JEAN URE – Writer
Imagine, then, my surprise when my daughter read to me from page 37, ‘The macaroni cheese looked like horrible yellow snot…’ To say I was shocked does not do justice to my feelings. To find that sort of language in a young child’s book is beyond belief. – Mrs E, Chatham.
Dear Mrs E, So what’s wrong with macaroni cheese? I agree it’s not exactly gourmet food, but I wouldn’t have thought it as bad as all that.
Still, some people will complain about anything.
The lively characterisation and humorous text have resulted in an enjoyable adventure story, which is spoilt only by the use of the occasional swear word.
The swear words in question? A heap of crap: damn an’ blars (sic): bum print: knickers: blimey.
Do these really constitute swear words? All I can say is, **** me! Whoever reviewed this particular book should hear some of the ****ing language the ****ing kids in this ****ing neck of the woods give mouth to!
But wait, I think I may have solved the mystery… the reviewer must have misread ‘bugging device’ for ‘buggering device’. Even I, who am so free with the bums and the knickers and the macaroni cheese, would not use the word buggering in a book for under-elevens. This comes under the heading of ‘self-censorship’, and self-censorship is something which all authors practise, either consciously or unconsciously, and for a whole variety of reasons – some artistic, some moral, some economic. The first is acceptable: the second may or may not be, according to whether it is a moral conclusion which has been honestly arrived at or merely a received prejudice. The third, I believe, never can be – and yet when it comes to the vexed question of bad language it seems to me that it is almost always economic forces which are at work.
I recently had lunch with the hard-cover and soft-cover editors at one of my publishers. The subject of four-letter words came up. I was asked what my stance was, and said that I employed them only where I felt them to be necessary in the interests of artistic truthfulness, and then as sparingly as possible, simply on the grounds that what can sound inoffensive when used as a meaningless throwaway in speech frequently acquires overtones of ugliness and violence when set down on the printed page: one has to be very careful of context. I then added that all too many parents, reviewers, librarians, etc., were these days objecting to characters talking as they would in real life and seemed to require sanitised versions which any teenage reader, and junior as well, in all likelihood, would instantly recognise as phoney.
The hard-cover editor (a man; does it make any difference?) declared that as far as he was concerned his authors should be free to write whatever they wished to write and he would hold out most strongly against censorship in any shape or form. My heart warmed to him. Here was an editor to be prized! Yes, yes, I said. How I agree!
Then the soft-cover editor (a woman; again I ask, does it make any difference?) spoke up with some force and said that as far as she was concerned the main objective was to get the books into the schools and the libraries and get them read, and if this involved cutting out a few of the f*cks and sh*ts, then so be it. She felt the message was more important than a few four-letter words. And I listened to her and I thought, here is an editor who knows what it is all about; and I thought again, yes, yes! How I agree!
And then I came home and sat down to try to work out exactly where I, as a writer, stood in all this. It is difficult to clarify one’s thoughts. The main thing is to get one’s books read – isn’t it? Well, yes, it is; but not at any cost. Not at the cost of characters who are alive and real. On the other hand, it is hardly a matter of sacred principle that my characters should use so-called ‘offensive’ language. Yet it is a matter of principle that characters should be true to themselves, otherwise what is the point of writing about them?
Twice I have bowed to pressure and regretted it. In the first case, the pressure came not from editors but from reviewers. I had had a spate of reviews complaining that one of my male characters used the word ‘wanker’ and I thought, ‘I’ll show ’em!’ So, as a joke (well, I thought it was a joke), in my next teenage book I substituted asterisks – ‘****!’ cried Bonnie, and ‘**** off!’ cried Bonnie. Alas, the reviewers did not see it as a joke: I was taken to task for being coy…
In the second case I foolishly crossed swords with the Americans. Now, as all writers reading this article will know, American editors live in permanent dread of the moral majority and will often not even permit one to say ‘My God!’ Or ‘Bloody hell!’ In general I have not had much difficulty finding substitutes, which in almost all cases have been very nearly as satisfactory (proving that it can be done – but one does not care to have guns held at one’s head). However, when it came to removing the words, ‘I can’t take any more of this fucking crap!’, from a book of mine called One Green Leaf, I finally made a stand. This is a book which is very dear to me and I had thought long and hard before using the words in the UK edition – there was a very good and defensible reason for them. I gave the good and defensible reasons, heard no more, and thought with smug satisfaction that here was one author who couldn’t be bullied into submission.
