Saturday 10 August 2019

Why Terry Deary is wrong about authors Moira Butterfield

Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has been slagging off books and authors again, suggesting to the BBC that all other authors (but him) are privileged idiots. The BBC printed it all without question, so I’d like to refute a few of his pronouncements here.

"The problem with non-fiction books is they're written by experts who wouldn't know a child if it jumped up and bit them on the kneecap," he says.

In fact children’s non-fiction authors are professional writers. Their careers are based on being skilled at writing for an age-group.  Many have teaching experience. Many have kids. Some visit schools. Many also write novels and short stories. I know this because I belong to a large discussion group of children’s non-fiction authors from around the country (Nibweb). Mr Deary doesn’t. 

In fact non-fiction is having a bit of a golden moment, with amazing artists being put together with imaginative authors. (I don’t think he’s noticed).

"In the publishing industry, I'm a fish out of water," he says. "I don't do literary festivals. And I don't mix with the literati."

Who is this literati? Do we have one in children’s books? It seems to me we’re all pretty inclusive and supportive, and we can contact each other easily. I've found so, anyway. 

"I only know one northern children's writer now," he says - singling out Skellig author David Almond.

Lots of authors I know come from the north/live in the north. Does he mean ‘write with a northern voice’? He doesn’t seem to do that himself.

"There are 100 southern middle-class women [writing books]. And it's business. Southern middle class girls read books. So the publishers publish books for them. Northern working class lads don't read books, so why bother publishing books for them?"

I know there are kid's authors who travel round northern schools and get a great reception. He's really stereotyping northern kids here, isn't he. 

By the way, about half of the Nibweb non-fiction writing members are male. There are also single parents and carers, and we’re not dilettante posh folk. There are all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations, doing their best to write fiction, too. There are men doing it, despite what he says. 

Many of us non-fiction writers have been fighting for years to get non-fiction valued in schools and in bookshops because we knew that some children love it (yes, some boys, in particular). We’ve carried on in the face of low payments and tough income choices. Bring a non-fiction author is most definitely not a cushy number financially. It’s pretty tough, to be honest. I’m certainly not driving a new car…. Given the overall author income figures we have recently seen writing is not a 'middle class' choice as a career, I don't think. Wouldn't it be great if we got some support from Terry Deary? 

I’d say that overall in kid's publishing people have been working really hard to try to get books out there for the ‘non-readers’ he mentions. People have also been working really hard to get diversity into books of all kinds. And I know from reading the blogs that authors are deeply engaged in trying to open up school visits to every kind of school, and generally in the politics of education. Children's authors are also very engaged in supporting each other. So, although the children's book world is by no means perfect, I find it a vibrant forward-looking place. 

But Mr Deary says he doesn't mix with authors and he doesn't read books, so I guess there's quite a lot he doesn't know about - and a heck of a lot he's missing. That's a shame because he gets publicity and he's in a position to help. 

Moira Butterfield
Twitter @moiraworld
Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor 


Stroppy Author said...

Agree 100%, Moira. And I would add that children's non-fiction authors RARELY do literary festivals and are generally sneered at by some members of the so-called literati (I imagine he means the literary novel-writing 'elite' of north London). He seems to contradict himself, anyway: the books can't both be written by subject experts and also written by the literati!

Enid Richemont said...

I do dislike prejudice, especially the inaccurate 'reverse' kind.Reminds me of a school visit I did many years ago as part of the Northern Children's Book Festival. Among places I visited was a library in Middlesborough, with kids brought in from a local school. Someone discreetly pointed out to me that I shouldn't expect too much from them as they lived in a deprived area. It turned out to be the most lively and interesting session I've ever done! Oh and re- Northern writers, I don't suppose our Terry has ever encountered the Bronte sisters?

Dan Metcalf said...

Agreed! Mr Dreary has always seemed somewhat of a curmudgeon, especially considering his view of libraries. About time someone punctured his inflated ego.

Katherine Langrish said...

Well said, Moira!

Lynne Benton said...

That's so shocking! How dare he slag all other authors off? Clearly as he says he never meets any nor reads any of their books, so what makes him qualified to make such claims? Well done you, Moira, for refuting all his statements so strongly.

John Malam said...

Children's non-fiction needs a champion: it does not need Terry Deary. Children's non-fiction needs to be recognised by awards. A future Children's Laureate must come from the world of children's non-fiction (every other genre of children's writing has been represented, but NOT non-fiction).

Moira Butterfield said...

The laureateship goes, understandably, to authors who the public know well. CNF is very far from that accolade at the moment, but perhaps one day! In the meantime TD is the best known among CNF authors, and yet kicks out at the rest of us.

