In Defense of Banned Books Week: A Call to Expand the Debate

Ruth Graham, the oafish opiner who unsuccessfully tried to nuke the YA genre from orbit last year with splashes of sophism and dollops of dilletantism, has returned to Slate‘s realm of callow clickbait with an equally preposterous proposition that “there is no such thing as a ‘banned book’ in the United States in 2015” and that, as such, Banned Books Week is a well-intended wash. Aside from ignoring the obvious fallout of the “likable character” debate from 2013 or the way in which Scarlett Thomas’s ambitious and risk-taking novel The Seed Collectors has been summarily repressed by nervous publishers that lack the stones to put it out on this side of the Atlantic, Graham’s remarkable failure to consider the recent Charlie Hedbo/PEN controversy, much less the way in which seemingly liberal minds continue to “ban” viewpoints that they despise belies her woeful ignorance of current reactionary developments in United States culture.

Graham cites a recent uproar over Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, whereby a mother objected to “pornographic” descriptions of infidelity and a lump on Lacks’s cervix being taught in a public school. Graham is right to observe that it was more or less a slam dunk to find the right side on this particular debate, but where she goes astray, undoubtedly aided and abetted by the usual gang of reductionist editorial idiots, is her insane suggestion that Banned Books Week somehow used the occasion to reveal itself as a sinister venue specializing in fearmongering. But Graham doesn’t cite a single word that the Banned Books Week group actually wrote. Blogger Maggie Jacoby compared the mother’s recriminations to “a modern day kind of book burning,” but how is this fearmongering? What Jacoby was rightfully suggesting is that the old forms of suppressing books — fearsome censorship laws, burning books, removing them from school reading lists — have been replaced by an equally diabolical practice whereby one imperious individual or group now decides, irrespective of scholarly or literary merit, that a book or a viewpoint should be expunged from the community.

Censorship battles aren’t limited to blinkered crusaders in Tennessee. “Prudish moms” can be found in such sanctimonious types as Francine Prose and Peter Carey, who cannot seem to comprehend a universe in which offensive and disagreeable ideas are meant to be argued against rather than silenced. The literary world has increasingly failed to understand that an awful idea — and Charlie Hedbo’s juvenile and despicably racist caricatures were indeed meretricious, to say the least — needs to be articulated rather than silenced and that accolades such as the James G. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award are vital reminders of our duty to ensure that anyone has the right to say something offensive or provocative, especially if it runs counter to our perspective, without fear of death or censorship.

Books may not have not faced as many overt censorship challenges in recent years, but the need to squelch undesirable or offensive viewpoints is now being practiced in covert and personal ways that are just as unconscionable. The courageous author Alissa Nutting not only faced a relentless wave of indignant emails and threats after her novel, Tampa, was published, but was also subjected to a histrionic op-ed piece in which a mother believed Nutting’s book was so dangerous that she kept it locked away from her daughter. If the morally scolding can’t get reading material banned from classrooms, then they have proven quite effective in removing “offensive” material from the stores, such as the three men’s magazines ejected by Walmart in 2003 because of efforts made by querulous Christians or, most recently, Rhonda Rousey’s memoir pulled because it was “too violent.”

The public square, whether we like it or not, has been replaced by the venal clamor of a marketplace selling comforting reads and the rising din of outrage culture publicly shaming an author like Erica Jong for ignorant remarks. And while some critics have smartly observed that one can critique an author without excluding her from the conversation, perhaps working to change her mind through a dialogue, others valiantly celebrate an author’s shortcomings as “far more important than any one author’s resistance to a changing zeitgeist.”

In her insistence that “books win” in this new age of condemnation, it’s telling that Graham practices the naive first year law school student’s overused argument of clinging to taut definitions of “banned or challenged” even as she overlooks some very obvious developments which demand that these terms be expanded outside of their presently rigid definitions. A fear of “bad language, violence; and, over and over, sexual content” very much applies in the cases I’ve cited above, just as it does when college students increasingly dole out the manipulative dog-ate-my-homework “trigger warning” charge for classic literature because they don’t want to contend with human realities. These plaints are no different in scope from the mother who tried to pull Skloot’s book from a public school and demand that we expand what a “banned book” really means in 2015.

