Thursday, 11 August 2011

Because books are the answer to everything

Everyone has an opinion on the riots and I’m no different. I’ve been listening to LBC (London’s talk radio in case you don’t know) and although these events seem to bring out the right-wing in even Lefty Lefterson of Liberal Town, there were also a few callers who expressed views closer to those of the rioters, trying to convey their feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. But it’s hard to sympathise with them. Very.

There’s a void between those affected by the riots (even just by association) and those instigating, which is so huge that it’s hard to see how it can be bridged. Not least because it’s hard to want to; on our side, we’re hurt, horrified and angry and on theirs, they appear to just be angry, I think (evidence of that void right there). Some of the more measured responses I’ve seen have demonstrated the distance between us and them – it would never occur to us to act like this no matter how angered we were by injustice. We just don’t get it.

There isn’t just one cause, obviously, but the one thing that keeps popping up in my mind is the amorality of the rioters, their lack of empathy. (And also their lack of comprehension of capitalism – if you want expensive stuff, you have to pay for it, if you don’t, the expensive stuff will cease to exist and we’ll all have to make do with cheap non-branded trainers from the supermarket.) Sorry, enough about capitalism, it’s the empathy I’m concerned with.

I reckon books are a very important way of getting children to think what it might be like to be someone else. You read a first person narrative and for a while you are that person. Many writers (especially in YA) are outstanding at getting you to feel things, or thinking about things, that you might otherwise have a callous disregard for. One such book for me is the amazing Looking for JJ by Anne Cassidy. At the time of the Jamie Bulger incident I was an angry teen saying they should lock them in jail and throw away the key. I never thought about the kids that committed the crime as people until I read Looking for JJ. That book changed my view entirely.

But these kids probably don’t read so much (sweeping judgement there, yet again proving my void theory), so these amazing books that help promote empathy just aren’t going to reach them. Instead they have instant gratification in films, TV and music that doesn’t necessarily give them the time to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I’m sure I’m not the only person thinking poor literacy is a contributing factor towards creating a group of people who felt no qualms about rioting and looting, but I do feel as someone working in publishing I should do something about it, somehow. I’ve contacted a few teen authors and I’m in touch with The National Literacy Trust and I’m just trying to get a few ideas going... I’d really appreciate yours too.

Basically, I want to help build a bridge over that void. I want them to understand how we feel, and maybe I want to understand how they feel. Key word “understand” – I can’t do that if you’re kicking in my high street and scaring my neighbours.

Because reading books doesn’t just make our speaking English good*. Maybe it can make us good too.

*That’s a misquote from Buffy, in case you don’t know.


  1. Hi - excellent blogpost. <- even though the name is Mark, it's actually, me, Liz from My Favourite Books.

    Someone whom I connected with is definitely Bali Rai and his stories of growing up in a community where you get your head bashed in when you tell anyone you read.

    Whatever you're doing at the moment, I highly suggest you try and get hold of Bali to be part of it. His book he did for Barrington Stoke - The Gun - was superb and written with such compassion and understanding. I never would have thought I'd had empathy with an assumed thug and yet, through Bali's writing I could actually see this kid's point of view. It startled and surprised me.

    We need more writers like Bali to shake up the system. The same thing with your author Colin Mulhern who wrote Clash - good solid clever writing that doesn't pull punches - writing and characters kids in these situations can identify with.

    It is through authors like Colin and Bali that we will be able to reach kids, before we can call them "a waste" to society.

    Uhm. That's it. :-D

  2. You are right on the money there - I'm trying to get in touch with Bali as I think he's an author who's really trying to cater for people who don't necessarily read all that much. A brave and important move for a writer, methinks.

    Mr Rai, if you're reading this, would love to discuss ideas with you.

    And Colin, you'd better be reading this! *shakes editorial fist*

  3. Yes, I agree, books really help, with everything, ever. Except, disaster, I've seen a friend of mine who writes books (so presumably reads them) dismissing the rioters entirely as mindless animals etc etc rather than acknowledging that awful as their behaviour is, it is all too human.
    So, surely this ability to empathise can't just be bought with books? And surely it's not just the rioters who need to feel the benefit?

    Incidentally, Rachel Ward's Numbers Trilogy are YA books with a strong social slant, check them out. And You Against Me by Jennie Downham also explores societies attitudes towards the poor.

  4. I very much agree with a lot of what you're saying here. Books can show children ideas and opinions from many points of views and gets them to re think their own ideas even if it doesnt change them. Its about getting children to ask questions in order to seek answers and I don't see how going on a smash and grab in JD Sports asks any questions or provides any answers for anyone. In the long term the only thing it gets you is some trainers that will go out of fashion and a criminal record.

  5. This time the images on the news of riots were down the road not across the world and I think this shook everyone out of their complacency.

