Lionel Shriver Lionel Shriver

When did calorie counting become offensive?

An author of spoofy, light-hearted mysteries, my friend Ruth Dudley Edwards has had unusual difficulty completing her new novel, Death of a Snowflake. The trouble isn’t lack of material —she’s spoilt for choice — but real life outpacing satire. As we now live in a world of ‘you could not make this stuff up’, readers looking for a laugh are spurning fiction in droves in preference for the newspaper.

To wit, exam administrators rather than students are now tested. Stirring widespread consternation this month, a GCSE English exam cited a passage from H.E. Bates’s short story ‘The Mill’, which in due course —not in the passage itself — portrays a rape. Students have protested that the excerpt should have carried a ‘trigger warning’.

If women being abused somewhere in the story puts contemporary young people into a tailspin, that would knock out excerpting any of Thomas Hardy, if not most of Shakespeare. More, this logic of toxic proximity has veritably infinite application, and could preclude test-taking altogether. What if in the school library the excerpted book sits right next to another book in which a rape takes place? Perhaps round the corner from the building in which the exam is given — or at least in the same catchment area — a woman was once raped. Maybe the teacher handing out the exam papers knows someone who was raped. Or knows someone who knows someone. Why, theory would have it that we are all a maximum of six degrees of separation from a rape victim. Thus simply waking up in the morning must plunge the delicate into a vertiginous swoon sufficiently incapacitating to send them back to bed. Given that any exam is administered in a universe in which rape occurs, tests are all traumatising reminders of sexual assault.

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