Give no Offence


Avoid inappropriate humour

In medicine, doctors – or good doctors at any rate – work on the principle of ‘Do no harm.’ (known as the principle of non-maleficence). Henry Marsh, a leading neurosurgeon, wrote a fascinating book with this title.

Perhaps writers should adopt a similar creed: Give no offence. In an interview in The Telegraph (11th July 2006) the novelist Victoria Hislop narrates how she gave her first novel, the highly enjoyable The Island, to her husband, Private Eye editor and long term Have I got news for you panellist, Ian Hislop. ‘His reaction,’ she said ‘was not overwhelming. He was very neutral and I think I was just relieved that he didn't dislike it.’ But, she continues, ‘he did make one creative suggestion, though, for which we should all be grateful.’ The book contained ‘one terrible joke’ about leprosy and involved a play on the words "armless" (which some lepers in an advanced state of the disease are) and "harmless" (because the disease is not easily transmitted). He said it had to go.

‘It was the only attempt at humour in the entire book,’ Hislop explained ‘and out it went. I knew he was right.’

Maybe it’s something about husbands, but before I read the article about The Island, I had shown my own husband a section of my new novel in which an anti-Semite makes a bad joke about Jews, in the hearing of a Jewish girl newly released from a concentration camp. I thought it would arouse indignation on behalf of my heroine, and provoke revulsion for my villain. But apparently that wasn’t the case. ‘That joke is so sick,’ said my husband ‘that I think you should take it out. I don’t think it does you any credit.’ On reflection he was right. I had shoe-horned it in because I’d read it in my source material and thought it might be appropriate in that part of the story. But it wasn’t – it might have cast my villain in a bad light, but it reflected badly on me too. And it’s dangerous as an author to alienate your reader. So I took it out and replaced it with something more ‘suitable.’ Hopefully the section is less offensive as a result.

Give no offence: perhaps authors should swear a writerly oath by it.