Tokenism be damned. Take your patronising quotas, your pats on the head, your diversity pamphlets and equality drives and shove them somewhere dark. I am a woman, and I am a meritocrat and I need none of it.
So I thought, with all the clarity and passion of youth. A special convulsion of rage was reserved for the women’s fiction price formerly known as Orange. How could we pollute the shades of Austen and Elliot, by implying that women writers needed special pleading, bless ‘em? How I crowed at the new sponsor being Baileys’ Irish Cream. How fitting. Real women don’t need token “lovely effort, dear” prizes and they don’t drink Baileys. Mine’s a Laphroaig and the Man Booker, thanks.
Next week the Baileys’ Women’s Prize for Fiction celebrates its twentieth anniversary [2 Nov], apparently undiminished by my ire, and that of its many, voluble detractors. It has been decried as “sexist” by a number of critics and novelists including Tim Lott and AS Byatt. Undaunted, it has championed the work of female authors, given the winners a load of cash and the shortlistees a boost to circulation.
And then, suddenly, my rage dimmed to a simmer, then complete contrition. What changed? My entanglement in the fringes of the publishing industry and the realisation that here is a world of gender-blurring half-truths and weirdness.
There is a paradox at the heart of the industry that no-one seems to be able to explain: fiction publishing is dominated – at the lower levels at least – by women. It produces a product which is overwhelmingly bought by women, who buy almost twice as many fiction books as men. And yet the top echelons of the industry – the whirligig of prizes and book reviews and back-slapping is entirely dominated by male themes.
Of the last fifteen Man Booker prize winners, two were written by women, about women. There were a further 4 winners written by women, but they were from the perspective of men, or from a multi-viewpoint with male and female protagonists. The Pulitzer prize over the same period has been won by precisely no women who were writing from an exclusively female perspective. These figures were collated by the writer Nicola Griffiths, whose superb novel Hild (Little Brown, £9.99) about the 7th century St Hilda of Whitby, may well have been garlanded with prizes had it been about St Henry/Howard/Hugh instead.
Even the Baileys Womens Fiction Prize fails the Griffiths test. How many of the past ten years’ winners - from which the best of the best will be chosen by a panel of judges on Monday – were written from a solely female perspective? One: Eimear McBride’s novel, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. A book which was, incidentally, rejected by numerous publishers, presumably on the grounds that it is not called A Man is Fully-Formed Literary Thing.
There is no obvious, single reason for this weird skewing towards the male. One publisher I spoke to said: “I’ve spoken to hundreds of authors over thirty years and not once had the conversation pushing them to write from a male perspective.”
It seems like an alchemical and toxic relation between reader, writer, bookshop and publishers. There is a strongly held view among publishers that men do not buy books written by women. There are no industry-wide statistics to back up this perception. Neither Neilsen Book Research, the boffins who collect the bestseller data, nor The Bookseller, the industry trade magazine, collect data who is buying what categorised by genitalia possession. The view is backed only by anecdote and the marketing departments’ private research.
The implication of this supposed gender imbalance is more obvious in genre and commercial fiction than in literary fare. “Marketing departments say you can sell to a male audience or a female audience, but never to both,” says one publisher. For my own second historical fiction novel, I chose to write primarily from a male perspective. In part this was because I fell in love with the story. But in my genre, if you choose a female protagonist who has even the vaguest sub-plot involving love, she will be placed on the front cover, decorative and bosomy, looking winsomely into the middle-distance. It seemed simpler to avoid the argument and go male. Men are allowed to love in fiction without looking winsome or presenting their tackle to the reader.
As the writer Zoe Venditozzi says: “There’s a tendancy to think, this writer has a vagina so let’s put something frivolous on the cover so people are not hoodwinked into thinking it might be serious.”
In genre, as well as children’s books, it is common to see women using their initials to avoid giving away their horrifying femaleness to tender male readers. JK Rowling is the most famous example, PD James another.
