THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

55 posts categorized "Fiction"

29 September 2017

Banned Books Week in prison

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A guest post by Susan Selby, Library Manager at HMP Garth

Banned Books Week at HMP Garth

Preparing the Banned Books Week display at HMP Garth. Photograph © Susan Selby.

We are now putting the finishing touches to our displays and activities for Banned Books week. Our reading group will be holding a discussion around censorship and our poetry group will be delving into Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

We have hidden books under cover and studded our shelves with 'banned' books in wrappers. This is our normal stock but people who have asked why we are wrapping them have been surprised when told the books have been banned - no one believes that Harry Potter could be banned but it has happened in some US states!

Word searches to find the titles of banned books will be available, together with bookmarks. Borrowers are going to be asked for comments with the intention of making a display as a follow up to the event.

We have also made links with our Safer Custody and Equalities team as many of the reasons that books are banned i.e. homophobia and racism, are issues that are being dealt with within the prison system.

As well as encouraging reading, it is hoped that discussing the censorship of books will open a dialogue about why people see banning as an option, about the the reasons why books have been banned and whether they are still relevant today. Challenges are faced by institutions like prisons; mental health, violence, gender identity issues and religious intolerance. By highlighting how these issues are used as excuses for challenging books we can hopefully break down some of the prejudices that are held.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September).

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

  Banned Books Week logo

27 September 2017

Standing With Salman: Banned Books Week looks back at The Satanic Verses

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Add_ms_88930_2_2_1989_death_penalty - Copy

Detail from Salman Rushdie campaign literature, 1991, Add MS 88930/2/2

As part of this year’s Banned Books Week programme we’re hosting an event on Thursday evening looking back at the controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Lisa Appignanesi of the Royal Society of Literature will chair a panel discussion with freedom of speech campaigners Melvyn Bragg, Frances D’Souza and Caroline Michel, together with human rights activist Yasmin Rehman. There are still a few tickets left for Standing With Salman but they are running out fast so book now if you would like to come along.

The Rushdie controversy seemed an apt choice for our contribution to Banned Books Week as the British Library is home to the archive of the Salman Rushdie Campaign Group. The collection comprises the working papers of the campaigners who banded together to support Salman Rushdie as the fatwa imposed on him by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini neared its 1000th day. By 1991, two years on from the publication of The Satanic Verses, opposition to the novel had reached frightening proportions. The book’s Japanese translator had been murdered and the Italian translator badly beaten up, two imams had been shot in Brussels and there had been riots in Pakistan and India resulting in the deaths of seven people and hundreds of injuries. As the violence worsened and the prospect of Rushdie returning to a normal life seemed farther away than ever, literary agent Caroline Michel joined forces with broadcasters Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob and others to galvanize the literary world into standing up for freedom of speech. The plan was to gather support from 1000 writers to mark the 1000th day of Rushdie’s life under the fatwa on 11 November 1991.

Things didn’t turn out quite the way they had been planned. In preparation for Banned Books Week I have been looking back through the archive, reading my way through the letters, minutes, petitions and press releases that were generated by the campaign. What becomes clear is that the grand plan for a 1000th day event in Westminster Central Hall had to be scaled back at the Government’s request due to concerns that it might impact on negotiations for the release of British hostage Terry Waite. Despite the Foreign Office’s concerns, the writers gathered anyway – albeit in a less high-profile location - and speeches were given by Hanif Kureishi and Günter Grass among others. These can be read in the archive alongside Rushdie’s own statement condemning the Foreign Office which was read out on his behalf, a public appearance being far too dangerous due to the £1.5 million bounty on his head.

It is the statements of support from other writers and prominent figures that form the bulk of the archive and they make for interesting reading. When I opened the files I found it poignant to see a handwritten letter from the late Alan Rickman, lamenting the fact that Rushdie would still be in the care of Special Branch come November, his life ‘a bargaining point in our Government’s trade interests’. There’s also Kazuo Ishiguro’s warning that ‘History will not forgive today’s world leaders if for reasons of short-term expediency, the “death sentence” method of political terrorism is permitted to become to the nineties what hi-jacking and hostage-taking was to the seventies and eighties’. Graham Swift takes a different tack, reminding us of literature’s power to live in our imaginations and asking us to read this award-winning book before arguing against it.

