It's enough to give us writers a bad name

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The Independent Online

It is beginning to look as though Gimp Sanchez is in trouble. This weekend, my answering machine received a call from the person to whom, in a sense, he owes his existence. There is a problem with Gimp, she said. Then she put her son on the line to give me some bad news.

It is beginning to look as though Gimp Sanchez is in trouble. This weekend, my answering machine received a call from the person to whom, in a sense, he owes his existence. There is a problem with Gimp, she said. Then she put her son on the line to give me some bad news.

Gimp, I should explain, is a character from a work in progress of mine. He is about 30,000 words old and, although he's no angel, I have already become rather fond of him, with his bad leg, his greasy long hair and his odd, nerdish sincerity. The first 12 years of his life have been tough - his mother's something of a psycho; at school he is a bully's pet - but worse lies ahead.

Then came the call. My editor had always been worried about the name Gimp; she sensed that it had connotations that (did I mention that my story is written for readers between the ages of nine and 12?) might be deemed inappropriate.

I had checked in the Shorter Oxford and in Jonathan Green's Cassell Dictionary of Slang. "Gimp" represented a limp, a gammy leg. A secondary meaning, also of obscure origin, meant "courage". It was a perfect nickname.

Now it turned out that, in that annoying way of editors, she might have been right. According to my phone conversation with her teenage son, a practised and expert reader of first drafts, the term "gimpy", when used in playgrounds and school corridors, has nothing to do with limping or bravery. It means "gay". Matters of sexual orientation are outside the scope of my story.

Creating fiction for children is unlike any other kind of writing, in that a great, ghostly army of teachers, librarians and parents is peering over your shoulder as you work, highly trained eyes ever alert for the slightest sign of irresponsible attitudes.

The influence it exerts has increased over the years. Even if a publisher holds the line - and mine is as robust in defence of her authors as any - practical, financial motives tend to encourage self-censorship. A complaint from a parent, no matter how nutty, can and does cause a library authority to remove all copies of a book from the shelves. The book clubs that control sales into schools are too busy even to consider a book that contains a scene or word that is thought topose problems.

Some aspects of the new caution are matters of clarity and good manners: to write: "Things were looking black for Johnny," is to risk setting off, in young readers living in a multicultural society, all sorts of distracting connotations. But often the pressure on writers reflects a nannyish, teacherly approach to reading, a need for every book to convey the right civic messages, to be improving.

The awkward fact is that, whatever impulse propels someone to write fiction, it is not a desire to convert readers into good, obedient citizens. On the whole, writers are not prefect material. They are disruptive troublemakers. For some peculiar psychological reason, that seems to be particularly true of those who write children's books.

So my character will hobble on under the name of Gimp for the time being. When his story has been told, he may have to be re-christened, but the name will not go without a fight - indeed, I would be grateful to any readers, inside or outside school walls, who can provide information as to the innocence or guilt of the word.

I am uneasily aware that I have a bad record when it comes to naming characters. Once I made the mistake of giving a charismatic but dodgy teenager the name of Scag. Visiting a school, I was asked by a boy of 10 why I had chosen to name my character after the slang word for heroin and I had to confess my ignorance. His look of profound pity at the unworldliness of authors haunts me still.

terblacker@aol.com

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