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Two book reviews of:

Doing It

by Melvin Burgess
 272pp, Andersen Press, £10.99


Charities criticise sexually explicit children's novel

By Alexandra Frean,
The Times [UK]. March 29, 2003

A CHILDREN’S novel containing graphic depictions of sex between a boy and his woman teacher and stamped with the words “warning: explicit content” is causing controversy even before it has gone on sale. Critics of Doing It by Melvin Burgess are concerned that its positioning in the “young adult” section of book stores and libraries is a marketing ploy designed to attract a much younger readership, for whom its sexually explicit language may be inappropriate.

Sex education campaigners said that they were concerned that the book, to be published in May, could add to peer pressure on younger teenagers to have under-age sex, by contributing to the myth that “everybody is doing it”.

Doing It is billed by its publisher, Andersen Press, as “a knobby book for boys”. Its cover announces it as “Melvin Burgess’s latest assault on teenage morals”.

The novel tells the story of three testosterone-charged sixth-formers. Much of it is taken up with the boys’ bragging dirty talk about sex and girls.

One is seduced by a highly manipulative teacher and gets drawn into a controlling sexual relationship with her. Another grapples with a fat girl’s attraction for him and his fear of being ridiculed for liking her.

Robert Whelan, director of Family Youth Concern, said:

“From the point of view of children’s development, it is extremely limiting to be exposing them to this sort of material because dropping them into such an animalistic world gives them such limited horizons.”

He said marketing the book to older teenagers was bound to attract younger readers.

Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, agreed that younger readers would be attracted to it.

“A book like this should be put in the adult sections,” he said. “You could almost describe it as pornography for boys.”

Jan Barlow, of Brook, the sexual health charity, said that although she welcomed anything that would encourage young men to think and talk about sex in an open, informed and sensible way, there was a danger that it could add to the pressure on younger teenagers to become sexually active.

“Young people tell us,” she said, “that they think that if everyone else they know is having sex and they are not, then there must be something wrong with them.”

Klaus Flugge, Andersen’s managing director, said the book was being marketed responsibly.

 “This book is specifically aimed at the 16-plus age group, which is quite evident from the cover, with its adult treatment and clear warning of explicit content,” he said.

Francesca Dow, managing director of Puffin Books, which publishes Burgess’s book in paperback, said:

Doing It is about sex, but it is as much about not doing it as doing it, and about love in its different forms, too. It’s incredibly warm and funny.

“It’s a book which needs to be published: there are lots of teenagers who will be hugely comforted and relieved to read it. But it is definitely a book for older teenagers, and when we publish the paperback edition of the book, it will be branded with a Penguin adult logo, not our children’s Puffin one.”

Burgess’s novel Junk, about a teenage girl who becomes addicted to heroin after running away from her dysfunctional family, won the distinguished children’s literature prize in 1997, the Carnegie Medal, but was heavily criticised as being unsuitable for young readers.

His last book, Lady: My Life as a Bitch, a fantasy about a sexually active teenage girl who gets turned into a dog on heat, was also praised by critics, but condemned by some for its graphic portrayal of sex.


Should Doing It be published by a children's imprint?

Anne Fine,
Saturday March 29, 2003 The Guardian

They always say a book aimed at young people should start with a bang. How about this one?

" 'OK,' said Jonathon. 'The choice is this. You either have to shag Jenny Gibson or that homeless woman who begs spare change outside Cramner's bakers.' "

Just a shock to draw you in, you think, till the conversation unfolds:

"'I'd take the homeless. She wouldn't be so bad once you'd cleaned her up.'
'You have to take her as is.'
'Can I shag her from behind?'
'No, from the front. With the lights on. Snogging and everything. And you have to do oral sex on her too ... Oral sex until she comes.'"

On it goes, comparing the turn-offs of poor Jenny, "the ugliest girl in college", and the tramp with "rotten teeth and smelly breath, bits of old kebab rotting in her teeth. Cold sores, probably. Ulcers." Perhaps it gets better, you think. Well, perhaps it does, if you think "the gentle hiss of a roomful of drenching gussets", or a girl "with her knickers hardly covering her bush", or "I slid my hand down her arse and tickled her crack" are improvements.

No. It gets worse, right down to the touching prayer,

"Please, please make Deborah thin - but with big tits so I'd still have those wonderful bazookas to play with."

And the sensitive observation that

"tits and minge are actually very important things to me in a girlfriend. I spend a lot of time looking at them on my computer screen - tits and minge and arse till it comes out of my ears."

