Over the centuries that books have been published, certain titles have incited self-appointed morals committees to assign them a “banned” badge. It only takes a quick jog on the Internet to find lists of books deemed at one time unsuited for public access, for reasons of sexual erotica, salacious language, unpopular political viewpoint, sadistic violence, extreme politics, cultish religious persuasion, heinous crimes, bizarre mores, or other “inappropriate” activities. Sometimes it’s just irreverence for someone else’s venerated principles. This is especially true when outcast pursuits are sympathetically promoted by the author. Salmon Rushdie’s name comes to mind when I think of censorship. His book The Satanic Verses so inflamed some in the Islamic world that religious extremists put a contract on his life, and he was forced to keep his whereabouts secret for years.
Rushdie is in good company with Alice Walker for The Color Purple, Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451, Toni Morrison for Beloved, F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Cormier for The Chocolate War, Maya Angelou for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mark Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Boris Pasternak for Dr. Zhivago, John Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath, Katherine Paterson for Bridge to Terabithia, John Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Malcolm X and Alex Haley for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov for Lolita, Aldous Huxley for Brave New World, Joseph Heller for Catch-22, and Aristophanes for Lysistrata. These share the honors for banned books and are also considered literary classics. The Bible, both Jewish and Christian versions, made it too. If your favorite banned book isn’t on this list, it may be because I have not read your selection, and you’d be reading only the titles until next year’s Banned Books Week.
We sneer now about many of the original judgments, but we are privileged to live in a society that (mostly) accepts all manner of writing. Incendiary or bigoted work raises eyebrows and may draw intense attention, as does outlandish historical distortion and manipulation of documented facts, but it still gets published. As a free society, we are open to all viewpoints. Despicable work allows us opportunity to present the other side of the coin and argue for consideration.
Still, I suspect that some writers look over their shoulders to be sure “no one” is offended by what they write, “no one” being perhaps an employer or family member or someone with an ax to grind and a wallet thick enough to pursue a lawsuit. With everyone only a key click away from public comments about anything, with misinterpretation and misinformation a frequent flag waver of rash opinions, and the word “viral” familiar even to young children, it doesn’t take much to understand why a writer, especially a “new” writer, might exercise caution.
We should balance how appropriately a controversial topic or unpopular position contributes to our stories more than whether or not to include it. If writing is salacious, provocative, or seductive, does it generate salivating readers or promote thoughts about difficult ideas among thinking people? Words have the power to incite rage. They instigate sympathy, tempt action, or ask insightful questions. To struggle with what challenges us is to confront what holds us back. The danger of shying away from controversy that might be banned is that the result might be a warm mush of boredom.
The primary theme of my own books concerns family relationships. I’ve included aspects of abortion, child abuse, physical abuse, sex, homosexuality, murder, violence, and borderline psychotic behavior. Not just a sentence about a woman who got an abortion, or a comment that someone had sex, or a mention of a character who was gay, but fully descriptive passages as they’ve suited my stories. Am I brave or foolish? Not sure, but my biggest concern involves how well written these passages are, not whether I should have included them at all. If readers are uncomfortably stirred, well then, life is like that. Books, especially fiction, should be a safe place to explore controversial material even if we prickle or blush as we read. I suggest that writers focus on good writing, whatever their topic or genre. We should all be so recognized on the same podium as the authors listed here.
September 27 to October 3, 2015 was Banned Books Week. Libraries and book stores featured the titles of books that once made the infamous cut. Banned Books Week celebrates not only the freedom to read, but also the freedom to write our concepts of truth, to plumb what is dangerous, and to expose what horrifies us. Censorship stems from fear of the unknown, hatred of other allegiances, marginalization of those who are different, and jealousy of universal vision. A just world will be borne on the flight of daring ideas. It’s the world I strive for.
May you find a way to celebrate Banned Books Week that is true to your spirit, whether reading a book once on the list or writing something from the other side of the safety net. Be daring. Read outside your comfort zone. Write well no matter what.
I confess, I do try to understand who I might offend by my writing, but it’s more because I fear my world view is too narrow than I want people to like me. Too often, I’ve said something that sounded good in my bubble and became offensive in the fullness of the cultural world. I hate doing that!
Jacqui, I get not wanting to turn off your readers before they’ve committed to your work. But using the published works cited here, controversial topics sometimes naturally evolve from our stories. I don’t seek to be controversial and never to be intentionally offensive, but I don’t shy from likely though difficult scenarios. Life is sometimes ugly, and we must confront what scares us and what we dislike in others. Those kinds of incidents also make their way into my stories. No apologies for observing life.
I’ve read many “banned” books. What always interests me is what narrow minded person would find most of them offensive enough to try and ban. It’s the height of conceit and power slinging to try and control the minds of others. I’ve never understood it. Now, there are number of books I never recommend and am willing to state why I am not recommending.
In my own writing, I rarely approach topics that could be offensive or controversial. Not because I am afraid of others reactions or of being banned, but rather because those aren’t the stories I am telling at the moment.
I never know which direction my writing energy will take me. Someday it might take me towards edges and boundaries. If it does, I hope I can write without fear.
You’ve given an intelligent response, Andrew, and I think that’s key. Banning books does seem to be a power play from unqualified people. And yes, a big difference between books not recommended for a specific reason and books one tries to ban.
The strange thing about banned books is that so often the controversy isn’t there until it’s created by the person who incites the ban. That to me is the real controversy.
Love your final comment – writing without fear.
I always think of Catcher in the Rye, a book popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The book project I’ve in the depths of has me worrying about how it will be received by some people, most of them relatives though. I’m trying my best to word things clearly so the meaning isn’t misunderstood and crossing my fingers.
I understand your concern, Glynis, about not wanting to offend family. I don’t know if you’re writing a memoir or fiction, but I’m sure you know many writers alter insignificant details in order to present the heart of a story. I’ve done that often. This isn’t censorship, however, it’s gaining insight from life and portraying its essence in a fabrication. You’ll find your way on your WIP.