Monday, 9 September 2019

So, who's the snowflake? - Anne Rooney

Can we have a verb, 'to snowflake', or 'to snowflakize'? It's rather like 'to patronise' but not quite. Publishing needs a word for the good-intentions-gone-mad outcome of banning too many things (as in objects rather than subjects) from children's books for fear of causing offence in some cultures. It is a consequence, I fear, of commissioning under the thumb of sales and marketing

Most children's writers who are not novelists (and that's actually most of them, despite novelists having all the publicity) are aware of things they won't be allowed to write about or illustrate in a book. Many of us joke about the totally unsaleable books we would like to write about, say, a sausage-eating dog who lives in a wardrobe. (Sausages, dogs and wardrobes are all vetoed by one publisher or another. Throw in a hedgehog for extra banning.)

Pork going for a walk
Some of this is sensible. Eating pork is offensive to some groups. It's pretty easy to avoid showing people eating pork. Of course, sausages can be made of many things other than pork, so extending the ban to sausages seems to rest on the assumption that people (buyers, not readers, who are not really included in this) will see a sausage shape and think 'dead pig about to be eaten.' The latest I've heard is that owls are considered inauspicious in some cultures, so they're not to have a starring role.

What's a chimney?
Wardrobes aren't allowed because they are not familiar in some cultures. Heck, lots of things from one culture aren't familiar in another. I doubt many houses around the equator have chimneys. In fact, I doubt many houses built since 1960 have chimneys. Out with Santa.

There are different aspects here. There is 'don't include this, it's offensive to some people'. I'm fine with that. Then there is 'some people have some kind of vague objection to this' or 'this might remind some people of something offensive'. I'm not quite so OK with that, and feel we could just let offended people not buy the book. And then there's 'people won't know about this'. I''m totally not OK with that. The point of reading (especially non-fiction or for the very young, where these strictures apply) is to find out about things, people, experiences and world views you don't know about already. The last two I think approach 'snowflaking' - imagining offense being taken on the part of people you haven't consulted and then protecting them from that imagined offense. (But selectively. I've seen nothing about protecting the feelings of people who consider cows sacred.)

Non-viable farming of offensive and non-offensive animals
People don't eat pork so don't show a pig. Excuse me, a pig is not a still-mobile snack. It's not just the precursor to its own demise. I'm not advocating a massive sales drive of 'Three Little Pig' stories to the Middle East. (I wonder if a wolf eating pork is offensive, or if it's only humans eating pork? Or is it even pork, rather than pig, if eaten by a wolf?) But, say, Charlotte's Web? Or Pigling Bland? Or any story set on a fantasy farmyard of mixed livestock kept in commercially unrealistic numbers, like What the Ladybird Heard? Are these offensive? If not, how is a pig in a non-fiction book offensive if it's not on the plate or in a bun? Can't we credit Muslim/Jewish readers (or, rather, librarians and teachers) with the intelligence to distinguish between pork products and a living pig? The argument, from the publisher's point of view, is that there is no reason for keeping a pig other than to eat it. As it happens, I'm regsitered with DEFRA as a pig farmer, having looked after a friend's pet pig for a year. Ten years on, that pig is still happily frolicking. So no.

Our dislike of rats doesn't lead to snowflaking
Pigs are unclean. Dogs are unclean (I have actually had a 'no dogs' request. Think how many children's books have dogs in...) OK, but here rats are unclean. Yet even our recent Children's Laureate has written a book about a rat. Clearly, teachers and librarians are credited with the ability to distinguish between a story-book rat and a rodent spreading plague (their worst crime) or causing famines (still pretty bad) or chewing through your shed. (I have them. I've never caught plague or had a famine.) Children's books about rats are rather nice as they help to de-demonize rats. We don't have a right to demonize any kind of animal that is just going about its business. We're the demons! 

