Thursday, 9 February 2017

Light in the fog - Anne Rooney

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity..."

Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Times of political turmoil often inspire great art of all kinds. These are undeniably times of political turmoil and upheaval in the West. Yet many, many children's writers are struggling to write at all. If I had the time, I would look back at some other periods of disruption and investigate whether there is  a lag between the precipitating events and the response from writers, artists and other creators. Perhaps this sense of reeling and disorientation is inevitable, and we need to find our sense of balance again before we can write - like stepping from solid ground onto a ship or the other way round.

But it's not a ship we chose to get aboard. Many of us feel as if we have been press-ganged. There we were, having a nice drink in an 18th-century bar, and someone hit us over the head and bundled us onto a ship and we've woken up in the middle of the ocean, the familiar landscape gone, the sea roiling beneath us, no escape, and a lot of hard work to do to get back to land. We have to be sea-sick for a while before we can roll our sleeves up and get to work - whether that work is to make the most of it and keep the ship afloat, or orchestrate a mutiny.

I think I can safely say that most children's writers in the UK did not vote for Brexit and are not fans of Donald Trump. But this is not a political post, it's about the impact of political change and uncertainty on creative work. I will refer to the impact on us - at least on me - of these votes and inevitably the details relate to those, but I'm more interested in the meta-commentary and not remotely interested in discussing the political points here. So even if you supported Brexit/Trump, please read on.

Personally, and talking to friends, it seems there are two points that make it hard to do our work, writing for children.

The first is the crippling anxiety and corrosive despair that make it all but impossible to find words of hope - or words at all. (This is the same if we suffer a person tragedy, but that doesn't descend on a whole community of writers at once.) We have to believe in what we write - whether fiction, non-fiction, poetry or whatever - for it to ring true. And children's books need to be cast in a hopeful shape, because hope is what carries children through their young lives, particularly through difficulties.

A book can tell a difficult, even tragic tale (true or untrue), but there must be some redeeming hope, something to take forward that casts some light in the darkness. But now there is - for many people - only fear and uncertainty. We don't know where to plant that seed of hope. It is there in the protests, but we don't know how long it will take to germinate, to grow into something that can flourish. We don't know what kind of world our young readers face as they grow up, so we don't know what to show them. It's not that we want to tell them what to do or what to think, but that we don't even know which questions will confront them any more. In dark times, books can shine a light into the darkness. But this is not just a dark night - it  is a dark and foggy night, and fog eats up light. This is not like a famine, an epidemic, or a war with a foreign power which draws people together in a common struggle. It is a rift within our communities, a little civil war that has fractured our society and made us distrustful, wary and anxious.

The second is that the values that steer children's books are no longer universally endorsed, or clear or - something. OK, that needs unpicking. Clearly no values were ever universally held. But until recently, certain beliefs - that people are more equal as humans than unequal because of race, gender or religious belief - formed the standard paradigm. Not everyone believed that, of course. There have always been people who believe those from elsewhere, or those who are gay, or those who don't believe in their particular god are somehow 'less equal', less entitled to reap the rewards of modern life. But their opinion was not endorsed by the structures of government - there had been a long-term move towards tolerance. The common, accepted and official position was tolerance, benevolence, welcome. There was no need to defend the premise. But all that has changed. Perhaps the greatest shock has been realising that those values are not held - or not valued sufficiently to make them paramount - by the majority. We don't live where we thought we did.

We have always written from the assumption that all people are born equal, that there are certain inalienable rights, etc, and that these values, which humanity has been stumbling towards realising since the 18th century, were the permanent beacon in the darkness, no matter what happens. Now, people who put other concerns before those values seem to be unpicking the good that has been done in the name of equality and fairness. The safeguards that protected the vulnerable, which were hardly infallible, are threatened. Five years ago, it was socially unacceptable as well as illegal to incite racial hatred. Now it's official policy.

Children need a very different kind of book in this new, old world. We haven't found our pattern for writing those books yet. We have been wrong-footed. There is no clear template, and no guidance in the past, because children's books are a relatively recent phenomenon. Further, the regimes which have stifled free speech in the past did not have either a vibrant culture of very varied children's books nor the internet to disseminate ideas that were stifled by the mainstream. So this is new territory And it's foggy, which makes it hard to explore, hard to see the way ahead. Or, to return to the first analogy, it's the open, boisterous sea and we can't see the horizon. Maybe it's even a boisterous sea in the fog, actually, as not even the so-called captains seem clear about the way ahead.

Excuse us if we stumble. The fog has descended quickly and we need time to find our torches and our sea-legs. Nor does it seem that the light from those torches will penetrate far in the gloom. These are the reasons many of us are feeling lost and unable to write. But even  if the torch is turned off just now, we will turn it on. And even if the gleam from each torch doesn't seem to go far, doesn't seem able to penetrate the fog, many torches all together will make the fog glow with light. We might still not be able to see the way, but light will lift the spirits. And the heat of many torches will burn off the fog. We will find our way, together, and will spot the places to plant those seeds of hope. A world that has once seen the idea that we can strive towards equality and kindness surely won't turn away from it forever.  

There is no philosophical framework for a world built on selfishness, greed and fear - its only justification is the paltry excuse of  'that's natural', its only defence the miserable Hobbesian fear of a life that is 'nasty, brutish and short.' Whether it is natural is debatable, but so is cancer and we don't just say, 'Oh, I'll just die then - it's natural.' We can fight against natural evils, too. It's the great bonus - and a defining feature - of being human.

Anne Rooney


Sue Purkiss said...

You put it so well, Anne.

Lynne Benton said...

Very well said, Anne! Thank you for an extremely well-put and thought-provoking post.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

So true, Anne. So well expressed.
I wrote quite a political teen novel a couple of years ago when I began to suspect where all this was heading. No one wanted it, of course. Maybe I should self publish after all.

Anonymous said...

Many torches. I like that.

Penny Dolan said...

I agree with all you say, Anne. Before this last period, there always seemed to be a way of saying "there may be bad stuff but look over here" for children & young people but now, in many ways, one doesn't know where to go or what words to say it in. I also think that the need for good non-fiction, combined with a deeper, wider teaching of history & the humanities is much needed too.

Leslie Wilson said...

Wonderful! I think you put it so well. I also have written a political teen novel which nobody wanted, about 6th formers involved in political protest. The response was, because there's a murder AND love, they didn't know which shelf it would go on. I wonder if we should set up a self-publishing consortium for such work..

Charlotte Guillain said...

Thank you, Anne, for expressing what I have been feeling so eloquently.

Katherine Langrish said...

Well said, Anne, and thankyou.

Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for writing this.

Amy Butler Greenfield said...

Thank you for this, Anne. This post is a much-needed light in itself! I would love it if there were a new vogue for political novels, and I agree with Penny that we need much more well-written non-fiction and history.

catdownunder said...

Exactly - even among those of us not published (or perhaps even more so).

Steve Gladwin said...

Thanks Anne. The lights of the torches we carry in the darkness are certainly fuddled by fog but we will add to them more and more.

LuWrites said...

Lovely post, Anne.