Thursday, April 05, 2007

Raymond Briggs and Elfrida Vipont

When my three small grandsons came to lunch last Sunday, the eldest brought a new book sent to him by friends of his parents.

It was a Puffin picture book called The Elephant and the Bad Baby. The Amazon UK summary reads – "One day, an elephant offers a bad baby a ride through the town, and so begins an adventure and a chase. But when the elephant realizes that the bad baby has forgotten his manners, the chase ends with a bump and tea for everyone."

The book is currently ranking at 1,544 and here's one of the reviews. "My goodness, what a blast from the past. This book was my all-time favourite book. I remember reading with with my dad. Now, I'm a student teacher, and i recommend this book to parents and children everywhere, and i will certainly be reading it to my class."

The story is illustrated by Raymond Briggs whose biography, here, tells us he "was born in 1934 to a milkman father and a mother who had been a lady's maid. He left school at 15 to study painting at Wimbledon School of Art. After a typography class at the Central School of Art and two years of national service he went to the Slade School of Art to study painting. His first work was in advertising but he was soon winning acclaim as a children's book illustrator as well as teaching illustration at Brighton College of Art. Raymond Briggs is one of the foremost creators of illustrated books for adults and children. He has won the Kate Greenaway Medal twice, as well as numerous other awards."

The author was Elfrida Vipont (1902 - 1992), to whom a delightful web page has been put up by Jo Robins and Sue Tredrea.

The page is part of Collecting Books and Magazines, a website based in Australia's Blue Mountains [of which I have happy memories] which has been serving collectors since July 1997.

What worried me about the story was that although it was made clear to the Bad Baby that he must say "Yes, please," not just "Yes", nothing was said about the elephant's habit of taking things from shops without paying for them.

Maybe when Elfrida Vipont wrote the story, shop-lifting was not as widespread as it is today. But no doubt most of the people who read it to their children and grandchildren will stress that taking things from shops is Seriously Bad Behaviour!!

Another comment on a comment

Anne McAllister, whose comment on sex with a stranger I'm answering today, is an American writer I had the pleasure of meeting at a Harlequin Mills & Boon author day held in London in the Nineties.

Her bio tells us, "Anne lives in the Midwest now, though she left her heart in the far west as a child, which explains why even her Caribbean beach bums and New York entrepreneurs are, at the core, cowboy heroes." She calls her husband The Prof.

She starts her comment by asking, "Still stirring up hornet's nests, are you?" This suggests that she sees me as an habitual "stirrer". Not so. Surely anyone with a long overview of the romance genre must feel deeply concerned about where it seems to be heading?

Anne McA goes on, "Like Jenny, I would be far more concerned if Julie's heroine were habitually hopping into closets with strangers. Or ended the book thinking it was a good idea (yes, I know that's a fragment). It all has to do with character development, doesn't it? I, for one, like my characters to have a bit of growing and changing to do. If they're paragons to begin with, why bother?"

Have we really arrived at the stage when a heroine who has never had casual sex is regarded as an unnatural paragon?

How many middle-aged romance writers had casual sex when young, or would wish their daughters/granddaughters to go in for it. So why make their heroines behave in a way that, in their own heart of hearts, they think is unwise and/or wrong. There are plenty of other flaws a heroine can be given.

Of course Anne McA is correct in her comment, "And teenage pregnancies have existed longer than romance novels or, indeed, any kind of books at all."

But must they exist forever? Surely, by now, in advanced societies where reliable birth control methods have been available for decades, accidental babies should almost be a thing of the past?

I gather that, in Julie Cohen's book, birth control is used during the sex-in-a-cupboard scene, but the condom breaks having been in the hero's wallet for too long. I hesitate to do a search for how often condoms break for fear it might result in a deluge of spam from condom sellers but, from what I've read, breakage appears to be extremely rare.

Another comment-on-a-comment tomorrow.


At 05 April, 2007, Blogger Anne Weale said...

May I remind Donna, Liz and others that this discussion started with my comment – "I have serious misgivings about authors romanticising situations which, in real life, are 99% likely to end in disaster. Having sex with a stranger is an act of reckless stupidity. Ideally, making love should only be done by people who love each other, and love involves knowing the other person well and trusting them. Yes, casual sex happens and the fall-out is all around us. But what happens in the real world and what happens in romantic fiction are, or should be, two different things."

That seems a reasonable statement of opinion.

Donna writes, "But the rest, including your response to Bella Andre, smacks of personal judgment."

What is the point of blogs if they don't express personal judgments?

Donna goes on, "We should be standing together, celebrating each other and our individual voices."

Bookworm on the Net does celebrate excellent websites and authors I admire. But non-stop praise becomes sickly fare if it isn't balanced by thoughtful criticism.

Liz asks "…would you lecture a crime writer on the morality of writing horrendous scenes of brutality?"

Why not? I belong to a generation which was brought up to form opinions and express them. To be frank, the saccharine expressions of mutual admiration to be read on some of the forums and websites within today's light romance genre make me wince - and would have been scorned by the romance writers of earlier eras.

At 05 April, 2007, Blogger Trish said...

ANOTHER long answer I'm afraid! Apologies!!!

“Bookworm on the Net does celebrate excellent websites and authors I admire. But non-stop praise becomes sickly fare if it isn't balanced by thoughtful criticism.”

