Thursday, 27 August 2009

On reporters and realism

‘Anne Fine deplores ‘gritty realism’ of modern children’s books’ was the headline in The Times, and deep into the traditional silly season (yes, that’s why there are pages of fluffy animals in today’s Guardian) what a great story it was. A former children’s laureate, slagging off depressing modern fiction? While sitting next to a master of the form Melvin Burgess? Cue frenzied blogging debate and tongue-in-cheek newspaper follow ups.

Except, that’s not quite how it was. Anne Fine protested (in a comment on an excellent blog post by children’s crime writer Anne Cassidy) that her quote was taken out of context. She wasn’t deploring unhappy endings, nor calling for a return to the middle-class values of the Fifties. She pointed out that she was addressing an audience of social workers responsible for caring for children in care. “I was simply asking if these bleak endings had any effect on their young clients, and if so, what it was (if they indeed read the books at all). I was not advocating any particular sort of endings.”

Melvin Burgess was quoted by The Times as saying “I have had letters talking about the humanity of my books, even when the situations the characters are in are very dark and difficult. Just the fact that they are still making jokes and falling in love. Perhaps the light of hope comes from the reader and not the story.”

On his blog he said perhaps the furore was more about journalism than children’s writing. ‘The fact that the angle wasn’t Anne’s wasn’t something the journalist probably even thought about, any more than the fact that the whole thing was presented as some Great Statement by the ex laureate, rather than what it really was - an answer to a question from a social worker in the audience, about the effect dark stories might have on vulnerable readers.’

And he adds: ‘There’s a new story if I ever saw one, a real one abut real people and how they really feel. I wonder if any of the journalists involved would be wiling to run a story about that … or are they too chicken to subject themselves to the same kind of scrutiny they put the rest of us through?’

Now, as a journalist and a writer I found that a fascinating question. In my experience most reporters don’t give too much thought about the power they have - mainly because they feel too powerless in the face of slammed doors and cut-throat competition - but contrary to general opinion, most do care about accuracy and fairness, if only because you won’t have a very long career if you collect too many complaints and libel writs. Why would an arts journalist want to mis-represent Anne Fine? Was the fault with the reporter at the meeting, or the editors in London? (by the way many people tend to blame sub editors for this kind of thing, although it’s really the page or section editors that should be asking questions about context and meaning).

Anyway the reporter at the meeting was Jackie Kemp, and she told me: “I guess it was taken out of context - that is the nature of the beast. It was a small part of a 90 minute discussion in answer to a social worker. It seemed to me that she was really asking herself the question, how do we offer children hope and how do we encourage their aspirations without retreating from complexity?”

As someone who has written a novel that could be described as ‘gritty realism’ - although I don’t really think it’s that gritty myself, if gritty means uncomfortable – I became aware very quickly that ‘hope’ was a quality that both agents and publishers looked for and commented on. It surprised me because it wasn’t something I’d given a minute’s thought to in writing the book - I was more concerned about keeping things exciting, interesting and real - oh and funny too – while not losing sight of the serious moral and philosophical questions thrown up by the plot. I still don’t really know where ‘hope’ comes from, unless it’s hanging on somehow to the idea that things might get better.

One person I’d have loved to hear from in this whole debate was the third writer on the panel at the meeting, Rachel Ward whose debut novel Numbers has been very successful. (UPDATE: See comments below!) It tells the story of a girl who sees numbers on people’s foreheads, and then realises that they show the date of their death. It’s a taut emotional read, with well-drawn characters and memorable prose – but ultimately I was depressed at the idea that we are all slaves of destiny. Reviewer Philip Ardagh  -  probably a jollier person than me -  found it 'life-affirming'.  There you go. Hope is in the eye of the reader.


  1. I moonlight as a journalist myself and I've taken some heat for quoting people, but usually the people that take issue with how they are quoted or what they are quoted on tend to be borderline nutty. Of course, the stuff I report on tends to be pretty small time. Still, people sometimes say things without realizing how they will sound when translated into the printed word.

    A recent incident involved a man quoted after he spoke up at a town meeting. Without getting into specifics he had begun at the meeting speaking about one issue, but then changed gears to talking about something that was only tangentially related. He was quoted on both matters, but was upset about being quoted on the second subject because that wasn't the real point of his comments. "Why is this in the article?" he complained. "You were the one that brought it up," I pointed out. "But that's not the issue here," he said. The lesson, think before you speak if the media is present.

