July 26, 2016 24 min to read
Fighting the Good Fight: LGBTQ Books vs. the Censors
Category : Opinion
Censorship is – like death and taxes – always with us. I’ve had occasion to speak about the subject many times. Here is one of my latest speeches about the subject. It was delivered at the Outlawed Conference held at California State University in April 2015. I hope you’ll find it interesting and, perhaps, even helpful.
Fighting the Good Fight
Good morning, everybody. It’s a great pleasure to be here this Sunday morning to preach to the choir. Say “amen” somebody.
I’m here to talk about censorship – no surprise there . But perhaps I should stipulate here at the outset that I’ll be talking principally about materials for YOUNG readers, since – as you know — that’s where most of the challenges to materials obtain but what I will have to say will implicitly include adult materials as well.
With that caveat, let me start with a confession: before becoming a full-time writer back in 1992, I was, for twenty-five years, a public library director. That’s not the confession. The confession is that during that quarter of a century I never once had to deal with a book challenge or a wannabe censor. Well, that’s not quite true. I did once have to deal with a “complaint.” When I was Director of the Beverly Hills, CA Public Library, a patron once complained not that we had LGBT materials in the collection as you might expect but that we didn’t have enough! That one took me aback. How, after all, do you quantify “enough?” I was never able to answer that question but I did ask my book selection committee to investigate the matter and discovered that perhaps we did need to expand that area of the collection and so we did — to my satisfaction and, more importantly, to that of the patron. And I concluded that that kind of – well, let’s not call it a complaint, let’s call it “feedback” – can be salutary. Challenges, however, SELDOM can. And in not having to deal with any of those, I was incredibly lucky, for thousands of my erstwhile colleagues were not . . . so lucky. From 2000 through 2009, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom received 5,009 reports of book challenges from all over America but 5,009 is only the tip of the iceberg; ALA estimates that only some 20% of book challenges are actually reported, which means, I suppose, there might have been as many as TWENTY FIVE thousand challenges during the same period. Yikes!
Of the 5,009 challenges actually reported, 1639 took place in school libraries; 1811, in classrooms; 1217 in public libraries; 114 in college classrooms; and 30 in academic libraries.
So what were the reasons for those 5,009 challenges? Well, 1577 were due to alleged sexual explicitness; 1291 for offensive language; 989 because they were “unsuited to any age group,” [sez who, I wonder!] 619 were for violence, 361 for homosexual content, 274 for occult or satanic themes (which led to the absurdity of the Harry Potter books being America’s most challenged for several years running); 291 were challenged for their religious viewpoint (which led to the numerous challenges of Philip Pullman’s brilliant HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy), and 119 because they were “anti-family.”
I take a perverse pleasure in the notion that all these challenges may have excited interest – prurient or otherwise — in books they targeted and produced more readers for them than if they had gone unchallenged. It’s not for nothing that publishers used to pray that their books would be banned in Boston!
But back to book censorship. Recently two significant things have happened in the world of book banning. First of all, it’s just been announced that this year’s Banned Books Week – to be observed the week of September 27th through October 3rd – will showcase young adult books. According to the week’s planning committee chair Judith Platt, “Young adult books are challenged more frequently than any other type of book. This banned books week is a call to action, to remind everyone that young people need to be allowed the freedom to read widely, to read books that are relevant for them and to be able to make their own reading choices.”
True enough, but, alas, not if the censors have anything to say about it! zzdelightful middle school graphic novel DRAMA, challenged for being sexually explicit.
It’s interesting that three of this year’s top ten books are graphic novels and three – THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY, THE BLUEST EYE, and THE KITE RUNNER – are exercises in diversity. If you include homosexuality under that same rubric, you could add AND TANGO MAKES THREE and DRAMA.
In an Associated Press news story about this, reporter Hillel Italie, notes that a study last fall by the new organization WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS reports that around 20% of the books that have appeared on the challenged lists since 2000 have been by non-white authors. Said the report’s author and organization president Malinda Lo – herself a YA author – “Diversity is slim throughout all genres of books and across all age groups – except when it comes to book challenges.”
We Need Diverse Books, sprang into being from a protest campaign inspired by the lack of diversity among speakers at the 2014 BookCon. WNDB began as a social media campaign fueled by Twitter and Facebook but gradually gathered steam and incorporated as a volunteer-run nonprofit on July 14, 2014. Subsequently in April 2015, it gained 501-c-3 nonprofit status. WNDB consists of an eight-member executive team headed by its founder author Ellen Oh, plus an advisory board of eight authors known for incorporating multicultural characters and themes in their works.
