#SecondThoughts: Controversial Books

Last year was the 60th anniversary of the obscenity trial over the publication of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I’ve (still) not read it, for I’m afraid I found Sons & Lovers to be such dull fare that I refused to put myself through any more suffering.

Yet, some decades later, I did read The Satanic Verses which brought a fatwa down on Salman Rushdie’s head – and yes – I read it precisely because it was controversial, even reading it in a plain brown paper wrapper! Books are my thing. I want – in the past have even felt a need – to participate in what’s hot. These days my TBR is too huge and I have too many calls on my time for me to indulge the want and let it be regarded as a need. Yet there’s still a tug when something in the book world is being talked about.

Except …

When I looked at lists of famously controversial books, I discovered I may be mistaken in my belief that I’m drawn to a book because it’s controversial. Rushdie’s book called to me for precisely the reason that many of his book have since – I’m a child of India, I lived for a few years not far from Rushdie’s family home in Mumbai (or what we both still regard as Bombay), and even when the tales take place away from India, they bring to mind the sense of alienation I felt during my early years of living in England.

The Satanic Verses was unusual in that it caused outrage within the Muslim community, whereas most controversial books before that time had stirred up hornets within the Christian community. Many on the lists were controversial because they provided a platform to non-white and non-heterosexual voices, others challenged political beliefs, described trauma, or depicted experiences outside of societal norms (at the time of writing). All of which are – I believe – good reasons for reading them, especially when those experiences are not your own.

Looking at the lists of the famously controversial, there are books I know it’s unlikely I’ll ever read – and not just because of the perilous state of my TBR. Two are books where I saw the films first – Sophie’s Choice and A Clockwork Orange. Each left me emotionally wrung out and/or deeply distressed. Both films were chosen by someone else, and I attended without knowledge of their choice beforehand. If I’d followed my standard rule, I’d have read the book and not seen the films – but them’s the breaks. I simply don’t see myself revisiting those particular emotional traumas.

There’s too many on the lists I still haven’t read (exactly half). A small number of the unread are on my kindle awaiting their moment, but only 2-3 of the remaining will make their way there. Yes, time is against me, but I need to acknowledge – if only to myself – that the truth is I don’t actually read books because they’re controversial, I have to be either interested in or believe I will enjoy their story – and I’m afraid that there are still too many on the lists which fall into neither category.

So it turns out I’m not here to challenge anything or anyone with my reading choices. I’d so hoped to achieve rebel status about something in my life and truly believed books were likely to be my best option 😉

© Debra Carey, 2021


#SecondThoughts: Translations

As I’m sure you can imagine, sometimes the ideas for these posts come from odd places, and as I think I’ve mentioned before, sometimes it’s the collision of several ideas firing off a neuron or two.  Today’s post is brought to you by a recent reread of the Swiss Family Robinson, the Mutiny on the Bounty, #BlackLivesMatter, the King James Bible, and is fuelled by a healthy dose of pro-level procrastination – I should really be getting on with the text book I’m writing, a story for a competition, and several other writerly projects.  But today, as Henry Reed might have said, we have #SecondThoughts.

The bit about the Mutiny on the Bounty is actually prompted by one of the other bits of writing that I should be working on, in that Peter F. Hamilton returns Fletcher Christian to a sort of life in the Night’s Dawn Trilogy.  I suspect that PFH’s Christian doesn’t really bear any resemblance to the real man, but in that instance, it doesn’t really matter.  Procrastinating, again, I ended up looking up more information about Christian than I really needed for the article I was writing.  At this remove, it’s difficult to know the exact truth: the facts are that Bligh survived and provided testimony that led to Christian being convicted in absentia, but as Christian had already come to a sticky end, probably murdered by one of the other mutineers, it was moot.  This is a classic example of what everyone knows (a tyrannical captain, overcome by plucky underdogs fighting against the system), what really happened, and something of a mystery.  Bligh was actually quite an unusual officer of the time, and less harsh, by all accounts, than many of his contemporaries, not to mention that he was something of a mentor/patron/friend to Fletcher Christian.   There’s even a bit of conspiracy theory, that Fletcher Christian survived and returned to England under an assumed name.