I think this is a very valid point as is the statement that Blogs are a platform for personal expression. But I also think, that as with all forms of communication on the ‘net’, there is much more room for ‘reading between the lines’ than there would be in face-to-face discussion. This can and has led to many an altercation online…

What I think is worth remembering is the fact that the market is dictated very much by ‘pocket power’. Quite simply if a reader finds a particular story to be morally reprehensible then surely they will stop buying that writers work? For a writer to make the decision to work in a certain area merely because it will bring the best financial reward for them may seem like ‘selling out’ but the simple fact is that most do it because writing is something they enjoy doing and making money is a necessity. It is a personal choice and the beauty of a democratic society is that they can make that choice. Not everyone will agree with it, and indeed there are certain books I would not consider writing or reading, but that again is my personal choice. I think romance writers have a realistic understanding of their chances of becoming Pulitzer Prize Winners. So the individual decides what standard they are happy to bring their writing to and what message, if any, they wish to convey.

Are there certain things in today’s world that worry me? Most certainly there are. Would I agree that my sixteen and fourteen year old nieces should be allowed to read erotica? I most certainly would not. But would I choose to set my writing up as a standard of morality that readers should live by? I wouldn’t dream of it. Because I think that a great many more problems are created when we try to ‘force’ others to believe what we ourselves believe to be right or wrong. (And again that’s just my opinion) As a writer I haven’t set myself up to be the kind of person the general population looks to for moral guidance and I doubt there are many that do. My books tell the tale (no pun intended) of where my ideas of romance lie and I leave it to the reader to decide whether they are enjoyable enough to read again. I am fortunate in that, so far, they seem to hit the right note. But I am also realistic enough to know that that market trend may not last. Does that mean I would adjust my writing style to fit into the kind of thing I wouldn’t enjoy reading myself? Well, no. Because frankly I think it would show in my writing. But then I’m fortunate in that I have other forms of work that I could ‘fall back’ on. While I continue writing the only goal I have with a reader is that, for a few hours during their busy day, they can escape into the story and enjoy it. That’s enough for me. But again, that’s a personal choice. Simplistic maybe. Un-ambitious, maybe. But it’s enough for me to want to continue writing. I had written stories for my own enjoyment and the enjoyment of friends long before I even attempted to sell one. I think the saying from the other great love of my life: Horses for Courses – is also very apt for the Romance community.

“Have we really arrived at the stage when a heroine who has never had casual sex is regarded as an unnatural paragon?”

No I don’t believe we have. But it is also a fact that the majority of heroines in the 20 to 40 age range as depicted in many category romances are very unlikely to still be ‘untouched’ and every story making it’s way through Mills And Boon editorial these days must have at least some grounding in the world the readers live in. But there is also a large element of fantasy. The fact that a heroine has indulged in casual sex and then has to deal with the repercussions is surely better than one who indulges again and again and never learns the value of a deeper relationship? I suppose that does make it the lesser of two evils, but sometimes, just sometimes, it’s the small steps that can make the difference…If one person passes on the view that meaningful relationships still matter to two children of their own and those two children pass it on to two children they have then long term there could be a pyramid effect. So by ‘using’ the emotional or physical(as in an unplanned pregnancy) effects of a casual encounter there is probably more of a chance of passing on a good effect than there is bad. But again, that’s just my opinion…

Thanks again Anne for making this such an interesting debate! And apologies again for the length of the reply.

At 05 April, 2007, Blogger Anne McAllister said...


Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my comment on Julie Cohen's book. I agree that we all have the right to our opinion and that blogs are a natural place to express them and get a dialogue going.

I was very interested to read Trish's comments as well. And Trish, if you read this, thank you for them! They made me nod my head several times, especially the part when you said, "The fact that the heroine has indulged in casual sex and then has to deal with the repercussions is surely better than one who indulges again and again and never learns the value of a deeper relationship."

Over the course of writing 59 books, I have, I hope, not glorified pre-marital one-night-stand sex. But in my most recent book, The Santorini Bride my heroine, having found her boyfriend (with whom she has not "gone all the way") having sex with another woman, reacts, when she finds herself in a way that I had no trouble understanding (even if I wouldn't do it myself). She thinks, "Oh well, what the hell . . ." and propositions the hero who has previously proposed a slightly different proposition to her.

In her mind she is trying to separate "love" and "sex" and thinks, for a few brief days that she has done exactly that. And then she realizes she's wrong. The battle in her mind about whether the two are -- for her -- separable commodities is hugely important. And even when she realises they aren't, she still thinks the hero wouldn't agree. So when she turns out to be pregnant (and yes, they did take precautions, and yes, jet lag can play havoc with the effectiveness of oral contraceptives), she doesn't believe she should inflict the responsibility on the hero. This whole thing had been her idea, after all.

If the story line appalls you, I'm sorry. But I found her an intriguing heroine, one who was trying to come to terms with the moral values passed on to her by her family (and accepted) and those that society seemed to permit. It was interesting writing it -- and the dilemma she faced was one I could imagine other young women facing. Would I write lots of other books about that? No. But the choices each individual character makes can provide an interesting and compelling starting points for a book. Ultimately, too, their journey to a happy ending (this is romance fiction, after all) can bolster the notion that even if someone makes a mistake, all is not lost, characters can grow, they can make wiser decisions down the road. Hope remains.

At 06 April, 2007, Anonymous Grace said...

I've been reading the comments-on-comments and feel it's my turn to weigh in!

I am concerned with the increasing sexualization (for lack of a better term) that I see in girls these days. The Bratz dolls, the clothes, the makeup (on girls as young as 6) all seem to me a reflection of something that has gone wrong - in American society, at least. On the other hand, the part of that society that honors and values girls only for their virginity makes me cringe. Surely we should have learned that women have value beyond that!

So what does this mean in terms of Ms. Cohen's book? I believe that she has every right to write as she pleases, with situations and characters of her choosing. But I also believe that books can influence people, and that there are still "impressionable young readers" (as they used to be known). So I do have concerns about children/teens reading books such as these. But I am more concerned that those young people are reading "teen" or "young adult" books such as the notorious "Rainbow Party."

Anne, thank you for a most interesting and thought-provoking discussion.

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