On to 'inauspicious'. If we're going to drop certain animals or objects because they are inauspicious in some cultures, we'd better not have any more black cats. Lots of people don't like spiders, but we have books with spiders on the cover. Why do publishers feel white British consumers can make their own judgment about a book with a black cat or spider on but consumers elsewhere can't make their own judgement about covers with an owl or other 'inauspicious' animal? This is snowflaking.

Writing about vaccination is more dangerous
than having a vaccination
I have written literary hundreds of books. There is one I get a lot of grief about (to the point of veiled death threats). It's about vaccines. I have never had a complaint about pigs, sausages, wardrobes, owls, hedgehogs, black cats, or anything else. Just vaccines. And — thank God — publishers are not yet being 'sensitive' to the feelings of anti-vaxxers. (The publishers get a lot of flak, too.)

I can see the caution is generally well intentioned. I can also see it is probably commercially driven. You can sell more books if you don't put anyone off. But you narrow readers' horizons. It's good to show readers that there are other views, people who are not like you. Not to the extent of something clearly upsetting. In other areas there are clear market conflicts. We want books to show diverse families, but only sometimes. If we show two mummies or two daddies incidentally in a book about something entirely different, that rules out sales in some countries for a book that is otherwise 'inoffensive'. Guess which wins, inclusivity or sales? It's not an easy problem, but is it even being addressed? Do publishers have a coherent policy? I don't know. It's not obvious from the being-commissioned end, anyway.

It leads into dangerous territory, this second-guessing of what is offensive. It's not worth compromising on some things, in my view. Fine, I can write without putting in hedgehogs and sausages, though I have a lot more sympathy for the anti-sausage argument than the anti-hedgehog argument. But shying away from showing alternative family structures is a step towards the Anderton Park showdowns. If we normalise things that are important to our belief in an inclusive and varied society, perhaps we can avoid some of the conflict. This is a whole different kettle of fish, which I'll put the lid back on until next month...

Anne Rooney

Out this month — a book to offend Creationists!

Arcturus, 2019


catdownunder said...

a similar problem arises in other areas. We can't have "golliwogs" on display at the state's annual show any more (even after explaining that "wogs" meant "workers on government service") and then someone brought in a toy pig - no, can't have that either - even though there were real pigs at the other end of the grounds! We did have a "black" doll this year - allowed because she had African plaits!

Stroppy Author said...

Cat, it's almost as though there are now two intellectual categories of pig: pig as biological organism, and pig as cultural construct. (Not limited to pigs, but most pronounced in their case.) Rather like bear as Ursus and bear as teddy.

Susan Price said...

Oh lord, I so agree with everything in this post.
At some point in the future, a brave publisher is going to clean up by publishing all the 'offensive' stuff that no one else will. I look forward to that day.

Mary Hoffman said...

As the author of a book (The Great Big Book of Families)at the centre of the Anderton Park Showdowns, I heartily endorse your final points. When I wrote The Colour of Home, in which a Somalian asylum-seeker child misses the cat he had to leave behind, I changed the species from a dog, which a similar boy from Zaire had told me about, because a Muslim family would be less likely to have a pet dog. I did that of my own volition because I thought it was reasonable. Missing a pet is much the same, whatever the species.

But being told I couldn't have an Indian child on the front of a book, by an American publisher, is a different order of snowflaking.

Jenny Vaughan said...

Re dogs – though not in books. I recently took the cat to the vet in a cab (well the cat was in a box, and the boxes in the cab...). The driver was definitely Muslim, something I could tell from his name. The cat was wailing about the cruelty of humans who take you to be mauled about by strange people and stick thermometers up your bum.

I asked the cab driver, 'Do you have a cat?'

'No, we've got a dog.'

'But I thought dogs were haram?'

'They are, but we aren't planning to EAT him.'

Test said...

I recently read a book where the main character introduced a ghost to his parents, who then laid down the ground rules for behavior in their house. What fun is having a ghost if your parents know about it? I'm with you.

Catherine Butler said...

The Japanese translation of *The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* is called *The Lion and the Witch* - presumably because of their unfamiliarity. I imagine the wardrobe is retained in the story itself, though (haven't checked - but you've reminded me to do so).