Not all those petitioned by the campaigners were in support of Salman Rushdie: Dirk Bogarde's letter sets out his reasons for not supporting him (he calls Rushdie an ‘arrogant fool’). Another high profile critic of Rushdie at the time was Roald Dahl, who wrote to The Times arguing that ‘In a civilised world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work in order to reinforce this principle of free speech’. You can see the full range of responses from writers in the series of incoming correspondence (Add MS 88930/1/1-7).

Thirty years on from the writing of The Satanic Verses, the book remains just as relevant to us today for its critique of British society as much as its commentary on fundamentalism of all kinds. If you can’t join us on Thursday evening, celebrate your freedom to read by picking up a copy of this much-discussed but under-read book. And if you would like to read more about controversy, The Rushdie File (London: Fourth Estate, 1989) edited by Lisa Appignanesi and Sara Maitland is a great place to start.

The Salman Rushdie Campaign Archive is available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room and the catalogue is searchable on Explore: Archives and Manuscripts. Check out our Sound & Moving Image Catalogue for recordings of Rushdie reading from and discussing the book.

This blog is published as part of Banned Books Week 2017 (24-30 September). 

Banned Books Week was first initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. The 2017 UK contribution to Banned Books Week features events staged by a variety of cultural organisations including the British Library, Free Word, Royal Society of Literature and Islington Library and Heritage Services. British Library events can be found here.

Banned Books Week logo

 

13 July 2017

Gay UK: Love, Law, Liberty and Literature?

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The tag line for the British Library’s Gay UK exhibition is ‘Love, Law and Liberty’. One could add another ‘L’ to the alliterative list and make the tag ‘Love, Law, Liberty and Literature’. Literature, and the way it has been used for and against the gay community is a revealing thread running throughout the show. The very first display case in the exhibition examines the downfall of Oscar Wilde and the way his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray – fit for ‘none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys’ in the words of one reviewer – was used against him during his trial for gross indecency. Wilde himself realised he had gone too far in the original version of the story, published in Lippincott’s Magazine in the summer of 1890, and for the first novel publication in 1891 he rewrote the book. In the new version the passionate expressions of Dorian, Basil Hallwood and Sir Henry Wotton are recast in aesthetic terms, removing the original’s emphasis on male relationships. The damage was done though and in the eyes of the prosecution lawyers the Lippincott’s version revealed Wilde’s true, criminal, nature. He was, in their eyes, condemned by his own work.

Lippincott's

(Lippincott's Monthly Magazine, July 1890. The first appearance of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray in print)

This need to either rewrite a novel, or to modify it in order to avoid moral outrage (or indeed to not publish it at all, as E. M Forster did with Maurice) is a common theme. Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) was prosecuted for obscenity, and banned, almost as soon as it appeared. By today’s standards the novel is tame but the line ‘and that night, they were not divided’, which referred to two women, was enough to have James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express, raging with disgust. He wrote: ‘I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel’. Further comments by Douglas made a direct link back to Oscar Wilde and the decadence that was a key part of the Victorian fin de siècle – ‘It is a seductive and insidious piece of special pleading designed to display perverted decadence as a martyrdom inflicted upon these outcasts by a cruel society. It flings a veil of sentiment over their depravity.’ The trial caused a sensation, with both sides being easy prey for satirists.

Sink of Solitude 01 (2)

(An illustration by Beresford Egan for The Sink of Solitude (1928), a satire on Radclyffe Hall, her novel and the case brought against her book. Hall is being martyred on the cross; the Home Secretary Joynson-Hicks looks on; Cupid makes an insulting gesture and Sappho leaps joyously across the centre).

Perhaps Radclyffe Hall’s real offence was to root lesbianism in the English countryside, as much a fixture as the fox hunt and the Saturday-to-Monday house party. She drew attention to it and she defended it. Just as she pointed out and defended the fact that many women ambulance drivers on the Western Front during WWI had been lesbians. This was something a large part of the establishment did not wish to hear; it didn’t tie in with their old-style vision of muscular Christianity and their sense of order.

