As I’ve previously mentioned, I love the North American cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile, which features a girl in a glamorous 1930s ballgown. One of the shadowy figures in the background is a young man who seems to be smoking a cigarette, and I did wonder how long it would be before someone objected to this. Not very long at all, it turns out. A few weeks after the book was released, this US librarian commented about it on her blog:
“It’s probably a good idea when you market a book for teens that the cover image not feature things that teens can’t do – so, having someone drinking on the cover isn’t usually a good idea. Neither is smoking.”
The librarian was far more observant than I was, because she noticed that the cigarette in the young man’s hand had been Photoshopped out of existence – and that was before she compared the cover to the look-alike cover of Consequences of the Heart, in which the cigarette is clearly visible. I’d just assumed ‘my’ young man was holding a cigarette and that the camera angle meant the cigarette was hidden behind his fingers. It’s obvious that a white cloud is hovering next to his hand, and I imagined most people would assume he was smoking. Characters in the book smoke, so why shouldn’t characters on the cover do the same thing?
I can see why responsible adults might be concerned about this. Smoking is bad; therefore, we should make sure that all images of smoking are unappealing, especially if they’re going to be seen by impressionable teenagers. The question is whether art and literature should be censored to achieve a social aim, and whether such censorship is actually effective in achieving those aims.
I should say here that I’ve never smoked. I loathe the smell of cigarettes and I wish everyone in the world, but especially people in my apartment building, would stop smoking. I also worked as a speech pathologist for fifteen years and not many speech pathologists smoke, because we have a very clear understanding of the awful health problems caused by smoking (and those dissected tar-soaked lungs they insisted on showing us during our university anatomy lessons were fairly off-putting, too).
However, I also write historical novels, which I try to make as realistic as possible, and the fact is, attitudes to smoking were quite different in the past. I’ve seen 1930s advertisements in which ‘doctors’ solemnly claimed that a certain brand of cigarette was a healthy way to relieve stress. No one knew about lung cancer or laryngeal cancer or heart disease then. (Actually, some of the first research into the health dangers of smoking was carried out by a Nazi doctor on the orders of Hitler, a non-smoker). In 1930s England, most men smoked some form of tobacco, and ladies who wished to be thought of as ‘sophisticated’ carried around little silver cases of cigarettes. And is there a photograph in existence of Winston Churchill without his cigar?
It would be ridiculous if none of the dozens of characters in The FitzOsbornes in Exile smoked, but I did think carefully about who would smoke. Of the young characters, Sophie and Veronica are too well brought up (and impoverished) to have developed a cigarette habit. Julia, despite her sophistication, is never seen smoking. Rupert’s health problems preclude him taking up smoking. Daniel either doesn’t have the money to buy cigarettes, or doesn’t want to support capitalist tobacco companies. The only main characters identified as smokers are Toby, who mentions cadging cigarettes at the beginning of the first Montmaray book, and Simon, who’s occasionally seen lighting the cigarette of a woman he’s trying to seduce. I don’t think either of these characters could be regarded as good role models for teenagers. Toby has a perpetual hangover and gets expelled from a series of educational institutions, while Simon’s morals are ambiguous, to put it generously. I don’t think any non-smoking teenager is going to read The FitzOsbornes in Exile and think, “Gosh, I want to be just like Toby and Simon! I’m going to start smoking!”
Come to think of it, even the ‘good’ FitzOsbornes behave in ways that are not terribly healthy. They speed around the countryside in a sports car while not wearing seatbelts, eat pastries laden with refined sugar and full-fat cream, and taunt Nazis from the windows of slow-moving trains. But I really don’t think my readers are going to emulate any of those behaviours. (Apart from eating cakes – and I’m sure my readers would consume them in moderation and then incorporate an appropriate amount of exercise into their daily routines.)
However, is it possible that teenagers might see the cover of The FitzOsbornes in Exile in a school library or a bookshop, and, not having read the book, start to think, “Smoking is cool”? Yes, it’s possible. They could also get the same idea from watching Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, or from viewing any number of modern films. It’s far more likely they’d be influenced by the attitudes of their friends and family.
So, I have to say to teenagers: if you’re reading this and you’re tempted in any way, for whatever reason, to start smoking, DON’T DO IT! SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU!
You’re allowed to read my books, though, if you really want.