(A bit of a thing is made about arses, in this book. The owner of "Mr Knobby Knobster" - the penis to whom [which?] the dedication of this book gives thanks - has his own thoughts about this part of the female body:
"Amazing! And how embarrassing for those poor girls, having your private parts about half an inch away from your dirtbox. Planning! I mean, who thought of that? It isn't even hygienic.")

I should stop. Spare you the counting of the number of fingers a boy managed to fit up inside his girl, a lad's heavy petting before coming back to

"make us all sniff his fingers to show he'd been there".

The charming exchanges of courtship:

"'Feel yer tits?'
'Bit of finger?'
'No!' "

And, of course, Dino's discovery of his first girl's bottom:

"It had this amazing spicy, pee-y smell."

The strapline across the bound proofs in front of me claim this book (to be published in May) is Melvin Burgess's "latest assault on teenage morals". The Observer's quite wrong there. Young girls will be begging their parents to send them to single sex schools. Reading this will put many off dating for years.

What are three separate children's publishers thinking of, peddling this grubby book, which demeans both young women and young men? It will prove as effective a form of sexual bullying as any hardcore porno mag passed round. And, make no mistake, the publishers may slap a warning and a picture of a condom on the front and substitute a grown-up penguin for a puffin, but it was the children's publisher Andersen Press that commissioned this novel.

It is Random House Children's Books who have it in their catalogue beside Emma Chichester Clark's Up in Heaven and Ken Brown's What's the Time, Grandma Wolf? (ages 4 and up). And the people who are putting most into this book are Penguin Children's Books, who were thrilled to win the paperback auction.

Advertising across London buses for Burgess's current novel, Lady ("The book your parents don't want you to read"), shows up for the hypocrisy it is Penguin's claim to publish this "responsibly". Everything about it has gone through the children's side: purchase, editing, publicity. The only unusual aspect is the sudden decision to stop sending out proofs. (Getting nervous?)

It has justified its choice by claiming the book is a fine piece of work,

"deserving of serious literary criticism"

(though I notice it had to go to Gallimard for this approval, and I hope, for the sake of her judgment, that English is not the first language of the critic they've quoted).

My own favourite lines are

"Mad with lust, but terrified of authority ... "
"All he could do was cling helplessly to her breasts like a shipwrecked sailor".

(I'm passing over
"His behaviour of blackmailing her into having sex with him had left a very nasty taste in his own mouth",
because I'm guessing that "own" is Melvyn's lone brave stab of humour in this novel.)

Penguin's next argument relates to the virtues of "realism". God help the publishers and their grubby little lives if they think this tosh is realistic. Do young female teachers really flash their knickers at pupils, and give them countless blow jobs behind school stage curtains - even falsify maths reports to create detentions that offer more time for the lad's priapic efforts?

("An erection on the front of him like a concrete pillar."
"I could have harpooned a walrus with it.")

Even if they did (which they don't), it's no good argument. Serial murderers do unspeakable things and even adult publishing houses face honourable resignations when they decide to publish graphic accounts. Remember American Psycho ?

It'll get boys to read, Penguin says. Well, teachers won't be handing it out, once they've got to the bit where the lad brags

"I sucked Miss's tits and know what colour pubes she has".

(Look for it after the bit he later describes as
"me lying down staring up Miss Young's minge while she give me a blow job".)

Why should girls' self-esteem and self-respect be sacrificed in the unlikely hope that, instead of standing in the corner of the classroom sniggering while someone else reads out the marked filthy bits, each reluctant reader will go to the library to fill in a request card?

(The female warders in the Californian prison I lived beside had the dignity instantly to go on strike when the educationalists decided that copies of Hustler and Playboy might be just the ticket to get the lads reading. "What about us?" they demanded.)

No girl or young woman should ever have to read these vile, disgusting musings about themselves. The publishers may claim they are the real thoughts of young men. But would they be pushing the ignorant, upsetting views of four racists, or four anti-semites on the grounds these foul, deluded people really do think this way? No, they would not. They would leave this age group to have to make an effort to find that sort of filth for themselves.

All of the publishers who have touched this novel should be deeply ashamed of themselves.

Astonishingly, they are almost all female. It's time they sat round a table, took a good long look at themselves and decided that it was an indefensible decision to take this book on. They should pulp their own copies now. If it's so "brilliant", let an adult publisher pay Burgess another advance, and take it on to their own list to make a profit. (Fat chance!)

On page 254, one of the characters says:

"It doesn't cost any more to print something true than it does to print crap."

True. Very true. So why don't the publishers try it?

Anne Fine is the children's laureate.

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