Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Sex and Violence but no Swine Flu. Catherine Johnson

I woke up at around three and couldn't get back to sleep for hours last night. Was I worried about the news filtering in from the late night world service? Swine Flu or the situation in Swat? No? I was thinking about a book I had just read. And not in a good way.

I have read loads of lovely, wonderful, books since Christmas, Solace of the Road, by Siobhan Dowd, Desirable, by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Once, and Then, by Maurice Glietzman, Reavers Ransom, by Emily Diamand. I love books, honest. I even try and see the best in books which do nothing for me and are totally not aimed at a middle aged, female, Londoner.

But the book I read yesterday - which I am not going to name - made me so mad I couldn't sleep.

Let's back pedal a bit. Let's talk about boys' books. The Carnegie list is stuffed full of them this year. Now, I am not, and never have been, a boy. I did go through a serious phase around 11, of absolutely, completely, definitely wanting to be taken as a boy. I wore my brother's cast offs, I practised the walk and the speech patterns. Every time I was addressed as 'son' my spirits soared. But I did grow out of it.

I think it's fine and dandy there are wonderful books about boys. I think Kevin Brooks Black Rabbit Summer is fantastic in it's depiction of a very real teenage summer, full of honest, accurately scary nasty violence and raw emotion. There is also a lot of drinking and drug taking. I have no problem at all with this. I think it adds to the reality of the world of the book.

This other nameless book - not on the Carnegie by the way - had none of the subtleties of Kevin Brooks. Now, as I said before, there are, and should be books for all. And this was from the point of view of a young Londoner (not in London by the way). I am sure that many boys from 13 and over are inured to some forms of violence because of video games and films, and I am also sure that some of these boys have a strange (to me) disposable idea of sex.

I am not a prude, but I found the depiction of prostitution in this book shallow. I am not against violence in books (although it's not my thing) but the violence in this book was cartoony and the character loved and glorified guns.

Aha you say! You are a woman who made some money at least out of a gun film. I would argue that Bullet Boy never for one second glamourised violence. But there you go. I think the glorification of guns is not a good thing at all.

Now, I know there are many authors with cartoon style OTT violence. Anthony Horowitz, Robert Muchamore, it is a long list, I may have even done it myself. People(boys and girls) love it. But within those books we know it's not real. 15 year olds are not really spies, your reader knows this, he knows he is reading escapism. I have no problem with that.

This book was different. The violence, supposedly real, never affected the protagonist for more than a few seconds. Sex was consensual and often (much better than violence, but not half as graphic) but never, ever, with any contraception. The poor girl is bound to be pregnant by now, and given that, is sure to be killed in the sequel.

If I still had a 14 or 15 year old son. I would so much rather he read a book which explores real violence and sex and it's consequences, emotionally and physically, than this.

Maybe if I really was a boy I would 'get' it. I suppose this is the kind of wish fulfilment story that sees it's opposite in something like Twilight (not the sequels), a book that offers a kind of idealised perfect love and adoration without the danger of actual sex.

Ho hum.

So there's my rant.


Nick Green said...

I hope it's not really a boy thing, this shallow, casual attitude to violence and sex. I don't recognise it. I wasn't like that, nor were any of my friends. It's someone's sick travesty of what they imagine boys are like / meant to be like (in the same way that the completely veiled woman is the Taliban's warped idea of what a woman is supposed to be like). I suppose the author thinks he is just telling it like it is. But that's not really how it is.

Katherine Langrish said...

Difficult to comment without having read the book, Catherine, but clearly a depressing experience for you. It taps in to the age-old argument of whether what we read should be subject to censorship, and whether it can affect us. I don't know the answer to the first: but I'm quite certain that the answer to the second is 'yes, in some way it does', though it's more complex as to what that effect might be. I think some fiction is pretty well intended to be disposable: 'Read once and chuck'; anyone habitually read nothing but shallow sex-and-violence might well be adversely affected by it; but read once in a blue moon, however, it will probably be quickly forgotten.

Nick Green said...

Katherine Langrish wrote:
> It taps in to the age-old argument of whether what we read should be subject to censorship

But it is, though, isn't it? To some extent. Publishers choose what books to publish; they don't publish everything sent to them (how well we know that...) and they make refined, educated, informed choices about what suits their list. About what, in short, is 'good enough' to be published.

I don't think it's too contentious of me to suggest that publishers ought to factor in a certain element of good taste in making these decisions. If a book can be rejected for not being well written enough, then perhaps some books could be turned away for being too much like computer games and not enough like books.

Is 34 too young to turn into a grumpy old man? I fear so...

Ms. Yingling said...

I am definitely a grumpy old woman, and since most of the books I check out to children are ones that I directly recommend to children (ages 12-15), if there is a lot of violence, any graphic sex, or language that would get them in trouble in school, I don't buy that book. I don't have time to argue with parents. So what is the author's purpose in writing this? That's what I always wonder.

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