Swiss Family Robinson was a great favourite when I was a child.  Initially I had the Ladybird version, heavily abridged and illustrated, but when I got to secondary school I borrowed a full version from the school library several times.  At this remove, I’m not now sure which version this would have been, a point only really brought home to me the other day, when I started to read a copy I downloaded from Project Gutenberg.  I think I must have read a newer translation when I was younger, but in any case, I’m reminded what a difficult job the translator has.  They need to convey the sense of what the writer intended, place it into the new language (which may not have an exact version of the word used, and avoid the temptation to tidy up the story as they go.  Certainly, in the case of the translation I’m reading at the moment, I would be extremely tempted to rewrite a lot of the story, not necessarily to improve the pacing, but to make certain passages clearer.

This in turn gave rise to two thoughts.  One, is that there will come a time, when the English language will have changed sufficiently that it will become necessary for a translator to modernise Charles Dickens, for example.  I think I can hear the mob outside the door!  It’s not such a heresy though, I think.  We already see smatterings of this with the Ladybird abridgements, and of course there are modern adaptations of Shakespeare.  The issue I think, is whether the text is intelligible without copious readers notes.  If you are studying a text, then the notes are inevitable, but as we move further and further from the point at which the story was written then certain nuances are lost – we share fewer experiences with the writer, words change meaning or become obsolete, the sense becomes not what the writer intended.

The second thing that I started to think about was translations as a weapon.  The King James Bible sprang to mind as an example of a weaponised translation.  As Dr Who fans, and those interested in the period, will know, King James had a bit of a bee in his bonnet about witches.  The translation, the third into English, was undertaken by a leading scholars of the day, but under the direction of James, and so his fingerprints are to be found all over the text.  There are numerous tweaks to the translation intended to bolster the idea of rule by divine right, and the injunction that ‘thou shall not suffer a witch to live’.  The witch hunts have been much parodied in the last few decades, but they must have been pretty frightening at the time.  There is much debate over how this should be translated.  The problem is muddied because of the distance from the time at which the original was written, cultural changes, and the influence of other texts.  King James probably wasn’t the first to use this meaning, but he clearly didn’t take the opportunity to set the record straight.  A contextual as well as linguistic translation might be that “thou shall not suffer a poisoner to live”, with the specific nuance that we are talking about a well-poisoner.  Such a person would be breaking multiple social taboos in a desert dwelling, community oriented, lifestyle, essentially carrying out a terrorist atrocity.  As we continue to study this period of history, and to improve our understanding of the development of languages, then a new, improved translation might become available.  Whether it will do anything with regard to the perception of witches is another matter.

One would have to be cut off in the extreme to have missed #BlackLivesMatter in the press.  2020 was a year of strange and difficult events, not least the presidential elections and their aftermath.  It can feel surprising that there is still such racial tension in the US that it leads to the discrimination against an important section of the community, and as a result a significantly higher judicial death rate.  But nowhere around the world can really hold it’s head up and say this is a problem that they’ve sorted.  There might not be the extremes that we see in some places, but every where there is some level of discrimination, and I’ve been particularly ashamed of the institutional racism observed in the UK, with various examples of the police using e.g. racial profiling.

One of the responses to #BlackLivesMatter has been to remove certain programmes from streaming services. Some TV shows of the 1960s and 1970s are particularly problematic.  In other instances, a disclaimer is shown at the beginning, telling us that the programme is of its time, and uses language or demonstrates ideas that would be considered offensive today.  This is a harder ask with books.  As readers, we need to be mindful that the books we reader are a link to the mind of the author.  The further we’re removed in time, the more different the ideas might seem.  There are some instances where a word has changed significantly, and the meaning of what they intended has changed too.  We must not instantly condemn a writer for their choice of words: we need to translate to a modern idiom, and sometimes that will need help.

In moving forward, there will be a need to draw a line under certain events.  Easy to say from a position of comfortable, white middleclass, but as the saying goes, when you take an eye for an eye everyone ends up blind.  But we will need to engage with history, and deal with uncomfortable truths.  It is proverbially easy for things to become lost in translation, and we need to make sure that we engage with interpreters, understand their influence, and look for the filters that have been applied.

© David Jesson, 2020

#FlashFiction: The Stories – the villain of the piece

The new job was going great. I congratulated myself on the latest wheeze. Temping was the perfect cover, and it meant a new ‘audience’ every other week or so. The key trick to the whole thing was to time my activities so that they weren’t linked to my arrival or departure. I’d been sent on a coffee-run for the team I was based in the very first day. They favoured a little independent, a street or two over from the soulless office block that housed their firm and a couple of others. Getting strategically lost a couple of times had been…educational.

I pushed the door open and took my place in the queue, glancing around. It never hurts to pay attention to your surroundings. I spotted someone who looked interesting. I placed the order and walked over.