This open hostility towards literature that addressed gay life lasted well into the 20th century. Terence Rattigan conceived his play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) as a one-act piece revolving around a love affair between two men. Knowing this would never get past the censors however he had little option but to place a heterosexual relationship at the play’s heart if it was to be performed. A few years later however things were beginning to change. Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957, which recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality, and the subsequent rise in campaign movements and pressure groups such as the Homosexual Law Reform Society, attitudes were finally starting to relax. On 31st October 1958 the Lord Chamberlain issued a memorandum to his staff stating that plays about homosexuality, or including homosexual characters would no longer be subject to an automatic ban. The language of the document is grudging and of its time (“We will not allow embraces between males or practical demonstrations of love”) but all the same it was progress and plays like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) soon brought sympathetic portrayals of gay men and women to the London stage.

  LCP Report 01

(Lord Chamberlain's memorandum from 31st October 1958 outlining what can, and what cannot, be permitted on the stage with regard to the portrayal of homosexuality)

Although the pace of change has been gradual the positive advance in attitudes over the twentieth century is encouraging. Seventy years after the banning of The Well of Loneliness Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet (1998) achieved impressive sales and critical acclaim. A racy television adaptation was broadcast four years later. Waters’ novel is immeasurably more daring in its depiction of lesbianism than The Well of Loneliness. It is graphic, sexy, bold, joyous and brilliant. The fact it was also available to buy in high-street bookshops and to borrow from libraries up and down the country is indicative of how far attitudes towards same-sex relationships have progressed since the dark days of Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall.

Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty runs until 19th September 2017. The events programme to accompany the exhibition can be seen here.

 

 

01 June 2017

The writing of J. G. Ballard’s Crash: a look under the bonnet

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 Chris Beckett writes:

Shock greeted the publication of J. G. Ballard’s Crash in 1973. Cult status quickly followed. Today, the novel is widely considered to be a modern classic, a novel that speaks both of its time – the darkening close of a decade of colourful liberation – and speaks dystopically to us today, connected yet disconnected as we are in a time of digital narcissism, detached 21st century voyeurs of pleasure and horror at the touch of a screen. Meanwhile, traffic increases – hurtling towards the limits of catastrophic systems failure – by road, and by what used to be called the information super highway. Is Ballard’s novel a Swiftian satire, a ‘cautionary tale’, as the author suggested, or is it, as he also characterised his novel – as if to evoke de Sade – a ‘psychopathic hymn’? Ballard maintained both positions at different times. The novel’s enduring qualities are connected to its moral ambivalence, an ambivalence that is deeply embedded in a richly layered text that resists closure.

Blog image 1 Crash titlepage

Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

There are two drafts of the novel in Ballard’s papers at the British Library, both revised and annotated, intensively so in the case of the earlier draft. This is how the earlier draft begins:

Blog image 2 Crash MSS opening

Add MS 88938/3/8/1.

The first sentence of the typescript will remain unchanged (surely echoing the opening of Camus’s L’Etranger): ‘Vaughan died yesterday in his last car crash’. Ballard’s novel is a dark conjugation of its opening sentence. The sentence ominously suggests a series of (deliberate) crashes where we expect to read of a single accidental event. But the top left corner of the page, the note in black ink struck-through in red, is where the page as manuscript page begins, with the sketching of a generic setting for Ballard’s writing of the period, the Road Research Laboratory where V[aughan] works: ‘At the RRL at night with girl – they make love as he talks about V., among the wrecks’.

But neither the drafts nor the final form of words – where the text comes to rest, held in creative tension – exist purely, however distinctive, however novel the novel seems. So where did Crash spring from? What is the history of the text?  How is the novel connected to what came before? What else was Ballard writing during the same period?

Blog image 3 Crash spine

 I have just edited a new edition of Crash that tries to address these text-led questions by supplementing the familiar published text of the novel with generous selections of unpublished archive material. Crash: The Collector’s Edition (4th Estate, 2017) places the novel in its writing context. Five chapters in draft are set within the novel. In addition, there are selected stories – the predecessor ‘condensed novels’ – from The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), and Ballard’s two ‘surgical fictions’ (a mammoplasty for Mae West and a face lift for Princess Margaret).