Poor innocent fool! On receiving my advance copies from the States, what did I find? In the face of my bold authorial intransigence, the whole speech had been wiped out entirely …
I could, of course, have got back to the publishers and made tremendous waves, demanded the book be pulled out of schedule, demanded, even, that it be pulped, but equally of course I didn’t: I bowed in the end to the inevitable economic pressures.
It appears to be a fact that virtually all censorship involving language does indeed stem from economic forces. Publishers have to sell books: authors have to make a living. Librarians and teachers, presumably, are terrorised by a vociferous minority of parents and are understandably nervous of losing their jobs or having their budgets still further slashed. One is therefore tempted to extrapolate from this that all the ills of censorship derive from the economic system under which we live. There is more than a vestige of truth in this, yet even in an ideal socialist society I suspect there would still be factions at work exerting pressure. All right, it would not be economic pressure but, human beings being what they are, there are always those who will find something to object to and will try to get it axed.
And let me not pretend that even we writers are such purists when it comes to censorship! I will hereby confess that I recently raised hell over a book which (with supposed humour) advocated the slicing up and frying of one’s pet dog. This outraged me as much as the mention of macaroni cheese outraged my correspondent from Chatham. The author concerned loftily wrote me that he was ‘thankful to say I have never, and will never, attempt to stop a fellow author’s book.’ But suppose it was a book which (with supposed humour) advocated the slicing up and frying of one’s own baby? Ah, well, there is probably a law against that…
But where there isn’t a law, then I have come to the conclusion that easy answers simply do not exist. It is all well and good to trumpet academically that there should never be censorship of any kind, period. This is not practical. The law in itself is a form of censorship. Writing, which involves selection, is a form of censorship. I recently heard a local urchin, thumbing his nose at a somewhat sour Older Person, shout, ‘Fuck off, missis, it ain’t your roof!’ I felt deeply in sympathy with this urchin, yet self-censorship (for reasons unexpectedly complex, when one starts to analyse them) would stop me from reproducing this in a book for the urchin’s age group. This is the acceptable face of censorship: I am not under outside pressure, it is not economically based. Of my own free will I choose to censor myself. What I think we must all resist as far as we possibly can, given each individual’s nature and circumstances, and the nature of the books he/she writes, is censorship imposed.
As a corollary to that, I for one must resist the temptation of allowing myself to become bloody-minded. I am beginning to feel the Thatcherites sitting on my shoulder as I write, and it is tempting me into devilment . . . it’s nice but it’s naughty! And probably, in the long run, counterproductive.
PARENTS of children aged 9, 6½, 4½, 3 years
(who for obvious reasons, wish to remain anonymous)
We’ve always felt that our approach to censorship was very much one of middle-class liberalism – with a strong desire to explain all. Frequently, we’ve squirmed at the actions of others, like a grandmother who couldn’t bring herself to read The Little Red Hen without substituting ‘Not I said the rat’ with ‘Not I said the mouse’, and a misguided sister, who felt the use of the word ‘axe’ in a story was too violent; she preferred ‘tomahawk’!
We now realise that we are constantly censoring reading material for each of our four children. This can be direct when we actually remove the reading matter or indirect when we react very unenthusiastically towards it.
