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Much Ado About The Fat Man

A speech given to the Tauranga Children's Literature Association in Tauranga, 2001.

Twice in the last seven years, the New Zealand children's book awards have produced a good stoush. The first was in 1995, when the AIM judging panel decided to award the Supreme and Junior fiction awards to Maurice Gee's The Fat Man. The second was in 1999 when another Supreme winner, Paula Boock's Dare, Truth or Promise, raised an even greater storm.

Taking 1999 first, I wasn't involved that year in any capacity other than interested member of the children's literature community who watched, for ten days or so, the unfolding scandal: witness the Rev Graham Capill and his speechless, hapless teenaged daughter on Paul Holmes, an appearance that, for me, came close to child abuse; the Rosemary McLeod, I think the Frank Haden and other robust columns, the newspaper leaders, the profiles of the admittedly young and handsome author Paula, especially the one in a white jumpsuit in Next magazine, which lifted her from author to temporary celeb.

The scandal of course revolved around awarding a major prize to a book for teenage readers on female homosexual love. The Rev Capill, like reputedly Queen Victoria, would rather that the word lesbian did not pass our lips, and a book on the subject, no matter how well written, never to fall into the tender unsullied hands of innocent schoolgirls. The Well of Loneliness, anyone? Though we didn't quite descend to the trial for obscenity and subsequent banning of Radclyffe's Hall's infamous 1928 book on lesbian love, Dare, Truth or Promise was to Caphill certainly NOT suitable for endorsement by a panel of trendy lefty judges or Booksellers New Zealand or schools or libraries or caring parents.

Hardly anywhere in the heated debate did I read one word of comment on whether Dare, Truth or Promise was actually in literary terms, a good book worthy of the Supreme award. Eventually, with the book accepted for publication in Australia and by the prestigious Houghton Mifflin company in US, the NZ Post judges were vindicated. Eventually, everyone settled down; the book found its own level. But Dare, Truth or Promise was not, as was widely, incorrectly claimed and believed at the time, the first New Zealand YA book on homosexual love: that was William Taylor's The Blue Lawn.

Which takes me back four years to 1995, the year that The Fat Man won the Supreme and Junior fiction awards, and The Blue Lawn, the Senior Fiction.

Because of the intended media focus almost entirely on the Supreme winner, at the expense of the other category winners, The Blue Lawn escaped public scrutiny and censure, although to be sure Richard Prebble had tried - and failed - to stir up a storm in a Sunday tabloid when it was published a few months earlier. I remember Whitcoulls put a warning sticker on it, prompting a sensible, sober and well-argued interview with Bill Taylor in the Sunday Times. Where was Caphill then? I don’t know. Perhaps uninvolved because the section winners were barely acknowledged by the media and the Fat Man debate was fought largely on an intellectual level in literary journals like the Listener and Quote Unquote, rather than at a populist level in the mainstream media.

Anyway, against The Fat Man being hoisted aloft to Junior and Supreme winner, Dorothy Butler fired the first salvo, in an incredulous and impassioned letter to the Listener claiming that at a stroke the judges had deprived children of their innocence; the book 'neatly equated'evil with physical imperfection; moreover, it would disturb or even damage nine to 12-year-olds.

The correspondence went on for two months before it was declared closed. The AIM judges replied promptly, defending their position. In behind Butler came Dunedin's Raymond Huber and predictably pushing her New Right and anti state funding barrow, Agnes-Mary Brooke. Agreeing with the judges and their right, indeed their obligation to judge a book on literary rather than educational terms were Jack Lasenby and Paula Boock, and in varying degrees of enthusiasm, three young readers.

Apart from the Listener, and a smaller debate in Quote Unquote, the award provoked four - only four - letters from schools to Booksellers New Zealand complaining that their trust in the short list, on which they previously relied for purchasing books, had been betrayed. They got a letter back defending the judges'integrity and autonomy, and subtly suggesting that the responsibility for buying or promoting books they considered suitable or otherwise lay with the school, rather than with the AIM judges or Booksellers NZ.

One thing that was different about the 1995 and 1999 debates was that in 1995 nearly everyone, even Dorothy Butler, acknowledged The Fat Man's power, the beautifully-written, lucid and compelling storytelling that we associate with Maurice Gee. Also, in 1995 the major debate centred not so much on Gee as the winner of the Supreme award, but round the judges'decision to place the book in the Junior Fiction category.