Nobody wins when some easily offended reader expends a great deal of time and energy to guarantee that a book is withdrawn from a vital forum rather than assembling a provocative and possibly unpopular argument against it, especially when the same ninny fails to provide any evidence of having read the book in question. But American culture is increasingly drifting towards an impulsive immaturity where we cannot fathom that a person is more than the sum of a few foolhardy tweets or inopportune soundbytes and we lack the fortitude to speak with our enemies, let alone maintain cordial relationships with friends we disagree with. It is, however, instinctive enough to find other primordial methods to ban books, whether through trigger warnings or thoughtless censorship campaigns, rather than fostering opportunities for spirited and informed debate. Salman Rushdie should not have to suffer “lasting damage” to his friendships because of a disagreement, but American culture is too wrapped up in blocking or banning anything it finds remotely offensive to have adult conversations. And we are cursed with Pollyanna types like Ruth Graham, serving as myopic propagandists, who are just as implicitly prescriptive as the “prudish moms” who avoid uncomfortable truths that require a drastic change in the ways we relate to the written word and other readers.

Chris Abani Censored by Florida School District

On Friday afternoon, JAX-4 TV reported that Chris Abani’s Graceland — a book that had been placed on a 10th grade summer reading list — was pulled because of a parent objecting to its content. The mother, who contacted JAX-4 anonymously by email, objected to the following passage:

Then, whistling softly under his breath, he began rubbing a cool white paste all over Elvis’s body. It felt good, soothing almost. Jerome smiled as he noted the expression. Still smiling, he took Elvis’s penis in one hand and gently smoothed the paste over it, working it up and down. Elvis felt himself swell. Jerome laughed and massaged Elvis’s penis faster and faster. It was not long before Elvis shuddered and shot semen all over his torturer’s hand.

Of course, if you think that Abani’s passage is hot stuff, consider how tame it is in comparison to the language found within Deuteronomy 23 — which comes from a book that I understand is quite widely available in Jacksonville, Florida:

He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord. A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to his tenth generation shall he not enter into the congregation of the Lord.

So castration and violent warnings are okay for kids. But the consensus from this Florida handful is that the Abanai passage isn’t. It remains unclear how many parents objected. But it’s worth pointing out that the book is being banned at the high school sophomore level, not the elementary school level.

JAX-4 reported that the Mandarin High principal agreed with the complaint and proceeded to pull the book from the reading list.

What’s extremely curious is that another Mandarin High summer reading list for this year includes Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus for tenth-grade students. And if Jacksonville parents are truly frightened by the prospect of high school students reading about sexuality, Adichie’s novel features the following passage:

“Obiora says you must be having sex, or something close to sex, with Father Amadi. We have never seen Father Amadi look so bright-eyed.” Amaka was laughing.

I did not know whether or not she was serious. I did not want to dwell on how strange it felt discussing whether or not I had had sex with Father Amadi.

So it seems quite hypocritical to remove one book for sexual description while keeping another openly available. Yet this is precisely the tactic that Duval County Public Schools has taken, fitting in with its prohibitive history.

The Chris Abani ban is hardly the first time that DCPS has removed or attempted to remove books from school libraries. In 1992, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye was removed from DCPS libraries for “lurid passages about sex.” Additionally, in 1992, Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was restricted to students who had parental permission to read the book. The cause? Because the book featured a caricature of a bare-bottomed individual stung by a bee. And according to the book Banned in the USA, in 1997, the Reverend Dale Shaw, president of the North Florida Ministerial Alliance, attempted to remove Richard Wright’s Black Boy from libraries, complaining of profanity at a Duval County School Board meeting. “It has historical value,” said Shaw at the time, “but that doesn’t make it right for high school students.”

But what’s the basis for Duval County’s protective approach? How precisely does Abani’s passage offend? Whatever the reason, the authorities in question appear to be just as anonymous as the mother who complained to JAX-4 News. As of Monday afternoon, representatives from DCPS and Mandarin High did not return my telephone calls for comment.

Are Bookstores Being Too Censorious With Author Events?

Jennifer Weiner is a best-selling author. And while her latest novel, Best Friends Forever, proved popular enough to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, this didn’t stop a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Framingham, Massachusetts from raising a censorious eyebrow.

Some bookstores have begun instituting informal policies which preclude authors from using four-letter words during a public reading. And even dependable draws like Weiner are being asked to hold their tongues. These developments — reflected most recently in the Weiner case — raise new questions about just how much an author is allowed to get away with in the 21st century and whether bookstore policies that are understandably intended to protect children are going too far.

