Showing posts with label censorship. Show all posts
Showing posts with label censorship. Show all posts

26 April 2021

No, No, No, No-no, No-no-no...Banned Books


 by Steve Liskow

I'm jumping the season a little. This year, Banned Books Week will be late in September. During that week, we are reminded how many of the classics are or were on somebody's hit list in an effort to protect innocent (?) minds from the corrupting influence of new ideas. If you're of a certain age, you probably read many of these in school or even on your own. I did.

Obviously, the list expands as new authors produce new work, especially work challenging our assumptions about issues like race and sexuality. Unfortunately, few books get removed from that list, even if it's only in some miniscule township or school district ten miles east of Oblivion. 

I directed the play with this poster. 

I don't like censorship and have been known to push the envelope myself. I understand the concerns, but hate the blind fear that often inspires it. When I student-taught in a suburb of Detroit, the school system had a standard form a parent had to fill  out if he/she objected to their child's reading a particular text. I wish I had a copy of it now, but I still remember the first two questions on the form:

1. Have YOU read the entire book?

2.  Are you aware of the critical responses to the book?

I still think that's a good starting point.

I found a list of the most-banned books over the last ten years. I've only heard of two of the books currently in the top ten and haven't read either of them. That makes sense because parents tend to focus on YA books to "protect" their children, which means the books show up in the classroom. I assigned several older titles still in the top 50, including Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, To Kill A Mockingbird, 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, The Things They Carried, and that constant target, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

When I started teaching, the only systemic censorship I encountered was for Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Someone complained about the book (To this day, I don't see the problem) and the school's principal, never one to take a stand, ordered the English teacher who maintined the book inventory to burn all the school's copies. Really. That teacher explained why he thought it was a bad idea and donated the books to the local veteran's hospital and various other venues. The principal had him removed and I got his job the following year. True story.

That was fifty years ago. Over the following years, I encountered a few parents and students who objected to certain books, but it was never an organized group effort. 


My first full year, two classes voted to read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and buy it from one of the many paperback book clubs common at the time. I'd never read it, and when I opened  the first page, I saw trouble brewing and turned to the seasoned veterans for advice. One told me to compose a letter to all the parents explaining why I thought the book merited study and have them sign and return it to confirm their approval. Only one parent objected, and when I invited her in to discuss her concerns, she signed the letter instead.

I taught in a town with a population that was about 1/3 Hispanic and 1/3 black, with a few Asians, too. The students in our district spoke seventeen different languages at home. Given that demographic, it's amazing I didn't start more brushfires, but the only other battle, which became routine, concerned Huckleberry Finn. Some of my black students refused to read it because of the 214 uses of the "N-word."

I gave those kids a choice of three alternative texts, and they could write a two-to-four-page essay about their experience reading the book OR present a five-minute oral discussion to the rest of the class. The three books were Native Son by Richard Wright, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. All three writers are black, and two of those books are considerably longer than Huckleberry Finn. Invisible Man is also pretty complex. I used this approach for six or seven years, and it worked well. After about three years, more and more kids decided to read Huckleberry Finn after all. 

When I retired from teaching, both Wright and Hurston were part of the curriculum. 

I actually objected to one book myself. In 1999, Robert Fagles produced a new translation of The Odyssey to enthusiastic acclaim. My school had been using the Lattimore translations of both The Iliad and The Oddysey for decades, and at the first department meeting of the new year, a younger teacher (pretty much anyone in the department was younger than I was) suggested replacing the older translation. I raised my hand.

"Has anyone besides me read the Fagles?" I asked.

No one had.

"OK," I said. "It reduces the poetry to informal chat and weakens the majesty of the Lattimore. That may or may not matter to you. But let me point out that 3/4 of the teachers in this department are female. Odysseus always addresses Circe and Calypso, the two women he has sex with while he's away from his wife, as 'Bitch.' If that works for you, I'd like to visit your classrooms to watch you discuss it with your teen-aged students." 

The suggestion died then and there.


It reminded me of the commotion years ago over Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho. His original publisher rejected the MS because of the violent and misogynistic content, and people rushed to both sides of the debate. Finally, one critic--I wish I remembered who--pointed out that the violence and ideology were secondary issues. 

The book simply wasn't very well-written.

That still strikes me as the line we don't cross. Is it violent? Sexy? Political? Disturbing? Maybe, and maybe it hits a few of your personal buttons. But those things matter less if the author does his or her job well. I don't read some books because I don't like them. But that doesn't mean I won't let you read them. I wish more people felt like that. I still remember a comment Maurice Sendak made years ago in a writing workshop I attended.

"We teach children taste. What do we teach them when we give them bad books?"

22 July 2018

Dis Content


Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Long Wilder Winter

The Little House
A couple of weeks ago, friends Darlene and Sharon sent me articles about the literary fall of the author of the Little House series. One column was titled ‘The Savaging of Laura Ingalls Wilder’.

That sums up my attitude, that and a rift of anger. Maybe the family trace of Indian blood runs too thin to take exception to Wilder’s writing, but what the hell. I wrote back:
“Bah! Humbug! Political correctness has always been so stupid that even the name says serves as a warning like rattles on a diamondback… and still people embrace it. … Some people look for excuses so they can say, ‘Look how woke I am.’”
When questioned about the last sentence, I replied:
“‘Woke’ is the most annoying, grammatically poor, pompous, self-inflated, politically correct term to brag about how socially conscious and aware one is. ‘Look how “woke” those who trashed Ingalls be! They be woke!’”
A Cold, Cold Prairie

My thoughts rushed back to Soviet era renunciations. Politically suspect, out-of-step authors, artists, actors, and poets found their lives erased not merely from the rolls of the living, but from the public record as well. At the other political extreme, they followed upon the Nazis and fascist committees.

This is nothing new. Ancient Egyptians chiseled names and cartouches (personal seals) from walls and tombs. We know of one pharaoh only because ‘political editors’ happened to overlook a single instance of his name.

The Lost Years

An unforeseen consequence of bowdlerizing works or ripping literary accomplishments from public view is that we also edit history. Obviously that’s a goal when striking public enemies from the record, but consumers of saccharinized works lose touch with that distant historical landscape. A snowball effect causes desensitized to the thinking of the era.

Both sides of the issue often cite Huckleberry Finn. The one issue they agree upon is that words exert power.

Fahrenheit 451 flamers trip over the N-word, completely losing the fact that Twain was anti-slavery and sympathetic toward the disadvantaged. We can be thankful the bonfire folks haven’t discovered Pudd’nhead Wilson, sort of a Prince and the Pauper in colorful black and white.

Wilder Rose
Out of the Big Woods

SleuthSayers have written about Wilder and I doubt most have taken kindly to the Library Association’s attempt at rewriting history. However, credit for our most interesting Little House article, the solution of a mystery, goes to author Susan Wittig Albert.

Within our own ranks, Eve Fisher and Bonnie Stevens have expressed deep fondness, even love for Wilder’s Little House series. Eve in particular gives the impression the books for her proved formative, perhaps transformative.

Politically correct me if you will. What is your take? Was the ALA right or wrong to purge Wilder’s name from the ranks of American literary greats? And where does a sensible society draw the line?

14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police


by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 


***
And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.



After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”


And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

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And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.