In fantasy and sci-fi, the gender ructions are frequent and turbulent. The Hugo Awards, which reward the best work in the genre, had similar numbers of men and women nominated over the past two years. Cause for celebration and champagne all round for the ground-breaking women? No. Instead, the awards have been subsumed in politics, back-stabbing, block-voting and accusations of liberal bias.
All this confusion over the gender of both reader and writer comes at a time when book-selling is undergoing its own crisis of the soul. Waterstones, the only bookseller of note left, is extremely risk averse, buying a handful of copies of books it likes, rather than taking bets on large numbers. The supermarkets are now major players and entirely judge a book by its cover. If the last bestseller was blue and bosomy, they will take a punt on the next blue and bosomy one which comes along. Meanwhile, online, algorithms push readers deep into silos based on previous purchases. Algorithms tend to make bestsellers sell more, while the unknowns sink, traceless.
The timidity of booksellers, the rise of the algorithm and the panicking of the publishers make it a tough environment in which to be an author. Enter the prize. The Baileys has a reputation among booksellers for translating into sales more reliably than the Man Booker. All authors, of whatever sex, need all the help they can get. Let there be a men’s prize for fiction, sponsored by Special Brew. A prize for red-heads, another for one-armed Welsh daughters of clergymen. Bring on the awards.
But female writers have a challenge specific to them: they need the confidence and support from readers, booksellers, prize-judges and publishers to write ball-breaking, genre-busting, prize-winning works which do not start with a male protagonists. Awards solely for women writers can only help them write books which begin with the pronoun She.
Today, I’m trying to work. But I’m hungover. I’m tired. The baby was up at 5. (Why? Why?) The fridge is empty. I haven’t got any dinner in. I have a deadline looming for the first draft of my next novel, and every time I look at the half-done manuscript the words swim. All I can see is clichés waving their smug arses at me in a collective moony.
But the real reason I can’t work, can’t put aside the usual reasons for procrastination, for there are always some, is this: my second novel is out tomorrow.
It’s a weird, weird feeling. All that work. All that planning and thinking and overcoming of the Procratinator Gene which features heavily in my DNA. All that hope and faith and love, sitting in a bookshop at last.
Someone will walk past. Pause. Pick it up. Scan the back, the inside cover. Then think, Nah. Not for me. Where’s the Bernard Cornwall section?
There should be fireworks. There should be dancing girls. There should be me tap-dancing through a rapturous world. Great book, Senior. Well done, Senior.
Instead, there will be me, punting out a few hopeful words on Twitter. Ringing my Mum. Going for coffee and cake with some lovely local friends who will be Very Nice about my book for about 3 minutes, before moving on to the latest box-set, or school-gate gossip.
There will be moments of angst. What if people hate it? What if it’s actually crap? What if nobody buys it and everybody loses faith in me, and I’ll have no career and I’ll actually have to volunteer to be bloody class-rep and spend the rest of my middle-ages organising coffee-mornings for SAHMs who used be Really Important at Deutsche Bank.
Anyway, what does success look like? How many sales; how much acclaim? There is no winner's podium, no absolute endpoint at which you can say - YES, this book is a gold-medal winner.
A deep breath, a cup of tea. Then, I will give myself a pep-talk. Find somewhere quiet, and look inwards for a delicious, quiet satisfaction. For if writing is a solitary, inward-looking thing, so are the rewards. Unless you are a superstar – a Mantel or a Rowling – and perhaps even then, the thing that matters is a small personal triumph.
This is what will count: the joy of writing something that makes you proud. Your name on an actual book. The small, childish you who loved books more than life, rearing out of the shadows to clap you on the back. Well done, Senior. Great book, Senior.
"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway" (Cyril Connolly 1938)
“What would I do if real children came padding at the door, smiling their sticky smiles, smearing my printout with sticky hands and pressing ‘delete’.” (Hilary Mantel, Giving up the ghost: a memoir; 2005)
I walked into the kitchen, doubtless carrying washing or empty cups or orange peel found stuffed between the cushions of the sofa. “Mum, I’m sorry. I think I’ve broken your computer.”