The trouble for Weiner began when she playfully announced the “potty-mouthed” nature of her Best Friends Forever book tour on Twitter. Shortly after her Philadelphia reading, Weiner later tweeted that she had received a warning:

weinertweet

Weiner carried on with the Framingham gig without setting off any F-bombs, and applied her saucy language instead to the inscriptions. (After tweeting about the Framingham event, the organizer of a subsequent off-site event in St. Louis encouraged Weiner to be extra raunchy.)

“I can’t imagine it’s a blanket B&N policy,” said Weiner. “I kicked off the Best Friends Forever tour at the Barnes & Noble in Lincoln Triangle in New York City, and I said ‘cock’ like nine times and told a story about a Hitachi Magic Wand, and the manager seemed perfectly okay with it (my poor editor, who brought her parents to the reading, not so much). As much as I’d like to turn this into a ‘corporate stiffs censor freewheeling lady writer because the world hates it when a lady succeeds’ story, I honestly think it was just this one bookstore, that one afternoon, making a not-unreasonable request.”

A list of questions was sent to Mary Ellen Keating, Barnes and Noble’s senior vice president of corporate communication and public affairs. But there was no response. I was able to reach Margaret Moore, the community relations manager of the Framingham store, by phone. But she was extremely nervous, even when I assured her that I was merely determining questions of policy. I did receive a return phone call from Maddie Hjulstrom, a regional community relations manager at Barnes and Noble, who was gracious enough to talk with me.

Hjulstrom informed me that the email had been sent by Moore when Moore had “learned that Ms. Weiner’s language was colorful at her discussions.”

According to Weiner, the Framingham controversy arose out of concerns that the reading area was adjacent to the children’s section and that Weiner’s scheduled reading time — 3:00 PM — would be too early to account for the hallowed ears of tots.

“Because the event was on a Sunday afternoon,” said Weiner, “I think the bookstore managers reasonably expected that there would be kids there, and felt that they could reasonably ask me to tone down the cussing.”

This was confirmed by Hjulstrom, who told me that the objections had to do with the microphone’s close placement to the children’s department and the possibility that Weiner’s amplified words might drift like cigarette smoke into a 1980s restaurant’s nonsmoking section.

“We want to be respectful of young families and children,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t regulate where children are in our store. At 3:00 PM, it might be a problem.”

Had Barnes & Noble ever received any customer complaints because of an author or a poet using salty language during a reading? Hjulstrom told me that she couldn’t give me an example of the Framingham store having received a single customer complaint, but that the region, as a whole, had received a few complaints.

The Barnes & Noble “no salty language” policy is, according to Hjulstrom, “not a written policy, just common courtesy.” It is something that is determined on a case-by-case basis.

“All we can do is ask,” said Hjulstrom. “We don’t enforce. We don’t kick them out of their store. We just ask them to respect the children who are in the stores.”

I asked Hjulstrom what might happen if an author used salty language, but did not receive a single customer complaint.

“I’m not comfortable going into what ifs,” replied Hjulstrom. “I just want to deal with the facts.”

But the prohibition causes one to wonder why bookstores — even with the possibility of a child lurking around a bookstore late at night — would be so offended by a monosyllabic exclamation that anyone who has ever stubbed a toe is quite familiar with. Were there efforts by Weiner and Barnes and Noble to broker a last-minute deal?

“We didn’t try to broker a compromise mostly because there wasn’t time,” explained Weiner. “The best solution would have been either to hold the event somewhere else, or after dark, and with just over twenty-four hours, on a weekend, to either reschedule or relocate, that just didn’t seem feasible. And again, once I got over my reflexive ‘the MAN is trying to SHUT ME UP’ paranoia, it didn’t seem like a crazy thing to ask. I’ve got little kids, and if I took them into a bookstore on a Sunday afternoon to pick up the latest Sandra Boynton or ‘Junie B. Jones,’ I probably wouldn’t be thrilled to find some lady standing behind a microphone talking, as I tend to, about ‘wall-to-wall cock.'”

Still, independent bookstores such as San Francisco’s The Booksmith have conducted numerous author events in its children’s section, closing the section off to make room for the audience to sit down. Booksmith co-owner Praveen Madan informed me that, while there are generally no kids around at the time of the event, his bookstore doesn’t make any concessions if an event takes place in the middle of the day.

“We take freedom of speech very seriously and even the suggestion of us laying down any kind of censoring guidelines for authors makes me cringe,” said Madan. “And the issue here is more than freedom of speech. We believe it’s important for authors to be authentic and credible, and sometimes being authentic requires saying things that might end up offending some people. I would rather shut down the bookstore and sell falafels than try to engineer an author’s talk to make the author more palatable for a certain audience. You should be clear about what business you are in. We are in the business of intellectual discourse and opening people’s minds to new ideas and possibilities. If you want to be in the business of reinforcing people’s existing belief systems, than you should run a religious institution or radio talk show, not a bookstore.”