WNDB’s Mission Statement – “We Need Diverse Books is a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people” – is now being realized by an increasingly ambitious program of activities, including the Walter Award for established authors and Walter Dean Myers grants for emerging writers; it has a publishing intern program; the WNDB in the classroom initiative in collaboration with the National Education Association’s Read Across America Program, and the children’s literature diversity festival scheduled to be held in Washington, D. C. in August 2016.
Cofounder and WNDB President Oh sums up the situation neatly when she says, “There was this hopelessness, but now there’s such energy. We want to work as hard as we can so that a lack of diversity is no longer an issue.”
The voice of sweet reason. However, it will surely fall on deaf ears among the censors, people who – it seems to me – are not only deaf but also never sleep. The good guys rest now and then; the bad guys, never!
This censor insomnia, if I may put it that way, inspired author Nancy Garden to write her own novel about censorship. Titled THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS, it’s the story of high school senior Jamie Crawford, who has attained her dream of being editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper. But when she writes an editorial in favor of a new health curriculum that recommends the distribution of condoms, she finds herself embroiled in a controversy that is polarizing her small New England hometown. Matters escalate when a new member is elected to the school board and, in short order, founds a group called Families for Traditional Values (It’s wryly amusing, by the way, how many such groups include the word ‘values’ in their names; is it too inflammatory to say that it seems to me that oftentimes that word “values” is a synonym for “bigotry?”), but back to the novel where we find the group of censors then spearheading a drive to eliminate the disputed curriculum and muzzle the newspaper’s editorial voice. The Families for Traditional Values then holds a ceremonial burning of books related to the new health curriculum.
“The challenge in writing THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS,” Nancy subsequently said, “was to show several sides of the issues of sex education, censorship, and bigotry, dealing with those issues realistically in a fictional version of our increasingly polarized real world.” I think she succeeded beautifully and I highly recommend her book, the title, again, is THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS.
My hat is off to Nancy and to other authors who have had the courage of their convictions to write books that they know – or at least strongly suspect – will excite the censor’s ire. No one knows how many books are NOT written for fear . . . of exciting the censor’s ire.
Yes, fear is a formidable censor. Judy Blume, one of America’s most often challenged authors, says: “It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me, it is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the FEAR of censorship. As always, young readers will be the losers.”
Sadly, authors are not the only ones impacted in this way. Librarians are, too. Understand, I love librarians – heck, I was one myself – and I venerate libraries but facts are facts and they were well articulated in a 2013 article in the journal “Reference & User Services Quarterly” titled “Self-Censorship in Selection of Library Materials.”
“Some of the most insidious pressure,” the article says, “comes not from external opponents and would-be censors but from within. Self-censorship is tricky because it’s usually invisible – if a library is missing a book no one can say for certain why it’s missing.” The article’s author Jennifer Downey goes on to discuss a number of what she calls “specious reasons” why there is an absence of controversial materials in a library’s collection. Among them:
“They don’t circulate.” Well, this may be true in some cases. There are people who are reluctant to check out controversial materials but that doesn’t mean they don’t use them. They become what librarians call “Stealth library users” or “under the radar browsers.” In other words, they use the materials all right but discretely in the library.
Then there’s the “There’s no interest in such materials” excuse. To which I say, “Nonsense!” (I’d say something more vigorous but this is a family friendly speech). Let’s not forget that a basic tenet of library philosophy is that libraries exist to meet the needs and interests of ALL users – and, yes, potential users, as well. That means offering the broadest possible diversity of materials whether they will be wildly popular or not.
Then there’s “I don’t have the money in my budget.” “Well, that’s for sure,” Downey says, continuing, “But the things we forego during tight budget times reflect our values.”
Finally, there is the “What will it say about me” excuse. “Discomfort,” Downey says, “leads to avoidance and passivity, which leads to substandard collections. It takes a great deal of soul-searching and courage to admit to our own biases and FEARS but it is our obligation to do so. When we avoid ordering certain books out of our own anxiety or our fear of backlash, we do a grave disservice to our profession and our communities.”
