I haven’t written a genuine* letter to the editor since I was sixteen, but I was moved to do so by this article by Rosemary Neill in the Australian’s Review liftout. While I understand that journos must find a controversial line in any given issue, the article was insulting to those of us who work hard at our craft, and it misrepresented books such as Requiem and Marty’s Shadow by emphasising their darkness and failing to describe the emotional, artistic and literary texture of those works.
My letter, published in this weekend’s Review, said:
I don’t know what books Rosemary Neill has been reading, but there must be a bit of the-blind-men-and-the-elephant syndrome at work in young adult and children’s literature. Requiem for a Beast may well be very dark, but it is also terribly moving and thought-provokingly beautiful; Marty’s Shadow may contain a near-suicide scene, but I read it as a novel about the redemptive power of love; and I would far rather my 11-year-old daughter read Gleitzman’s Then than watch Neighbours. And if there is a skerrick of evidence that teenagers have been traumatised by reading so-called gritty YA books – which, after all, can so easily be put down – I’d like to see it.
There was a whole lot more I wanted to say, but for want of space could not. Here, then, is a quick but by no means exhaustive run-down of my comments on the article:
- Re swearing in YA books: If a writer uses ‘bad’ language merely for shock value, the only people who will be shocked by it are ‘old’ people, because in my experience, young people don’t even notice it’s there. A more important point is surely whether the language fits the context. My second novel, Skating the Edge, contains quite a few uses of the word fuck, because it is largely set in an adolescent psychiatric hospital, a setting in which the use of language is not noticeably restrained. The Push, on the other hand, contains one single instance of the word, shown to be as shocking as it was in 1950s Australia. In any case, there is far more swearing online, on air, and in the playground than your average teenager is ever likely to come across in a novel. It is a non-issue.
- Re ‘gritty’. Gritty or edgy seems to be a code word for ‘working class’. Books like Requiem for a Beast, Marty’s Shadow, Sleeping Dogs, Deadly Unna, Bill Condon‘s books (to name a few) all deal with non-whitebread, non-middle-class experience. To most reviewers and journalists and critics, however, these are alien worlds that are threatening to the middle-class adult reader. (Prove me wrong.)
- Re ‘taboo topics’. Neill complains that she’s read books for teenagers about ‘depression, suicide, underage sex, date rape, pack rape, transsexuality, murder, infidelity, self-harm, drug addiction and war atrocities.’ To me, it’s not the topic that is the issue – it is the way the topic is treated. Anybody who has heard Morris Gleitzman talk about the process of writing Once will know the profound effect it had on him, and that he was extremely aware of the issues inherent in presenting such material to young people. The YA writers I know who deal with challenging subjects are similarly conscious of the powerful effect of the well-written novel, and do not want to leave readers with an impression of unremitting bleakness. They also know that developing empathy and understanding is one of the functions of reading fiction, and will not short-change readers by avoiding topics that might be uncomfortable for some adults.
- Re ‘trauma.’ The argument goes that because counsellors were traumatised by listening to the accounts of 9/11 survivors, kids will be similarly traumatised by reading ‘gritty’ books. Huh? That’s right – people listening to the real, traumatic accounts of a real, traumatic event are affected in the same way as young people reading a carefully crafted, edited, put-downable piece of fiction. This is a damnable minimalisation of trauma, and its logical disconnect is breathtaking. While books are powerful, and can have powerful effects, it should be self-evident that there is a world of difference between real suffering and suffering conveyed through the contrivance of language.
- Re the Children’s Book Council. Does it need an overhaul? Do we need to change the name so that it adequately reflects the fact that many of its awards are or can be for content suitable to young adults? I say yes to both. James Roy, on this point, commented that ‘I think the CBC did a good thing adding the Early Childhood Reader category so that there would be less confusion when people like Crew/Ottley /Tan did ‘mature’ picture books/graphic novels/whatever term you prefer. How can you judge Requiem against Cat In, Dog Out, for example? Or something by Bob Graham vs The Watertower? Clearly, different categories were called for. Sadly, the teacher-librarians and the public didn’t go with them on the reshuffle . I think an overhaul of the CBC after this year would be over the top, but they might need to do more to push the notion that a picture book doesn’t have to be for pre-schoolers.’
- James Roy also said ‘For me the controversy over the themes and language in Requiem is just a media beatup. Did any of these people read JC Burke’s Tom Brennan? Of more interest is how we keep a level playing field in these awards, and educate the public/librarians on not getting hysterical when a graphic novel is violent or profane?’
I need to get back to finishing my very non-violent and unprofane chess novel now. Any comments on the above are welcome.
* I’ve written plenty of fake ones, but that’s another story.