Blog image 4 Crash contents

 The new edition also publishes for the first time Ballard’s draft script for the BBC short film Crash! (broadcast BBC2, 12 February 1971), directed by Harley Cokeliss. Ballard appears in the film alongside a mysterious female figure (played by Gabrielle Drake) whose enigmatic presence punctuates the collagist visual essay. She appears and disappears, sometimes inside the car, sometimes in the middle distance. She gets out of a new car in a car showroom, then lingers among the car wrecks at the breaker’s yard. We see the contours of her body in the shower dissolving into the curved forms of a car body, and we see her slumped across a steering wheel, her face bloodied from a collision. The film was made (in the winter of 1970) between writing the first and second drafts of the novel. Its stylised visual language informs Ballard’s final text. The film is a bridgework that looks back to The Atrocity Exhibition (the following passage from the draft script is taken from ‘The Summer Cannibals’), and looks forward to the emerging novel:

Blog image 5 JGB filmscript for Cokeliss p6

Add MS 89171/1.

The earlier draft of Crash is a remarkable document that conveys something of the intensity and the spontaneity of composition. The manuscript is layered over time by the strata of three-coloured revision: annotation-deposits in black and blue and red ink in the margins and over on the backs of pages. The inks codify the rhythms of writing and revision, rhythms that oscillate within the Crash manuscripts, from the drafts to the final text, and oscillate as well, as Ballard pursues his traumatised subject, in the cross-currents of his contemporaneous writing.

For further reading about Crash in draft, see Chris Beckett, ‘The Opening of Crash in Slow Motion’ on the British Library Discovering Literature site: https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/the-opening-of-crash-in-slow-motion

10 October 2016

'Rhys-cycled’

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By Sophie Oliver, co-curator of the display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’

Jean Rhys is amply represented in the British Library’s manuscript collection, including by several versions of her best-known (and widely loved) novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Fifty years after that book appeared, and 200 since the birth of Charlotte Brontë, whose Jane Eyre (1847) inspired it, 2016 seemed like a good moment to celebrate Rhys and the British Library’s archival holdings of her work.  

Wide Sargasso Sea

The display ‘Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys, Jane Eyre and the Making of an Author’, showing in the Treasures Gallery until 8 January, takes Brontë as a starting point. From her manuscript of Jane Eyre we’ve shown the part when Rochester takes Jane to see his ‘mad’ first wife, Bertha Mason, whom he rejects in the cruellest terms: ‘her nature wholly alien to mine […] her vices […] intemperate and unchaste’. Rhys referred to this nineteenth-century classic text as ‘frozen assets’, material to be reignited and given new life. She objected to what she felt was Brontë’s one-dimensional depiction of Bertha as a ‘poor Creole lunatic’, and resolved to write ‘her story’. Although Rhys’s letters show that she hugely admired Brontë, this oppositional stance was typical. For many literary critics, Rhys is above all a West Indian and a woman writer: her relationship to the Western canon is tangential and celebrated as such.

For her part, in work and life Rhys promoted an image of herself ‘outside the machine’, as one of her stories is titled. Yet she admitted that she longed for Wide Sargasso Sea ‘to be understood and read and so on’. The long process of drafting her final novel was spurred on by the attention that she gradually began to receive in the 1950s (having all but disappeared after Good Morning, Midnight was published in 1939) from critics, publishers and the BBC, which broadcast a radio dramatisation of Good Morning, Midnight in 1957.

The display was conceived to explore this aspect of Jean Rhys’s career – the public reception of her work and the making of her reputation in the years leading up to Wide Sargasso Sea and in the decade after, when she achieved international renown. The British Library’s Rhys archive is particularly strong on this period. For example, it holds Rhys’s corrected page proofs of the story ‘Till September Petronella’, published in London Magazine in 1960. This was Rhys’s first appearance in print since 1939, so in some ways represents the re-ignition of her literary career. She remembered it fondly for years, writing in one letter that ‘Petronella’ ‘just about saved my life’.