    On the other issue of down-endings in books for young readers: I don't know that it is any different than books for adults or even movies. Not everything needs to have a happy ending, and sometimes it will really hurt a gritty novel to give it a falsely happy ending. One of my favorites growing up was The Outsiders. I bawled my eyes out the first time I read that book, but I loved it.

  2. Ah yes, the nutter factor. Happened to me recently. But I don't think we can possibly count Anne Fine in that category, I think the reporter and editor should have made the context of her comments clear. As things stand it twists her meaning completely.
    Completly love The Outsiders - one of my favourite books ever (actually that might have to be a blog post sometime)

  3. As the third panellist, and new to the literary scene, this whole thing has definitely been an education! I don't think any of the panel had an inkling that this quite small section of the debate would be picked up in the way it has been.
    In fact, to the best of my recollection, the Times article quoted Anne Fine accurately, but it was the spin put on it and the headline that seemed to distort things and light the blue touch paper.
    At the time, Anne's comments seemed to me to be her musing aloud about fashions in publishing and the possible effects of books featuring social realism. A large part of the audience was made up of social workers, teachers and others who work with young people, and she was seeking their views as well as giving her own.
    The issues of aspiration and 'happy endings' are both things I thought about a lot when editing Numbers and was subject of considerable discussion with my editors at the Chicken House. My original draft was much bleaker, believe me.
    I still worry that the messages in my book might not be aspirational enough - for a start, it's about your path in life being set for you when you're born. My characters deal with the hand dealt to them in a pretty resilient, feisty, sometimes humorous way, but they are still constrained by fate, or whatever it is that sets their path.
    I actually feel that the choices we make and the social system we live in can change our life chances hugely, but this probably isn't the message in Numbers.
    I don't want to give away the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, but, despite the above, I hope that among the bleakness, there's also a message about the redemptive power of love.
    Novels aren't educational tracts or 'how-to' manuals and they're different from journalism - we're not just reporting facts, but shaping stories and exploring themes, characters, etc. I think Melvin's novel, Nicholas Dane, shows this brilliantly. While based in fact, he's crafted a story which shows a realistic range of endings for his characters - sad, violent, happy, messy or unresolved - but demonstrates that people in the most difficult circumstances can endure and overcome. I've read plenty of newspaper and magazine articles about child abuse, but I think Melvin's book will prove to be a more lasting testament to those times and this issue.
    There - I've rambled on for long enough. Actually, I could probably write a small thesis about this and all the stuff I've learnt over the first 8 months of being a published writer, but as I'm desperately trying to finish writing the sequel to Numbers, I'd better leave it there!

  4. Wow, Rachel, thanks for commenting. I knew yours was the voice that was missing in this debate. And yes, there was hope in Numbers...I was just emotionally drained know...No spoilers here. Great news that there's going to be a sequel.
    No, a novel is not journalism. Journalists have a responsibility to report facts not just accurately but in context. Novelists take ideas and play with them, develop them, twist and turn stories at will. Happy endings are optional and come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.

  5. great to hear rachel's view and feedback about the event - i failed to mention that rachel was in the panel when i blogged about it. I will point my readers to her comments here. thanks!

  6. Thanks Candy, there's a link to your blog in mine somewhere too..good thing I've finally leanred to do links properly on blogger (yes I know, not exactly difficult)

  7. Is Jackie Kemp saying she wrote an article that was then simply changed by someone else?

    And it was 60 rather than 90 minutes, if she was there.

  8. I think she is, but I think - as a seasoned reporter and editor - that it's up to the reporter who is present at the meeting to convey the sense and the context of what's being said with absolute clarity. It is really not that difficult to do so. And if you're not sure what someone's saying - wait until the end of the meeting and ask them.

  9. Ah well, in that case someone is doing it to her again this morning. More interesting quotes from Edinburgh, used to say something the quotes were never part of.

  10. You mean Jackie Kemp's piece in Education Guardian?

  11. Yes. Includes some made up quotes.

  12. Made up from Anne Fine or someone else? I thought the quote from a teacher condemning a book she hadn't read was pretty outrageous (but sadly probably accurate)