    I have worked with teens in communities where some of them were threatened by their peers for reading (Thamesmead & Edmonton).

    There are libraries and schools in all the areas that were attacked (I have worked in some of them). The information should about the writers, books and other materials should be put in the hands of educators, counsellors and library staff that work there, so many people are unaware of what is available so they cannot put out what they do not know exists.

    Contact the Youth Libraries Group (me) there is training coming up in October - could put information into the delegate packs. Librarians do not know everything we only have that aura of all-knowingness.

  6. Thanks guys!
    @Katerina - you're right, empathy works both ways - even if we don't want it to. No good writing everyone off for good.
    @Sister Spooky - questions are the answer, indeed. Too easy to do anything you want if you never ask questions of yourselves.
    @Matt - would be v interested in giving those 'on the ground' the tools to help.

  7. I agree with many of the comments in this interesting slant on the riots.

    There seems to me to be two problems with the kind of literature being discussed. Characters, I've been told by a rejecting agent recently, need to have clear motivation from page one. 'I just didn't get what he wanted', she said. Well, there you have it in a nutshell. Neither did he. That was the point. So writing characters that are directionless, poorly-parented, amoral or lacking in motivation is intrinsically problematic. The second issue is that many of the rioters don't form part of the target market for YA fiction so why would agents and publishers be interested in material that deals with such characters unless it appealed to existing YA readers who could exercise their already significant empathy on the text? It's a conundrum. Companies like Barrington Stoke publish mainly for a specific educational market. I can't imagine many middle-class agents and publishers taking on a manuscript for general trade unless they knew beforehand it would sell. So unless the state is willing to sponsor this kind of literature, which I doubt it would, and get it into schools in innovative ways involving film and drama and citizenship, then books are not going to be part of the solution.

    Empathy is deepened and strengthened by literature. But I don't think it creates it. Where it's lacking it's usually due to a variety of things: poor parenting and modelling behaviour, lack of positive play experiences and interaction with adults, lack of simple conversation and sometimes love, and often a failure to use the word 'no'. Surestart nurseries were having a positive impact in working with very young children and their parents to address these issues before the cuts. Let's hope the government thinks again.

  8. Yes, Non - I'm reading. Just taking my time to comment. I've given this a lot of thought, and I'm drawn more and more to the POV of someone caught up in the riots. The thing people don't get is that there is a motive, and a driving force behind that motive. And I honestly don't think it's got a thing to do with poverty or lack of prospects, and everything to do with thrill seeking and breaking down boundaries – particularly if those boundaries are becoming so weak that they know they can be broken – with ease.

    Richard said, "writing characters that are directionless, poorly-parented, amoral or lacking in motivation is intrinsically problematic." I don't agree. In fact, I think those characters are all the more fascinating for it. Remember Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh? He said the ultimate taboo in why kids do drugs - because it feels good. He wasn't condoning it, just telling the fact as it was – otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.

    I think it's the same with the riots. There is a short term payback: a major buzz. This was clear as day on the news when they showed two lads being interviewed who were finding it almost impossible to stifle their giggles.

    So yeah, getting into that mindset is probably abhorrent and disgusting and unbelievable and stomach churning, but just like those scenes on the news, it will also be hard not to be pulled in. The challenge comes in turning it into a good story without being patronising or turning into some kind of moral tale.

  9. Sorry, Colin. I didn't make myself clear. I agree with you they are fascinating to write. When I said writing them was problematic I didn't mean it shouldn't be done, just that it's difficult to get right (as you note) and get published in the current climate where book people don't want to take risks.

    To then get that literature into the hands of kids who might identify with it is the biggest challenge of all.

  10. For some reason this comment was deleted from the blog, no idea why. It was left by Christopher Edge:

    Brilliant and important blog post. Reading must have a role to play in bridging this divide. I think it was in recent research from the National Literacy Trust where I read the depressing statistics that three in ten children live in homes that don’t contain a single book and one in three teenagers read two books or fewer a year (and you just know for many of these that fewer figure is going to be zero). There’s a void right there that needs to be filled.

    I think you’re right to stress the vital role that fiction can play in developing empathy, but I think books of every description can help too. From my own experiences of working with very reluctant readers, especially boys, often their initial response to fiction is that it’s ‘pointless’, ‘not real’ and there’s a hurdle to climb before they will even consider picking up a novel. A well-chosen non-fiction title (autobiographies etc) can often be a Trojan horse to bridge these defences and introduce a reading habit, and more importantly can also offer other perspectives and insights on the world too.

    As you say it’s not just a one-way street, and I think there’s a challenge for publishers, educators, librarians and others here too – to redefine reading in a way that motivates and engages with young people who have left books behind. Let’s use books to build reading communities – because communities are what we need to join people together and bridge this terrible void that the riots have brought to light.