The Rhys archive also includes drafts of her earlier novels After Leaving Mr Mackenzie (1931) and Voyage in the Dark (1934) – pages of determined, fluent notes together with frenzied revisions and angry crossings-out. All of her earlier books were reissued in hardback and paperback in the late 1960s after the great success of Wide Sargasso Sea. The return of the 1930s fiction brought Rhys to a broad contemporary audience – not just through the books themselves, but in the form of profiles in the mainstream press and TV adaptations. The work that Rhys wrote in the interwar period seemed to fit in the 1960s, a decade of great social change. Thirty years previously she had written books and stories that listened to the marginal voices – those of women and racial minorities – that were being heard more in the 1960s. A profile in the fashion and lifestyle magazine Nova that is included in the display suggests that Rhys’s fictional obsession with flawed women spoke to that publication’s celebration of female identity in all its contradictory guises.

  Fig. 1

Julie Kavanagh, ‘Rhys-cycled’, Women’s Wear Daily, 13 November 1974.
Photo by Willie Christie. Reproduced with kind permission of Julie Kavanagh
and Willie Christie

As well as manuscripts, then, the display draws on the full breadth of the British Library’s collections, including newspapers and magazines, formats that were central to the story of Rhys’s rise to fame. Her presence in the press on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s confirms that Rhys and her work had become fashionable. Two newspaper items that we weren’t able to include refer to a Rhys ‘cult’ in this period. Julie Kavanagh’s 1974 profile in Women’s Wear Daily, ‘Rhys-cycled’ (illustrated), connects the republication of Rhys’s earlier work with the fashion system’s continual updating of old trends. Originally a fashion trade journal, by this point WWD was a ‘fashion gossip’ magazine with a mass market, decreeing who and what were the latest social and cultural phenomena. In late 1974, it seems, Rhys was. The previous year, aged 82, she had even been given her own fashion shoot in The Sunday Times, styled by the notorious fashion editor Molly Parkin (illustrated). The photographs were taken by Norman Eales, whose images of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy had appeared in Vogue, Queen and Cosmopolitan.

  Fig. 2 copy

Molly Parkin, ‘Look! Fashion’, The Sunday Times, 25 February 1973. Jean
Rhys photographed by Norman Eales. Reproduced with kind permission of the
estate of Norman Eales

The fashion press often picked up on Rhys’s own love of clothes and their importance in her fiction, where they feature as signs of hope and despair – the promise of fulfilment and individuality or a way to blend in, but also the threat of deadening sameness. In the Sunday Times piece, contemporary quotes from Rhys are interwoven with fashion-conscious citations from her writing. Some have a more abstract link to fashion, such as this from Voyage in the Dark: ‘It was one of those days when you can see the ghosts of all the other lovely days. You drink a bit and watch the ghosts of all the lovely days that have ever been from behind a glass.’ But in the context it seems clear: the way that the past haunts the present is like the return of an old style. Much like Rhys herself, then: a ghost who, last seen in the 1930s, returned with new relevance in the 1960s.

Sophie Oliver is finishing a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her article ‘Fashion in Jean Rhys/Jean Rhys in Fashion’ will be published in the journal Modernist Cultures in November 2016.

29 September 2016

Banned from the classroom: Censorship and The Catcher in the Rye

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by Mercedes Aguirre, Lead Curator American Collections

J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is an American classic. It is also one of the most censored books in American literature. One of the earliest works of fiction exploring male teenage consciousness, The Catcher in the Rye is narrated in the first person by Holden Caulfield, who struggles with feelings of alienation and anxiety. The novel has been the subject of controversy almost since its publication by Little, Brown and Co in 1951, and the debate around the book is still very much alive today. Salinger’s novel was listed in the top ten most frequently banned books in schools and school libraries in 2001, 2005 and 2009, according to the yearly list provided by the American Library Association.

Catcher-in-the-rye-red-cover

The Catcher in the Rye cover from the 1985 Bantam edition

But what makes the The Catcher in Rye such an offensive book?