A book we hid from our eldest child was Going West (Waddell/ Dupasquier). Other children we knew loved it but he was deeply perturbed by the skeletons, deaths and poisoned water; each reading was followed by nightmares. He also loved, but was terrified by, ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ so we resisted his requests to buy him his own set until he was nearly nine when he could read them at bed-time and have a settled night! On the other hand we anticipated our six-year-old being upset, as we remembered being, by The Water Babies and we were wrong; a different child with a different personality was able to cope with the parts we considered sad and cruel.
We also protect our children from some of the harsher aspects of the outside world, in the belief that they are entitled to their childhood and, while being made aware of current problems, they should not be burdened by them. As parents, our early morning conversation is, ‘go on, you make the tea, and don’t forget to hide the newspaper.’ An instance of this recently was when the news from China turned into a horror story. We have also found that as the children’s reading ability grows so does their reach and we have moved some of our books to higher shelves. For our smaller children censorship takes on a different form. When reading Bedknob and Broomstick (Mary Norton), we showed our disapproval that the black inhabitants of a faraway island were referred to as savages – as if being white were synonymous with civilised. These views have clearly passed to our children and the two who read independently will now vet their own books and tell us indignantly if they believe something to be racist or sexist.
A further form of censorship is to do with what we call ‘rubbish’ (dare we give examples?) – ‘Little Pony’ comics, `He-man and the Masters of the Universe’, ‘prince and princessy’ books, etc. The children choose their own library books, buy comics and books with pocket money, and we consider ourselves fairly flexible but we have to confess that when it comes to reading the bed-time story, we have been heard to say, ‘I’m not reading that rubbish to you; pick a proper story!’ One of us even refused to read Thomas the Tank Engine because he believed that rude engines led to rude children!
And last, but not least, we have even removed Roald Dahl from the children’s suitcases before we go on holiday to grandparents. We know by experience that Granma does not share our delight in hearing Revolting Rhymes read out loud!
On reflection, for a variety of reasons we do seem to spend a lot of time ‘interfering’ in our children’s reading. We are not sure whether we are always right but we believe we are not the only ones attempting to guide our growing children along the way.
GEORGE HUNT – Teacher
A couple of weeks ago an anxious parent approached me in the school library and asked if she could go through our stock of Judy Blume novels. Her daughter enjoyed these novels, and on picking one up in a bookshop, the parent had been shocked to discover that the opening paragraph mentioned a girl having been ‘laid’ several times before her eighteenth birthday. This was not the sort of stuff she wanted her daughter to read. It turned out that we did not have that particular book on our shelves, but I have little idea how I would have reacted if the parent had found the book and demanded its withdrawal.
It’s not that I have no opinions. I have several strong opinions – each of which opposes the others. I believe that children should be free to sort out their own tastes in literature, but can’t help grieving at some of the choices they make. I feel that a healthy reading diet should contain a modicum of pap and spice, but I become depressed when I see readers wallowing in Enid Blyton or books which rely on violence for their charm.
The crucial question is the extent to which literature changes children. As a reader, I am aware of the potential power of texts; as a teacher, I am aware of the complex and evolving sensitivities of children. I believe that books do affect readers, otherwise there would be no point in promoting them; but I also believe that the nature of the influence a particular book will have on an individual is largely unpredictable. In the light of this, laying down a prescriptive policy which either bans certain books or allows free access to all books for all children is a bit like trying to draw a straight line on the surface of moving water. I prefer to forgo such ayatollic certainties, and act instead on day-to-day and moment-to-moment decisions informed by tentative knowledge about books and individual readers.
Some decisions, such as those involved in clearing the library of books full of misinformation and stereotypes, are relatively easy to make. Others, such as those made while reading aloud and recommending books to children, are more difficult and usually generate unanswered questions.
Should I have provided a warning before recommending to a black child a Laura Ingalls Wilder book containing the word ‘nigger’? Would the use of this word alienate the reader? Wouldn’t withholding the book have constituted a patronising restriction on the child’s literary experiences?
Was a recent decision to delete the words ‘piss off while reading aloud from Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land taken to protect my own feelings, or those of a particularly sensitive child in the class? If the latter, why had I chosen such a disturbing book anyway? Did this act of censorship weaken the intentionally brutal impact of the book?
