This morning, I read The Guardian’s interview with Neil Gaiman. Coraline is absolutely one of my favourite books. And Neil Gaiman remains one of my favourite authors, not just because of his books, but because of his inspiration and example. So, his words on the subject of censorship made me rather reflective on my own experiences, reading and writing. I’ve been wanting to write a blog article on censorship for some time and never could figure out where to start until now.
Thankfully, my parents never censored what I wanted to read, but I had one public school teacher tell me The Hobbit was too difficult for a fifth grader. (I read it anyway, loved it, and it’s the book that inspired me to write stories of my own.) And my churches and private schools often made it known which books, genres, and authors were “evil”. I was admonished not to read Thoreau, for example, because he was too humanist. Scare tactics were openly used to frighten me away from Dungeons and Dragons games and books because of the belief that they were Satanic. And I remember being told in chapel that the entire fantasy genre was evil because it involves authors creating new worlds that usually employ some form of magic; since only God can create worlds and perform magic, when mortals do it we’re playing God. And it’s a sin to want to be like God. So, according to at least one preacher out there, ALL fantasy genre books (indeed, all fiction, if you’re going to look at it from that point of view) should be burned for blasphemous content … but the Bible itself, with all of its rapes and murders and adultery and multitudes of other sins, is okay for even very young children to study in depth and interpret literally.
And this censorship didn’t apply to just books. Rock music was banned from my church and private school’s campus, and they held bonfires for burning music collections that they encouraged students to join — yes, real-life literature and music burning as a form of censorship. Fahrenheit 451, anyone?
Having experienced that kind of extreme censorship, my take on censorship now is this: books should never be censored. Period. If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. If you finished reading it, but didn’t like it, give an intelligent, articulate review explaining why the book was poorly written (meaning: know your own prejudices and know something about how literature works before grinding an author into the ground for writing something you, personally, did not enjoy). Books that are badly written may or may not be bought by other people, depending on what they like or dislike, but you cannot control other people’s likes and opinions. The purpose of a review is merely to let other readers know what you enjoyed, or did not enjoy, about the book, so they have an idea whether they may, or may not, enjoy it, too. It is not the purpose of a review to steer other readers away from books — that’s bullying and assumes everyone has the same tastes as you. Books that receive mean, screaming, one-star, personally insulting reviews only tell other readers that the reviewer is mean, very opinionated, and probably takes his fiction way too seriously — just like censorship. (Censorship and book shaming are both control issues: participants desire to control the author and readers.) And in my experience, mean-spirited reviews indicate the reader doesn’t recognize his own prejudices or understand how literature works. (That’s not to sound elitist. I am anti-elitist when it comes to arts. I simply mean we have too many readers who think, “I hate it, therefore it’s bad.” And that’s just now how art works.)
I have never been traumatized by anything I’ve read, even the stuff I didn’t enjoy. I’ve read almost every book on those “How Many of These Censored Books Have You Read?” lists that float around the Internet, and I’m thankful for the valuable lessons I learned from them. Because the true danger in books is that they have the potential to either prompt people to think for themselves (against the establishment) or parrot propaganda (favouring the establishment). Discerning readers will develop better critical thinking and empathy skills as a result of reading. But there are people who take what they read to heart, literally and seriously, so that they turn it into a religion, regardless of what topics are presented … even in fiction. So, like any other inanimate thing, information (fact, fiction, conjecture, or opinion) is nothing but a tool. But ANY tool created for good can be turned into a weapon when it falls into the hands of people who have ill intentions.
One of my favourite censored books is Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I hated that book from beginning to end, but I loved what I learned from it so much that I’ve read it multiple times. If I were to take it literally, I’d say it promotes casual rape and other forms of violence for sport — that it sympathizes too much with violent people. But it’s fiction; it’s not meant to be taken literally. It’s meant to make people think about what it means to have free will and reconsider how we treat the lowest class of citizens in society … prisoners. It’s an extremely difficult book for many reasons, but well worth the read. It uses negative elements to challenge readers to consider how our humanity itself hinges on our freedom to make our own choices … even when they come with bad consequences.
If we wipe the criminal mind to make it docile, are we simultaneously stripping away a prisoner’s humanity? If we alter a person’s mind against his will, isn’t that also a rape? The story challenges the concept that tyrannical peace is a viable option for creating and maintaining a moral society. Is there really such a thing as “good” tyranny? The book reminds us that we cannot sacrifice free will for the sake of a crime-free society, or we will become tyrants. It’s a fine line between lawful good and lawful evil.
This book was a huge influence in my own writing concerning themes of tyrannical peace, but I have yet to hear of anyone blaming Clockwork Orange for inducing him to be a serial rapist. And even if he did, he would have missed the “moral of the story” because of his own inability to comprehend it. Blaming a book for a reader’s lack of wisdom and ethics is preposterous. Blaming the author for saying, “What if this hypothetical situation were true?” and excusing a reader for employing a literal interpretation as some kind of life guide or Bible is just as illogical.
I remember a case in the news years ago where a woman stoned her child to death because she believed God told her to and promised He would resurrect her child as an act of faith. Where do you think she got such an incredible idea? Ummm … the Bible, maybe? The Bible does admonish parents to stone disobedient children. And she was following Abraham’s example with Isaac, after all. Apparently, God just didn’t see fit to reward this woman’s faith with a spare ram, for some reason. But what judge in what court is going to punish her Bible’s publishers because this woman chose to interpret those words literally and murder her own son as an act of faith? Or, if Bibles inspire such crimes, should they be on the ban list, too? Can you imagine the outrage of all those book banners if the Bible were included on that list because of its immoral and violent content?
No book, no matter how immoral, violent, or factually wrong, should be banned. There are better ways to make people aware of the content of a book so that they can judge for themselves whether they wish to support the author by purchasing it, or not. Then, ultimately, the user must take responsibility for what he does with the information, or tool, in his hands. There will always be some people who have trouble discerning fact from fiction due to lack of education or critical thinking skills, or if psychological manipulation or influences are present, such as indoctrination or mental illness. But you cannot help people become better critical thinkers by banning difficult or controversial books. In fact, quite the opposite will happen. Keeping readers away from difficult reading material encourages quick judgment and avoidance, rather than understanding or problem solving, when facing controversy. And you cannot punish all readers, the writer, and the publisher just because some readers might twist the message, or take a twisted message to heart and act upon it.