The use of Salinger’s novel as a set text in schools has been challenged by people who object to its use of swearwords and its sexual content. The work contains several disturbing scenes, including instances of abuse, and is written using 1950s teenage slang. The first curse word appears in the opening of the novel when Holden warns the reader not to expect an account of his unhappy childhood, or as he puts it, ‘that David Copperfield kind of crap’. But there are many more –according to associations who have protested against the novel the word ‘goddam’ appears more than 200 times. As these groups often point out, the novel was originally written with an adult audience in mind. The debate sparked by the novel, the question whether teenagers should be protected from ‘foul’ language and sexual content, curiously mirrors Holden’s own obsession with preserving childhood innocence, becoming the ‘catcher in the rye’, ‘catching’ children from falling off a cliff (and into the adult world).

While a number of American schools and parents’ associations may consider the language in the novel objectionable, many teachers see The Catcher in the Rye as a work which resonates with their students in a way that few classic novels can. The book is therefore in the unlikely position of being required reading in some schools, and a banned book in others.

Does the censoring of the novel contribute to its enduring allure for young readers? Most of us remember the first time we read a book meant for adults; the first time we saw forbidden words in print. Since The Catcher in the Rye remains a bestselling book in America 65 years after it was first published it is in any case unlikely that censors will get in the way of people’s enjoyment of the novel.

This blog is part of series for Banned Books Week 2016. See also Melvin Burgess’s blog on Censorship and the author, curator Christian Algar on the  ‘corrected’ Il Decamerone, curator Tanya Kirk on The Monk, the Bible and Obscenity and The Book Banner who inspired Banned Books by curator Alison Hudson.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

BannedBooksWeekLogos

21 September 2016

Melvin Burgess: Censorship and the Author

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by guest blogger, young adult and children's author Melvin Burgess, in anticipation of Banned Books Weeks (25th September-1st October 2016) which kicks off with Censorship and the author at the British Library on 22nd September, at which writers Melvin Burgess and Matt Carr will discuss censorship with Jo Glanville.

Melvin Burgess cred John Coombes

Melvin Burgess photographed by ©John Coombes

Censorship in books for teenagers takes a number of forms, but before looking at them, it's worth looking at the provision of fiction for teenagers in general, and the peculiar and privileged position books do hold among them.

Written matter is, in fact, the only media in which any serious issues can be seriously explored in a fictional way for people under the age of eighteen. Film, for instance, is strictly censored according to age – we're all familiar with the age rating for films in the cinema. At first sight, this might appear not to matter, since anyone can actually get to see anything via the internet; but if you look at provision rather than access, you get a very different picture. When my book Junk first came out, a number of production companies wanted to make a movie based on the book, but they very quickly realised they couldn't because “the audience for whom it's intended won't be allowed in the cinema.” Funding was impossible, and the project was dropped. Junk later appeared in a castrated version on BBC education.

That remains the case to this day. TV is the same. Access, although technically very limited, is in fact almost unlimited. Provision on the other hand is almost non-existent..

Censorship of provision is well and away the most successful way of going about the job of restricting what people get to see or hear but it does have some other unfortunate side effects. In the case of film anyone over the age of about twelve, can get to see things, many of them highly inappropriate, that they technically shouldn't. Meanwhile, the kinds of material they actually should be getting, but which some adults would still feel uncomfortable with, simply doesn't exist at all.

This isn't particular to the UK, either. It is in fact, global. In every continent in which visual material for film or TV is made, serious content for teenagers is effectively stifled at birth by the censorship of age. It appears at first glance to be a matter of simple negligence, censorship by accident, almost; but something that happens with such uniformity on such a global scale is obviously nothing of the kind. That doesn't mean it's done on purpose of course, but it does say a great deal about our attitudes to teenagers that the provision of visual imaginative material for them is restricted to the anodyne on such a universal level.

Books and other written material such as graphic novels and comics are uncensored for age. The importance of written fictional material for teenagers can be measured exactly by the degree of absence of fictions for them in other media. It is of the very first degree of importance.

Censorship of books does occur, however, at a much more local level. I remember very well the librarian who kept my books in a locked cupboard at the back of the library, so that no innocent youngster could inadvertently come across them, and suffer god only knows what forms of psychic shock or corruption. That's an extreme example, but that librarian was acting in the manner in which censorship against books does occur; by the system of gatekeepers. I'm referring to those people who are in a position to control or regulate books to young people; librarians, teachers, bookseller managers, parents – in other words, the very people whose job it is to encourage reading are the ones who also take it upon themselves to limit it.