It’s also worth observing that prohibitions on what an author can say at a reading can sometimes have unexpected side effects. As Tayari Jones observed on her blog recently, the author can feel oddly shamed when contending with a complaint.

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, formerly of McNally Jackson and now working hard to open the Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene this autumn, says that there was never a policy prohibiting language or controversial topics at an author event when she worked at McNally. But she did mention that she hoped to be more sensitive to such matters at Greenlight.

“We don’t intend to set any blanket policy,” said Bagnulo. “I think for the most part we will trust our customers to know whether an author is going to be inappropriate for their children or potentially offensive to their own sensibilities. As long as we make clear from the outset what the event is likely to contain, we won’t try to restrict or prohibit authors from anything they’d like to say.”

Even if the event is scheduled in the middle of the day?

“Not unless it’s an event specifically geared toward kids,” replied Bagnulo. “For example, at McNally we held a Halloween event that had kids programming earlier in the day, and some adult authors reading later that had lots of graphic blood and gore.”

Before the Framingham incident, Weiner had never received any complaints from a bookstore for her act. But censorship issues aren’t limited to the big box stores. Weiner alluded to an incident that came from an ostensible independent:

“In 2001, when Good in Bed came out, I did hear from one independent bookstore somewhere in the Midwest that an older gentleman had objected to a cover featuring the book’s poster (naked legs and cheesecake) in the window. But that’s as close to censorship as I’ve come.”

For what it’s worth, Weiner did say that she would do an event at the Framingham bookstore again: “I’d just make sure it was an evening event, or that it was held somewhere far, far away from the innocent ears of children.”

“In general, we feel that authors these days have become rather conservative and risk averse because they are trying to become bestsellers and are afraid of stirring controversy,” said Madan. “I wish more authors would pick topics that might be controversial and not worry about offending people. There are important topics being ignored and we all tend to surround ourselves with people we agree with and we like.”

“I think that indie bookstores work to create an environment of mutual respect between authors and audiences,” said Bagnulo, “where what is controversial is taken in context as part of the conversation, and there’s enough transparency of intention that people are unlikely to be offended.

“It’s not a bad idea to mention ahead of time, ‘Hey, I work blue,'” said Weiner, “but it’s never been a problem in the past, and I don’t really expect it to be a problem going forward.”

Passive-Aggressive Newspaper Drones in Training at Montclair

I learned through The Beat (via Eric) that an installment of Keith Knight’s The K Chronicle has caused an uproar at the Montclair State University newspaper. Despite Knight basing his strip on a real-life incident and not even printing the full word in question, the editors of the student newspaper issued a campus-wide apology, with Montclarion editor-in-chief Bobby Melok stating, “It is never The Montclarion’s intention to offend its readership, and we sincerely apologize to all who were upset with this comic.”

I don’t know what’s more disheartening here: a newspaper of any sort lacking the courage to “offend” by depicting the truth or Melok’s current spinelessness-in-training, a passive-aggressive quality that will serve Melok well should he somehow nab one of the few jobs left at a Sam Zell-owned newspaper. To apologize for an artistic depiction of the word “nigger” (which, incidentally, never appeared in Knight’s strip in its entirety) is to draw greater attention to racial division, to give that word more significance than it deserves, and to suggest that anything probing into the cancer of racism is somehow racist. If anything, Melok should apologize for lacking the guts or the brains to determine what he deems appropriate. Melok went on to write, “We assumed because it was part of the syndicate, it was appropriate.” And I assume that because Melok assumes, Melok is incapable of the most elementary editorial judgment.

Stanley Fish, Sherry Jones, and the Free Market Apparatchiks

I am certainly not a fan of Salman Rushdie’s limitless capacity for self-promotion, but I am even less enamored of smug academics who wish to split hairs over the term “censorship” to serve their partisan purposes. Rushdie, of course, expressed understandable umbrage over Random House’s decision to withdraw Sherry Jones’s debut novel, The Jewel of Medina from publication. Random House pulled the book because it feared that Jones’s book “could incite racial conflict.” This was, of course, a decision that was every bit as cowardly as those who stood against desegregated schools in the 1960s and 1970s. A bigot during those times might likewise oppose this small step for humankind by claiming that busing kids into other neighborhoods “could incite racial conflict.” It is, in other words, a speculative proposition. A decision based on a peremptory what if. The “all Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do” form of fearmongering popularized by Ari Fleischer is now just as applicable to spineless corporate goons who fail to consider that controversy has also been known to sell. (Indeed, in Rushdie’s case, The Satanic Verses sold very well indeed.)

