Friday, February 23, 2007

Censorship: what's all the fuss about?

Having read Candy Gourlay's latest post and Scott Westerfield's whom Candy cites, I thought I'd chip into the debate over the Newbery Award winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky, a book I have not read, but after all this fuss, am very likely to read.

So what's all the fuss about?

The word scrotum which apparently appears on page 1 of the novel. The book starts with a girl over-hearing a conversation about a dog being bitten on the scrotum, by a snake, I hasten to add.

This immediately got me thinking about Mark Haddon's fantastic award winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time which starts with a story of a dead dog and which includes the F word on the first page. Similarly, this book caused much controversy when it first appeared.

I loved the book and when I was head of department, I really wanted to buy in copies of and teach it, but I was aware of some parents' potential objections to the F word on the first page. I know schools do teach it but given the school I was in, which was fee paying, I thought it best not to. That's a decision I made, but it didn't stop me recommending the book to receptive students (with a quiet warning about potentially offensive language).

As a teacher you have to be conscious of your role.

Saying that, I think some people who aren't, and in some cases who are, in touch with kids think children live in cocoons where innocence is best preserved. It's an idealistic view that is quaint and honourable but, I think, unrealistic.

I teach and I know what kids are like. From a teacher's perspective this is not a modern phenomenon.

Anyone who's read any Shakepeare knows how crude he can be. He had to be - to appeal to certain sects of his audience. As for Chaucer, have any of you read his tales? Sex- they're full of sex. What about D.H Lawrence's works? Oscar Wilde's stuff? Come on. Literature is full of controversy because art imitates life.

Teaching Shakespeare with words like bosom and ass (as found in my most recent Midsummer Night's Dream endeavours with Year 7 (eleven year old girls and boys)is great. The kids love it. If bosom can get a laugh, I think scrotum definitely would. Now whether this is good or not from a class management point of view is another thing. It definitely helped to sell the play to the kids. They were scrabbling over reading parts but whether this was necessary to their enjoyment of and understanding of the text is something else. My life would've been easier if I hadn't had to contend with pre-pubescent and in some cases pubescent kids tittering at every other word, and sometimes for the wrong reasons, I might add, but it was a hook which made them listen and made them engage with the text so that they could finally understand when I explained that Shakespeare meant an idiot when he used the word ass and was playing with language because Bottom had been turned into an ass by Puck.

So is a controversial word enough to say ban the book? I don't think so, but history has shown that there will always be those who will say, 'Ban the book!' for whatever reason. Lady Chatterley's Lover is a case in point, but there are many. Read all about them at the online books page of banned books. Would you belive that Red Riding Hood features and did you know that Beverley Naidoo's novel Journey to Jo'burg was banned in South Africa under the apartheid regime? So it seems that good and sometimes apparently innocuous books can cause a reaction.

Let me share a few stories with you:
In one school where I taught, a parent complained when another teacher decided to teach Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone; someone wrote in when a colleague started to teach Stan Barstow's A Kind of Loving and another when lesbianism was touched upon in a novel. So what are we to do?

Modern and not so modern texts deal with issues that kids will face in this twentieth century world of ours - pregnancy, racism, unemployment, homosexuality, relationships, abuse and yes they do include swear words, so rather than hide from this why not arm kids to be able to deal with things in a mature way? Otherwise are we not doing them a disservice and worse still are we not preventing the next generation from evolving? Let me present a worst case scenario: if we go down this route are we not heading towards a Big Brother world? Knowledge is power. Are we going to limit who has access to this power? I'm not advocating reading books with explicit sex scenes to toddlers just raising the topical issue of censorship. I simply pose the questions. Let me know what you think. Join the debate- go on you know you want to!

In any case, judging by past records, The Higher Power of Lucky is in good company. All this publicity can't be doing the novel any harm. Kids'll want to read it just to see the offending word and adults will buy a copy just to see what all the fuss is about or to censor it- of course!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The nature of writing and criticism

Kingsley Amis said 'If you can't annoy somebody there's little point in writing' and Ernest Hemingway said 'If writers believe the critics when they say they are great then they must believe them when they say they are rotten and they lose confidence.'