A sticky fingered child. A black screen. The start of a novel which was almost working and as yet not saved to the cloud. Childless genius Hilary Mantel guards her keyboard from ghosts – mine is at the mercy of real small people searching for bastard “Let it Go” on youtube. Does having children have an impact on a writer’s ability to write? Logistically, it would clearly be easier to write without the little scraps demanding nurture. Obviously. If I could hermit myself, even for a few days, I imagine my productivity would soar. (It’s taken me two hours to write the last few paras. “Muuum”; “Waaaahhh”; “she hit meeeee”; “bedtime” etc)
Creatively, I’m not sure it makes much difference. The question is, anyway, philosophical rather than practical – I’m not about to siphon them off to a Home and see if my writing improves – and as with all such questions, it is framed for debate rather than resolution.
Instead, I have been thinking about the opposite question: Does writing make me a better parent?
Here are 5 ways that I think, perhaps, writing helps me be a sane parent, if not a better one.
CONCLUSION: It probably makes bugger all difference. But at least I get to pick them up from school so they can harangue me about what snacks I have or haven't brought them.....
- The Boredom factor. Looking after children under the age of 5 is unbelievably, relentlessly tedious. Your life is reduced to hovering over a small person who is seemingly intent on a) killing themselves and b) behaving as erratically and illogically as possible at the exact pitch designed to drive a sentient adult to head-banging distraction. Writing lets me retreat to a place inside where interesting, grown-up things happen. On the surface I’m all “wheels on the bus” and “please don’t put jam on your sister’s feet”. Inside I’m wondering why Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament, and how to translate historical action into historical fiction.
- The Helicopter Parenting Backlash. The latest parenting wisdom seems to be anti-helicopter parenting – the sort of irritating style that involves lots of playing and interacting with them. My style, if it had a name, would be Fobbing-Off Parenting. Jog on, small child with puzzle/play-doh/colouring. Do it yourself, Mum’s trying to write/read. I’m properly on-trend parenting-wise, me…..
- Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. Unless you write tortured kitchen-sink novels set in Surbiton, or chick-lit, the chances are your imaginary realm will be full of Bad Shit. Wars, plagues, death, serial killers, lost love, orphans, murders, starvation. To emerge from this into a nice house, clutching a nice cup of tea, with your kids entirely safe and whole and unlikely to catch the plague, is always a delight. So the milk’s spilled or the homework’s messy or the baby’s vomited an entire egg on my head. Boff. Shrug.
- Perspective I spend much time trying to inhabit other perspectives. My next novel is about a 12th century Scottish warlord, not entirely similar in occupation or outlook to a South London Mum with 3 children and a laptop. There are few perspectives more different from a sane adult’s than that of a small child craving chocolate at breakfast. “Please Mum. But I love chocolate. And it’s nearly lunchtime.” It helps me to understand her pain. To empathise with her frustration (The answer’s still bloody NO!).
- Gruffalo Tolerance. I have read The Gruffalo an unbelievable number of times. I could recite The Gruffalo at gunpoint, should a crazed Donaldson junkie demand it of me. I should loathe The Gruffalo – and that smug mouse. But the writer in me can read The Gruffalo forever and still not tire of the question: is this the most perfect book ever written? Perfect in plot, in character, in pace, in style, in tone, in the completeness of its imaginary landscape. And the Nut was Good, people. The nut was good.
“Hello. A table for..?”
Wrench mind back from phrases arrived at on the walk here. Try to look normal.
“Um. Just me. One.”
Smile. Do I look weird? No. Everything’s fine. Nonchalance. That’s the key.
Sit down. Take out computer.
“Oh, um. Just a coffee.” That I will eke out for 1hr and a half. Do not expect eye contact, after this initial exchange. You might ask if I want another and I’ll be embarrassed into saying yes, and then I’ll get a sort of caffeine sweat on.