“Hey there!” He looked up from where he’d been staring into his coffee. “It is you isn’t it?  We were at school together.”

“I’m not sure that can be right – I would definitely have remembered. But feel free to take a seat, whilst you’re waiting.” It was hard to get a handle on this guy. He was amazingly average. I wondered if I’d even be able to pick him out of a line-up if I needed to.

“Do you mind?  That would great!” I flicked my hair, ash blonde at the moment and perfectly waved for that little mannerism. “I’m doing the coffee-run and it’s going to be a while.  It’s so busy today.  Actually, I think I’m a bit later than normal, it was so hard to get away this morning for some reason.”

I chattered about inconsequential things for a moment, trying to pull him into the conversation.

“Are you sure you don’t remember me?  I have the strongest feeling we were in the same English class, or maybe it was Maths?” That usually works, but this guy –

“I’d be surprised if you remembered me, I was just one of the faces in the crowd.  I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t brainy, I wasn’t even the class clown!”

“No, but you have a nice smile, and that’s the sort of thing that brightens a dull class.” I flashed him a smile of my own. I was really having to work at this.

“If it was dull, there wouldn’t be anything to smile about.”

“You seem determined to be curmudgeonly.” I frowned, teasingly.

“No, just argumentative,” He said with a smile. Right! Now we’re getting somewhere. Right on cue, the barista called my name. Or at least, the one I was using at the moment.

“Oh, that’s my order – here” I took a pen out of my bag and wrote quickly “my number – I’d love to catch up properly.  Best days of our lives and all that!” Carefully, I got up in the perfect way to catch the edge of the table without hurting myself and without making it look deliberate, masked in part by my handing over of the napkin.

“Whoops – be careful!” I helped tidy things up. “Sorry about that – see you soon!” I tossed that last over my shoulder as I picked up a cardboard tray with four coffee cups. He hadn’t even noticed that I’d mopped up the spilt coffee with my number – it was fake anyway – nor that I’d removed his wallet and phone from where they were stacked on the table. On the otherhand, I hadn’t noticed the plainclothes policewoman by the door.

“Excuse me madam, would you mind coming with me, please? I think you’ve got something that doesn’t belong to you.”

Ah. I riffled through my catalogue of sob-stories.

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note: with all of literature to choose from, I’ve actually gone back to something that I wrote almost exactly 4 years ago, for another #FlashFiction prompt that we ran. You can find the first story here.

#AprilA2Z – The Theme Reveal


2018 feels like a long time ago.  I suppose three years is a long time really!  But the events of the last 15 months have been pretty wearing.  I mention 2018, because for Fiction Can Be Fun, this was a significant year, and the A2Z Challenge was a big part of this.  In 2018, we bashed out 40,000 words or so for a series of posts that told the story of Echo, a small group hidden inside MI:9’s Bravo Section.  World War II ended in victory for the Allies, but at a cost.  It didn’t take long for the Allies to start bickering, for the fall of an Iron Curtain across Europe.  In London, the British are starting to rebuild.  But in the East End, an old enemy is reaching out to make trouble for Echo.  Billy Blind, right hand man to de facto team leader Jack Runward, has some grim news.  Quartermaster and Armourer, Lady Michaela ‘Mike’ McManus is asked for a favour from old friend and Bravo Section controller Lt Colonel Robert Feilding. Oxford don and brilliant strategist, Cledwyn ‘Tinkerbell’ Cadwallader, is finding the spy games of his University colleagues an unsettling experience – they’re putting him off his beer…

So much for 2018!  At the end of all that, we had a story that we were really proud of, and one that we thought we could do something with.  Day jobs and other projects have taken their toll, but three years later, another 40,000 words, numerous rounds of editing, and we have a story that is going out to beta readers! Woot!  To celebrate, we thought we’d return to the world of ‘The November Deadline’, and indeed the inspiration of the NATO phonetic alphabet that we used to prompt the daily episodes.

So for 2021, join us for a daily drabble (or perhaps a haiku or other form of microfiction), as we catch up with Jack, Mike, Billy, Tink, and their friends and adversaries…

PS: Our normal schedule will be suspended for the duration.

#FlashFiction Prompt: The Villain of the Piece

Take any story that grabs your fancy and retell it (in a humorous way) from the perspective of the Villain.

Word count: If you can do it in 500 words, fantastic, if you need 2000 words and you’ve got the time, go for it.
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 14th March 2021

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.