Richard Tames examines some moral dilemmas in the writing of information books.
Ideally the writer of children’s information books hopes to satisfy at least three levels of ‘client’- the publisher (who may be plural – i.e. freelance copy editor/ desk editor/ publishing director etc.); the ‘gatekeeper’ (i.e. the adult -librarian, teacher, parent, auntie) who is usually the one to make the actual decision to purchase; and ultimately, the reader, the ‘child’ (I tend to conjure a mental picture of my niece who has above-average reading ability, below-average reading tastes and the scepticism of the proverbial Man from Missouri). These three levels overlap in the sense that the publisher peruses the author’s manuscript with one eye on each of the other two levels (leaving how many eyes to look at the MS itself? – good job they’re often plural) and the gatekeeper likewise appraises the finished book in relation to the desired or anticipated reaction of the child. The author, of course, anticipates all this when preparing the manuscript. Communication between author and reader is therefore governed by a complex process of refraction, however rarely this may actually be articulated or even consciously perceived.
Let me ask rhetorically – what master criterion should govern that effort to communicate?
Let me answer myself with an anecdote – which gets to the point in the end. Trust me. Some years ago UNESCO organised an international project to examine how each of six participating nations taught the history of the last two hundred years in the last two years of compulsory schooling. Confrontation was implicit in the entire venture which had deliberately been based on the involvement of three eastern bloc states and three western ones. But the overall atmosphere was one of desperate anxiety to produce a report to which all could assent. We hit the rocks with the very first recommendation – proposed by the Soviet representative -‘The teacher of history should be scientific’. Well, we all know what that’s a code word for. Marxists may claim history as a science; the rest of us ain’t at all sure. Sorry guys, no go. The East German came up with a revised bid -‘The history teacher should be objective’. The western group winced collectively as a counsel of perfection a bit hard to object to, but as a routine requirement? Stalemate. Silence. Eyes turn to examine the ceiling, the walls, the coffee-trolley in search of inspiration. ‘Accurate?’ I venture hesitantly. Multi-lingual conferring. Smiles. ‘Accurate’ is indeed, we all agree, what teachers should be. So I always try to be accurate.
But what does accurate mean? (still aim to practise what I have heard slightingly referred to as ‘Oxford history’ – getting the dates right. (They even tried to teach us that at the other place.) But history, it has been cogently observed, is not about facts but about the relationship between them.’ I’m still simple-minded enough to believe in the cardinal value of at least the pursuit of truth, even while I hear the constant echo of Oscar Wilde’s sardonic observation that the truth is seldom pure and never simple.
Starting from that premise about historical truth never being simple I once developed a series of books which were intended to convey, through their very structure, that very point, to impress upon the reader that momentous events, because they affected people in very different ways, could not be readily reduced to straightforward black and white judgements. The books took the form of multiple biographies, each book taking a major conventional `topic’ and showing how it shaped the lives of a dozen or so people who were caught up in it.
The first title dealt with the Great War. My concern for accuracy focused not on the details of the characters’ lives (which were more than adequately documented for the level of treatment I had space for) but on the selection of the characters themselves and the way in which they could be grouped together. First came the elite group who actually conducted the war at policy level. I chose a German general to show the ‘other’ side), an admiral (to bring out the strategic importance of the parallel war at sea), Marshal Petain (to point up the fact that a traitor at one point in his career could be a hero at another) and an Australian general (to underline the significance of the colonial contribution to the nominally British forces). The second group were the actual combatants – British infantryman, of course (stereotype expectations ought to be confirmed when they have a firm basis in fact), a trench poet (but one who never went to public school), a German sailor, a French lieutenant of transport and a Scottish nurse whose unit was so much part of the Serbian army that it would be insulting to describe her as a non-combatant. Finally came the ‘Home Front’ category – the US Ambassador in London, a ‘skivvi’ who became a prominent trade unionist, a little boy in the slums of Salford, following the war through adult gossip, a prominent pacifist, a Scottish strikeleader and an Austrian housewife, desperately trying to feed her family as an empire collapsed around her. On reflection my choices were too much focused on Europe. Half the point is that it was a world war, with campaigns from Africa to China. Perhaps there should have been something about the Ottomans, to show that `Johnny Turk’ was a much better soldier than the Allies had anticipated? But then how `accurate’ would it have been to give the Turks this due and omit the horrors of the Armenian massacres?
