Hey, You Can’t Write That!

banned booksOver 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.

Contrary to Popular Opinion

fishhookIf you have a little tyke nearby you probably know the story of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. It’s about a lonely fish with scales of many colors. He is eventually persuaded to give away his beautiful scales, one by one, to the other, duller piscine creatures and builds friendships with them in the bargain. Children are enchanted by the crayon box beauty of the little fish and the budding empathy he exhibits. Teachers and parents have praised the book for teaching the values of sharing and being proud of who you are rather than how you appear.

But look up the book on the Internet and you’ll find a grenade of negative reviews and antagonistic comparisons. The book is accused of promoting liberal social propaganda above independent work ethic, of enforced equalization on behalf of those too lazy to earn their own colorful scales. The book incites heated political discourse worthy of college seminars or street protests.

It’s unlikely Pfister had any motive other than to write a kid’s book and hopefully earn a tooth fairy’s token bounty. Even if he suspected the potential controversy his story might cause, he proceeded with his vision, because the fish’s actions fit the story. Sometimes learning to share is hard. We live on a small planet where resources are finite though needs are infinite, where justice doesn’t always equal fairness, and doing the right thing might make you popular but more, might make you feel better about fitting into the tight spaces of your own soul. So, share what you’ve got. All that said in words and pictures little kids can understand. The Rainbow Fish remains a favorite among many, repellent to others.

And what have we “big kids” learned? Murder, rape, embezzlement, burglary, kidnapping, torture, fraud, graft, blackmail, espionage – all those crimes and more propel the world of books on its publishing carousel. They’re all acceptable aspects of a character as long as that character is the antagonist. The protagonist can exhibit a rumpled suit as well. Drunken, alcoholic, cheating, lying, egocentric, gambling, irresponsible, bullying, sleazy main characters are the mainstay of the written world. Of the real world as well, which is why they all fit their roles so well. Books would be boring if distilled water coursed in the main character’s veins, and every writer knows the protagonist must have a personal flaw to overcome on the way to resolving the plot.

Still, when writing The Tree House Mother, I faced a crisis. The book is about a woman’s relationship with her emotionally absent mother and how it colors her entire life, causing her to make impetuous choices that put her and others in danger. Though a successful artist, Andie’s self-doubt grows until she becomes pregnant and worries that she’ll repeat her mother’s impoverished parenting skills. She chooses to have an abortion.

Abortions are legal in this country but they inflame the perpetual debate over whether or not a woman should ever have one. I struggled with this scene, because I struggle with the entire issue. My grandmother arrived from Europe to America more than 100 years ago as a very young teenager, apparently unaccompanied by family. She’d fled a pogrom that had killed her little brother and left her mother insane. She married only a few years later, and over the next 15 years or so had seven children, all of whom she loved. She also had two self-induced abortions using a coat hanger, either of which could have killed her. She understood little about birth control, and legal abortion wasn’t an option for anyone. I won’t say whether or not I believe in a woman’s right to choose, but my grandmother’s story weighs on my heart. None of this is in my story, only Andie’s dilemma.

It wasn’t Pfister’s story that gave me the confidence to write the controversial scene in my book, but the little fish sometimes swims in the back of my head when I wonder if a certain action will fly or end up sabotaging the story. I had to let Andie remain true to her persona, even when that meant engaging in an act that might cause readers to gasp. It’s the truth to core that lends credibility to a story, that will ultimately allow a story to bear an incident that might be contrary to popular opinion of what is acceptable behavior. Bad guy can do that, but not the good guy. Will Andie’s choice lose an otherwise sympathetic audience?

Judging by the vociferous reviews of Pfister’s kids’ book, maybe 1000 words about scale sharing, I can imagine the reviews about my book (which is not yet published.) I could have allowed Andie to get falling down drunk and suffer a miscarriage, a condition more acceptable to some as it involves chance rather than choice. It wouldn’t have worked as well. (Getting drunk also being a choice.) I might not have had her face an unplanned pregnancy – one less conflict for her to deal with. The ending wouldn’t be as meaningful. Though the mention of Andie’s abortion is a tiny part of the book, the topic of abortion in American culture is incendiary. Yet it makes the conclusion of the story plausible and poignant.

You won’t learn to ride a horse if you’re too frightened to fall; you can’t swim if you won’t put your head in the water. Writing a sweet confection of a book with no controversy at all is likely to garner ho hum interest. Being afraid to write about a contentious topic means being afraid to write. Ultimately it’s the story itself that will show its strength. The worst thing might be if people have no reaction.

The rainbow fish gave away his scales. I feel like he gave one to me.