Penny Dolan said...

Lots of good points, Moira! Thanks.

I think the article was what Terry Deary always says and has been spouting for a decade or more. Also, being aggressively northern and controversial means any articles always get a response, which the media welcome.

Terry's current moment in the spotlight is because the Horrible History "Rotten Roman" film is showing in cinemas everywhere. However, what I'd like to know is who does the research for all this history series? Who makes it popular and enjoyable? Just Terry, alone, without the help of libraries?

Stewart Ross said...

Well said, Moira. It was a surprising piece of (childish) fiction from someone who purports to be a nonfiction writer. Full of ridiculous, chip-on-the-shoulder, inverted snobbery and inaccuracy.

Andy Seed said...

He's the Donald Trump of publishing.
Good piece, Moira, well put.

jonblakeauthor said...

This article and the comments after it might carry more weight if people had bothered to read the interview properly. Terry Deary has 350 books on his Kindle. He's making a point about the sanctification of print: one of his distinguishing features as a writer is his capacity for blue sky thinking. And is there some unwritten law that a writer should never criticise other writers? Or book festivals? Because what he says about the latter is absolutely right! Where he is wrong is to overgeneralise. Of course there are plenty of writers who come from working class backgrounds and do know about children, but surely no-one can question that the world of children's publishing is overwhelmingly genteel and pro-establishment, which makes his achievement all the greater. All credit to him for refusing any offer of honours and making no compromise in his undermining of royalty, imperialism and the conservative worldview. But no credit for his attitude to libraries! Comments like that show that he is actually alienated from working-class communities and their needs - perhaps not such a surprise as (owing to his great success) he is a full-time writer, not a worker. Nor was his upbringing working-class, being the son of a small shopkeeper, possibly the source of his me-against-the-world mentality?

Alex Woolf said...

Well said, Moira! I think a kid bit me on the knee once. It may have been one of my own. Can't really remember. Seriously though, we're a hard-working lot who didn't need this trashing from TD. So much thought from authors and editors alike goes into making our books appealing to the widest possible range of kids, whatever their gender, geography and background. I just don't recognise this stereotype he's painting. It's such a shame because I love the Horrible Histories and think they have a valuable and valid place alongside all the other wonderful non-fiction we produce.

Stroppy Author said...

@jonblakeauthor, 'no-one can question that the world of children's publishing is overwhelmingly genteel and pro-establishment' refers pretty well exclusively to fiction publishing. CNF is not glamorous enough to attract the genteel. The criticism is largely about his inaccurate portrayal of (and disdain for) other children's non-fiction authors based not on evidence but on prejudice.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Moira's right about Deary, and Stroppy Author is absolutely correct about the publishing industry. It's Deary's technique to say controversial things to get attention (and he's succeeded there, up to a point, because he has got our attention), but in so doing he allows himself to say things that are wrong, or partly wrong. The technique also leads him into stereotyping. He knows of only one 'northern' children's writer. This is meaningless as he shows himself so ignorant of so many children's writers. And what about people like me? I was born in Lincolnshire. Am I northern or am I a southerner? Goodness knows. Most children's authors are from the middle classes? I was brought up by a single parent on a very low income living in a damp-ridden council flat; but I got into Oxford University. So am I middle class or working class? And who cares? None of this matters much to me, personally, but Terry Deary should get some of the non-fiction works of people like Moira Butterfield, Stewart Ross, and Anne Rooney (to pick three I'm familiar with) on to his beloved Kindle and read them. They'll teach him that there are some excellent children's non-fiction writers around, who can educate and entertain children in ways he seems to ignore.

Anna Claybourne said...

*And is there some unwritten law that a writer should never criticise other writers?*

No of course not. It's not criticism with a solid basis that's the problem, it's making up utter nonsense about other writers and slagging us all off as a group on that basis - in a BBC article that is disseminating those incorrect accusations to the public.

*he is a full-time writer, not a worker*

What? Writers are not workers? It seems to involve quite a bit of work to me – must be doing something wrong. Suggesting Deary is a writer "not a worker" reinforces the idea that writers are all absinthe-quaffing dilettantes with a private income who don't need to be paid - not quite the truth, yet. In fact what Terry *has* done for us all is show that a CNF author can make money, be a big name and make a difference to the general perception of CNF.

Moira Butterfield said...

I don't knock Terry Deary's books. I'm delighted to see non-fiction given some coverage, I just wish he wouldn't talk rubbish about other authors and perhaps stand up for us instead.