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Friday 18 May 2007

What boys might actually want to read

The superciliati are sniffing away disgustedly at extracts from a list of 170 books that 11- to 14-year-old boys might actually enjoy.

The selection has been endorsed by Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, who is chucking a modest sum of money towards getting copies of the tomes into school libraries.

Awash with such interests of the unreconstructed male as adventure, crime, horror, violence, sci-fi, spies, sport and obscure facts, the books are geared towards pleasure rather than self-improvement - which is why they have a chance of seducing some of the millions of youths who think reading is a girl thing.

But the critics are crying "Where are the classics?", aghast to see names such as Jeremy Clarkson and Jack Higgins as recommended reading. Well, apart from Mr Johnson's childhood favourite, Tom Sawyer, along with many modern novels, Riveting Reads includes Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Frankenstein. But, frankly, I wouldn't care if it had Jeffrey Archer at the top, as long as it can get boys reading..

The feminisation of education and the ensuing triumph of political correctness have turned generations of boys off reading, not least by urging them to get in touch with their feelings and despise that part of themselves that wants to see heroes biffing villains.

This trend was just beginning in the late 1960s, when, in Cambridge, I was teaching day-release apprentices. All of them had to be force-fed Lord of the Flies in the hope that they would become ashamed of their baser male instincts.

This was the moment when boys began to associate reading with being preached at. They were discouraged from reading about anachronistic boarding schools, or Nelson beating the French, or sword fights, or shooting down enemy planes, or William, Ginger, Henry and Douglas beating up Hubert Lane and his gang.

Instead, they were to address the grim reality of sink estates and warm to examples of diversity such as Mary lives with Eric and Ernie, or whatever it was called. Mostly, they stopped reading and embraced violent films and video games. This was not surprising. Fact 1: boys are boys, not girls. Fact 2: people will not enjoy reading unless they have learnt to see it as pleasure.

So the success in the 1990s of Harry Potter was unexpectedly good news for reading, although its echoes of Greyfriars and its epic battle of good against evil have appalled the literati.

They've all been buying smelling-salts by the bucket-load, and all the more so since The Dangerous Book for Boys became a runaway best-seller.

Literary snobbery is as risible as it is damaging. As a crime writer, I inhabit what is sneeringly dismissed by the back-scratchers of the review sections as a genre, i.e. a kind of book enjoyed by the little people.

Loosely, a genre is science fiction, romance, comedy, crime or anything else you find in publishers' lists separated from pure literary fiction, which is, of course, what wins the literary prizes that are mostly judged by the fashionable literati.

So a fine writer such as, say, Reginald Hill, is not even considered as a contender by the kind of people who brought us The Bone People and Vernon God Little.

There are many consolations for those of us consigned to the category of genre fiction, not least that we are much more popular than our self-consciously literary condescenders.

I eschew the company of literary writers; I adore the crime writers. We laugh at the pretensions of those who think themselves our betters and we enjoy each other because our backgrounds and preoccupations are so disparate and therefore so interesting.

We include, among our number, vets and spies and solicitors and teachers and nurses and linguists and journalists and erstwhile prostitutes, criminals and murderers.

We are Left-wing and Right-wing and religious and atheist and straight and gay and happily tolerant of each other. We write of the darkest aspects of the human mind, but we often write, too, of the triumph of love and trust and reason.

I inhabit what Reg Hill once described as the "Jane Austen end of the crime-writing spectrum", but good friends of mine explore torture and betrayal and gore.

All human life is there. As a crime fiction enthusiast who knows many of us said to me: "Through crime fiction, I've learnt about life as it is lived in every part of our society and I've come to like and love people I would once have dismissed as perverts."

What's more, because we can deal with our demons and murder our enemies on the page, we are singularly free of anger and are notoriously nice people. Having no belief that we are a superior form of literary life, we do not take ourselves seriously, but laugh a lot and rejoice when any of us hit the big time.

When Ian Rankin became rich, we were delighted, not least because we knew he needed money to look after his severely disabled son.

But what marks us out, as it marks out most other writers consigned to various genres, is that we write to entertain.

We want a reader to pick up one of our books, become hooked on page one, stay rapt till the end wondering what is going to happen and then demand the next in the series.

That is what Alan Johnson and the School Library Association are trying to do for British boys. Good luck to them.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards