Tuesday, 25 March 2014

In Which I Am Lost For Words - Tamsyn Murray

I'm not often lost for words (obviously a jolly good thing in a writer) but tonight I was asked a question about writing I didn't know how to answer. As you might already know, I teach Writing For Children at City University and we're approaching the end of the course, where the students are preparing to submit a piece of writing to me for feedback. And this evening, one of my students told me he had been reading a how to write book and one of the things it had apparently advised was to avoid 'friendly uncle' type characters in your stories as these could be perceived as immunising children against the risks of potential child abuse. Should he cut the mad professor character he had in his story, my student wanted to know, in case it was taken the wrong way and it went against him when being read by agents and editors?

My first reaction (after a startled, 'What?') was disbelief that any writing book would advise this. Then I started to think about it and I could kind of see what the book was getting at but still found it mind-boggling that anyone would come away from any of the children's book I've read with that thought uppermost in their mind. There are hundreds (thousands) of innocent characters in books whose actions could be misconstrued if you chose to see them in that light - does that mean that they shouldn't exist? Or is it offensive to friendly uncles and men in books everywhere to tar them with this horrible brush?

I failed to come up with a satisfactory answer to the question, partly because I was struggling to get my head around the idea. I advised the student not to get too bogged down in that kind of advice - to write the story and the characters the way he sees them in his head and not allow them to be subject to the projected interpretations of adults. I also said it might be a nice idea to make his nutty professor a woman, since it's a reasonable subversion of a well-used trope and side-steps the whole issue. But I walked away uneasy. Obviously, we have a responsibility to our young audience when we write. How far should we take that responsibility?

16 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

Not that far! How ridiculous! Did you ask him what the book was? Quite likely it wasn't produced by a reputable publisher/ knowledgeable author. By that token, a book should have no dog (because sometimes a dog turns vicious and mauls a baby), no religious leaders (because we all know what priests get up to), no going in vehicles (because lots of children are hurt in traffic accidents), no Arab characters (because some Arabs have been terrorists - ah, now we hit some problems...), no parents, siblings, grandparents or extended family members (because most people who abuse children are family members). And we might as well go for no human characters because by far the majority of harm is caused by other humans, whether accidentally or deliberately.

You gave him exactly the right answer, I think, but I would have been a bit more vigorous in condemning the book.

Keren David said...

I read a YA book in which I was absolutely certain that the kindly 'uncle' figure was going to turn out to be an evil paedophile, as his behaviour seemed like classic grooming. And then...he didn't. I was somewhat taken aback! Anyway, you gave the right advice, and I'd be interested to know which book gave the advice and what other advice it gives.

Vanessa Harbour said...

I would like to know which book it was too? I am gobsmacked. Seems madness too! If we follow that idea, as Anne suggests we would end up with no characters in a story because of the potential. Ridiculous. I have never suggested to any of my students that they remove a character because they might immunise a child!!

Your advice was spot on.

Elen C said...

I have to admit, it has occured to me in the past. In my current WIP, I have arranged it so that the MC has met an adult character previously before getting into their car. However, the adult will turn out to be a baddie, AND I write contemporary middle grade, so perhaps have to be more careful given the context. Maybe in YA, or fantasy etc you have freer rein?

It's also something I've been warned against in educational publishing (but the list of things you can't include for education publishing is a book in itself!)

Tamsyn Murray said...

I did wonder about writing this post but am glad I did! The reason I didn't name the book is because I haven't had time to check it out myself. It was a well-known book, though. Once I've had a chance to verify, I'll name the book.

Thanks for the reassurances I said the right thing!

Joan Lennon said...

Constricting, constraining, slimy, horrible are some words.

C.J.Busby said...

It's an interesting issue, and I'm glad it's been raised. Very robust defense from Anne, and I agree with all of it - but I know where Elen's coming from, too. I started writing a story a while ago in which there was a mysterious professor type character with a time machine. At the point that I had him asking the two child characters to get into his 'time box' so he could shut them in and send them to Roman times, I started to think, umm, not sure I can do this...

Penny Dolan said...

How I hate this "can't have x item" too! On the other hand, it may depend on how such characters are written, as well as on the age of the likely reader. Perhaps "odd" characters are a bigger issue in "real life" stories than they are in fantasy?

However, I read a highly praised book a couple of years ago where two runaways to the city seemed to be for ever watching out for "paedos". Everyone else was likely to be ok. I definitely did not like that explicit "watch out for . ." approach either although the novel was said to be based on authentic experience.

Mark Jones said...

How does making the character a woman sidestep the issue?

Tamsyn Murray said...

Mark - because women are often perceived as maternal and less threatening. I'm not saying that they are never threatening and never do bad things but a female character's actions are less likely to seen in an unintentionally bad light.

Stroppy, Keren and Vanessa - I've checked it out now and my student was paraphrasing. What the book (How Not To Write A Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman) does say is that you should avoid excessive physical contact between your adult characters (especially males) and your child characters. So some is fine but too much will force an agent or editor into making some fairly unpleasant connections. I actually agree with this, because as Keren points out, it gives the wrong signal to readers old enough to pick up on it.

I'll mention all this to my student and tell him he can still have his male nutty professor - he just needs to keep his hands firmly on his inventions :)

Mark Jones said...

Sexism is inherent in the system! ;-)

Nick Green said...

To paraphrase The Usual Suspects, the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was to make people see him when he isn't there.

Tamsyn Murray said...

Heh, Nick, love that!

A Wilson said...

I find myself wondering about the minds that come up with such advice! I agree with Stroppy, once you start putting restrictions on what is and is not allowed, you can't breathe as a writer. Clearly as children's authors we are 'gatekeepers' to a certain extent, but children should not feel they cannot have a friendship with any male adult because he may turn out to be a paedophile, and writers should not feel they cannot write a friendly male for the same reasons. (I have a 'friendly uncle' in my Monkey books. His girlfriend and the boy's mum are pretty much always there too, though - and I hadn't even thought about that until now!) We need to be trusted to write as human beings, not pre-programmed, bland, politically correct machines.

Liz Kessler said...

I have to say, if I was the person who had written 'How Not to Write A Novel' I'd be extremely upset (in fact I'd be fuming) if I had been 'paraphrased' in this way. I don't think your student paraphrased at all. I think that they completely missed the point, and have misquoted and misrepresented what seems like a perfectly sensible sentiment.

If the book had said what your student told you it had said, the advice would have been crazy nonsense. As it is, it sounds fine to me. I think that we DO have to consider things like how we portray relationships between adults and children and we DO have to have some sense of responsibility in the way we do this.

I've recently had huge discussions with my editor who wanted me to make changes which I thought were deal breakers in my YA book that comes out next year. In the end, I've made the changes she wanted and I understand why and think it's right to have done so.

I think we need to be very clear about the difference between censoring ourselves unnecessarily and actually taking a responsible position when it comes to sensitive issues like this.

The story is paramount at the end of the day and I'm not suggesting we make compromises we're not happy with, but that we bear in mind the audience we are writing for and we're careful about what we're putting out there for them.

Just my point of view. Makes for an interesting discussion though!

Liz

Farah Mendlesohn said...

Have you read Diana Wynne Jones' Hexwood? It's a rather brilliant critique of the Mage-Mentee dynamic and its potential for abuse.

I've never been able to read quest fantasies in the same way since, and find myself regarding the Dumbledore-Harry Potter dynamic with great suspicion.