Wednesday 8 July 2020

Tiptoeing through the minefield by Keren David

Well, at least this month there is no shortage of material for a blog post. In fact, there is excess of news-worthy stories emanating from the world of children’s books. Unfortunately, writing about them is about as enticing as skipping through a newly-armed minefield.

 I’ll have a go though.

There’s David Walliams being held to account by food writer Jack Monroe for unpleasant language and attitudes in his books.

There’s J K Rowling, defending her strongly-held views on transgender rights, views which many of her readers find excruciatingly hurtful.

And there’s Gillian Philip being dropped by Working Partners, the packager for her own views on transgender rights which are very similar to JK Rowling’s.

Interestingly, the publisher who robustly defends Walliams’ right to use words such as ‘slag’ in books for 9 to 12 year olds is Harper Collins, the very same publisher who will no longer be publishing Gillian Philip as part of the team who writes the Erin Hunter books, for 8 to 12 year olds. The Hunter books are produced for Harper Collins by Working Partners, a book packaging company.

In defence of Walliams, Harper Collins said: “David Walliams's books have a diverse readership which is reflected in their content.”  (my itals)

In defence of his action in sacking Gillian Philip, James Noble, managing editor of Working Partners said:  "
The worlds created by Erin Hunter are meant to be inclusive for all readers and we want to let you know that Gillian Philip will no longer be writing any Erin Hunter novels."  (also my itals)

So – ‘diversity’ means that authors can say what they want. But then, ‘inclusive’ can mean that they may well be sacked for it. 

I think that both ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusive’ are being mangled here.  'Diversity' does not, last time I looked, mean 'the right to use offensive language' and 'inclusive' does not mean 'we'll sack you if you use potentially offensive language.'  If Harper Collins genuinely think it's fine to use abusive language in books for young children, they should have the guts to say so. And Noble should also be brave enough to explain exactly why he is dropping Gillian Philip, if only to make things clear for other authors that he employs.  Instead both words seem to be used to mean 'commercial interests come first, even if they are contradictory.'

Most children’s writers do not have any desire to write books or make political statements that might wound people. And most of us know what is appropriate language to use both on the page, and on social media, as well as when we speak to audiences and meet readers. We try and be kind, thoughtful and caring, and respectful of all our readers.

But sometimes we do want to speak out about contentious issues. For me it has been antisemitism on right and left, Europe and class issues. If a publisher objected, would I stop? I’m not sure that I could or should.

I’ve seen David Walliams compared to Roald Dahl. I don’t think that Walliams is anything like as good a writer as Dahl, but there are similarities. Dahl certainly didn’t worry about using words like ‘slut’ (about Cinderella) and playing with racist stereotypes. 

More than that, Dahl was unashamedly antisemitic. In 1983, he announced in the New Statesman that Hitler had his reasons for murdering six million men, women and children. “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity”, he said. “I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”  Sure, 1983, was a long time ago, back in the days of casual sexism and racism. But most people had worked out that siding with Hitler on the subject of genocide was pretty offensive.

I don’t believe in banning books, and I don’t believe in banning writers either. I don’t think that personal views which one finds deeply offensive need necessarily stop you from reading and even enjoying an author’s work -  and I’d rather know about them than not. The most worrying thing for me is if a children’s author uses their position to abuse the young people they come into contact with, and acts to keep that abuse secret.

 So -  as I tiptoe through the minefield – what do I conclude? Well, I shall keep on reading as widely as I can, even if I strongly disagree with the writers’ views, as I do with J K Rowling and Gillian Philip (who is, by the way, a sublime writer) on the subject of trans rights, and  I do with Dahl on his ideas why my great grandfather and all his family, plus six million of my people were brutally murdered by racists. 

 I’d rather debate with someone (and hopefully educate and persuade them) than completely ban them and their ideas. I'd rather argue against the way British schools celebrate Roald Dahl with his own special day (pass the sick bucket) than take his books off the shelf. And I'm much more likely to listen to people who explain and educate than shout and threaten. 
Evelyn Beatrice Hall said (paraphrasing Voltaire): 
 "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it".  This hasn't be easy to write at all. I suspect I'll upset everyone, which makes me sad.  
 So, Harper Collins is free to publish Walliams, and I am free to give him a wide berth. I saw two minutes of Little Britain once, and that was more than enough. 


Nick Garlick said...

Would that everyone could be as considerate and thoughtful as you when discussing such matters.

Nicola Morgan said...

Well said. And also what Nick Garlick said.

Paul May said...

Great post, thank you!

John Dougherty said...

Thoughtful, considered, considerate. Thank you, Keren!

Katherine Langrish said...

Well said, Keren!

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you, Keren.

Patricia Cleveland-Peck said...

An extremely good post. Lots to think about. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Yes, my position exactly. Thank you!

Bookblogger said...

What a breathe of fresh air..and it has made me question why we have Roald Day (I love Danny Champion of the World while also feeling a bit uneasy about the topics it covers) and not Jacqueline Wilson day or Julia Donaldson day...though I’m sure they’ll come at some and media have a way of taking over

Jackie Marchant said...

Well said, Keren. I'm very glad you had the courage to write this post, it speaks the voice of reason.

Rowena House said...

Good for you, Keren. A hate-filled, angry week even by Twitter's standards.

Moira Butterfield said...

Good blog. Remember that the vast majority of people in this country aren't on Twitter, and only a small percentage of those on Twitter actually post. Those that do post get a lot of press attention if they stir up a controversy because it's good clickbait. Twitter does not reflect any kind of majority view on any topic.