Don't outlaw the flaws

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I HAVE spent roughly one afternoon a month for the last year attending meetings of PEN's special committee on censorship. It was set up to look into the question of whether books, and in particular children's books, were subject to censorship, be it by publishers, editors, libraries or teachers. (Parents and children, of course, employ the most damning censorship of all, simply by not buying the book.)

The committee's report, published last week, found that of the 105 authors who replied to a questionnaire, 62 did report censorship in some form. The rest either had not been subject to any interference with their work, or concluded that they had - but rightly so.

It seems absurd if children's books are not allowed to contain references to pigs (lest Muslims be offended) or witches (in deference to wicca-ists or religious fundamentalists) or to lawns, ponies and ballet classes (as these are not available to poor children). Yet there are reputable publishing houses that ban all three, requiring authors to substitute inoffensive animals/bogey-persons/ leisure pursuits.

Speaking as a writer, my problem with this ruling is that it requires a sort of neutrality of outlook and experience that in practice is the opposite of what makes a good author or a good book. It makes for dull books.

Why should children's books be reduced to the lowest common denominator of universal acceptability? Yet authors have been instructed to remove a reference to 'things looking black' (substitute 'bad') and illustrators have been asked to show 'a good mix of races, gender, age and disability'. However well-intentioned, this has to be nonsense. For generations, working-class boys followed the exploits of Lord Snooty, a preposterous sort of Etonian chinless wonder. Today's editors would not allow Lord Snooty to sully their pages; he has been dropped from the Beano - more's the pity.

Leave aside the question of writing for children for the moment; it is the particularity of an author's vision of the world, his or her eye for detail - why this detail but not that one - which leaps from the page and speaks to the reader. Writers, said Hemingway, must write of what they know.

I am not interested (mea culpa) in cars or gardening or machines. There is hardly a single named make of car in anything I have written, and if I want to describe flowers, I have to look them up in a botanical book, and check when they come into bloom. But I really do know, from the inside, what it's like to have been at a girls' boarding school in the Fifties (the subject of novel the second). This does not restrict me to writing only from my personal experience. I found out, by assiduous research, what it was like to fly a Spitfire in the Second World War for novel the third.

The perfect world of the politically correct would presumably like to forbid the publication of books about war, just as some parents - me included, as it happens - forbid their sons to play with toy weapons. And just as my son found sticks from the garden to point at his little sisters while making nasty threatening noises, so, too, people would soon find substitutes for books about war. Or are we to ban science fiction, and detective novels, and sport as well? You cannot impose peaceability on people simply by denying them warlike toys or literature. You cannot impose tolerance or equality on children merely by giving them books in which such admirable qualities rule supreme.

It may well be possible to write a children's story that offends no one; but it won't interest anyone much, either. Books must be fuelled by the energy of a good story bursting to be told, or a character so beguilingly eccentric as to leap off the page, if readers are to be transported into the writer's imagination. They must be shown a world recognisably flawed yet accurate as to human compulsion, motives, failure, forgiveness and triumph, from which they can draw real deductions about how we behave. To do that, books must be based on our own imperfect world. 'Political correctness' tries to deny all that. It won't work, and should not be imposed.