OK. Good. Table. Chair. Lap top. Where was I? How do you rip a man’s heart out? Would you have to lever up the man’s ribs? Would blood get in your eye? Hmm
“Oh, right thanks. No, no sugar.” Smile. Don’t look weird. Shit. Angle, laptop screen down. She'll think I'm some sort of weird heart fetish weirdo. OK concentrate
So if your sword is in a man stomach, does it slice cleanly or catch? What does it smell like? Can I imagine dead Viking intestine spilling out? Um. Maybe they do black pudding. That might help.
I should have gone somewhere more hipster. I could have got inspiration from the beards. A fight on a beach between lots of beardy men. Do hipster beards look enough like Viking beards to be of any use? How would blood stain a blond beard? Id I’d been at that place in Bermondsey, I could have gotten a hipster to dip his beard in some organic cherry and kale smoothie. Then chucked some quinoa at it to be like the sand.
I’m procrastinating. This is definitely procrastinating. I recognise the signs.
“Sorry? What did you…? To eat? Um. Have you got any granola?”
Dickhead. Cos that’s going to help you write a big scary Viking battle scene. Fucking granola. If there’s any excuse to have a fuck off big sausage sandwich with brown sauce, this has to be it. OK, concentrate. How do you rip out a man’s heart? Have I decided? Jesus. I'm actually writing some words. Woo-hoo! Look at this. My fingers are moving. Words are appearing. I'm going to make it big. This is the one, this...
“Oh, cheers. Um. No, thanks.”
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
Oh for fuck’s sake.
“Can I have the bill, please?”
- Here he is, the Great Warty one. I have a picture of him in my study, and he's watching me. Weighing me.
I'm trying to write him; and it's hobbling me.
In Treason's Daughter, my characters interacted with history. Where their lives brushed great events, I took great pains to get both the events, and their reactions, to feel as authentic as possible. I know there is an inherently fraudulent tango between the history and my reimagining of it: but I try to be honest, and truthful. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, there are sufficient unknown unknowns in the writing of historical fiction without introducing known unknowns.
In The Winter Isles, my next book, although some of the characters are based on real people, they are sufficiently shrouded in myth and muddle to allow considerable leeway in my portrayal.
SO... this means my attempt on Cromwell is my first lengthy portrait of a real, and well documented, colossus of political history. He is not even the central character – rather my existing protagonists (and a few new ones) interact with him, watch him and contemplate him.
I am well prepared. I have read his speeches and letters and umpteen biographies. I think I have an image of him, sitting clenched-fisted in that weird half-light where my characters wait for me to write them.
But. But. I am struggling with an un-writerly, incoherent, raging But. I don’t seem to be able to get going. I’m intimidated by him. I don’t want to get him wrong, even though I know that it is a technical impossibility to get him right. Even Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell can only be an interpretive shadow of the real thing – a puppet dancing on a wall of her making.
My current Cromwell lumbers along like some sort of dour Golem. This is a man who came from nowhere, from nothing, to be King in all but name. A polarising man of great physical presence and charisma. My shadow-puppet, so far, is static and flat.
The answer? Not inspiration or muses, or fannying about writing blogs about my Cromwell Block.
Discipline. Hard work. Words on the page. More words. Some might be worth rescuing. I’ll start tomorrow. Hold on. Tomorrow is Friday. OK. I’ll definitely start on Monday, Oliver. I promise.
