28 July 2010

An Impossible Thing Before Modernity

Earlier this month Fuse #8 aired this issue:

There was an interesting discussion on the child_lit listserv that I think is worth mentioning here today. In the event that a children’s author is convicted of a heinous crime like owning child pornography or abusing children, should one keep that author’s books on the shelf?

This is not a hypothetical question when you learn that author William Mayne was once convicted of abusing kids and, more recently, in Oregon author K.P. Bath (of The Secret of Castle Cant) was sentenced to six years in prison for possessing child porn. It’s an interesting question.

Castle Cant sits on my own library shelves and as a book it has committed no crime, though its author has. What is the responsibility of the children’s librarian in such a case as this then? There are no easy answers.
There was a parallel discussion at Maw Books.

I kept waiting for someone to point out that we’ve already run a version of this experiment. No public library or children’s-lit scholar would be without copies of at least two books by a man who not only possessed images that could almost certainly be prosecuted as child pornography under current US law, but produced them. That man is, of course, Lewis Carroll.

The material that Bath was convicted of possessing appears to be much more harmful to the young victims than anyone has alleged about the nude photographs Carroll made (and eventually destroyed). But the discussions don’t seem to have come close to that distinction, or the question of historical context. Most people expressed support for either “zero tolerance” or keeping “the work separate from the author.”

And Carroll’s work is merely the foundation of all modern English-language children’s literature. Once we’re done comparing and contrasting his novels to Mayne’s and Bath’s, we can move on to the fact that Plato’s Socratic dialogues, which provide much of the foundation of all modern thought, portray pederasty as one of the highest forms of human love. “Zero tolerance” is impossible.


Monica Edinger said...

Er, sorry, no. I'm very uncomfortable with this line of thought. While I've wondered what I'd do if proof appeared that Carroll did cross the line so far nothing of the sort has appeared. And you can't compare then and today. If he was alive today he wouldn't have done the photos. But it was his day, the whole cult of the child time, etc, etc, and clearly folks did love the image of the natural/pristine/beautiful child. I've a Victorian edition of The Water Babies with pretty naked children, for example.

Now if we had heard that one of the children he photographed was distressed then it would veer closer to the Larry Rivers photos/films of his daughters. But there is nothing about that. And as I recall, the mothers were there and very much supportive of the photos.

J. L. Bell said...

Some people discussing Bath’s recent conviction for possessing child pornography appeared to be “very uncomfortable” with the fact that his novel for children exists at all. Without having read the book, some said they’d never share it with a child, and used words like “betrayal.” These were parents and librarians who are usually big fans of books.

That’s the “zero tolerance” approach. If those people applied the same thinking to Carroll’s novels, would they be mollified by the argument of cultural relativism? Would they accept Dodgson’s photography because the children or their parents (embedded within Victorian culture) hadn’t objected? I didn’t pick up any hints of such nuances.

That’s why I say that our culture has already “run this experiment.” We’ve accepted intellectually important work that’s explicitly or quite possibly rooted in adult sexual attraction to children. Sometimes we try to explain away that aspect of the work; most of the time we simply ignore it.

I note that you draw a distinction between what we know the Rev. Charles Dodgson did—pose children naked for his camera—and the question of whether he “did cross the line” by doing something else. In that regard, it’s notable that Bath wasn’t convicted of molesting children or creating child pornography, simply of possessing and trading it. Perhaps that’s all the prosecutors could nail down, but perhaps that’s actually all he did.

The news reports of Bath’s trial make clear that the material he was convicted of possessing was harmful to the children involved; it was more than naked photos. That’s an important distinction between his case and Dodgson’s, but not one I saw anyone make.

Authorities don’t always make such distinctions, either. Later this month the New Press will publish Framing Innocence, about a “child pornography” case in Ohio that involved a parent’s nude photos. School Library Journal just reported on a “child pornography” case in New Jersey that involves a collection of essays shelved in a library’s adult section.

Monica Edinger said...

OK, I'm getting your point now. Having read the Maw Books discussion I suspect some of the commentators would respond similarly to the speculations about Carroll.

dotdotdot said...

Actually, J.M, Barrie is my go-to guy for this moral quandary, not Lewis Carroll. After the Johnny Depp vehicle a few years back, I assumed everything was fine and dandy with Mr.Barrie (Golly, what a swell misunderstood eccentric.), but an afternoon spent with Dudgeon's book "Neverland" was more than enough to make me want to give the ol' heave ho to having Peter Pan as any sort of recommended reading for young folks, just on principle.

J. L. Bell said...

I thought about citing Barrie as well, but decided that sticking to Carroll was better because (a) he’s even more fundamental in modern children’s literature; (b) the evidence that he took photos of unclothed children is undisputed; and (c) those photos make the clearest parallel to the recent case of an author convicted of possessing child pornography.

But yeah, some people are astonished at how Finding Neverland portrays Barrie and the Llewelyn Davies family.