There’s been a lot of talk lately about censorship during “Banned Book Week,” so I thought I’d chime in, since I’m as affected by censorship as any other writer. (Largely since editors and artists have commented on how dark some of my stuff is.)
First, what constitutes censorship? If the federal government tells a library or publisher they can’t publish or distribute a given book, for political or ideological reasons, (or, supposedly national security) that’s censorship, and it’s supposed to be prohibited by the First Amendment. (We all remember John Ashcroft and his battle with librarians.) But, if a library or a school board chooses to ban a book, is that censorship or just a local right of choice? We all remember the legal battles over whether schools could ban Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” over racist stereotypes and use of the “n” word.
My personal view is that schools and libraries, which are publicly funded institutions should not be allowed under federal law to ban anything that isn’t covered by criminal obscenity statutes. And no, PTA’s and townships shouldn’t be allowed to vote on whether to ban this list of books or that list of books. The First Amendment should stand, as far as I’m concerned. Nobody, no community or institution has the right to tell consenting adults what they can or can’t read or what they’re allowed to let their children read. And, educational standards can quickly decay if left to the mercy of local sensibilities. (Remember the Scopes Monkey Trial?) Some parents have complained that their right of parental control over their kids is usurped when libraries or bookstores can lend or sell their kids something they don’t approve of. Okay, arguably, it might be acceptable to require book distributors to card their young patrons, as liquor store owners are required to do, but not to ban books altogether.
Remove all governmental censorship, and the decision of what to publish rests with the editor and the public (not necessarily in that order.) As a writer who stays largely in the dark vein, I’m frustrated sometimes when I read an editor’s guidelines that say “no rape, no abuse of minors, no sex between people under 18, etc.” Understandable restrictions perhaps, depending on the individual sensibilities of the publisher and the scope of the target audience, but it’s sadly limiting at times and screens out stories that I think should be told. Neither “Hamlet” nor “MacBeth” would pass muster today with any editor who won’t read anything that “is violent or depicts any criminal act.” Charles Dickens wouldn’t fare so well, either. And, that “no sex between minors” rule…Well, there goes “Romeo and Juliet.” How could a writer produce a story about a character similar to Malala, a minor almost murdered because she dared to defy militant “traditionalist” elements within her society in daring to go to school, without hitting editorial restrictions prohibiting violence against minors, negative depiction of other cultures, etc.? Or, stories about the brutality suffered by teenaged girls abducted by warlords in Africa? Some editors might consider stories that deal directly with such subject matter to be “exploitive of the suffering of others.” But, these are stories of reality, after all. Dark issues that have afflicted the human race throughout time. Are such subjects simply off limits? Can we deal with them artistically at all, to grapple with the demons both external and internal that spawn them, or must we look away?
Some editors take a middle-ground and say that there shall be no such violence (rape, etc.) for the “sole purpose of titillating the audience.” Meaning, they might publish a story that sincerely seeks to explore the dark issue of rape or evil in the soul of Man in general, or the struggle of a rape survivor to rise above the evil, or the moral question of revenge. And, many editors say they won’t consider anything that promotes “racism, sexism, bigotry, intolerance” etc. Very laudable on its face, but then, there’s that Mark Twain argument again. So, what about editors who say they won’t publish anything with characters “of color" or just quietly avoid doing so? What about editors who say they won’t consider any stories containing GLBT characters? They’re still doing that quite openly.
I’ve had editors refuse to publish my stories, saying “Why put in things that offend some people?” (Because they’re my stories, obviously. I’m not about to worry about what offends anybody, since I’m not a public servant!) I’ve had to let deals fall through because I wouldn’t take out violence I felt was necessary to make the story real, or because I wouldn’t omit gay characters. I’ve had horror editors reject stories that dealt with rape, saying “That’s an everyday horror.” (Murder’s okay, even though that’s an everyday horror, but rape is out.) Perhaps society making rape a taboo subject in general is part of the reason people are always in denial about the seriousness of it, and always blaming the victim. Some victims even blame themselves, or are too afraid to come forward. I know it’s hard, even impossible to deal with sometimes, but if we’re supposed to omit it from fiction, are we supposed to omit it from the news as well? Evil has to be faced, or at least acknowledged, or it continues to hide.
My title “Black Goddess” deals with torture (which I researched pretty extensively) among other manifestations of human evil. My short title “Hell Shift” deals with human evil in many forms and with visceral, gory directness. My other short title “Along Came a Spider” touched on revolution as well as sex. Any one of which would have earned these titles rejection from any number of editors.
A diversity of editorial policies isn’t the problem. But, I think the greatest danger of creeping censorship is the gradual evolution of “common standards” linked perhaps more with marketing than morality, slowly eroding any semblance of controversy or diversity from fiction. “Safer is better” can be the epitaph of literary freedom.