Top Stories from the Editorial/Opinion pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Thursday, October 20, 1994
A Politically Correct Story By an Evil Caged Writer
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
Paris -- Stepfathers are evil. Gypsies neglect their children. Animals should be locked up in cages. Black people are ventriloquists' dummies.
Now that I've got that off my chest, I feel I can tell you about the children's story I was asked to write for a start-up publishing company, and what it has to do with the provocative statements above.
After I completed the story, I had it approved by several readers close to me before I sent it to the publisher. The publisher lauded my accomplishment in fulsome terms. Everyone loved my children's story.
Then the trouble started. Over several months the publisher called me up periodically with criticisms: "I just spoke with so and so of a Very Big Publishing House, and he said, 'There are 60,000 public libraries in the U.S. You understand? 60,000 potential sales for the book. And not one of those libraries will buy your book if it depicts animals in cages.'"
I said, "I take the animals out of the cages, I got no story anymore."
I succeeded, however, in writing around the problem.
He called me up again: "We just love it. But don't describe the ventriloquist's dummy's hair as an Afro. You're being offensive to blacks. You're saying all black people are ventriloquist's dummies."
Well. Never mind that the dummy of the story is based on my own real- life ventriloquist's dummy, which I have had for 20 years and which I designed with an Afro because I loved Jimi Hendrix and black people to the point that I wanted to fantasize that I, too, could be black. The way I could do it was to put an Afro on my dummy. No black person was ever offended, even though my dummy is not black.
The Gypsy girl? The publisher had wanted it to be a multicultural story. The Gypsy girl was a natural. I wrote that she ran away from her family and joined the circus. When I got the phone call on that one, the voice of my friend hinted that he had been let down by my moral turpitude. "If the Gypsy girl ran away from her parents, her parents would go out and find her." Did I say that they didn't try? How many children are reported missing, all races combined, and never found again?
Stepdad, huh? O.K., children's fiction is too full of evil stepdads. But sometimes those old clichˇs have a reason for being there.
I wanted the central boy character of the story, who was born into a circus family, to fear the circus owner, who is truly evil. It's a traditional family circus, but I didn't want the owner to be the boy's father. I wanted my child reader to identify with the boy, and assumed it would be easier to fear an evil stepdad than an evil natural father. How dare I.
The boy gets punished by the stepdad. Locked in an animal's cage for apparently letting the animals out of the cages. "Why do you have to punish the boy at all? Maybe he could be sent to his room." The hint was that my story might offend the Society for Prevention of Punishment of Kids. My response was, "If this kid is to take the initiative to solve the mystery of who is really the guilty party, then the kid has to have a good motive for doing so. What better motivation than to stop being corporally punished?"
I was asked to write a classic mystery story. That meant there had to be a mystery. For children I didn't want blood and guts. So I tried to find the most innocent, least harmful sort of mystery that could happen in a circus. The way: Someone is letting the animals out of their cages and the kid is wrongly blamed.
So we're back full circle to the animals, and the truth comes out: "No animals in cages, please! We know this is reality you're describing, but we want to make a profit. Look, friend, we don't really care about the animals. If you want to know, we're worried we won't sell enough books. So don't take it personally."
Is this what they mean by the hypocrisy of those who practice political correctness? But, heavens, I do hope I have not offended anyone in saying all this. Which brings me to the final insult. When, like a true professional, I had tried to improve my story by rewriting the sensitive areas, I said to the publisher, "I cannot make any more changes without destroying the story." His insult was: "Don't worry, friend, I won't be asking for more changes. I can't imagine anybody being offended by anything in your story now."
Yeah. Like who can be offended by a meat loaf, right?
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