‘I wouldn’t touch his (William Mayne’s) books with a barge pole,’ says Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape. ‘Books are the sum of you as a person. To divorce the writings of an author from the author himself is impossible.’*
Jailed for two and a half years for sexually abusing girl fans of his books in the 1960s and 70s, William Mayne won the Carnegie Medal in 1958 for A Grass Rope and, according to the entry on him in Twentieth Century Children’s Writers, has ‘some claim to be the most important modern English children’s writer’.
Elliott was responding to comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury who said that although his view of William Mayne had changed since the court case, this would not stop him recommending his work, in particular A Game of Dark, which he read as a child. ‘Yes, it would colour me if I read it now, knowing what has happened,’ he said. ‘Yet a writer is not the sum of his activities. We would be in trouble with a lot of authors if their lives were what we judged.’*
The sexual abuse of children is a terrible thing with longterm and often devastating consequences for the victims of such crimes. It is the case that children’s writers (like adults in other child-related professions) are in a position to have easy access to children. Those with a duty of care (parents, teachers, librarians etc) have a responsibility to be vigilant about the circumstances in which they allow any adult to have access to children, however ‘distinguished’.
But are an author’s books ‘the sum’ of her/him ‘as a person’ or do they stand independently as creative works to be judged on their own merits, irrespective of the personal failings of their creator? As Rowan Williams points out, our bookshelves would be pretty empty if we were to read books written only by those who are morally pure – should such persons exist.
This is not to underestimate or dismiss in any way the suffering of those who have been abused. Daniel Barenboim, in putting the case for performing the music of Wagner despite the composer’s anti-Semitism, argued that art transcends ideology. Perhaps art also transcends the personal life of its creator.
One of the focuses in this issue of BfK is children’s non-fiction publishing. Non-fiction for the very young is considered by Margaret Mallett in her piece on informational literacy, ‘Take 3’ introduces three non-fiction editors and Ted Percy interviews a well known non-fiction creative duo.
Blunders in non-fiction and reference publishing are not news – Oxford University Press’s updated 60-volume Dictionary of National Biography recently hit the headlines when multiple errors were uncovered by critics (70 factual errors alone in the entry on Jane Austen). In his innovative article on mistakes in science titles, Professor Felix Pirani suggests a typology of mistakes and thereby insights into ways such errors may be avoided in future.
* Quoted in The Times of 17.4.05