By Antonia Senior Reluctantly, moodily and finally enthusiastically; I have embraced my inner tweeter. I once dismissed Twitter as a collection of inane ravings. It is that; but it is also the place of a wondrous new balance between reader and writer. There is magic amid the dross. Consider the problem facing reader and writer in this new digital age: finding each other. Bookshops are on the retreat, review space in newspapers is squeezed and dominated by established writers and non-fiction. The algorithms on e-book retailers do the opposite of an old-fashioned browse: they force you into narrower niches. Just because I bought one Tudor mystery does not mean I only want to buy Tudor mysteries. To break free of the algorithms you have to know what you are looking for; but the joy of being a voracious reader is not knowing what you want until it slaps you round the chops with a fabulous hook or an exquisite phrase. The answer, at least for now, lies in social media. The sci-fi fans are there already, talking to each other and to the writers they like. They buzz in the ether, collectively sharing the dream of a story which won’t let you sleep. Other genres are slowly but surely building their hashtags. Book bloggers are becoming hugely influential. My debut novel Treason’s Daughter received a lovely review from the book blog, http://forwinternights.wordpress.com/. The blogger tweeted as she was reading; this led to a very strange sensation of following someone reading my work in real time. This was my first experience of the strange shift in balance between reader and writer. I am used to reader feedback – my time as a journalist coincided with the rise of the web, and reader comments under articles. You need a thick skin to read the mad, the angry and the contemptuous comments which appear beneath comment pieces. A vehemently pro-choice comment I once wrote produced some breath-taking vitriol, for example; although not quite as vicious as the time I accidentally implied that sci-fi was a non-literary guilty pleasure. Sorry, guys. Really. But the writer of fiction is more vulnerable, in some ways. I don’t have a newspaper masthead to cower behind. It’s just me and my story, venturing out into a harsh world, looking for – and fearing - your opinion. What tone do I strike, out there in cyber-space? I want to flog my book, but not irritate people. I want readers to like it, and to be kind to it – but I can’t ask for kindness. As the blogger tweeted each night about her experience of reading Treason’s Daughter that day, I wanted to thank her for reading, but worried that I would look desperate. So I watched her tweets, imagined her curled up with my book, and dreamt up wry but self-deprecating replies which I never sent. When she posted her review, the other new facet of this hanging world became clearer. Blog reviews can be more personal, more visceral – and thus more powerful for those of us who are passionate readers. I review on my blog antoniasenior.com and for The Times. In The Times, I might say: “A powerful compelling read.” On my blog, I might say. “I was up until midnight, falling in love with this book again and again.” Now, as I wait for Treason’s Daughter to gather readers, I hope that someone, somewhere, is being kept up at night by it. And that they will tweet me to let me know.
Once again, it is all about tits. We are in the middle of the single greatest revolution in the history of mankind; one which will make the invention of the printing press look like a blip. We are only beginning to see glimmers of how the move to a digital age will fundamentally change our politics, economics and societies. It is terrifying. It is exhilarating. As for women’s place in this maelstrom? It’s all about tits.
The internet, you see, is fuelling a new wave of misogyny. Women are subject to vile, sexist trolling. The objectification of women, once thought to be on the wane, is back and putrid. The internet is awash with tits and arses; undermining women’s fragile body image and fuelling the latent sexual aggression of men. All over the internet there are communities of women-haters. Look at the woman eating on the tube! Isn’t she disgusting? Look at that grey-haired woman talking about Rome? Isn’t she disgusting?
It’s sexism.com and it’s not pretty. In her much trailed documentary, Blurred Lines (Thursday, BBC2), broadcaster Kirsty Wark explores the link between the rise of the internet and the proliferation of a supposedly ironic, banter-based sexism. A line-up of admirable women have expounded on the digital misogyny of late; from Germaine Greer to Mary Beard.
Admirable and righteous, no doubt. But it completely misses the point.
Women are at huge risk from the internet revolution; we are folding ourselves in two like contortionists, ready to jam ourselves back into the boxes from which we sprang in the 1970s, flared and furious. But the risk does not come from the internet’s obsession with our tits, nor from the anonymous trollers sitting in the dark making jokes about Mary Beard. The risk comes from our technological apathy. The risk comes from our happy, willing quiescence in the myth that computers are boys-toys. The future is digital, and we will be sitting on the sidelines, waving pom-poms and whispering to our sparkly sisters: “What’s an algorithm?”
How many girls took computing A-level in 2013, in the whole of the UK? 245. That’s fewer than 7 per cent of the total candidates. More took ICT (38 per cent). But ICT is about the use of the applications rather than about the computers themselves. Be excellent at Excel, girls, but don’t even think about peering behind the app to the programming itself.