It goes without saying, but even so I feel I have to say it, that this is not a role all of them relish.

A great deal of this actually happens in the school library, where the kind of material that older teenagers in particular like to read, is by no means always considered suitable for them. When I began writing, schools were still the main source of sales for children's books and to this day, publishers are concerned not to put anything out there that might fall foul of the kind of “standards” that schools require. All too often, such standards, purporting to be some kind of moral stewardship, actually revolve more around the the kind of stories the local press might summon up if they found people under the age of fourteen had access to books with such horrors as drugs, breasts or sexual activity of any kind.  There is in every class at least one unfortunate child with a mad parent, and if the school's senior management is more concerned with public image than developing young minds, that one person can completely define what kind of reading matter every child in the school has access to. In such schools, many readers will tend to ignore the library almost as much as non readers. It's a vicious circle.

Junk of course, and Doing It, were often kept by thoughtful librarians in brown paper wrappers under the desk, to be handed to chosen, suitably mature students, who weren't always he ones who would benefit from them the most. But I can also think of many examples not by any means connected with my more controversial books. One teacher told me how, when reading a passage from my very first book, The Cry of the Wolf, to a group of parents, one mother rose quaking with horror that something so violent (the wolves got shot in a suitably bloody fashion) was available in an institution of education. As a result, not just that one, but all my books were taken off the school shelves.

Violence, however, is one of the rarer targets for the banning of books. The usual one is sex – very handy when everyone over the age of thirteen is fascinated by it – and second is religion. I don't tend to write religious books, but back in the day I did write a book called Burning Issy, which showed witches persecuted by the Church in the 17th C. This book caused me to be dis-invited to a very posh school, on the grounds of “we do not feel the parents of our students would want them to be introduced to this sort of thing.” I was puzzled by what “this sort of thing” might be, but my enquiries yielded no further answers. My guess, though, is that someone somewhere out there, actually believed I was acting as a propagandist for Mr Satan.

Other gatekeepers can include book sellers. Those who remember the book shop Borders from a few years ago, may be surprised to hear that at least one store didn't stock my books, after receiving one solitary complaint.

Of course all this occurs alongside a great deal of support, and stems from an issue which begins life as something quite reasonable. Content, of course, is an issue that all parents will be concerned about.The real issue here isn't about whether we want to allow unrestricted access to children of any age whatsoever; we have allowed them that already (so long as we're not in the room at the time.) It's more about the disconnect between the kinds of material young people want to engage in, (and that we passively allow them to engage with), and the kind of material that we as adults want to present them with. It's a bit like teaching someone to swim in the bath, and then turning your back while they rush out and splash in around in a fast flowing river.

What are we scared of, I wonder? Finding out what they really think? It's all very hypocritical on the face of it, but presumably such a universal system serves some kind of purpose. Perhaps its something to do with permission. All over the world, adults passively encourage teenagers to breech the rules that we ourselves have put into place. I wonder if we rather like the idea that they transgress – that it is in fact a necessary right of passage. In that case, the  rules are more like the governor on a lorry, rather than the actual brakes. Even so, it's a pretty abyssal way of doing it, that leaves people at a time in their lives when they are changing so much, risk taking so actively, and trying to get to terms with an ever more complex and rapidly changing world, without the imaginative structures that might help them negotiate it.

The most moving and enthusiastic, as well as the most common emails and letters I've had from teenagers speak of the sheer relief and joy they've had at finding something that seems to actually reflect what's going on in their own heads in an honest and authentic fashion.

YA is barely twenty years old, and it remains the only form in which the contradictions I've spoken about are ever reconciled. Already it's become fashionable to knock it and to dismiss it's existence as a form, even among the people who actually write the stuff – driven, perhaps, by the urge to widen their readership among adults. Every publisher and every writer wants their work to be crossover, rather than pure YA as such. It would be a tragedy if it ever got genuinely taken over by middle aged wannabe youths, looking for nostalgia. At its best it is for teenagers, about being a teenager, and its disheartening to see grown ups trying to hi jack it for themselves.  If they succeed, we'd be talking about banned genres, rather than just books and that old biblical saying – To those that have not, even that which they have shall be taken from them – will yet again have proven its  worth.

