Robert Leeson reflects on recent objections to Political Correctness
‘Have you ever suffered unacceptable editorial interference on grounds of political correctness?’ asked the Daily Mail reporter.
‘No more than you do every day,’ I answered snappily.
‘Well, two-thirds of children’s authors have,’ came the reply.
I blinked. Two-thirds? If that’s so, we do have a censorship problem in Britain. I’ve worked in countries where there really was censorship and am wary about devaluing the word by applying it to the editorial interference every children’s author may meet, here.
When I saw the PEN Censorship Committee report which started off the Press hounds, I discovered what ‘two-thirds’ meant. PEN had sent questionnaires to 428 members of the Society of Authors (not, alas, to the Writer’s Guild which organises in films, TV, radio and theatre as well as books). Of the 428, 105 replied. Of those, 62 said they had been ‘censored’ in some way. So not two thirds, but one in eight or nine of all children’s authors.
Press fantasies over the PEN report went much further. ‘Minority pressure groups’ it seemed were terrorising publishers. One headline suggested the ‘Three Little Pigs’ had been banned to please the Ayatollahs. I cannot tell you how far this is from the careful wording of the PEN report. You must read it yourselves. Let’s just say we are talking about porkies not porkers. (A bit like that mythical teacher who forced the toddlers to sing ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’.)
The Press, or much of it (mainly those papers who bragged last year about winning the General Election for John Major) saw in the PEN report a chance to bash what they see as political enemies. It was, after all, a welcome diversion from the other news item concerning the books children read – Government plans to put English class books into a straitjacket again – to enforce political correctness as they see it.
‘… they want to restore a unity and stability based on the hegemony imposed by the upper and middle classes in the 1930s and before. The texts they prescribe often seem more suited to the days of British imperialism.’ No, that’s not Leeson talking. That is Professor Brian Cox, of National Curriculum and Black Paper fame (The Times, 1.3.93).
Like the Government’s plans for English Teaching, the Press assault on ‘political correctness’ in children’s books is an attempt to wipe out the largely beneficial changes of the past three to four decades.
The Sunday Telegraph (16.8.92) defines political correctness (revealingly) as a ‘battle to make children’s literature politically acceptable to all sections of society’.
In a way that sums up what ‘pressure groups’ on issues like racism, sexism, class bias, etc. have been after. The old literature generally behaved as though most children did not exist or were inherently ridiculous or untrustworthy. But things have changed. As one publisher’s editor told the PEN Committee, attitudes are now `more balanced’.
In times of social change (like the 18th-19th century) literature proceeds from assertion to assumption. Children’s literature is today emerging from a similar period. Today our children’s books are as well-written, perhaps better, than 40 years ago. And they reflect the world of all children. This change has not been smooth. Some change-seekers have been insensitive to authors’ feelings or ignorant of how literature works. But some of those resisting change failed to realise that disregarding or demeaning people on the basis of a false view of their essential nature (racism, sexism, snobbery, etc) is not just morally but aesthetically and creatively wrong. If you have real literary standards, you have moral standards in my view.
With respect, also, for PEN’s ‘unhampered transmission of thought’, no writer for children is absolutely free. We are all, like editors, teachers and librarians, in loco parentis.
Nor is the answer as one author put it ‘responding legitimately to market forces’. The market is never neutral, least so in children’s literature where it is often institutional/parental. 30 years ago the `market’ was used often to justify clinging on to the out-moded school story, of the Greyfriars era.
So negotiation between writer and editor becomes a matter for mutual respect, and a proper understanding of the issues. With this, I believe, a lot of the irritations quoted in the PEN report might have been avoided. Editors cannot solve large social/literary problems in the compass of each book. But if writers imagine they can write for children with the same freedom as for adults, they are in the wrong trade.
The PEN report calls for a discussion on these problems. A good idea, though I doubt whether Fleet Street (right now a graveyard for intellectual notions) was really the best place to start.
I could say more, but BfK‘s editor said 900 words only… interfering busybody!
The PEN report is available from The English Centre, 7 Dilke Street, London SW3 4JE (tel: 071 352 6303).
Robert Leeson has written many books for children, as well as writing for radio, theatre and TV. His latest title is Ghosts at Hob Lane, Hamish Hamilton ‘Antelope’, 0 241 13181 2, £4.99