Schools, too, practice a kind of de facto censorship. In a 2005 article Megan Schliessman of the University of Wisconsin at Madison says, “Knowing that educators often refuse to consider a book for the curriculum simply because it has potentially controversial content is frightening. It’s a blatant form of censorship. And yet it happens.”
She refers to a case in which a teacher attempted to add the often challenged PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER to her list of required reading and was told, in no uncertain terms, that such a book would cause an uproar among students, parents, and community members. There are countless teachers, Schliessman says, who have been in the same position in which that one found herself and countless others who were too fearful to even suggest such a title. “It’s a miserable, untenable position for any teacher to be in,” Schliessman continues. “Denying students the opportunity to read works because of what MIGHT happen turns all power over to an imagined “someone.” The would-be censor doesn’t necessarily have a name – may not even exist. Censorship – in the form of self-censorship – has already occurred.”
We’ve talked about a number of reasons why books for young readers are censored. Sexual content is one of them. But what about sex and LOVE?
An important book that focused on sex as a consideration of love was Francesca Lia Block’s luminous 1989 novel Weetzie Bat, a book I absolutely adore and which, of course, has often been challenged. As you may know, the novel is a punk fairy tale set in contemporary Los Angeles. Weetzie is a teenage girl with a bleached blonde flat-top and pink Harlequin sunglasses, while her best friend is Dirk, a boy who has a shoe-polish black Mohawk and a red ’55 Pontiac convertible. Block creates a magical yet realistic world that includes a wish-granting genie, a cozy Venice beach bungalow, and Weetzie’s true love, the mysterious, green-eyed My Secret Agent Lover Man. The novel is a beautiful, open-hearted embrace and celebration of love in its many manifestations and, yes, there is extramarital sex in its pages but it is sweetly innocent and is presented as an expression of love, NOT lust.
WEETZIE BAT appeared the year I served on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults Committee. It was nominated for inclusion on the list (yes, by me), to the consternation of another member of the committee who was rabidly opposed to it for its sexual content and, in a preemptive attempt at censorship, wrote a condemnatory letter to the New York Times, which published it the day before we were to deliberate. Happily, the Committee voted down the member’s objection despite – or maybe because of — this and the book was placed on that year’s list of best books for young adults. Such acknowledgement is extremely important, by the way. The more accolades a book receives, the harder it is to challenge it. So find good books, folks, and praise them! Praise them to the sky. It could make all the difference. As for Francesca, her entire body of work received a significant accolade several years ago when she received the Margaret A. Edwards Award, presented by the Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, for lifetime contributions to the field of young adult literature. And take that, censors!
However, the focus of YA literature too often remained on sex – and sex as a largely loveless, mechanical act. In fact, it was to demonstrate that love and sex belong together that I decided to do my anthology LOVE AND SEX back in 2001.
The catalyst for the book was my seeing the movie KIDS, directed by photographer Larry Clark and with a screenplay by Harmony Korine, who was then himself a kid, only nineteen when he wrote the script. The movie takes us inside the lives of a group of New York City teenagers who are sexually active – hyperactive some might say. Clark’s film has the cinema verite, in-your- face look of truth, But is it?
Frankly, I didn’t want to think so. For these teens seemed to be trying to fill up the emptiness of their alienated lives with sex. Lots of sex. But in their version the mechanical act was everything: their sex was filled with impersonality, leaving no room for intimacy. It was not about sharing, it was about self-satisfaction, about conquest, about implied violence directed at one’s partner. There was no demonstration of caring, no evidence of engagement, no evidence of, well, love.
For an incurable romantic like myself, watching this film was a cold-shower experience. Did what I was seeing on the screen represent the real life of real teens I wondered? Was this how their lives were really lived today? Again, I didn’t want to think so. The more I thought about the subject, the more I found myself wondering about the equation between sex and love in adolescent life and coming up with more questions than answers. And so I turned to art, since I’m a great believer in finding answers there. My idea for a book finally turned into an invitation to ten wonderfully artful writers to create stories that, in all their complexities, address the interrelationships of love and sex.
And yet, at that, my book, too, almost became a victim of publisher self-censorship. My editor at the time – nameless here forevermore – had accepted my proposal for this book with great reluctance and, when the stories started coming in, reacted with something approaching horror at how the book would be perceived. I vividly remember his saying to me at the time, Michael, do you really want to be known as the sexy librarian?!