I can tell you now, as one of those judges, that decision was not taken lightly. We well knew the storm that would result. I've often wondered what would have happened had we taken the easier way out and popped the book into Senior fiction? Yes, yes, all the gatekeepers would have said. Keep that book out of the hands of anyone under 13, even as the compelling anecdotal evidence then, and even more now, is that the main readers of senior or YA fiction are not 13 to 16-year-olds high school pupils, but two main groups: able 11-year-olds, or even ten, and, suggests Kate di Goldi, echoing Heather Scutter, an Australian academic in a controversial, rather sour 1999 book called Displaced Fictions, middle-aged, politically correct and, by implication, misguided women - teachers, librarians, academics, booksellers, commentators, publishers, festival organisers and writers - who, says di Goldi, 'are diligently peddling the books to their intended teenage market but are, increasingly, left holding the books.'

Peddling is not a nice word. It suggests a lack of integrity. And whichever side people were on in 1995, no-one publicly questioned each other's fundamental integrity.

Maurice Gee and Penguin Books both agreed with the judges that The Fat Man should remain, for the purpose of the awards, with the age range given from about 8 or 9 to 12 or 13, right where it had been submitted, in Junior Fiction.

Gee was especially emphatic, while Penguin pointed to the book's typeface and overall appearance - both, they felt, chosen for the junior fiction, not teenage, market.

I spent a worried afternoon debating the issue with Dr Kirsty Cochrane, former lecturer in children's literature at Waikato University, whose view was unequivocal. For her, the novel's tone, established on the very first page, was clearly that of a traditional children's book. Dr Diane Hebley, completing our first doctorate in children's literature around that time, agreed.

The only accusation I heard regarding lack of integrity was levelled underground at me personally. I heard many years later that some in Wellington believed I had argued for keeping Gee in junior fiction so that my close friend William Taylor could win the senior fiction award. I don't know where that vicious and scurrilous notion left the other two judges.

Did they think that Wayne Mills, an acknowledged authority on children's books and judge also the year before, or Dr Hine Elder, a forthright, independent thinker, then medical student and mother of two, were so easily swayed?

Was it beyond them to imagine that the decision just might have been based on research, intensive consultation and a great deal of soul-searching? That in the end, it came down to whether the book should be placed at the top end of the junior section, or the bottom end of the senior fiction. It sat there, right on the cusp, and yes, there was a moment when I cursed Maurice for making Colin only 11. Why didn't he make him 13 or a skinny, late maturing 14-year-old, for heaven's sake and save us all this angst. I remember at our final judging session, after we'd read the front-runners at least three or four times, spreading out on the floor all the novels in ascending order of age suitability, and saying - well, for me, it sits right at the top of the junior range. We temporised by asking that a warning be put in the schools'resource kit. I was sorry at the time that the wording was less forceful than we intended. Personally, I would have stated bluntly that the book was not recommended for purchase or use in primary schools, but only for mature intermediate age children and upwards.

The voices ranged against our unanimous decision, apart from Dorothy Butler, were formidable.

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen (the Australian guru on what is known over there as youth literature) wrote a rave review for an Australian journal. She complimented New Zealand on honouring a book which she doubted would ever have made a shortlist for an Australian award, in the same way as various controversial books by Sonia Hartnet and Allan Baillie and others appeared to be too much for the judges to cope with. Privately, she has told me she holds to her view that The Fat Man is a young adult book. Well, no-one has said it's rigidly either/or, that any book can't be enjoyed by both age groups as much as by adults. It's just that for the awards a decision has to be made.

Agreeing with Nieuwenhuizen was Margaret Mahy, who came down some years later, in a quite strongly worded Landfall essay, in Dorothy Butler's camp.

Now it's not often that I dare to debate anything with Margaret, but she was quite critical about what she saw the judges'simplistic notion that a book with an 11-year-old hero was ipso facto a children's book. Put so baldly, as a single sole reason, I would agree that it's not sufficient justification. Yet I do hold to my view, informed by reading an essay by the godfather of the genre, Paul Zindel, many years ago, that one of the main characteristics of teenage, young adult, youth literature, call it what you will, is that it is about a teenager. About teenagers in the big wide world. Not so much about troubles at home, but about troubles with school, peers, hormones, temptations, experiments, boundaries. All my contact with teens from say 13 tends to reinforce my feeling that that they don't want to read about the troubles of 11-year-olds. They want to see themselves reflected, not their kid brothers. The God Boy, you might be thinking, or the novels about childhood of Noel Virtue, or Paddy Doyle Ha ha ha? - well, everything about the tone, language, thematic treatment, production and promotion of those books indicate clearly that they're not books for children, and as such don't form part of this debate.

