually automatically insert sex into my plots, only when it feels right. In this case, with two teenagers (one sixteen, one eighteen) in a highly dangerous situation in wartime, deeply in love, it seemed to me rather unlikely that they'd refrain. I thought they'd want to make love while they had the chance. The incidence of extra-marital sex during wartime is usually supposed to go up.
As for swearing; yes, there are a few incidence of 'shit' and 'damn' in the book. These occur usually at moments of great strain; and really, if you've just heard that a dear childhood friend has been killed in battle, maybe you might feel like saying 'damn it', especially if you're a Jew in Berlin in 1942 and your life has been pretty stressful over the last few years. Similarly - if you are sheltering in the cellar of a hotel that bursts into flames over your head during an air-raid, you've been fighting the blaze with a stirrup-pump and some buckets, and the water supply fails - I think it is likely that you might say something a bit stronger than 'oh, bother.'
But this isn't just about me and my books, rather about what is appropriate for the young to read. It rather links to the edition of To Kill a Mockingbird which I gather has been put out in the States with the n-word taken out of it. So - one cannot write an anti-racist book - one that has inspired generations of kids and adults - if one includes the perjorative term common at the time. Even if the point is to demonstrate that racism is wrong. Celia Rees has written on this blog about censorship of sex in kids-lit - unless it Ends Badly and they get their Just Desserts, and I've heard teachers in a staffroom deplore Jacqueline Wilson because the situations she describes are 'too realistic.' My complainant is not a one-off. These people are real and they're out there, tut-tutting as we write.
Do they believe that if we were to portray a world in which kids do not swear, shoplift, bully each other, experiment with drugs, or get drunk or make love to each other, the young will be inspired to abjure these behaviours? Or is it just that some adults are afraid to have their fantasies of stainless childhood disturbed? The books available to me in my teens were a lot more prissy - but we were all reading Fanny Hill in brown paper covers under the desk during Religious Education.
My belief, and my writing credo, if you like, is that I write, whether for adults or for teens, not only to entertain and enjoy the act of storytelling and description, but to engage with the world. My own reading of fiction does subtly change the way I see things, not to mention breaking down the barriers between my experience, sorrows, joys and annoyances, and other people's. I don't want to be taken into a sanitised world. where real feelings are suppressed in order not to be upsetting - now that is really what I call contrived!


Stroppy Author said...

Well said, Leslie. I agree entirely, as I'm sure most of us here will. Of course children and teens want to see their feelings and considered realistically and sympathetically mirrored and explored. If the characters didn't make love in SR a good many readers would dismiss the book as naive, moralistic or unknowing.

I've been on the (am on) the list of books banned in the US and wrote for New Humanist about censorship in children's literature - which extends far beyond sex and bad language, sadly.

catdownunder said...

Surely trying to protect children or young adults from such things just makes them more vulnerable? The vicarious experience can be just as important as the real one!

Martin H. said...

Spot on, Leslie. So often, the problems rest with the adults. And I believe that many "..are afraid to have their fantasies of stainless childhood disturbed."

Charmaine Clancy said...

Wouldn't fiction be heartless if we wrote by instruction. You write the story you write, if that's not what one stressed reader wants, let her read something else.

Gillian Philip said...

Oh don't get me started. The unfortunate thing is that teachers and librarians have to run scared of parents who don't think little Tamsin will EVER hear the word 'fuck' if it doesn't occur in her reading matter. I've been told on the quiet that CROSSING THE LINE wasn't even considered for a certain shortlist - but only because of *ahem* the subject matter and language.

As an aside, I run the tiny library in my kids' rural primary, just one morning a week. Last week I had two kids stop by the shelves, one of whom has real trouble choosing books because she's 'not allowed to read Harry Potter.' Oh, how about this? It's about a dog called Marley. 'I'm not allowed to read Marley.'


Then there's the boy who was delighted to find a book called 'Taking Drugs' because he thought it might be some kind of instruction manual.

Oh well, I know which of them will be better prepared to face life in the big bad world.

Fab post, Leslie. But oh, drat, you got me started.

Leslie Wilson said...

Anne, I was thinking about what you wrote - didn't you post it somewhere? I couldn't remember who it was who'd written about censorship, I kinda have the feeling you did an ABBA blog. The thing I did remember, but didn't want to be too lengthy, was the book about a girl who'd been sexually abused/raped, and it was objected to because of the subject matter.
My parents were enraged by the first novel I ever wrote because the character in it divorced her husband. This was an adult novel. She thought I was 'advocating' divorce. This, though I had been very happily married to the same man for years and years. I think the term 'moral panic' is appropriate, with the accent on the panic.

And, as Gillian and catdownunder said, if kids grow up with no idea of what's going on round them, they are far more likely to get into trouble. Also, if their parents don't discuss drugs, for example, sensibly with them, they are far more likely to end up getting into trouble that way - and I don't mean getting the odd puff of cannabis or even trying out an E. And then, of course, there are the parents who are 'too embarrassed' to tell their kids about sex. I personally find this hard to comprehend - but that, of course, is why some people complain about my writing!!

Katherine Langrish said...

Laurie Halse Anderson's 'Speak'?