Monday, 27 August 2007

Taboo or Not Taboo?

When reading a novel or watching a television drama, do you find yourself second guessing what the author of the piece might be getting at? For example, if you know that the writer has certain political leanings, do you think when you hit upon a scene, “Ah, I think he’s making a point here”?

Sometimes it’s pretty obvious that a writer is deliberately attempting to influence the reader/viewer/listener. The 21st century version of Doctor Who is moulded and shaped by Russell T Davies. He is a prolific and much respected scribe and what he has achieved with Who is remarkable. But he’s also a staunch atheist (on record saying he would like to see all religion banned) and a keen promoter of homosexual rights.

Have these themes found their way into Doctor Who? They surely have.

In the second episode of Series One, “The End of the World”, as a shuttle approaches a huge space station, an announcement is broadcast forbidding the practice of religion. Later in the same episode we witness the Holy Order of the Repeated Meme, which is a clever pun on what Davies believes religious attachment to be (no doubt influenced by the writings of one Professor Richard Dawkins). And in the final episode of that season, “The Parting of the Ways”, when the Daleks have harvested Earth’s waifs and strays and developed religious feelings, the Doctor says they have inherited the stink of humanity.

Viewers with religious feelings of their own might be troubled by these sentiments.

With regard to homosexuality, the first obvious attempt at planting the concept in the minds of the children watching is the scene in “The Parting of the Ways” where Captain Jack, about to go off into war against the Daleks, kisses Rose on the lips, and then kisses the Doctor in exactly the same way.

In the Series Three episode “Utopia”, Jack is seen to chat up a girl, then a man, then a blue insect creature! The anything-goes approach to sexuality and relationships is sprinkled discreetly throughout. In “Gridlock”, the Doctor jumps onto a campervan occupied by an elderly lesbian couple, and then onto one inhabited by a humanoid cat and an ordinary woman – with their kittens occupying a straw basket. In “42”, Martha asks one of the male characters if he has a girlfriend. When he replies in the negative, Martha inquires if he has a boy friend.

Now, some would say this is a fine thing, that equal rights are being promoted – while others would be disturbed by what is being sown in young fertile minds.

Of course, whenever RTD is challenged about preaching atheism or promoting homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and sex between different species to his impressionable viewers, he laughs raucously and suggests that the question itself is outrageous.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.

But now, as I publish stories of my own, I find that some readers see in my work patterns of thinking and philosophies being expounded. Or do they…?

Readers do tend to read between the lines.

A much respected university lecturer told me he admired the way I pre-empt the great ordeal Gezz, Malcolm and Luke would later face in Century Lodge by in the first instance showing Malcolm having to overcome his fear of the foreboding railway bridge. He thought the bridge and the fear associated with it was a metaphor for what was to come. I had to tactfully explain that no such device was at work. The disused railway and that low bridge really exist. They are from my own childhood. Malcolm’s reaction to the bridge mirrored my own at that tender age. It was as simple as that.

On another occasion, I had a literary talent scout read Century Lodge in the hope that she would recommend me to a big name publisher. The lady in question took great exception to the apparent statement made in the book, that religious families are good and wholesome and that non-religious families are less so. She also had a problem with me “lecturing” the reader about the dangers of smoking cigarettes.

I felt obliged to explain one or two things.

First of all, while I was deliberately contrasting Gezz’s family with that of Luke’s, I was careful in constructing the characters to make sure they were not stereotypes. So, Gezz’s parents have got rid of their television, but Gezz goes round to Luke’s to watch Grange Hill. Gezz’s mother is very devoted to her religion and regards the Luke’s family as uncouth, but Gezz’s dad chooses to watch the movie Blade Runner with Luke’s dad because they have a shared interest in science-fiction.

It was my intention to expose Anne (and the reader) to conflicting information. Having a religious family, a secular family, and a boy with independent philosophies seemed the best way to show it.

As for the smoking issue, I do not believe that the scenes in which Gezz and Anne try a cigarette lecture the reader in any way. If they make the reader think twice about starting smoking, that can only be good. If they make adult readers feel awkward about their own smoking habit, then I cannot apologise. They probably feel awkward when their children come home from school and tell them about the posters they’ve seen depicting tar oozing from blackened lungs or list the lethal ingredients of cigarette smoke. Should the school apologise for showing their pupils these things? Hardly.

The feelings of guilt and shame experienced by Gezz reflect those of my own. When I tried smoking, I couldn’t wait to get my clothes into the washing machine and have a shower – mostly because I was terrified of my mother picking up the foul odour from me.

Recently, a reader in Germany got in touch, first to tell me easy Century Lodge is to read (and that’s a great compliment from a person who does not read English as her first language), and then to tell me how disturbed she was by the implication that Gezz’s family is better than Luke’s because Gezz’s family is religious. What fascinated me was how this reader was re-evaluating her own family life as a result of noticing the differences between the families in my novel.

And maybe that’s the crux of it. The readers are applying what they read to their own lives. And that is a tremendous thing for an author to contemplate. They are made to think by what they are reading.

I advised that my new German friend read the book to the very end before she drew any conclusions. She did so, and about two thirds of the way through it, sent me an email reporting she had been “happy to spend an afternoon at Luke’s house” (and thus seeing more closely what makes those characters tick).

Of course, there is another thing at work here too. Dennis Potter once said it is sometimes the job of the writer to make people think about things they don’t want to think about. I find this interesting. Have I touched a raw nerve in some of my adult readers? (I say “adult” because no child has ever complained about the way I depict characters, nor have they accused me of lecturing them). Am I making atheists think about God when they would prefer to forget him? Am I raising awkward questions about God that religionists find disconcerting? Are the smokers angry with me because I’m pointing up their addiction?

I’m not setting out to make anyone feel uncomfortable, but I am intending through the character of Anne to ask questions. Maybe some don’t want them asked.

As for my reader in Germany, she cannot wait to get her hands on Anne Droyd and the House of Shadows, and she’s bringing her copies of Century Lodge and Feeling’s Unmutual with her to the UK for me to sign when I attend the Tripods gathering in Brighton on Saturday 22 September.

It’s a privilege to affect people so profoundly, but I am now inclined to think twice before reading too much into the writings of others.