Book-Banners: Adventure in Censorship is Stranger Than Fiction, The|
Published as a Guest Column in the March 20, 1992 issue of The Bangor Daily News
"When I came into my office last Thursday afternoon, my desk was covered with those little pink message slips that are the prime mode of communication around my place. Maine Public Broadcasting had called, also Channel 2, the Associated Press, and even the Boston Globe. It seems the book-banners had been at it again, this time in Florida. They had pulled two of my books, "The Dead Zone" and "The Tommyknockers," from the middle-school library shelves and were considering making them limited-access items in the high school library. What that means is that you can take the book out if you bring a note from your mom or your dad saying it's OK.
My news-media callers all wanted the same thing -- a comment. Since this was not the first time one or more of my books had been banned in a public school (nor the 15th), I simply gathered the pink slips up, tossed them in the wastebasket, and went about my day's work. The only thought that crossed my mind was one strongly tinged with gratitude: There are places in the world where the powers that be ban the author as well as the author's works when the subject matter or mode of expression displeases said powers. Look at Salman Rushdie, now living under a death sentence, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years in a prison camp for calling Josef Stalin "the boss" and had to run for the west to avoid another stay after he won the Nobel Prize for "The Gulag Archipelago."
When the news stories about my latest adventure in censorship came out, however, I didn't like the way that "the author could not be reached for comment" stuff looked. To me, that line has always called up images of swindlers too cowardly to face up to what they've done. In this case I haven't done anything but my job, and I know it's all too possible to make a career out of defending one's fiction -- for a while in the mid-1980s, Judy Blume almost did make a career out of it -- but I still didn't like the way it felt.
So, just for the record, here is what I'd say if I still took time out from doing my work to defend it.
First, to the kids: There are people in your home town who have taken certain books off the shelves of your school library. Do not argue with them; do not protest; do not organize or attend rallies to have the books put back on their shelves. Don't waste your time or your energy. Instead, hustle down to your public library, where these frightened people's reach must fall short in a democracy, or to your local bookstore, and get a copy of what has been banned. Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don't want you to know. In many cases you'll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition. It doesn't hurt to remember that John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and even Mark Twain have been banned in this country's public schools over the last 20 years.
Second, to the parents in these towns: There are people out there who are deciding what your kids can read, and they don't care what you think because they are positive their ideas of what's proper and what's not are better, clearer than your own. Do you believe they are? Think carefully before you decide to accord the book-banners this right of cancellation, and remember that they don't believe in democracy but rather in a kind of intellectual autocracy. If they are left to their own devices, a great deal of good literature may soon disappear from the shelves of school libraries simply because good books -- books that make us think and feel -- always generate controversy.
If you are not careful and diligent about defending the right of your children to read, there won't be much left, especially at the junior-high level where kids really begin to develop a lively life of the mind, but books about heroic boys who come off the bench to hit home runs in the bottom of the ninth and shy girls with good personalities who finally get that big prom date with the boy of their dreams. Is this what you want for your kids, keeping in mind that controversy and surprise -- sometimes even shock -- are often the whetstone on which young minds are sharpened?
Third, to the other interested citizens of these towns: Please remember that book-banning is censorship, and that censorship in a free society is always a serious matter -- even when it happens in a junior high, it is serious. A proposal to ban a book should always be given the gravest consideration. Book-banners, after all, insist that the entire community should see things their way, and only their way. When a book is banned, a whole set of thoughts is locked behind the assertion that there is only one valid set of values, one valid set of beliefs, one valid perception of the world. It's a scary idea, especially in a society which has been built on the ideas of free choice and free thought.
Do I think that all books and all ideas should be allowed in school libraries? I do not. Schools are, after all, a "managed" marketplace. Books like "Fanny Hill" and Brett Easton Ellis' gruesome "American Psycho" have a right to be read by people who want to read them, but they don't belong in the libraries of tax-supported American middle schools. Do I think that I have an obligation to fly down to Florida and argue that my books, which are a long way from either "Fanny Hill" or "American Psycho," be replaced on the shelves from which they have been taken? No. My job is writing stories, and if I spent all my time defending the ones I've written already, I'd have no time to write new ones.
Do I believe a defense should be mounted? Yes. If there's one American belief I hold above all others, it's that those who would set themselves up in judgment on matters of what is "right" and what is "best" should be given no rest; that they should have to defend their behavior most stringently. No book, record, or film should be banned without a full airing of the issues. As a nation, we've been through too many fights to preserve our rights of free thought to let them go just because some prude with a highlighter doesn't approve of them."