Friday, September 24, 2010

Fiction and Uncomfortable Truths

By Russel D McLean

It was all over the twitter-feeds earlier this week.

A young-adult title that dealt very specifically with rape. That confronted what it was like for a victim who felt they couldn’t speak out.


Tough to read.


But essential in many ways. Yes, we want to protect children from the realities of life, but we also have to educate them about the truths they will face.

Unless, of course, we live in Republic, MO, where a Dr Wesley Scoggins has asked that this book – Speak – be removed from the school libraries on the grounds that it is “soft pornography.

A book written from the point of view of a victim of sexual abuse, written to show that silence over this kind of event is wrong, is “soft pornography”. Its something we do not want our children exposed to.

Not because they’re offended, but because it brings up uncomfortable issues. And because, in Mr Scoggins world, even a rape scene is “pornography”. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t pornography designed to titillate? I never much doubt that the scene in question was designed in such a way. Particularly since the theme of the book is speaking up about an issue everyone else would rather not talk about.

I think that “soft pornography” line says more about Scoggins attitude than anything else. Also, his reaction to Slaughterhouse Five *in the same article* is wonderful. “The f-word is plastered on almost every other page,” apparently.


Did we read the same book?

(and while I’m at it, you want to go and read The Good Son, Mr Scoggins. I’ll show you language that could make a sailor blush… also, I remember a good friend of mine at school chose Trainspotting as his review of personal reading in fifth year… now there’s a book I would say you might have some point in worrying about, although I’d still disagree with you if a teenager is ready to read such a book)

Look, here’s the thing: we can object to the realities of life all we like but we cannot hide from them. And fiction is one of our ways of dealing with issues. I know everyone likes to talk about “escapist” fiction, but serious fiction that tackles unsettling issues head on can be absolutely essential to dealing with everyday life. And even more-so for the “young adult” market. Yes, such books have to be handled sensitively. But just because the idea of the topic upsets you does not mean you should call for a banning of the book.

A book like Speak can – if well done, and I’m giving the book the benefit of the doubt that it is well done since I am not familiar with it myself – open teenage reader’s minds to the idea of what someone else might be going through, give them an empathy and an understanding of other’s experiences. Or it can perhaps persuade someone who is going through a similar experience to have the courage to speak out rather than hide what happened because this is an issue that no one talks about.

Fiction has to deal with issues.

It can’t all be about escapism.

I have a memory of a book I had in my early teens called something like, “My Mate Hamid”. I can’t find a trace of it now, but I remember it was a story about a white kid at a UK school who makes friends with a Pakistani pupil at his school, the only kid of a different skin tone in attendance. Simple, right? Except it wasn’t. It was about racism. I remember the sheer anger I felt at reading about other kids taunting with, “Paki-lover” and trying to figure out why some people would attack someone else just because they came from another place. I have memories of the two characters running away from bigger kids who were hurling bricks. That angered me, and made me start to realise things about how some people could be cruel for the most ridiculous reasons. The book, from what I recall, wasn’t graphic or adult in a way that might have truly upset or confused, but it was pitched just right for my development at that stage.

What I’m saying is that books can deal with tough issues for teenage and young adult readers without us necessarily screaming “oh, but its too much for the darlings!” Young people aren’t as daft as we give them credit for and whether you like it or not they’re going to deal with some very tough issues in their day to day life, and fiction can help them to deal with that. As it can help adults, too.

And you know what, instead of banning books, maybe it would help if parents and teachers talked to children about books and about the issues raised. A book like Speak isn’t pornography. It’s the start of a debate and a learning process. And, sure, I wouldn’t want younger children reading it, but when it comes to the older teenagers… how long do we protect them from the world? Because whether we like it or not, sooner or later they will encounter harsh truths about the world and I would rather they were prepared for them than not. Even if its simply through fiction that helps them understand experiences they hopefully will not encounter but that others they meet will have.


Chris Rhatigan said...

On board with you there. I'm going into education, and I'm saddened to see so many good books dealing with crucial issues being taken off of reading lists.

Naomi Johnson said...

God bless you! I'm of the belief that children will choose their own reading level, and when they're reading to tackle books with darker, i.e. realistic, themes, we adults should be there to support the young readers and discuss those issues without fear or embarrassment.

Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this. We cannot let ignorant people take away a basic, fundamental right given in the Constitution. You would think this kind of opposition would belong in Iran or some place like that. Let parents decide what they will let their children read. That's a parent's responsibility. But don't dictate to other parents. I speak as a father and grandfather

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