Monday, 17 August 2009

Don't mention it ... (or No sex, please - we're American)

Yale University Press is getting some flak for its decision to remove pictures of the prophet Mohammed from The Cartoons That Shook the World. As well as the cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 lambasting Islam, the book was to have included an engraving by Gustav Dore for a 19th-century edition of Dante's Inferno. (The illustration of Mohammed in Hell here is by William Blake.) They have been removed to avoid offending Muslim readers and so prompting terrorist acts. This type of pre-emptive censorship is hardly news to children's writers. We live with it all the time. And it's not Muslims we can't afford to offend, it's Americans.

A friend (an MP) recently grumbled that he couldn't find a book about evolution for his young son. He sent me a message on Facebook to suggest I write one. I would love to, but evolution is one of many topics that are out of bounds for children's writers. Although most British parents and teachers want their children to know about this important aspect of science, the US market is evolution-hostile. There are enough Creationists to make it difficult for US schools and libraries, and in some places even bookshops, to stock a children's book about evolution because they are worried about complaints and boycotts. This year I even had an adult book about evolution turned down because the UK publisher (who wanted to do the book) couldn't find a US publishing partner to take it on.

Without a US market, many full-colour children's books aren't financially viable. The result is that the reading of UK children is limited by a bunch of nutty Creationists 4,000 miles away who don't even work in publishing. It's insane - as insane as the idea that the world was created by a supernatural being in seven days (or six with a holiday - why would an extra-temporal being need a holiday?) And no, I am not going to 'respect their beliefs' any more than I would respect an adult who believed in the tooth fairy.

It's not just evolution that's out of bounds. Sex and nudity are also ring-fenced - to the extent that it's not possible to show an image of Michelangelo's David in an art history book, or a teenager in a short skirt or a bikini. In 2007, an American publisher precipitated a row with a German illustrator after asking that the virtually invisible penis on statue in an illustration of an art gallery be airbrushed out. The statue itself was only 7.5 millimetres high, so you can imagine how hard you would have to look to find the penis and be offended by it. (In this case the publisher backed down under the ridicule heaped upon it.)

Violence fares no better, despite American children spending most waking moments playing World of Warcraft and watching Terminator movies (or worse) while choosing which gun to buy later. Books on medieval warfare can't show dangerous weapons or violent activity - so no swords, and no bows and arrows. And for later periods, absolutely no guns. (How the West was won - they gently persuaded the native Americans to die off?)

Fiction is no easier than fact. Stories can't feature unfamiliar things such as a hedgehogs, wardrobes and sausages (God forbid the American child would have to find out something about wildlife or bedroom furniture outside the Land of the Free). Witches are often vetoed, too, unless you are JKR (and her books aren't allowed everywhere). It's a bit easier at the upper end of the age range.


It's not just the US that limits what British children can see in books. As more and more books are printed in China, offending Chinese sensibilities has become a new concern. Anthony Browne tells of how he had a book pulped by the Chinese printers after they noticed it showed a Tibetan flag. Other books have any mention of Tibet removed, and even any critical remarks about China's allies in Africa may be censored.

Why do we allow this? Why don't publishers print their books elsewhere (yes, I know China is cheap - but so are India, Russia and eastern Europe), and why do they go along with US nannying? Separate US language editions are produced anyway - it wouldn't be hard, since the black plate is different, to blot out the bits of pcitures that American children aren't allowed to see, and to edit the text. Of course, blotting out would let them know their book has been censored. And they have that thing, don't they, about freedom of speech? As long as you don't use your freedom of speech to say something like - life on Earth evolved over billions of years... (For a confusion of Creationism, evolution, prejudice and gun crime, see this brilliant scene from Mean Girls.)

Some of this nannying is dangerous not only to the intellectual health of children, but to their physical health, too. A book about healthy living for teenagers can't include advice on aspects of sexual health - presumably because teenagers who hadn't thought of having sex might feel encouraged to try it if a book mentioned condoms or health checks or contraception. American children need this information as much as - and perhaps more than - British children (who have other sources, at least). Here's another bit of advice from Mean Girls, this time on sex education.

Enough grumbling - I'm off to sit in the wardrobe in a skimpy outfit, drink some Taiwanese spirits, and write the outline for my book on the evolution of the Tibetan hedgehog. UK market only, of course.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Machines guns to the ready - writers get together


Writing has always been a lonely business. Years ago, the world was very different. Not only did we have to wipe the dinosaur footprints off the galley proofs before sending them back in the post, we had hardly any contact with other writers so we couldn’t even compare dinosaurs. But over the last two or three years the loneliness of the long-distance writer has faded away. Our studies and writing sheds now hum with the voices of other writers, always on hand to offer advice, distract with jokes or questions, to encourage, sympathise, congratulate, grumble or just gossip.

Like most writers, I belong to several online groups. One of the best is Balaclava, the discussion group of the SAS. (Yes, we’re cool, we writers, we know how to storm an embassy and bust a hostage situation. Leave your machine guns at the door, please.) Groups like Balaclava provide the workplace gossip that people in a normal working environment take for granted. But they also offer a source of emotional support, celebrating successes and commiserating over disappointments, and they are an invaluable source of information. That information ranges from the practical details of publishing (whether the contractual terms we’ve just been offered are any good), to essential everyday knowledge (how to make gingerbread), to facts we need for our writing – how to flay a human being, what people might have eaten for breakfast in 15th century Poland, the details of a particular World War II plane… Many things that could lead to a night in the cells if asked outside the group are common currency inside the charmed circle. Where will I dump the body? Where can I find out about Serbian sex slaves? How long does it take to strangle someone? (Crime writers’ groups are full of especially salacious work-gossip.)

For all their benefits, online groups are also a huge distraction. Writers spend a lot of time avoiding writing, as you probably know. Published, professional writers are no different in this regard from writers-in-training, in fact they are possibly worse. And if someone has just asked for suggestions for the title of their latest book, or how pop-up books were made in the 1880s, or what were the ingredients of theriac (a ‘cure’ for plague), you do, of course, feel duty bound to spend the morning helping out your friend rather than getting on with your work. It’s great for building a sense of community, but perhaps not for getting books written. I wonder if anyone is studying the productivity of authors alongside the rise of online groups catering to their interests?

There will be losers, but they are not us. In the dim and distant past, great literary friendships were carried on by letter. Our online groups, Facebook and, to a lesser degree, email have replaced letters. Future scholars will find no equivalent of the correspondence between Tolkien and CS Lewis, or Boswell and Samuel Johnson. If I ever became a renowned literary figures (dream on!), the advice I’ve received from even the most famous and accomplished authors will have disappeared into the ether long ago – no-one will ever dig it out of the twisted bowels of Facebook and the archives of the SAS are deleted regularly (secrecy comes with the balaclava).

Choosing the right online groups can take a bit of trial and error. My favourites are Balaclava (for published writers of children’s fiction), Nibweb (for published writers of children’s non-fiction) and Wordpool (for published and unpublished writers of any kind of children’s books). None of these groups is concerned with mutual critiques, by the way – that’s an entirely different kind of activity. If you're not part of a writing group yet, you can start looking at the lists of groups offered by Yahoo, or on Facebook, or you could join one of the social networking groups aimed at writers, such as JacketFlap.

I find UK-based groups the most useful. Publishing in the US is very different from publishing over here, and advice does not always ship across the Atlantic well. Over here, too, many of us share publishers or agents and write for the same lists and series. That helps to create a real sense of community as though we actually were, really, in a workplace, doing real work that we were being paid real money for while actually standing around the water-cooler having a natter.