I neither know nor expect to discover answers to these questions. Presenting literature to children is a social act riddled with the contradictions and uncertainties common to all social acts. In the circumstances, a reliance on highly fallible common sense and intuition seems the best available policy.
HELEN PAIBA – Bookseller
In selecting for the bookshop, the word ‘children’s’ in our name causes me the most anxiety. Making a choice in non-fiction is subject to space and finance. These have to be considerations because yet another title on a well-researched subject has to have something extra to be able to push an already stocked book off the shelf – for example, books that may be used in assembly which show a range of different faiths with the various festivals of light that are celebrated near to Christmas.
Picture books also require a fresh approach and it is hard to be original. However, we look for a multi-racial approach that reflects urban life both in street scenes and in the classroom, not ‘plonked’ in for effect but occurring naturally as really happens.
Now the tricky part of ‘children’s’. When does childhood end? In a brave attempt to keep readers after 11/12 years old, there is a huge output of books – in many cases designed for this market. It is not possible for us to read them all before they are on the shelf, yet we feel a responsibility to parents and teachers as to content. If a book is picked up in a general bookshop, few complaints would be heard regarding bad language or sex scenes but a children’s book is deemed to be only for ‘improvement’ – however unfairly when much more relaxed standards are accepted on TV, radio and in magazines. Although the adult market bestsellers do not always reflect serious literature, I think there is hypocrisy about what young people should read, and in many situations it is unrealistic.
I do not believe that bad language and sexual titillation make a poor book great literature. I do believe that they do not diminish a well written book. It is difficult to live in an open society and expect young readers to believe in some sanitized non-existent world.
What is the line between selection and censorship – the difference between something that is simply poor quality or actually offensive, e.g. racist and sexist? Or is it less clear cut? We are very subjective on our part; certain librarians find Willy the Wimp and Willy the Champ racist and sexist. We do not – but is it censorship for them not to stock these books or is it choice? Once you start on the slippery slope of censorship, where does it stop? If you are looking for it, you can find something you dislike in much of what is available. Who has the right to say one person shall not read something because of their own personal views? The important thing after all is choice.
ANNE EVERALL – Librarian
Parents expect the children’s library service to accept responsibility for what their children read and borrow. Because of this, there are times when I’m forced to act as a ‘censor’.
An example was when a child of seven wanted to borrow Judy Blume’s Forever. After talking to her and finding out that her favourite stories were C S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Judy Blume’s Freckle Juice, I persuaded her to take an alternative, more in tune with her emotional level. Would her parents have condemned me for censoring what she was reading? Or would they have recognised that I did it out of concern for a young child perhaps not yet ready for the detailed and explicit relationships explored in Judy Blume’s story? Obviously if her parents had been with her I would have talked to them and the decision would then have been theirs.
Another concern is that books purchased are usually put onto the shelves and are available for all. It worries me that I may not know if very small children borrow Susanna Gretz’s Teddy Bears 1-10. 1 cannot therefore tell them that although bears can be cleaned in the washing machine and hung up to dry in plastic bags children should not try it as it is dangerous. Even if I can tell them, how can I be sure my message is fully understood? Yet, if I don’t stock the book because of my fears, am I censoring?
In addition, people using the service have widely differing views which brings its own pressures, from a national debate over Jenny lives with Eric and Martin to the local fire-officer expressing his concern that in Phoebe and the Hot Water Bottle a child is shown putting out a fire by herself.
In consideration of these factors and to ensure that children have access to a wide variety of books, most library authorities have book selection policies in operation. These are usually drawn up following lengthy discussions between professional colleagues, parents, members of the community and sometimes young people themselves. They encompass a range of selection criteria – accuracy of information, awareness of any bias, quality of illustration, characterisation, storyline, standard of production and relevance to the intended age range.
