The curious incident of the banned book

HOW much should we swear in life and in literature? This question interests me on both fronts. In clarification it should be pointed out that Man On Ledge doesn’t regard “bollocks” as a profanity. Mrs Man On Ledge, on the other hand, disagrees.

This topic arises thanks to the excellent writer Mark Haddon and a bunch of small-minded parents in Florida, whose complaints have caused Haddon’s most celebrated novel to be pulled from a summer reading list.

Well, I say “small-minded” and maybe they are or maybe they are not. What they are without doubt is so focused on one small aspect of a book that they fail to see the wonderful whole. And it’s a shame when that happens.

The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time was a Whitbread Book of the Year and is now also a prize-winning play. It is narrated by a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, as he embarks on an investigation into the death of his neighbour’s dog (the title is a Sherlock Holmes reference).

Students at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee were given the book as a summer reading assignment, but it was later removed from the list after parents complained. The story was reported by the Tallahassee Democrat and then picked up over here. The school’s head received complaints about the language in the book and cancelled the assignment in order to “give the opportunity for the parents to parent”.

One parent told the paper something which it is worth repeating in full. So deep breath taken, here goes: “I am not interested in having books banned. But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain – I don’t go for that. As a Christian, and as a female, I was offended. Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment … I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong.”

So I think what we have here is one vociferous parent kicking off after, presumably, flipping through the pages, glimpsing a swear word or two – and not being prepared to see further than that. Which is a pity as The Curious Incident is an excellent novel, a grown-up sort of children’s book, or a novel for everyone. A book to open minds and, like all good novels, to present a view of the world the reader may well not have encountered.

There is more to life than a simple calibration of “right and wrong” and what that complaining parent has done is ban a book, at least locally, whatever she says.

Someone on the staff of the Tallahassee Democrat had the predictable but dim idea of counting all the swear words in the novel, and then listing them. Having spent so long in newsrooms, I can just see the sort of editor who came up with that.

Haddon is used to this sort of thing, as similar rows have erupted before. He makes the very good point that The Curious Incident “is not just a novel that contains swearing but a novel about  swearing” as the boy Christopher is completely unaware of the offence that swearing is intended to cause. And that surely would have made a good topic for discussion on the summer reading assignment.

The question interests me in another way too, as the thriller I am finishing off contains a fair bit of swearing. Sometimes in the edit I knock out the f-words. Sometimes I put them back in. One character swears a lot because of his background and poor education. In life all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds swear: so should such language feature in literature? Well, that’s one of those judgements, but clearly not if your target reader is a narrow-minded inhabitant of Tallahassee.

As it happens I swear rarely out loud in life, so long as bollocks doesn’t count, and a little more often within the curved confines of my own skull.

NB: Mark Haddon’s more adult novels A Spot Of Bother and The Red House are both well worth reading too, although perhaps not in Florida.

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