You might be wondering why I'm revisiting 1995 and The Fat Man outcry? Not to justify myself and the judging panel, because with the greatest of respect to the intellectual heavyweights in this specialist literary community of ours, Dorothy, Margaret and Agnes, I still believe it was the right decision. Not only for the purpose of the awards, but because the decision reflected what in real life children are reading, rather than what the gatekeepers, albeit sincerely and with the best possible intentions, thought they should be reading, or not reading.

At heart, the debate was whether children around 11 and 12 should be starting to read about vicious bullying, murder, revenge and finally complicity in an inevitable though just death. Justice was done, and as Gee himself has said that quote 'none of the central relationships are actually damaged … the children are put under terrible threat, but they are not damaged.'Does any of that sound like what you might find in a book by one J.K. Rowling to you, or Philip Pullman, or those vile Goosebumps or Lemony Snicket or Artemis Fowl or any one of several thousand European fairy tales and Greek myths, or even, only stretching the point slightly, Zena, Hercules, the X Files or Shortland Street or the nightly Six O'Clock News? Do they read those books and watch those programmes? Maybe not the genuine Greek myths, though I wish they did, but the others, you bet!

My reason for revisiting 1995, though, is something that has been worrying me for some time, and that is, the effect of all this anxiety and confusion on writers.

Why are caring and responsible adults so anxious about what our pubescent children read, when they are so quiet on what the same children see on television? I'm not talking about our common revulsion at the idea of a child of ten or 11 head down into Stephen King or the salacious female hot sex equivalent of the day (it used to be Virginia Andrews, and possibly still is), but an insidious form of censorship leading to self-censorship that's rather more subtle and more difficult to dislodge.

Is it something to do with an educational terminology that has teachers talking about 'texts'to be 'used'in classrooms? Not books to be read, and enjoyed, as stories, but 'texts'which fit the prevailing orthodoxies? I don't write texts, myself, and I don't 'use'a 'text'in a classroom. I read to and share books with children. I write novels like Alex and the new Tiggie series which, from all the evidence available to me, are probably mostly read by the 10 to 14 age group, even though they are promoted in fantasyland as young adult, that is officially around age 13 to 17.

So, yes, I get lots of warm fuzzy feedback from children, so I'm apparently a successful writer for this 10-14 age group.

But occasionally, every opportunity I get, I take classes for adults who want to write for the young and in the past couple of years I've noticed a rising anxiety among students about what is acceptable, and what is not.

The problem is most evident with discussion about books they want to write that, like The Fat Man, Alex and Tiggie sit right on the cusp. Which way do they go? Up or down, will they be disadvantaged for getting published, or (among those with one or two books under their belt) disadvantaged for the awards, and thereby lose a thousand sales? Because that is what a short-listing means to a writer, gain or lose a thousand sales and a great deal of valuable promotion). If they write a book like Hot Mail, with some dodgy language and atrocious puns and terrible jokes and generally subversive tone disguising what William Taylor and I believe is quite a profoundly moral book, will they, like us, end up find themselves shut out of both the NZ Post and Children's Literature Foundation Notable Book shortlists but well reviewed and selling like hot cakes both here and in Australia?

Aspiring writer: Better play safe and write a 'text,'the shorter the better. Even quite big themes can be adequately dealt with in under 30,000 words, like the sexual harassment in Frances Cherry's unconvincing but this year NZ Post short-listed novel Leon, or losing a father as in David Hill's Afterwards. Can't they?

Don't dare be like the 32-year-old J.K. Rowling who resisted publishers' attempts to reduce the length of her sentences and of the first Harry Potter manuscript. 75,000 words, don't even think about it.

Surely, writes academic Rose Lovell-Smith reviewing four skinny novels by Taylor, Mahy, Cherry and Hill in the latest NZ Books, teens'reading matter does not have to come in such concentrated form? Local publishers, she complains, currently seem to think of the adolescent reader as somebody with an awfully short attention span.

The new writer asks: what about colloquial, accurate teen speech, or worse, slang, swearing? Take it out of the text, or your book will end up like The Tiggie Tompson Show, reluctantly declined as a girls'private school 'set book'because the English teacher knew that one f-word rendered it unacceptable to a vociferous handful of the parents who paid the bills. She did put one copy in the library, tho, which for an award-winning book I thought quite brave of her.

Sex? - discreetly fudge it, as I did in Tiggie, William Taylor's Jerome and The Blue Lawn, Paula Boock's Dare Truth or Promise, or forget it. I wonder how the girls' schools are getting on with the rape scene in Tiggie Tompson All at Sea. It's written in a measured 19th century prose voice, in Eliza's impeccably English educated diction, so perhaps that makes it all right.

