Inspired by the panel discussion with David Fickling, Meg Rosoff and David Almond: 16+ £8 Saturday 22nd October: 5pm-6pm University of Exeter, XFI Lecture Theatre
By Kira Taylor @kirataylor15
What are we reading?
Explicit content in books is a subject I’ve discussed countless times with my friends, particularly about school texts that we have to read. It’s questioning whether explicit content – drugs, alcohol, sex, swearing, violence, belongs in young adult’s fiction and whether it goes too far.
But that changes over time as attitudes change. As views on race, gender and sexuality evolve, so does what we accept in books. Talking to David Almond, one of the panellists, he was surprised at the reaction to a kiss in ‘A Song For Ella Grey’. “I was amazed when it upset some people because there was two girls kissing in the first few pages. I thought it was amazing, but some people thought this was outrageous.”
I’m currently studying Wuthering Heights. The reaction to the book when it was published was absolute shock at its violent and sexual nature (ps. there’s neither blood nor sex within the book). Reading it in the modern day, the book is still dark and Gothic, but that makes you want to turn the page rather than close the book.
It does bring up the point that books have to be explicit to some extent in order to have the freedom to make their point heard.
“As a writer it’s pointless if you start thinking about what you can’t put in a book,” said David. “You have to be totally free when you begin to write a book, so … you write what you can and you can’t put restrictions on yourself. If someone’s going to object to what you do, then they’re free to object to it.”
For my GCSEs, I studied To Kill A Mockingbird and The Crucible. The first discussed racism. The latter was the fallout of an affair and had a considerable number of deaths. At A-level I’ve studied A Streetcar Named Desire and The Handmaid’s Tale – both sexually explicit. The second I failed to enjoy because it was so extreme.
“If you deliberately try to be controversial, then it’s pointless,” said David. “What you have to do as a writer is just to write a story if you can and if there are controversial things in it then so be it, but it seems pointless to do things deliberately. … you’re going to upset some people anyway.”
Now turning the pages of Othello I can see why there is an argument for whether explicit content should be in young adult books. Unlike films, there’s no rating and very little warning in the synopsis.
What is “explicit” partly depends on the reader. Some people are able to read explicit content without being affected by it. However, if a book does include explicit content, it immediately becomes inaccessible to certain readers. There are plenty of books I’d love to read, but I know that the content will disturb me, so I avoid them.
It questions why books are written – is it for the author, for the audience, to make a point?
But it does question the position young people now hold in society. Talking to my mum, I know far more about subjects considered explicit than she did at my age. Through social media, our friends and just the world around us, my generation is already exposed to explicit content.
Perhaps books are needed to explain it. Young adult fiction is a very successful area for publishers, despite the idea several years ago that the traditional book was disappearing to be replaced by electronic devices.
“I think what young people want what they’ve always wanted – good stories, well told, good language,” said David. “People read on kindles, they read on iPads, but the book itself remains and people love the physical object of the book. People still hunger for books, for stories, for narratives, for pages.”