Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Topic: "Censorship in Literature; should it be imposed upon us, or self imposed?" My Guest today Author, K J Kron.

 Please welcome my guest: Author K J Kron.

I had to censor a few books during my career.  I assigned A Lesson Before Dying as an option for summer reading, but a mother complained that the book used the word “nipple” and an unmarried couple had sex (implied, nothing graphic).  I no longer assign it.  

The movie The Pianist uses the “F” word twice at the end.  A father complained saying that I might as well use the “F” in class if I showed that movie. The principal told me not to play that movie in class ever again. 

To show how the movie downplayed the racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, I read a couple of scenes in class and my students complained about hearing the “nigger lover” word so many times from the mouths of old ladies and children.  I still assign the book, but I don’t read it so dramatically in class anymore. 

Another time parents complained when I taught I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings because of the sex / sexual abuse.  

I’m shocked that no parent has complained about Brave New World, a society where drugs and promiscuity are encouraged, but a teacher did.  She hated the book and told all her students why.  I asked her, why are you teaching the book then?  She never taught it again.

And I am just one teacher.  I looked up PABBIS.org on the net.  It’s a group in the neighboring county from where I live.  Parents Against Bad Books In Schools are trying to eliminate inappropriate books out of school libraries.  One book they’ve targeted is Ken Follet’s Pillars’ of the Earth.  It’s a mammoth of a book that does have a couple of graphic sex scenes.  Teens vary in what they read.  I know some of my students read books with curse words and sex and would love Pillars’ of the Earth while others would be shocked to know what is in that book (of course they’d have to read several hundred pages to find out).

I read the Language Police by Diane Ravitch and learned that English literature textbooks are censored throughout the USA.  Conservative groups lobby make sure any stories with the devil or magic mentioned are eliminated. 

Liberal groups are just as guilty.  Stories like Twelve Angry Men were taken out of textbooks because there were no women represented.  Feminist make sure that stories show women on equal footing with men and take out stories where women’s primary job is being a mother.  That’s why the “Euphio Question” has been taken out of textbooks. 

Sometimes the stories are actually changed.  Huckleberry Fin has a new edition with the “nigger” replaced with “slave.” “The Little Engine That Could” was turned into a girl so there would be more equal representation of females in stories in one textbook. 

It gets more bizarre with the censorship of reading comprehension tests and history textbooks. 

The book Fahrenheit 451 is set in the future.  All reading is banned because someone will find any book offensive so firemen go around burning all the books they can find (my students always joke, “I wish they’d burn this book too”).   Without offending anyone, you create stories that lack tension.  Over censoring can led to a bland menu of stories that are less interesting. 

Censorship is currently going too far.  I want to say it’s important to have an open mind – to see another side of life other than your own.  And while one person offends, it’s important to see where they are coming from – to see the other side of the argument.  What offends makes the most interesting literature.

But by making that argument, I’m being hypocritical.  If I truly want to see both sides of an issue, I need to get in the head of someone who thinks it’s OK to censor.  So let me give it a try.

I have a son, I can understand why a parent would want to protect their child from what their children are exposed to.  I don’t let my son watch TV often (he’s only a toddler) and if I do it’s a few minutes of some benign show.  When he’s an elementary school child, I’m not going to give him the Tropic of Cancer to read.  It has to be age appropriate. OK, obvious point.  Many writers should expect their books to be censored out of children’s book stories.

But we also need to censor against libel.  I just can’t write a book full of lies.  It’s happened in the past.  In the 1800’s, a group of scientist published a book claiming that blacks had inferior intelligence compared to whites because their skulls are smaller.  To prove their point, they took the skulls of Pygmies.  If their premise were true, the smartest people in the world would be football and rugby players, while women would be less intelligent.

OK, another obvious point – lies should be censored.

Here’s another - editors are censors.  I’ve heard stories about Anne Rice refusing to let editors touch up her books anymore (and I no longer read her books).  Editors make suggestions to improve your book, in essence, censoring it.  With my own book, Saint Peter Killed God, a reader suggested taking out the “boring” parts because my book seemed to be too much of an “info dump.”  I edited out as much as I could.  I wouldn’t say I was “self-censoring” as much as I was trying to make my book more readable.  Then my editor read it and said there wasn’t enough information and I needed to add more to make the motivation clear.  Why did Father Peter find preaching immoral?  The conflict wasn’t clear until I showed his reasons. 

There are bad editors.  If I had an editor suggested that I should try to alter my book so it could be sold in Christian book stores or change it to an atheist manifesto, then I’d probably ignore him or her because they missed the point.  A good editor is trying to make a book more readable and have more potential readers.  Take curse words.  Should they be censored?  No.  But curse words are more powerful on the page.  If you imitate a 7th grader, every other word might be a curse word but it loses its power on the page.  Even writing an “F” word on every ten pages makes a 7th grader seem like he or she has a foul mouth.

Another point is that supply and demand creates censorship.  I work with a man who used to work with a small publishing company.  He’d publish obscure historical non-fiction books, like the Jewish role of fligher pilots in France during World War II.  His authors would call him up and complain that their books were not in Barnes and Noble.  Well, there are not too many people interested in that kind of a book.  Indie writers, myself included, should realize their books are being censored out of bookstores because there just isn’t enough of a demand to put them there.  I read a blog claiming 600,000 books were published last year and less than one percent sold over 100 copies.  If you put all of those books into a book store…well, they just wouldn’t fit.

Also, there might be rare times where I wouldn’t want to highlight the truth.  I’m thinking about how much people used to drink.  In Shakespeare’s time, people drank beer because the water was impure and it was safer to drink.  I read that in the 19th century, the average American drank a fifth of liquor a day. I watch Mad Men and I see people having three martinis during lunch in the 60s.  So if I told my son not to drink, I wouldn’t want to point to the past where people drank a lot more. 

So yes, when I try to understand censors I can admit there has to be a degree of censorship or book stores would go out of business, books wouldn’t be edited, people would be sued for libel, children would be exposed to inappropriate material, and unimportant facts would be highlighted.

That said, I cannot agree with the people behind PABBIS.org. At least their list of banned books gives me ideas of which books I might be interested in reading in the future. 

K J Kron is the author of "Saint Peter Killed God" available at amazon .com on the following link

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