What percentage of computer science undergraduates are women? 17 per cent. What percentage of post-graduates? 24 per cent. We are not alone. In the US, 37 per cent of computer science degrees went to women in 1984, compared to 12 per cent now. This unwillingness of girls to study computers is translating to the job market. According to the 2012 Labour Force survey, what percentage of those working in IT are female? 15 per cent.
We are opting out. We make rigid educational choices in our teens, and acquiesce in a cultural perception that adolescent computers smell of boy and dandruff and onanism.
Does it matter? The former number 10 adviser Rohan Silva, has argued compellingly that white-collar jobs are being cannibalised by computers. Legal services, medicine: the types of professions into which women have clawed their way are being taken over by machine. Machines programmed by men.
It is no use being able to write the content, or make a web-site look pretty. Content, online, is pretty worthless. The money and the innovation are created behind the scenes, beneath the shiny easy-to-use application designed by a man, sitting on a computer built by a man. Flash Boys, the new book by Michael Lewis, is a terrifying look under the surface of Wall Street, where all the money is made by whizz-kid programmers doing things with our money that no one really understands but them. They are all men.
It has not always been like this. The history of computers is female: the very first programmer was Ada Lovelace, the daughter of Lord Byron. Her notes on Charles Babbage’s analytical engine contain the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine. The second world war revolution in computing technology was manned largely by women, although the men in charge took the headlines. In the 1960s, computer programming was considered women’s work. A 1967 article in Cosmopolitan called “The Computer Girls” eulogised the female “computer programmers” who were telling the new “miracle machines” what to do. The roll-call of early computer pioneers is strongly female.
But while we were burning our bras, we took our eye off the future and allowed computing to become masculinised. Now, here we are, bleating about the downsides of the digital revolution, and simultaneously locking ourselves and our daughters out of the upside.
The single most useful weapon in the feminist arsenal is, and always has been, financial independence. The rest of it – who hates whom, the cultural significance of tits, pornography, page 3, body image, hijabs, Suzanna Reid’s legs, Mary Beard’s teeth – is all noise.
Misogyny only really matters to the powerless. With a good job, money in the bank, choices and a future, you can rise above anything; laugh in the face of hatred. But if the geeks inherit all the spoils of the revolution, and the geeks are all male, what will women laugh at then?
Never trust a man with thin lips. It is entirely legitimate to dislike someone for being plain, spotty and stupid. Girls, do not sully yourselves with adventure when there are chores to be done! Children, if you meet a middle-aged man living alone in a cliff-side hut, trust him immediately, and ask to see his pictures of rare birds.
This is the wisdom of Enid Blyton. It is an entirely shocking experience to read Blyton again after an absence of nearly thirty years. Every evening, as I read her stories to my five year old, a phrase or an attitude jumps out and gives my nice, pesto-loving, middle-class sensibilities a desperate blow. ‘”Look here,’ said Joan, ‘ ..think of how it must be to be plain and jealous and dull, as Kathleen is.’” This, for example, comes from the Naughtiest Girl Again.
In the Island of Adventure, the two girls cower on the sidelines while their brothers take the lead on exploring caves and jumping into secret passages. The girls cook a mean bacon and eggs, though, when the boys’ sleuthing makes them hungry. Jack and Philip may be drawn to the Island of Adventure; Dinah and Lucy-Ann are still tethered to the Hob of Crushed Ambitions.
Yet Blyton remains hugely popular, and is enjoying a mini renaissance. An Enid Blyton book is bought every minute in the UK. Hodder bought the rights to her works last year, and celebrated 70 years of the Famous Five with new editions illustrated by Quentin Blake. The Secret Seven will be re-issued next month with drawings by Tony Ross. Digital editions of some books are out already with more to follow. On holiday, I read the books on my iPad – a technology so wondrous to children of Blyton’s day it could only be found at the top of the Faraway Tree.
Blyton’s genius lies in the power of her story-telling. Every night we face the same battle. “Just one more chapter. Please, Mum. I have to know what happens.” My daughter does not want to know what happens, she has to know. It’s an imperative.
