News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Commentary: Consider the banned book

Few would argue against “free speech” as being a basic tenet of our democracy. It’s the First Amendment of the Constitution, after all. I think, also, that most would agree that the idea of “free speech” exists beyond its legal and constitutional definition of state censorship. It’s central to the ethos of our country and influences the way we interact with and view our society.

With this in mind, I’d like to consider the banned book.

Whether you’re familiar with the idea of banned books or not, chances are that you’ve flipped through a book that has been banned or challenged at some point. If it’s a “classic,” it’s practically a guarantee. Think of your Hemingway or Twain novels, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” or perhaps most famously, JD Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Two more recent examples are “Red: A Crayon’s Story” and, one that folks might remember being involved in some local controversy, Alex Gino’s “George.”

The complaints leveled against these books usually fall under the umbrella of general vulgarity, offensive language, and sexually or violently explicit material.

Then there are those examples that are a bit more humorous: Dave Eggers’s “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” for “poor grammar and sentence structure” (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, by the way), or the cases of mistaken identity in which the wrong book is removed from a library because it shares a title with the book in question. These banned books (and the hundreds more one could list) represent myriad perspectives and subjects. They do, however, have something in common: They have been banned in schools over concerns with children and young adults having access to them.

Historically, in the United States, at least, it is extremely rare that a book is challenged in such a way that the general public’s access is limited. Recently, however, this has begun to shift. In our era of polarized politics, increased accountability for public figures, and social media and Internet movements, more and more books are being pulled from bookstores’ shelves (not just libraries) or cancelled before publication.

When Simon & Schuster announced it was publishing a book by Milo Yiannopoulos, an especially provocative right-wing media personality, they received heated criticism from readers, booksellers, writers, librarians, and other publishers. Some authors pulled their upcoming books from Simon. Many bookstores vowed to minimize the number of any Simon & Schuster titles they would carry. The book was cancelled in early 2017. Simon cited the official reason for cancellation as a video in which Milo praised aspects of pedophilia, but one suspects they were looking for any reason to pull the book – he just happened to give them a particularly great one.

Or consider “A Place for Wolves,” a novel written by Kosoko Jackson, a gay, black author that follows a gay, black protagonist — a perspective and experience far underrepresented in literature. It was cancelled just before it hit shelves because it ran afoul of the Twitter mob and was deemed insensitive to Muslims and portrayed victims of the Kosovo War as the villains of the story. Some irony here because Kosoko himself had previously been a leader of this “cancel culture.”

There is little question as to whether these are examples of censorship in the legal sense: they’re simply not. But are they censorship in a broader cultural sense? Or are these just examples of the free market doing what it’s supposed to do? Books are tricky because they are essential to the free exchange of ideas, but they’re also bought and sold and subject to the whims — and demands — of consumers. But what about those books like Milo’s or Kosoko’s that are squashed before they reach the marketplace?

Consider, also, books of health pseudoscience or fad diets that studies have found to be dangerous. Do they have a place on our shelves? Or Jay Asher’s “13 Reasons Why,” subject to the double whammy of often being cited as romanticizing teen suicide and being penned by an author accused of sexual harassment. Do we feel comfortable buying and promoting books by authors that have admitted to sexual misconduct (Asher has not, for the record)? Those royalties are going into that person’s pockets, after all.

Do we, as readers, thinkers, and consumers, have a moral and ethical responsibility to limit the platforms (and profitability) of those individuals or entities that might be damaging to our society? Each and every instance of this is complicated in its own way and there are no one-size-fits-all answers. It’s important, also, not to draw a false equivalency between these examples or any others that you might find. As you ponder these questions, keep in mind Ray Bradbury’s dystopian and oft-banned “Fahrenheit 451,” in which it is the public that institutes a policy of book burning — not the government.

We’ll be exploring these and other questions related to free speech and civility at Sisters Community Fire Hall Thurs., Oct. 24, 5:30-7:30 p.m.


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