If I'm beginning to sound a mite cynical, it's because I'm getting worried about how writers fit into the widening gap between text judged on educational terms and book judged on literary terms; between the world that children live in and how adults would like it portrayed; between theory and practice.

My learned colleague Wayne Mills has written in an overview of New Zealand children's literature for an American encyclopaedia that few new writers appeared in New Zealand in the 90s.

Why not, given the terrific boost of the 1980s and the literary role models provided by Mahy and Cowley, William Taylor and Sherryl Jordan and Lynley Dodd, or by the commercial role models of those prolific and I believe financially quite well-rewarded educational writers Pauline Cartwright, Diana Noonan and Allan Trussell-Cullen. Have they all gone underground to earn a living and keep out of controversy, writing school readers? Are the publishers turning them away in droves? Where are those who should be coming through with Vince Ford, Penelope Huber, Sarah Ell?

The answers I suspect are complex, and would take a major survey to discover. My suggestions:

  • Publishers are not spending time and money carefully and lovingly editing the manuscripts of potential new writers, as once upon a time I received with Night Race to Kawau. I'm told that anything that is marginal, they tend to turn down.

  • For the past ten or so years they have inclined towards shorter books, smaller costs. In effect, writers and children are being short-changed. Perhaps the fourth Harry Potter, and all of Pullman, are helping to change the notion that kids won't read long books.

  • Children's books get pathetically little review space and promotion in all the media, so emerging and exciting children's writers don't get reviewed or promoted, unless they happen to hit the jackpot like Vince Ford, whereupon the celeb-hungry media descends.

  • Writers'festivals, major promotional exercises, are generally indifferent to the children's genre, and to their obligation towards building tomorrow's adult audience.

  • Adult gatekeepers have made publishers and therefore writers over-anxious about content, about perceived boundaries, so that an insidious form of self-censorship is operating.

Earlier I asked what might have resulted if the 1995 judges had taken the line of least resistance and placed The Fat Man as a senior book? Recently, someone (whose opinion I don't particularly respect) suggested to me that by provoking contention and dissent we had actually done children's writing in this country a disfavour.

Well, it's not on my conscience, and I doubt it's on Wayne's. What does concern us both is the lack of robust public debate at some recent award decisions.

  • Where were the voices raised publicly at The Raging Quiet, a book chosen for a major US list of ten best young adult book, not making the 2000 senior short-list?

  • Who complained at The Natural World of New Zealand and this year, Gone Surfing, being non-fiction winners on the totally spurious grounds that by being accessible to children for school assignments, that made them children's books?

  • Who protested at the non-short-listing this year of William Taylor's Crash - the story of Poddy, a book that Joy Cowley, the eventual junior fiction winner, believed should have won? At the non-appearance also of Diana Noonan's critically acclaimed Whistle for the Blunder, and, astonishingly, any Pamela Allen book for the third year, whose talent is every bit as energetic now as indicated by her multi-award winning books over two decades on both sides of the Tasman.

  • Who made the difficult call of objecting to the surprising and I can only guess, politically correct inclusion on the Senior short list of Leon, which Rose Lovell-Smith rightly found lacking in any sort of space and time given to creating a fictional world?

Finally, where are the commentators on children's literature generally? They're not getting space in Auckland's media. The New Zealand Herald has been patchy at best, certainly not committed to reviewing local children's writers, even Mahy, even Jordan, even me. Neither of my two Tiggie books have been reviewed there. The Listener went through a two or three year bad patch. Where, Talespinner notwithstanding, are the scholarly magazine articles and books that a genre needs to support research and growth? Has there been a single book published since Diane Hebley's 1998 Power of Place. I don't know of one. How long do we have to wait before Scholastic updates Beneath Southern Skies or the Children's Literature Foundation finds the time and resources to expand its 100 Contemporary Writers booklet.

There is only so much one writer can do. I have books to write and in a small literary community one voice banging on can get tedious or motives misinterpreted. Quite possibly I've reached that eminence.

The Children's Literature Foundation has and will continue to write letters of protest against what they and others see as idiotic judging decisions and the currently unsatisfactory process by which such judges are appointed, but that's another story. Awards will always have their dissenters and critics, but for all that they are a valuable indicator and incentive for the whole industry.

On behalf of writers (and I know many of them share my concerns) please get out there and tell aspiring new writers to forget all the politics, all the angst about age groups and language and suitability and teacher's notes, and simply, as Betty Gilderdale quite rightly pleaded ten years ago, just tell the story, as best they can. Put literature back into literacy, and as has been Harry Potter's greatest achievement, entertainment back into reading, and writers back into doing what they do best - not pontificating, not agonising, but creating and developing the indigenous children's literature that goes with a truly responsible and mature society.


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