Her characters are alive to small people, and have a strange persistence. What devotee of the Famous Five does not, as an adult, divide the female world into George and Anne tribes? (Kate Middleton is a definite Anne, for example. Hilary Clinton is pure George.) I want my children to be readers, to know the joy and comfort of books. Blyton was utterly formative to me as a reader; and I am not alone. I have passionately defended her ever since, without ever actually re-reading her as an adult.
But readers, she is weird. The books are replete with snobbishness, sexism, and a strange determinism about looks. What of the lives the children lead? The four children in the adventure series befriend Bill Smuggs, a man who lives alone as a cliff-side hermit yet seems suspiciously anxious to make friends with them. Should I pass this off to my children as a story, a fantasy, or accompany it with paranoid instructions to beware strangers who want to take them sailing? Perhaps it is a fear founded on a false premise: our children, sadly, lead such constrained lives, that the adventures of Blyton’s characters must seem as unreal as Narnia. Our children are perpetual muggles in a bookish world of magic and adventure.
As adults, we are equipped to deal with historical attitudes we find unpalatable. We can put sexism, racism and other isms into context. We do not dismiss Anthony Trollope because of his shocking, causal anti-semitism. “She was very unlike the Jewess that is ordinarily pictured to us,” Trollope narrates in The Bertrams. “She had no beaky nose, no thin face, no sharp, small, black, bright eyes.”
The historical misdemeanours in adult fiction can be managed, mediated by our own self-conscious lack of prejudice. We shift the perspective where possible - making Shylock a hero, for example, in spite of the text. We excuse where necessary – forgiving Joseph Conrad his racism because his white characters are as venal as his black characters are crude and two-dimensional.
We re-invent Jane Austen as a feminist icon, on the basis of Lizzie Bennet’s wit, forgiving her women their tendency to contract life-threatening illnesses at the merest spatter of rain. We skate entirely over the insufferable and wet Fanny in Mansfield Park, in our rush to celebrate Austen as a writer of strong women.
But children cannot be the sophisticated readers we pride ourselves on being. They are too busy finding out what happens next to congratulate themselves on their very modern approach to race and gender. Sub-text is an adult concept.
How far, then, should we mediate for them? Should we allow them uncensored, unfettered access to opinions from the past which are so very different to our own?
Most children’s classics have now been expunged of racism. The oompa-loompas have long been green oddities, rather than the original African pygmies wrested from the jungle by Willy Wonka. Pippi Longstocking’s father is no longer King of the Cannibals. The Golliwogs have been retired.
It is hard to argue against such changes. Racism can be edited gently out of most of these books. The problems posed by Huckleberry Finn are different – the whole book revolves around slavery. There can be no discreet editing of Huck Finn. Changing its nature amounts to censorship not editing. The line is fine, and subjective.
If we allow for some editing around issues of race, why not of gender? Why can’t we edit Anne to stop being such a drip, or get Philip and Jack to do the washing-up for a change? Women have fought long and hard for equality, and yet we tuck our daughters up with tales of princesses and drippy, domesticated girls written in an age of patriarchy.
Perhaps the answer lies in a balance of dangers. The danger of crossing the line into censorship outweighs the dangers of sexism, or incitement to Potter-esque witchcraft, or of not liking someone because they are plain and dull and spotty. But racism is so dark, so dangerous, that the line between editing and censoring can and must be pushed.
This column does not have a moral. I do not have a one-size-fits-all answer. Individually, we mediate reality for our children all the time. At the farm in France where I am reading these tales on holiday, a sheep died last week. The forthright farmer told the kids he would leave the corpse in a field for the foxes. Parents objected, and a sheep funeral was hastily invented. Different parents have different notions of how much reality is acceptable
Personally, I fudge it. I allow uncensored access to any books which might be read voraciously, accompanied by lectures on the feminist struggle which will be ignored. Perhaps some of my tedious homilies about millennia of female oppression will get through. Five is an impressionable age. After all, thirty years after I first read Five Go Adventuring Again, in which George guesses the villain’s nature by the shape of his mouth, I still find it impossible to trust men with thin lips. Villains, the lot of them.