Peer Review

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Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Get Shorty

Keith Gray reviews Boy Kills Man by Matt Whyman

Keith Gray starts his review: "Perhaps the greatest paradox for any young person's novelist is that first you have to please the adults. It's the parents, librarians and teachers who are the gate-keepers..." I think you can overplay that argument. Especially in terms of Young Adult books, as opposed to children's books; but even there, the degree to which children's own tastes override adult preferences can be witnessed over and over again if you eavesdrop in the children's section of any bookshop. Aiming to please the adults is definitely not something I would recommend to any children's author.

Gray fears that the subject matter, the provocative book jacket and title, and the age of its protagonists will somehow lead those 'gatekeepers' to block the book from its readership. What does he mean? Does he imagine that it will actually be banned? That librarians will decide not to shelve it but hide it behind the counter; that booksellers will refuse to sell it? That parents will confiscate it if they find their children reading it?

"For a slim volume with this kind of subject matter the story does seem slow in places and not as focused as it could be..." That was not my impression. It's not a gung-ho, episodic action adventure, and (for me) the book's pace seemed perfectly modulated to its subject matter.

Gray's review is broadly positive. "Ignore the appalling title, and inside there is a powerful, affecting novel about lost youth and a sharp evocation of one boy's terrible passage from innocence to experience." Gray is clearly intimating that the book's title is appallingly bad and ill-judged. If the title is 'appalling' it is intentionally so. We are supposed to be appalled by the notion of a boy killing a man.

"Admittedly it's difficult to know which age-group the book was written for..." Not that difficult, surely, unless, as Gray does, you take an overvalued generalisation "Children are aspiring readers - they prefer to read about characters older than themselves..." and apply it to this book with an absurd disregard for common-sense. Gray's argument seeems to be that because the protagonists are 12 years old, no one over that age will want to read it, and that those gatekeepers won't want younger readers of about 10 going anywhere near it. Gray knows perfectly well that Whyman is writing for the same audience as he himself addresses in his young adult fiction.

In the end Gray recommends the book on the basis of its 'issue'. "Why would any right-minded person want to hush an open debate about the dangers of guns in today's society? It's set in Medell?n, but it could quite easily be Manchester."

No, it couldn't.


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4 Comments

>I think you are taking a very narrow interpretation of a comment that should be read in context of the entire review.

My comment takes issue with the 'context' and not just the specific quotation - i.e. the notion that these 'gatekeepers' have the power and influence described. In the quotation you use, Gray says, "only when they are happy can you approach your target audience..." ONLY WHEN THEY ARE HAPPY... Either the words are not being chosen carefully enough, or Gray considers that teens and young adults are not wily and independent enough to choose their own reading material without prior screening by adults, however invidiously this is done.

The degree to which parents/librarians are likely to complain, or are actually complaining about books is often overegged by publicists keen to make a title appear controversial. This happened to some degree with the promotion of Matt Whyman's book. And if parental warnings are actually printed on the back covers of books, surely you can see the dynamic at play there. Publishers obviously think that adult antipathy to a book is going to be an inducement to read, not a barrier. So who's playing gatekeeper there?

You go on to say: "You do not address my other comments - primarily that no other review has come under so much criticism from yourself, and that your final comments are based on information from Matt Whyman himself."

i) My comment on this review has to be seen in the context of my attitude towards The Guardian's policy of 'peer reviewing' of children's books, in contrast to the way it reviews adult books. I don't want to rehearse my objections to the policy here. You can find links to them on the Blog, by searching the term 'peer', and by reading the relevant discussion on ACHUKACHAT.

ii) The suggestion that the book could have just as easily been set in the streets of Manchester is absurd, as proposed in the review, whether or not based on a statement by the author. (I don't have my copy of the novel to hand, so cannot verify.)

Sorry my first response didn't address all your comments. Hope this fuller one does.
Michael ACHUKA

Keith Gray goes on to say "It's the parents, librarians and teachers who are the gate-keepers, and only when they are happy can you approach your target audience. ...Matt Whyman's latest has already had a few reaching for their heftiest padlocks and rushing to bar entry - which is a pity." which I take to mean that once an author has finished their work and it has been published, the people who get it to the kids can from time to time block the way of important books because of fears about the content. So, not that these people should be considered as the target audience but that, unfortunately, they can prevent a book reaching its target audience.
Complaints from parents about Holly Black's Tithe and Julie Bertagna's Opposite of Chocolate mean that some librarians consider it risky to include these books in their school collection and parents voices can lead to bookshops not to the extreme of de-stocking but certainly to taking books that have caused offence off prominent display. This situation is, I think, what Keith Gray is getting at. Certainly I think an author whose latest work has the word 'bullshit' emblazoned across the cover and parental warnings on the reverse is not going to be suggesting authors should write what the parents want their kids to read rather than what the kids want to read.
I think you are taking a very narrow interpretation of a comment that should be read in context of the entire review.

You do not address my other comments - primarily that no other review has come under so much criticism from yourself, and that your final comments are based on information from Matt Whyman himself.

Thanks for the comment (on my comment re. Gray's review of Boy Kills Man).

You say >I did not get the impression that Keith Gray felt children's authors should write with adults in mind...

But what he actually wrote was "Perhaps the greatest paradox for any young person's novelist is that first you have to please the adults."

FIRST YOU HAVE TO PLEASE THE ADULTS

It's hard to see how you can read these words and "not get the impression that Keith Gray felt children's authors should write with adults in mind..."

Ball in your court ;-)

I notice from a scan of your recent blogging that you do not normally comment on reviews or articles that you draw attention to as you have done with regard to Keith Gray's review of Boy Kills Man, I wonder why you have chosen to be so critical in this instance.
I would like to offer the following comments in riposte:
I think you miss the wider point that Keith Gray is addressing in this review.
A review can just be a straight forward analysis of a book, alternatively it can offer an informed opinion and if we are lucky a wider consideration of the market within which the book will be sold. At a time where a book for teenage boys (Melvin Burgess' Doing It) has been re-marketed for twenty something women and furore can kick off because of swearing, sexual activity or possible abortion, it is reasonable to assume that the opinion of 'guardians' should be taken into consideration when one ponders the whole package a book consists of. (That is to say content, cover image, title and marketing). I did not get the impression that Keith Gray felt children's authors should write with adults in mind but rather that unfortunately the reaction of the few can sometimes colour the opinion of the wider public.
I thought he was trying to say that it would be a shame if this happened to 'Boy Kills Man' as in a country where gun culture is becoming ever more endemic Matt Whyman's book offers not only a window onto another culture but also a starting point for discussion of an increasing problem in the UK. Also, I believe the comment about the possibility that the book could be set in Manchester just as easily as Medellin comes from Matt Whyman himself, so your final statement is somewhat disingenuous.
Keith Gray has produced a review which made me and others I know want to read the book (surely a key factor) but has also provided a background for discussion, not just of the issues the book addresses but of the issues the book raises in the wider context of childrens books as a genre, his awareness of this context shows he is an author with his finger on the pulse of the current climate in childrens books.
I know, I sell them.

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This page contains a single entry by achuka published on May 22, 2004 10:41 AM.

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