Social realism, narrative non-ﬁction and The Tiger Who Came to Tea
As I said and at great length in Part 1 of this book, the idea of ‘making the connections’ isn’t a new one I have just thought about, and it can be summed up quite simply in the example I gave. My reading of it goes back as far as Socrates, 469-399 BCE, as far as we know, but as far as we don’t know it has been going on forever. While we are thinking about social realism and non-ﬁction we can still ‘imagine’ facts to be correct or worthy of speculation. When I think about the idea of ‘making the connections’ I came up with early man, bees, hives, stings, honey; someone made all these connections once and don’t we just wonder how we got to our present stage of knowledge without ideas, knowledge and experience being passed down through the centuries? And nowhere is this more relevant than when we are dealing with ideas and the idea of facts being incorporated into a narrative. Socrates in the instance I was thinking about earlier was attempting to explain a complicated mathematical theory to an uneducated slave. He did so simply by prompting the slave, step by step, with things he already knew. But this idea of slippage in the dialectical master/servant binary is very much what I have been saying. It’s not so much explaining or showing but helping others to connect to what they already know from other parts of life and then asking them to take the ideas forward into something they may or may not have thought about but are ready to explore. The children will then take what you have oﬀered and incorporate it with their own thinking to take possession of the knowledge it imparts. And is this not a true Socratic journey? Socrates never claimed to be wise, only to
understand the path a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it – and making the connections is implicit in this, surely. It is such a simple idea, and as I discussed in the ﬁrst part of this book, I cannot understand why this is such a problem with the adult/children, connection. It is not a question of binaries, them and us, me and you, adults and children but a mutual stroll down a Socratic path, making connections as we go. I have discussed how ﬁction can be used to impart such connections in the body of a story, where the story carries the wider ideas and knowledge a child can explore as they gain experience. But as I have intimated before, this is not a child to adult journey but an ongoing journey down the path of experience. I became an adult legally when I was 18 but the years since haven’t been that much diﬀerent in my learning process because each day brings something new. There is always something new to see, to learn, to be, because as I grow older so too do my children and their challenges, and so too does the world change. What I aim to do with this section is show how there are three diﬀerent ways to present factual material as a ﬁctional narrative. Social realism is just a phrase that doesn’t really hold much rigour at all. I like to think
of it as a type of ﬁction rather than a genre because so many things can ﬁt into the
category. Soap operas are the most obvious source and indeed the whole manufactured, popular televisual programming from Pop Idol to Scrubs is unregulated (apart from the nine o’clock watershed ruling) and available for child consumption. But in children’s ﬁction and some television it has an element of the cautionary that makes it so appealing. So in taking the social realism to one side, let’s talk about sex, because in exploring this side of it we can reveal how everything else follows – i.e. for sex read everything else. I mentioned Judy Waite’s Game Girls before. It is described on her website1 as
‘A gripping story of teenage girls who use sex to make money … ’ Goodness me, you might say, but this description does come with the caveat and the complete description is ‘A gripping story of teenage girls who use sex to make money – and then ﬁnd that money is not, after all, going to resolve all ills.’ The social realism of the narrative, girls and prostitution in this case, underpins a deeper and more thoughtful set of ideas. It’s a tale with a warning story but one that addresses teenage sexuality with a responsible eye, because clearly the general idea of the subject of teenage sexuality is simply not yet being addressed honestly in a lot of ﬁction. As Waite has said to me, it does address teen sexuality but, more importantly, it addresses dangers that teens may ﬁnd themselves facing, the dangers of peer pressure, the manipulation of more powerful characters and the lure (and moral outcome) of going for ‘easy money’ and the potential for exploitation. Also the fact that it is set in a middle-class suburban area (rather than somewhere downtown and dingy) makes what the girls get into even more shocking and relevant for debate. And this kind of ﬁction is extremely important for ideas on social realism. The book isn’t a junior ‘chick-lit’ but sits at a cutting edge in ‘young adult ﬁction’. One other person who does address sexuality honestly is Meliyn Burgess, for example
in his book Doing It (2008), but what a furore that caused. In an article in The Guardian newspaper, Anne Fine2 said that Doing It is a ‘grubby book’, which demeaned both boys and girls and was a form of sexual bullying. She considered Burgess to be misogynistic and writing pornography, and that no girl or young woman should have to read this sort of thing. Well the truth is no one did have to read it. But what Fine was doing was closeting the whole debate by claiming that it did not reﬂect a reality. A charge Burgess rejected while saying Fine’s argument had no intellectual support and was based on attitude rather than fact because ‘it is about revolting boys’.3 But crucial to this debate is the idea of normalisation, which I have written of before.