I was eleven when I read my first adult scene. And the only reason I was reading it was because I wasn’t meant to.
Judy Blume’s Forever is a story about negotiating family stress and pressures, what happens when your parents divorce, bereavement and teenage relationships and contains a scene with – in the words of our teacher – “young people being bold”. Despite that scene, it’s not really what you could call pornographic. It’s a touching story, written for younger readers, about negotiating the hormonal and emotional teenage rollercoaster with some maturity and forethought. So, thinking carefully of our welfare, they banned it.
And now we were all trying to read it, passing one dog-eared copy around the class. Now, lets be clear here; we weren’t sure what the book was about. We didn’t know if it was any good. All we knew was it had been banned and that meant that we absolutely had to read it.
For much the same reason we ended up sneaking around Flowers in The Attic a year later, not for the story or prose, but for the incest scene that scandalised our parents and teachers. Thanks to someone deciding not only should their child not read it, but an entire task force of teachers needed to be mobilised to combat the threat of us reading it, they succeeded in running a publicity campaign that turned a mediocre horror tale into that year’s in-school must-read. Same with the horror that was the Sweet Valley High books.
I may never forgive them. If you’ve been forced to sit through any of the Sweet Valley High books, I’m sure you’ll understand. But they were banned, and so I had to read them.
Which pretty much suggests that the ideal way to get kids to read the classics may not be to extol their virtues but to shove in a few swearwords and stick “Adult Themes” on the front. That big red “Over 18‘s” label might as just read “PICK ME”.
Music, of course, realised this years ago. Many rock and pop musicians in the nineties found that if you hadn’t some swearing in your album, and this earned the “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” sticker on the cover, your record label would ask you to put in a few choice words. Nothing sells to kids and teenagers like being told they shouldn’t buy.
Literature in Australia does have a classification system but books are rarely labelled. Books only have to display it if they are classified Category 1 or higher – basically for pornographic work with no literary merit (hallo again, Ms Andrews). Books that exceed the censor’s limit (racist and terrorist propaganda, for example) are not banned, but refused classification. Which is pretty much the same thing only a nicer way of saying the same thing – think retrenched rather than fired.
But maybe we need to get banning and labelling. Without those huge red labels, teens are missing out on the huge amount of controversy and smut that a classical education in literature can give you. Think of Othello, with murder and madness and racism and sex. Think of Wuthering Heights; physical and psychological torture that shocked readers when it was released, as well as a hint of possible incest. Treasure Island, with the pirates being old school as opposed to Captain Jack- less swashbuckling, more murder, blasphemy and betrayal.
Perhaps it’s time to rude up the reputation of our classics. Update the rude words in Shakespeare so they resemble their contemporary counterparts. Highlight the fact that novels such as Lord of the Flies and On The Road, with their themes of war, torture, sex and drugs, are completely unsuited to younger readers. Cover the books in stickers labelling them immoral, profane and for adults only, thus making them irresistible to anyone under the age of 15.
After all, won’t someone please think of the children?