Well, maybe I did. Because when it became obvious that I was getting nowhere with the nameless editor, I talked with my agent and we decided to take the project to another publisher, Simon & Schuster, which accepted it and there I had the good fortune to work with the brave editor David Gale.
I should perhaps remind you here that the subtitle of LOVE AND SEX is “Ten Stories of Truth.” I mention this because fear cuts both ways and it seems to me your ordinary neighborhood censor is afraid of the truth. Or of trusting young readers with it. It’s as if they’re all Jack Nicholson, these censors, snarling, “You can’t handle the truth.” What do the kids themselves have to say about that? “Don’t Deny Me the Right to Read” is the title of a 2010 article that appeared in the journal VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates). It’s by a teen named Brent Taylor and in it he writes, “I look for stories. Stories with passion. Stories that tell the truth. The hard truth. The truth that some librarians and parents don’t want to acknowledge as fact. The truth that is explicit to some but reassuring to me.”
To this I would add that if we don’t trust people with the truth when they’re young, how will THEY handle it when they’ve become adults? Happily, when I was young, my parents did trust me with the truth; at least, they never censored my reading and as a result by the time I was in upper elementary school, I was reading adult books; well, some adult books, for, I’m sorry to say, the library itself – the library staff, that is — occasionally censored my reading, telling me I was too young to read the book I had in hand. I had this experience, it turns out, in common with author Judy Blume. Writing in the introduction to her book, PLACES I NEVER MEANT TO BE, she recalls going to the public library when she was a junior in high school and looking for a copy of John O’Hara’s novel A RAGE TO LIVE. “But I couldn’t find it,” she writes. “When I asked, the librarian told me THAT book was restricted. It was kept in a locked closet and I couldn’t take it out without written permission from my parents.”
Well, Judy Blume and I are roughly the same age, and while she was growing up in Elizabeth, NJ, I was growing up in Logansport, IN. Our two hometowns probably had little in common except that the public library in each had a collection of restricted books. In Logansport, ours were kept in the notorious “locked case.” Aside from A RAGE TO LIVE, I don’t know what was restricted in Elizabeth and, alas, I’ve forgotten the identity of most of the contents of the Logansport locked case except for the Kinsey Reports and copies of FOREVER AMBER and PEYTON PLACE (I am happy to be able to tell you parenthetically that when I grew up to become the library’s director – as I did – one of my first acts was to unlock the locked case and release its contents and I FINALLY got to read PEYTON PLACE!).
When I opened the door to the locked case, I also opened the door to potential censors. What kind of people might I have encountered as a result?
Well, in its Intellectual Freedom Manual, ALA states, “The term ‘censor’ often evokes the mental picture of an irrational, belligerent individual. “Although an attempt to stereotype the censor would be unfair,” ALA continues, “one generalization can be made: regardless of specific motives, all would-be censors share one belief: that they can recognize evil (!) and that other people must be protected from it. Censors do not necessarily believe their OWN morals should be protected, but they do feel compelled to save their fellows.”
Hence, we have the parent who says that his or her child is not permitted to read, oh, say, Maurice Sendak’s IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN, often challenged since it depicts little Mickey, its protagonist in the buff! Though I think it’s a terrific book, I actually have no problem with a parent’s saying his/her child is not permitted to read it. The parent is, after all, responsible for his or her own child and for the kid’s reading. What I DO object to is the parent who says that not only can his/her own child not read a book but that, in fact, nobody else’s child should be permitted to read it either; ergo, it must be removed from the library or classroom. Now THAT is evil. Yet, it is, after all, they say, a question of values.
Which leads me to ask the censor, Your values trump mine? Or is this really about values? Dr. Sara Fine, a psychologist, writing in the magazine School Library Journal has said, “If we look at censorship NOT as a conflict of values but as a way to assert power, then censorship, particularly when it comes to children, is NOT about their moral development; it is about the fear of losing control over them”
The censor, Dr. Fine asserts, has a great need to control, to exercise power (they resent their own weakness); they are, she says, dogmatic, have a need for structure; have an absolute belief in their own morality and rightness; and are vested in an “in” group which fosters an us vs: them mentality. This reminds us that while there are solo censors, lots of them, there are also those who are members of a group that may be local, regional or even national. One classic example of a national group was PABBIS, Parents against Bad Books in Schools. Though it appears to be presently quiescent, its website is still very much an online presence and includes a long list of what it considers “bad books (my LOVE AND SEX among them!). The site offers EXCERPTS from all the listed books – an all too familiar strategy of such groups: taking material out of context (God forbid you should read and consider the entire book). The web page listing the “bad books” and excerpts comes with a WARNING (printed in all capitals): “Some of the material in these K-12 school books is extremely controversial and many people consider it objectionable or inappropriate for children. Before viewing this page, you must read and agree to the following: First: You must be an adult (18 years or older) and have read and understand this warning.