Today, I've been considering the nature of criticism and the reception that we writers hope to get when submitting manuscripts. I've also thought about the reception that we actually get and whether these two tally or not, and I've come to the conclusion that there are no set rules.

Everyone is different. What will appeal to person X will not necessarily appeal to person Y and therefore the reception we receive must be immaterial.

What I liked about Debi Gliori when I went on the SCBWI retreat last year was that she wasn't one for hard and fast rules. Her advice was just get the story down. Then work on it. I've come to the conclusion that that's my working model. I have to draft and redraft. On the other hand, other writers have given me advice about how to write based on rules or techniques. I much prefer the former approach but then that's just me.

With this in mind, I've decided to listen to others and take on board what I can see working but remain faithful to my own beliefs at all times. Just thought I'd share that revelation with you all!!

'The pen - or in this case the keyboard- is the tongue of the mind' (Cervantes)after all!

Monday, February 12, 2007

On course for ...

Mondays are my busiest day in work. Consequently, come the end of the day, I am ex-hausted, ex-asperated and ex-tremely tired.

I am so looking forward to my half term next week when I intend to re-lax, re-cuperate and re-juvenate, re-ward myself for all my hard work.

The SCBWI in their latest in house publication Words and Pictures included an article with tips from writers about how to keep motivated and how to fit writing into your life. One writer suggested rewards; mentally noting that if aim X is achieved I will receive reward Y definitely keeps me going. I'm very goal orientated in this respect. With that in mind, I've been planning what to do over the Easter and Summer, never mind half term which I've more or less decided upon.

Over Easter I may go on Alan Durant's writing course in France. I met him last year. For any of you who don't know his work,he's a children's author with books ranging from picture books to YA fiction. His course is on writing for children. However I also noticed that the Arvon Foundation is running such a course in the summer hosted by Malorie Blackman and Lee Weatherley, although this may be booked up. Candy Gourlay, a writer friend told me she'd signed up for the Arvon course run by Tony Bradman and Julia Bell which also looks good, so alongside wanting to travel, I want to do one of these courses.

It's just a case of deciding which and determining whether the indulgence is worth it. I should really save up for a new bathroom and the MA I want to start. Then again, perhaps I can do all three if I walk to work, starve myself and become a hermit for long enough.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Marion- editor at Balberry Press (for York Notes) let me know today that my notes have sold quite well and are being sent for a reprint! Guess that's good news. Cheered me up after a VERY tiring day.

And it's inspired me to do some writing.

I caught the last forty minutes or so of a wonderful film yesterday. It was in Italian with subtitles. It's called Life is Beautiful. Have you seen it? I can't recommend the film enough. In fact, I loved it so much that I've ordered myself a copy to watch it properly and as I've been studying WW1 and some WW2 literature with one of my classes, I will vet it then possibly let them see it.

Having seen The Return and Smoking Aces recently at the cinema, I can certainly say, I much preferred Life is Beautiful. A really moving film. Make sure you have tissues handy if you intend to watch it.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Editing, proofing, copy editing

I've been working on a few queries related to the Challenge Series of books for Hodder and WHSmith today and it got me thinking about the different jobs there are in the publishing world. I read something recently about the fact that a lot of editing work was being done by freelancers. This, I believe, was the case with the copy editor for my York Notes. I wondered how common this was and that set me on a journey round the internet.

In my research on this subject I discovered this site about copy editing and I found out that, alongside other institutions, Learn Direct has information and a course on it! The Society for Editors and Proof Readers is another useful place to go if this area of the publishing world is of interest to you.

Other news- I'm hoping to work on The View from My Window this weekend, after my writers' group gave me lots of positive feedback on it last week; it's spurred me on, and I need to draft the beginning of a short story as a possible contribution to an anthology.

Besides all that, I intend to go for a walk and possibly the cinema tomorrow. It is the weekend after all!