Banned Books Week was initiated by the American Library Association in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults. For the first time in the UK we are holding events, activities and publishing a series of blogs, all on the topic of Censorship and Banned Books, made possible by the partnership between The British Library, Free Word and Islington Library and Heritage Services and in association with the ALA.

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01 June 2016

Touching History

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by Melissa Addey, 2016 Writer in Residence at the British Library, funded by the Leverhulme Trust

As a writer of historical fiction, my favourite item at the British Library so far has been a letter in the Treasures of the British Library permanent exhibition. It’s a dark and shadowy space, with delicate lighting placed here and there so that you can make out the precious items on display.

The letter is from both Anne Boleyn and Henry the 8th, to Cardinal Wolsey. On a single page, Anne begins the letter, asking about the progress of the desired annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Katherine of Aragon. The second half of the page is from Henry. “The wrytter of thys letter wolde nott cease tyll she (had caused me likewise) to sett to my hand; desiring yow, thowght it be short, to (take it in good part)”. In other words, Anne has nagged him to complete the letter and add his own nudge to the Cardinal.

It’s special for a number of reasons. To actually see the item is to know that these two people, so famous in our history, both held this page in their hands. It has their handwriting on it, such an intimate thing about a person, so peculiarly theirs.

Handwriting is something we are losing: I used to know exactly what my friends’ and family members’ handwriting looked like. I now have friends whose handwriting I don’t believe I’ve ever seen. The letter has their tone of voice. Henry’s reference to Anne nagging is really quite funny. It tells you something about their relationship at the time and makes you wonder how many of these letters were sent, gradually increasing from jocular confidence to frustrated rage. The letter is dated August 1528, quite early on in Henry’s attempt to marry Anne, something that didn’t happen for another five years. Seeing something like this is to reach back and touch history, to see people as human rather than legend. 

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Detail from Henry VII’s Psalter, Royal MS 2 A XVI f3r, showing Henry VII.

When researching for a historical novel, it’s these items you’re desperately searching for. Not the big dates and official accounts, the official court robes and formal proclamations, although you have to have those as your backdrop. It’s the tone of voice and the scribbled asides, the letters and diaries, children’s toys and defamatory handbills, hearing the crack in someone’s voice. These are what let us touch history.  Because of my residency I’ve been spending a lot of time at the British Library and these up-close brushes with history are endlessly fascinating.

Currently the British Library’s Literary and Creative Archives and Manuscripts team are working on trying to acquire complete archives, such as diaries, manuscripts and collections of people like Alec Guinness (one of his letters to Evelyn Waugh includes the great line: “Graham’s last play seemed BONKERS to me…”), Hanif Kureishi (see some of the Kureishi Archive on our online learning resource Discovering Literature: 20th Century) and Kenneth Williams.

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A page from the diaries of Kenneth Williams

Seeing these items, reading through them, looking at the notations or signatures, the rants or the ponderings, is like sitting next to that person and watching them be themselves. Not a front put on for others but their own selves, the people they are underneath.               

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Laurence Olivier's shooting script for Henry V 1943 British Library Photo by Clare Kendall

In the current Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition at the British Library I stood with earphones on and quickly pushed buttons, hearing actors from Laurence Olivier to Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant say “To be or not to be’. I didn’t listen to the whole speech, just that one line and even in that line, with over ten actors, there was such a variety of choice and meaning to just six words. It made you think about the role and the person portraying Hamlet, the decisions they must have made in rehearsals, their own understanding of the text. It was a strange and intimate auditory experience and more personal than you would expect. As is a Christmas greeting message from the Beatles to their fan club: extraordinarily unpolished by today’s standards but unmistakably them.

Touching history should not be a smooth and polished affair. It should be rough and dirty. It should leave you with your fingers bleeding, your eyes open wide and a gasp or a giggle in your mouth. I’m off to trawl through the archives again.