Please join in the discussion with my guest; Author Peter B Morin.
I’m honored to offer my thoughts on censorship in literature. I’ve followed this discussion for a while now. It’s fascinating to read opinions from writers who inhabit so many different parts of the world.
Of course, “we Americans” think that the USA is the world’s standard-bearer for free speech. Why, we have it in our Constitution. In fact, it’s so important, it’s the very first amendment to that sacred document. How arrogant and naïve, both.
First, let’s settle on a definition of censorship. Prior posters suggest that censorship may be imposed by public and private entities alike. I don’t buy that.
A newspaper, television station, billboard company, etc. is –and should be - free to accept or reject whatever speech they want. Am I happy that news organizations pick and choose their news, and the way they present it, to achieve a particular slant? No, but you can’t legislate intellectual honesty any more than you can legislate content. That point applies to National Public Radio as well as Fox News. There are members of the United States Congress who want to take away radio station licenses because they air conservative talk shows, and others who want to defund public arts programs (like NPR) because of their liberal content. All of them should be strung up by their thumbs.
So – for the purpose of this discussion, I employ the narrow definition of censorship: when the GOVERNMENT decides what you can say in a public forum (or how you say it).
In literature, the public debates have raged over notable examples, most of which occurred quite a while ago. Still here in the States, there continue to be a fair number of censorship requests, although not many of them are obliged. According to the American Library Association, they’ve logged 9,600 book ban requests since 1990 (these don’t include the ones “handled quietly”), but those are requests – many from parents or idiot politicians – and relatively few of them are granted. These do not all relate to literature - a fair number of them pertain to sex education material.
Here are a few fascinating incidents pertaining to the removal of contemporary literature:
- Harry Potter books have been excluded local school libraries in California, but retained in Gwinett County, Georgia (that’s amusing!).
- Huck Finn was recently (2007) removed from some local school libraries in Michigan and Washington, but was retained in Minnesota.
- Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep: A Novel was removed from the Yorba Linda school libraries after a parent complained about it being “pornography.” (N.B. Yorba Linda was the birthplace of Richard Nixon.)
- Both Jody Picoult’s The Tenth Circle and James Patterson’s Cradle and All were removed from the 9th grade reading list the Westhampton Beach schools for sexual content (2007).
- Toni Morrison’s Beloved was removed from the AP English class reading list in Louisville, Kentucky (2007) for sexual and racial themes.
- Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God was removed from the Tuscola, Texas school library. I’m assuming for sexual violence.
And what’s up in Wilsona, California? In 2006, they banned Disney’s Christmas Storybook and Clifford the Big Red Dog from the school library. I might understand their concerns about the perniciousness of Christianity, but does Clifford have some animal cruelty I’m not aware of? Or did someone feel it was degrading to canines?
Many or most of these instances involve efforts initiated by parents of students in small rural communities whose motivation is the protection of their children from sexual content or violence.
Take the Blue Valley, Kansas group, Citizens for Literary Standards, which in 2004 petitioned the school district to remove 13 books from school libraries and reading lists. Among them is Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses, which won the National Book Award in 1992. They conclude their laughably ignorant plot summary of the novel with this:
It’s hard to understand what redeeming educational value the Blue Valley School District found in this book.
Among the novel’s putrid language they cited in their denunciation is this:
Does a bear shit in the woods?
Give the school district credit, though. The campaign went nowhere.
A more focused effort at book banning was undertaken in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where parents targeted 35 works for their explicit sexual content and profanity. Among them were works by Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and E.L. Doctorow. If you review the content examples, you might have some sympathy for parents who would not wish their (in some instances) 8th and 9th grade children to be reading that material. Still, this campaign appears to have gone nowhere either.
What we don’t see here is any grassroots effort to ban from public libraries literary works that contain strong religious content. Why is that? Does the very same First Amendment that prohibits public entities from banning literary work with immoral, sexual or violent content also prohibit those entities from carrying Christian fiction? I might have thought the argument would have been made already, but perhaps not. One study suggests that the availability of evangelical Christian-themed fiction in schools and libraries is at least in proportion to that demographic group’s relationship to the population served.
I searched Amazon for the bestselling “Christian fiction” works and then searched for them online through the regional public library network.
The Amazon #1 ranked “Christian fiction” book is a short story collection titled A Lineage of Grace. Published in 2009, it is ranked #1,160 in the “books” category and #39 in the “religious and inspirational” category. How many copies of this brisk seller does the regional library have on hand? One. One to serve a population of over a half million. I must live in an unusually irreligious region.
How many copies of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep: A Novel (2005) are available in the same network? Five. It is ranked 28,228 in the same category.
The second top seller on Amazon in the Christian fiction category is SCARS – An Amazing End-Times Prophesy Novel. It is ranked #5,262 in the paid in Kindle store (#3 in the “Biblical” category). Not available anywhere in the library network.
There is an ongoing campaign to exclude religious-themed books from public schools – text books containing what one advocate refers to as “sectarian propaganda, clearly intended to indoctrinate students.” The list of such texts includes history texts published by the world’s largest publishers.
One place that doesn’t suffer a dearth of Christian fiction is Burwell, Nebraska. I’m betting Toni Morrison’s Beloved isn’t there.
I mention these instances to demonstrate that efforts to censor literature here in the U.S. are alive and well, are always brought by or on behalf of some group who object to a particular viewpoint, and are, in the vast majority of instances, unsuccessful.
That said, a few of the successful ban efforts really bother me. Huck Finn is one of them.
The objection to Huck Finn, we all understand, is that some people have an extreme sensitivity to the use of the word “nigger,” no matter what the venue, context or objective of its use is. That Clements employed it in a different era, or for the purpose not of promoting racism but condemning it, is of no consequence. It is time, they say, to erase the word from existence in any form or content, as though it never existed. Except, of course, in the rap music industry, where it will continue to be tolerated, if grudgingly. This is nonsense – both the idea of erasing a word and carving exceptions to it. We must give the speaker the courtesy of employing the meaning and purpose he intended.
The objection to fiction that contains violent sexual content is, to me, a more sympathetic case, especially where the venue of its exposure is a public school serving a constituency of “impressionable minds.” But even in that case, unless the offensive work is one that is forced upon the student, as opposed to simply made available to him, there is nothing so righteous about the opposition to it that would justify banning the work altogether.
Still, there are rare instances in which the farthest extremes of the political continuum can agree – such as the case of child pornography. Right? Or have they not been informed of the instances of child sexual abuse in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God? Has McCarthy succeeded in producing a rare instance in which the portrayal of such vile behavior has redeeming literary merit? I’ve read all of McCarthy’s work. I thought Blood Meridian was gruesome. Child of God is truly depraved. I loved it.
The purpose of fiction (I think, anyway) is to provide a vehicle in which we may examine ourselves and our environment, and (forgive me for the use of the phrase) glimpse a unique view of “the human condition.” That covers a wide spectrum, and no one can deny that humanity can be both utterly depraved and equally beatific. It can evidence the existence of a perfect morality or its complete absence. In my mind, nothing is out of bounds if it is within the imagination. That’s simply the fact of life. We don’t have to like it, but closing our eyes doesn’t make it go away.