For such an agreeably warm person – so different from so many of our other, more aloof literary greats – John Boyne doesn’t half have a knack for stoking controversy.
Last year he invoked the wrath of Twitter for writing a novel – My Brother’s Name Is Jessica – which dealt with transgender issues and left social media for a period while the storm blew over. Now, just a few months later, a new squabble about his work has erupted, this time over his masterwork, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
Last week, on his Twitter account, Boyne criticised the recent glut of books with ”Auschwitz” in the title, including The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, which was Ireland’s bestselling book in 2018 and 2019. “I can’t help but feel that by constantly using the same three words, & then inserting a noun, publishers & writers are effectively building a genre that sells well, when in reality the subject matter, & their titles, should be treated with a little more thought & consideration,” he wrote.
This, in turn, provoked a pointed rejoinder from The Auschwitz Museum in Poland. A spokesperson wrote that while the museum appreciated the reservations some might have about the historical accuracy of books which have the Holocaust as a theme, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas “should be avoided by anyone who studies or teaches about the history of the Holocaust”.
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It linked to an essay which addresses some of the issues it has with the novel and goes on to lay out what it calls “some of the book’s historical inaccuracies and stereotypical portrayals of major characters that help to perpetuate dangerous myths about the Holocaust”.
These included, the museum says, the idea that a child of a Nazi SS man and a Jewish boy could ever have become friends; most children were murdered within hours of arriving in concentration camps.
From Lake Geneva in Switzerland, where he went to take a break from the current barrage of criticism, John Boyne told the Sunday Independent: “I’ve spent a large part of my 20-year career in schools talking to children about the Holocaust, helping to educate them on the subject and directing them to the same non-fiction works that first inspired my interest as a teenager in this period in history. I’ve taken my responsibilities very seriously during this time and I am immeasurably proud of The Boy In the Striped Pyjamas and all the work I’ve done in this area; indeed it’s the work I am most proud of.
“Regardless of anything my critics say, I know how committed I’ve been to the subject and, having sold 11m copies of that book, I doubt there is a novelist alive who has brought the subject to life for young people as much as I have. I have absolutely no regrets when it comes to that book.”
There has been a glut of Holocaust-themed entertainment recently, including Netflix’s The Devil Next Door and The Accountant of Auschwitz.
Boyne expresses bemusement that only now, 14 years after its publication, has criticism of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas really ignited and says that the Twitter criticism of the novel doesn’t bother him.
“Online moralisers might find validation in joining a pile-on of someone who works incredibly hard to write emotional, thought-provoking novels, but the public attacks do not interest me in the slightest.”
Irish writer Colin Barrett, who published the short story collection Young Skins in 2013, was among those who tweeted about the controversy, writing ”John Boyne laying down some brutal owns on the ignorant trolls at the, uh… at the official Auschwitz memorial account”.
Boyne told the Sunday Independent: “As for the two or three writers who have joined in the Twitter attacks, I would say that a writer who attacks another writer publicly… Be collegiate, be supportive, or be silent.”
Boyne says that the attacks on writers who handle difficult subjects have intensified in the era of social media and his comments recall the Theodore Roosevelt quote: ”It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out where the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better.”
Boyne adds: “There’s a knee-jerk reaction these days against any novelist who explores a difficult or controversial subject, and these more often that not come from people who haven’t even read the books in question.
“It’s as if people need to condemn instantly to prove to strangers how morally superior they are. Well, some of us put our anger and frustration we feel about injustice into the work itself.
“We write novels, or we make movies or we perform in plays, and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. But I am glad to be an artist, whose strengths and weaknesses are on display in the books I write, rather than someone sitting on the sidelines in constant attack mode. It’s a far healthier way to live.”
Boyne says that he won’t be withdrawing from social media, as he did in the aftermath of the publication of My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, which garnered intense criticism from some trans activists.
“Real artists will never allow the hate-fuelled words of the Twitterati to stop them creating their art. We kick against the pricks. Last year I allowed myself to become upset after the bullying I was subjected to over My Brother’s Name Is Jessica. I’ll never put up with that again. Shout, scream, rant, rage, call me names online, do whatever you like. I’ve tuned out and am working on my next book.”
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