Friday, 20 May 2011

Taking Responsibility

I don't read a lot of interviews with rappers, but one caught my eye the other week. The journalist was talking to Tyler The Creator of internet buzz band Odd Future (who not-at-all-coincidentally had just released his official debut album). To give them their full name, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aspire to be the Sex Pistols of their day, and Tyler has amassed quite a reputation for the extreme self-loathing, homophobia and violent misogyny that pepper his lyrics.

What interested me wasn't so much that he was doing this (antipathy and violence towards women/gay men has pretty much been a staple of hip hop ever since it was invented) but his rejection of any responsibility towards his audience. When asked if he ever considers the effect his music might have:
"I never think of that. I just make sh*t I want to listen to. Not everyone's got to like it.

Now, Tyler is only twenty and he recorded his first album when he was sixteen. So in a very real way he is in exactly the same place as his audience. What makes him different is his undeniable musical talent and a direct line to millions of his peers. Should he censor himself? Would I even know his name if he had?

To bring things back to writing, this argument - between self-expression and self-control - is one that often troubles me as a children's author. I spoke of responsibility in an earlier post and got a range of responses. Some people applauded me, some were apprehensive at the idea of having to be more mature than their audience. I can understand this latter viewpoint - one of the things that makes a successful children's author is the ability to think (and, more importantly, feel) as your reader does.

I'm not just talking about avoiding inappropriate content in our books, because we have a raft of gatekeepers to grouse about that and make up somewhat arbitrary rules about which words are acceptable and which aren't. How about our political views? How far should we go to push our own agenda within our fiction, bearing in mind how malleable our readership might be? I've realised that my work-in-progress is quite political compared to what I've written in the past - I'm trying to temper my approach to be more sociological than socialist.

But responsibility isn't about sanitising everything contentious from what we do. After all, a writer with nothing to say is a waste of space. We can't expect to be able to hold back our views, fears and aspirations, because they bleed into every word we write. Tyler The Creator's fury towards his absent father and rejection of the female role models who tried to mould him is palpable. If not always laudable.

Creative people are often very troubled, which doesn't always make them the most appropriate people to be talking to our children. But on the other hand, who better to engage, challenge and inspire them? Life is not a bed of sweet-smelling flowers and shouldn't children be aware of the complexities and agonies of our world?

However, that gritty reality needs to be filtered through our own consciences and informed by the knowledge of how children learn and develop. In terms of taking responsibility, what we leave out of our books is as important as what we put in.


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