There will still be times, however, when librarians are in the middle of opposing views as I was when, having just put down the telephone after being accused by a borrower of peddling soft pornography for stocking Claire Rayner’s The Body Book, I was congratulated by another parent for having such a useful book in stock. There are no easy answers!
ROSEMARY SANDBERG – Publisher
Every now and then, a picture book text arrives on the desk that stops one in one’s tracks. Abigail at the Beach was one such text. It held my attention, made me think, and made me laugh. The author, Felix Pirani, could write, his use of words was interesting, economic, his style was original with a colourful dash. There was nothing twee, nothing condescending, nothing beyond a young child’s comprehension.
What a rare event. And even more important, what he was saying was wise and honest. On the face of it, it is a simple enough story about a little girl who spends a day at the beach with her daddy. Abigail sets about building the biggest sandcastle in the world, while her daddy settles down with a space fiction novel. Each one fantasizes about the possibilities of their dreams. Abigail, however, is rudely interrupted by two big boys who want to knock down her castle. Now how can a small girl deal with a large threat like this? With powerful words and a vivid imagination is how.
‘You touch one of my towers,’ said Abigail, ‘and I’ll get my daddy to hang you both upside down by the heels. He’s in the Mafia.’ Off trot the boys and Abigail returns to her sandcastle. Similar dangers present themselves twice more, and again this independent, tough little girl stands her ground and sees off the threat. Daddy continues his book, admires the castle, Abigail completes her building, and as the sun begins to set, they leave for home after a perfect day together. It is a gem of a book.
Fifty-four Members of Parliament, however, thought differently, and signed an early day Commons motion to have the book withdrawn. My Chairman had a few weeks earlier received a letter from the sponsoring MP enclosing a complaint from a constituent, but as she was moaning about Roald Dahl, Roger McGough, Sheila Lavelle and many other highly distinguished children’s writers, I had paid scant attention. Now of course I sat up. I was mystified as to why so many MPs of varying political persuasions were objecting to such a good and purposeful book. The accusations were that (1) the book was leading children to violent acts and (2) the book was leading children to alcoholism because dad takes three cans of beer to the beach. I then spent two days being quizzed by the media. The irony of the situation was that children’s literature is founded on fairy tales in which there is considerable violence. There is no violence in Abigail, however. Our heroine deflects a potentially dangerous situation with her imagination and verbal powers. Her aggressive tendencies are fantasized and she sees off the threat on her own. Any child psychologist or educator will emphasize the need for stories where a child’s natural aggressive tendencies are dealt with in an imaginative and helpful way. And as for the beer, well what would most dads select from choice to take to the beach? He’d remembered Abigail’s orange juice, and three cans over a long hot afternoon is scarcely the stuff of drunken reveries. It is life as it is lived, and what is wrong with portraying that?
Luckily this furore happened a few days before Christmas. I did promise the MPs that I would indeed withdraw the book if one child was driven to string another upside down by the ankles, or if one child (and it need not be the same one) was driven to drink. I’ve heard nothing further, so I can only assume that children do indeed have more sense than adults – or at least than MPs. I do however have to thank the media for giving the argument so much airtime and so many newspaper columns. I am absolutely certain that there are many small girls who will have gained a measure of self-confidence when faced with bullying. And that after all is one of the messages too in many a fairy tale.
But I was taken by surprise by this sanctimonious and ignorant outburst on such a grand scale. Of course I’ve received my share of letters asking me to withdraw books (‘and to think your company publishes the Bible, too’, from Yours in Disgust, Inverness) which I reply to with care and reason, in the hope that the writer will at least consider an alternative point of view. However, when Authority demands a ban on an honest, caring picture book, then it makes me even more determined to publish good, controversial and stimulating books for children of all ages, and with any luck different ideas and viewpoints will be seen not as a threat but as a stimulus to encourage children to think for themselves, to get excited about differing opinions and values.
If they learn this well, they’ll then understand the danger of that short phrase ‘Ban the Book’.