But this is not really about Rushdie and it is not really about Random House. It is about Stanley Fish’s refusal to accept the possibility that the American publishing industry does indeed censor. Fish begins his post with free market bluster:

It is also true, however, that Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Change “Random House” to “Stalinist Russia” and Fish shifts from a capitalist crusader into a bona-fide apparatchik. But never mind that. In examining the etymology of the word “censor,” one must go back to the Roman era when magistrates were then in the habit of legislating public behavior and morality. To be as literal-minded as Fish (censorship only applies to government entities and not the free market), it seems to me that “censorship” is no longer viable as a noun, given that the Roman Empire is no longer around. Fish’s argument is an example of an equivocation. If I tell you that an bird must fly, and I then tell you that what cannot fly is grounded, and I point out that an ostrich is grounded and therefore cannot be a bird, you wouldn’t accept the terms of my argument. In fact, you would string me up and inform me that I am a moron, which would be a well-deserved assessment. And yet Fish has done the same thing with the term “censorship.”

Of course, Rushdie didn’t just use the word “censorship” in his letter to the Associated Press. As Bill Poser has pointed out, Rushdie used the phrase “censorship by fear,” conveniently elided by Fish to serve the terms of his fallacious argument.

Fish does offer a somewhat more valid thesis by comparing the restriction of Jones’s book to a library refusing to stock a book from the shelves. Unfortunately, he makes a comparison that is patently unmeasurable to what befell Jones. He claims that if you can’t get a book from the library, “[y]ou can still get it from Amazon.com or buy it in Borders.” But Jones’s book is not available anywhere else. It was dropped by Random House — i.e., it won’t be published. And, as the record shows, a Serbian publisher stepped in to print 1,000 copies, but stopped the presses when it received protests from a Belgrade mufti. What Fish doesn’t seem to understand is that you can’t obtain this book anywhere else.

If I wanted to go out and purchase a copy of Jones’s book right now, I simply couldn’t. Random House has thereby operated in a lieu of a government body and prevented this book from being distributed to a mass audience. An act of censorship applies to the writing, not the writer. It doesn’t matter that Jones hasn’t been imprisoned for her words. That Fish cannot understand this suggests that he hasn’t paid attention to the media developments of the past twenty years, in which imprisonment has been replaced by the penalty of being denied the airwaves or, in this case, denied a publisher, with contractual details preventing or delaying alternative means of distribution.

Rushdie is absolutely right to declare this “censorship by fear.” “Censorship by fear” is now the way in which magistrating “indecent” material occurs, whether it be networks terrified of airing Janet Jackson’s nipple and facing stiff FCC penalties, an NPR regular who fears speaking unscripted or like an actual human, or a cowardly publishing conglomerate who adds a morality clause to a YA writer’s contract or stubs out a novel because of Denise Spellberg’s threats of a lawsuit. Make no mistake. This is censorship, 21st century style. And it’s as American as apple pie.

Kevin Smith vs. The MPAA, Take 2

Kevin Smith’s forthcoming film, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, is, at least for the moment, rated NC-17 “for some graphic sexuality,” pending appeal. What is exceedingly frustrating here is that the MPAA, true to its character, isn’t being transparent about what this “graphic sexuality” entails. Last month, Seth Rogan spilled some details to the press, reporting that the skirmish between Smith and the MPAA apparently involves a sex scene between a man and a woman. And while News Askew reports that the MPAA is now reassessing the current cut of the film for an appeal, there’s been nothing specific about the situation on Kevin Smith’s blog.

The MPAA has gone after Smith before, most notably for Clerks, which was originally slapped with an NC-17 rating merely for its raunchy dialogue. But there’s a larger question here about why the MPAA continues to maintain an antediluvian attitude on “decency.” The young audience who will watch this film will likely get their hands on the unedited version (assuming Smith loses this battle) once it hits DVD. But if Smith were to unload the specifics about his situation, going to the press with the same highly detailed fervor that he has before, he could very well reopen the very important debate on why incredibly violent films like Hostel are slapped with an R, while films featuring the naked human body are considered verboten for the shopping mall crowd. But if he can skirt around the appeal, this may not be an issue.