A subsequent title, on Nazi Germany, raised even sharper dilemmas. Part of the problem here was to try to explain the positive appeal of the Nazi movement without appearing to glamorize or endorse it. Offsetting this difficulty was a welcome opportunity to redress the imbalance of historical reportage and give long-overdue credit to the German anti-Nazi resistance. Between 1933 and 1939 the regular German courts sentenced 225,000 people to a total of 600,000 years imprisonment for political offences. The number killed without trial or who simply disappeared in ‘Nacht and Nabel’ (Night and Fog) is, with any accuracy, unknowable. Over the entire period 1933-45 at least 800,000 people – one in every hundred – were condemned to periods of detention for acts of resistance. I therefore devoted no less than half the book to the stories of ‘Resisters and Survivors’.
If writing within one’s own culture involves problematic areas of moral judgement, how much more is the difficulty compounded when one dares to stray beyond it?
I try to take pains when writing about Islam, to make it clear as far as I can, that I do so as a non-Muslim primarily addressing other non-Muslims. The collaboration and advice of supportive Muslim friends has therefore been invaluable. A decade ago I worked on a survey of the Islamic world aimed at the middle-school age-range. What one of my friends calls the ‘insultant’ was anything but that. An Arab, educated in both the classical and western traditions, he was a long-term British – resident with an English Muslim wife. Together we went through my MS literally word by word. In some ways it was like the UNESCO experience, looking for the mot juste that conveyed accuracy of meaning without leaving either the believer or the sceptic feeling unduly compromised. A crucial passage dealt with the authenticity of the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad, which we finally phrased as follows: ‘Muhammad was sitting in a cave on Mt Hira, when he sensed the presence of a strange being. This was perceived by him as the angel Gabriel…’ ‘Perceived’ seems a bit heavy-handed perhaps, certainly unpoetic; but perception was what the experience seems essentially to have been about.
Was the whole effort an exercise in superfluous scrupulosity? From the point of view of the average eleven-year-old, quite possibly. But there were the views of the gatekeepers and, not least, the sensibilities of concerned Muslim educators to be taken account of as well. The publisher was prudent and patient enough to let us get on with it and as the book has subsequently appeared in American, Dutch, Danish and Japanese editions, this shining example of editorial foresight seems to have been more than adequately rewarded.
Not that I’m claiming we got it all right. The book was profusely illustrated with superb colour photographs; that was really the point of it. But the core of Islam is not its aesthetic heritage (in a sense anything but) but its revelation. An exquisite Mughal miniature is, from the point of view of strict orthodoxy, if not quite a blasphemy certainly an irrelevance. What matters is the power and majesty of a divine message – in Arabic. How to convey that? to a child? on paper? The splendour of a gorgeously-lettered Qur’an perhaps conveys something through the visual dimension, but it is the verbal which is the essence of what one needs to get across. So all our ‘accuracy’ was, to that extent, off-beam.
And things do not seem to be getting any easier with experience. This time last year I was close to complete despair over the projected Islam section of a multi-author class text for the new National Curriculum in history. The problem arose essentially from the conflict between an Islamic tradition based on inculcating respect for intellectual authority and a western tradition which seeks to challenge it through critical inquiry. Ideally today’s favoured pedagogy seeks a selection (how accurate?!) of documentary and visual materials which can be, in effect, interrogated. The aspects of Islam one can investigate without blundering into blasphemy present one problem. The sheer paucity of surviving data which might be comprehensible and in the least interesting to the average lower secondary pupil was another. In the end we got there. (All hail the editor’s unsinkable tenacity.) And we did salve our consciences by spelling out what we’d been through in the accompanying teacher’s manual, so that they would have a better idea of why the book is as it finally is and not as they might have expected it to be, if you see what I mean. Oh, yes, and this time we even got the publisher to observe good Muslim manners and put an asterisk to stand for ‘peace be upon him’ every time we mentioned the name of the prophet Muhammad*.
Richard Tames worked with schools for fifteen years as Head of the External Services Division at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He has published 60 non-fiction books for children (both history and biography).