Secondly, “You understand that the material may involve language, content and themes of an adult, objectionable or controversial nature” (God forbid you should make up your own mind; PABBIS has already done it for you).
Thirdly (my favorite): “In no event will PABBIS be liable to you for any damages of any kind resulting from viewing or any other use of this material.” What kind of damages, I wonder: an attack of the vapors, perhaps?
Regardless of the present status of PABBIS, three other organizations that ARE still active and also have online presences are Common Sense Media, Facts on Fiction, and The Literate Mother. In all of these cases, one wants to know who the people involved are and what their qualifications might be for evaluating, rating, and labeling books, as they are wont to do (rating and labeling rightly being, of course, anathema to librarians).
Further, I wonder what on earth motivates these people? Well, in addition to what Dr. Fine has said, there are – according to ALA — four basic motivational factors that may lie behind a censor’s actions. We have already touched on some of them but let’s review the quartet anyway.The first of these factors is family values (there’s that word again). The inherently conservative censor may feel threatened by changes to the accepted, traditional way of life.
Religion is the second factor. The censor, ALA notes, may view explicitly sexual works and politically unorthodox ideas as attacks on religious faith. Antireligious works – or materials the censor CONSIDERS damaging to religious beliefs – cause concern about a society many see as becoming more and more hostile to religious training and these works buttress beliefs about society’s steady disintegration.
The third category of motivation is politics, the category where Nancy Garden’s THE YEAR THEY BURNED THE BOOKS belongs. “Changes in the political structure,” ALA notes, “can be threatening. The censor may view a work that advocates change as being subversive.” As has been implied throughout my remarks, ANY kind of change can be perceived as a threat by hidebound censors.
The fourth category is minority rights. This is a delicate one, since it might involve what I would call the good guys, those people who suffer from stereotyping and who may be, as ALA puts it, “anxious to reject materials viewed as perpetuating those stereotypes.” I confess I’m guilty of this sometimes myself. After all, it disturbs me deeply to see any and all stereotypes perpetuated in YA books, where I think they’re particularly pernicious. But this is when I must remind myself that libraries exist to represent ALL viewpoints, whether we happen to agree with them or not. As Noam Chomsky has famously said, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
That’s a little . . . brisk, perhaps. I prefer, instead, the three little words carved in limestone above the entrance to my hometown public library: Free to All. That means that EVERYBODY is welcome in the library and that its materials are – and should remain — freely available to everybody. And implied in those words is the library’s determination to maintain this status. To fight the good fight, if necessary, to insure that all materials remain free to all, to every single individual.
In this context, let me say it is profoundly important that all young people should be able to see themselves in the pages of good books, to know, accordingly, that they are not the only one of their kind; to know that there is a community of others like them. It is equally important that kids who consider themselves insiders should also be able to see those faces to teach them empathy. It has long been an article of faith for me that reading books can help cultivate this essential character trait. Indeed, it is, to me, the most compelling argument one can offer for writing fiction about even the most unpleasant realities of teens’ lives, provided we include at least some small reason for optimism.. For life, even at its darkest, can hold the promise of hope and positive change – especially when we read about it with open minds and hearts, with intellectual attention and emotional empathy.
In closing, let me note that intellectual freedom is not a case of majority rule – my majority or the censors’– it is, instead, a fundamental Constitutional right. As the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas once put it, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.”
That word “defeat” reminds once again that I’ve titled this speech Fighting the Good Fight, because I honestly believe we are fighting for the freedom to read, battling those who would deprive us of our Constitutional rights, those who would choose DARKNESS instead of light. I’ve put this into the context of young people’s literature but, in fact, the field of battle is far broader, incorporating all of literature.
Thomas Jefferson is widely quoted as having said – whether he did or not — “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I regard this conference as a happy and important exercise in such vigilance, which is why I’m so proud to have been asked to be a part of it and to have had the opportunity to share these few thoughts with you today.