Friday, October 9, 2015

Censorship: Pro and Con by Jacqueline Seewald

When a reader/reviewer of my novel The Inferno Collection asked if inferno collections actually exist, I responded that not only did inferno collections exist in the past but still exist in more sophisticated and subtle forms today.

I am not saying that we should anticipate a burning of the vanities as with Savonarola's followers in the past, nor do I believe as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, that the firemen of the future will feel compelled to burn and destroy books.

It is a fact that librarians have viewed themselves as gatekeepers. For example, libraries such as Boston Public at one time found it necessary to maintain separate inferno collections of banned books considered inappropriate for general public display and reading. Often these were books deemed salacious such as James Joyce’s Ulysses. Another example is the Robert Winslow Gordon "Inferno" Collection in the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress, consisting of material separated out because of bawdy and scatological subject matter. Paul S. Boyer in his article “Boston Book Censorship in the Twentiesobserved that Boston’s censorship began with the very first governor of the Plymouth colony, William Bradford, but became notorious in the 1920’s when the phrase “banned in Boston” took on new meaning (American Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring, 1963), pp. 3-24). William R. Reardon observed that the first American book burning took place in Boston during the year 1654 (“The Tradition behind Bostonian Censorship,” Educational Theatre Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2 (May, 1955), pp. 97-101).

As Americans we take pride in our constitutional right to freedom of speech. Yet in 1873, the Comstock Law, or the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, was passed. The law stated that “whoever, within…the United States...shall have in his possession for any such purpose or purposes, an obscene book, pamphlet…print picture or drawing...of immoral nature…shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor and on conviction thereof in the court of the United States…he shall be imprisoned at hard labor in the penitentiary.” Under the law, books like The Canterbury Tales by William Chaucer and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata were banned.  American masterpieces such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass were also outlawed.

Did narrow attitudes end with the Victorian era’s sensibilities and prejudices? Apparently not. In the 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy instigated one of the most notorious waves of censorship the nation has ever experienced. Because of McCarthy’s ‘Red Scare’, classics like Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, which encouraged men to peacefully protest unjust laws, was pulled from the shelves of the State Department’s overseas libraries. It was one of more than 300 titles McCarthy had banned or burned.

J.D. Salinger's 1951 classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye, has been the object of challenges nationwide for decades because of its language, references to violence and sexual content. According to the American Library Association, the book was the 13th most frequently challenged book in the country's school systems from 1990 to 2000.

In 2005, the Metropolitan Library Commission of Oklahoma City overruled recommendations made by library staff and established a special collection of children’s books with gay themes. The collection would be accessible only to adults. The Oklahoma debate began when a state representative worried that children would have access to books about gay marriage and sponsored a resolution to segregate all library books with gay and/or adult themes.
The list of “condemned” banned or censored books boggles the mind; a good source of information on this subject can be found online at:

It is not only governments and libraries that have chosen to ban books found objectionable for various reasons. Materials are often deemed unacceptable for political or religious reasons or are considered profane, pornographic or sexually too explicit for youth. Publishers and booksellers make these decisions and determinations as well.

A majority of book challenges come from concerned parents and are related to young adult fiction. GalleyCat spotlighted an article which provides detailed statistics on this topic:

My most recent YA novels are with Clean Reads Press. THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER is a romantic book with a serious underlying theme, appropriate for teens thirteen and older.

STACY’S SONG returns in a completely rewritten, re-edited edition on October 27, 2015, also appropriate for teens thirteen and above.  Here is the new cover reveal:

July Blume, who like me writes for children, YA and adults, doesn’t believe in any form of censorship and opposes “trigger warnings” (Time Magazine, June 8, 2015 Interview). I don’t agree with her on this. I think that there need to be some indicators—especially when the author writes for diverse audiences. For example, in the case of my latest adult romance novel
DARK MOON RISING, I have made it clear that the novel is for mature readers. I suggest it for no one younger than eighteen. I feel such distinctions are needed.

 However, it is well to keep in mind that good books often do stir controversy. They are designed to question and make people think. That is not something to fear or repress but rather to admire and respect. As Voltaire, author of the banned satire Candide, once stated: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.” Today the internet is an unrestricted location to find information, including the subject of banned book collections.

If librarians continue to see themselves as gatekeepers, then it is imperative that they attempt to provide a variety and diversity of materials for public consumption. As a teacher and librarian I feel strongly about this. As to inferno collections, are they a thing of the past? Knowing human nature, it is indeed doubtful.

Your thoughts and opinions welcome here!     


Maris said...

Excellent blog, Jacqueline. I'm afraid I once went to our librarian with a book I'd checked out for my children and suggested they pull it from the shelves since the young people, in the book, were considering suicide. I don't know what the librarian did, and I still feel a parent should be part of a child checking out that book so the parent could talk to the child about the subject.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is a terrific post, Jacquie. You raise questions and topics we should all be concerned about, and I love the history and references. Though I am sometimes queasy at what I see young people reading, I'm not ready to support any kind of censorship. I think what they see on television is far worse than anything they find on the printed page. I personally find off-putting the amount of sex put on book covers, and the ease with which writers introduce sex scenes when nothing of the sort is called for. But such are the trends of our times. Again, terrific post, and I hope it generates lots of good discussion.

Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Very Interesting Jacqueline!

Good luck and God's Blessings

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maris,

I think it is important for parents to be aware of what their children are reading. Not every book is appropriate for every child. This may also be a question of age appropriate. It's all part of responsible parenting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I agree that censorship regarding books for adults is inappropriate. We should certainly be entitled to make our own decisions in regard to choice. But as I said, I feel there is some degree of vigilance necessary in regard to children's books. However, this should be the decision of parents.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Pam,

Thanks for dropping by!

Nancy Means Wright said...

An excellent discussion, Jacquie. I've been fighting censorship since the eighties when my YA novel, Down the Strings (E.P.Dutton) was effectively banned by an elementary school when I went to discuss it with the children. The principal told me I could talk with the sixth graders about writing in general, but "do not mention the book." Ha! Of course the kids read it surreptitiously. There was no sexual content, simply an occasional "damn" in the dialogue, and my protagonist had a lesbian English teacher.

Sharon Ervin said...

When our local bookstore was purchased by "an evangelical Christian woman", she insisted on deciding which books could be displayed/sold. My second novel, BODACIOUS, had a could-be-considered-suggestive cover. The woman refused to allow it on the shelves, but kept copies under the counter for those who asked for it. Out town has a population of 20,000. Friends and family asked for my book, which sold several copies. She also refused to sell Harry Potter books. It was a lovely bookstore. I was genuinely sorry to see it fail. Even rural Oklahoma readers will not stand for censorship.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

I'm with you about the trigger warnings since I write plays/books for kids AND mysteries for adults. I'm pretty mild when it comes to violence, sex or language, but there are readers who don't want to see ANY of the above in the books they read.

However, I am not tolerant of censorship. As a resident of Texas, we frequently hear about how the textbooks for the entire country are decided here, and there are a lot of scary scenarios connected with that. OTOH, I've seen some pretty tolerant stuff in our small town libraries and bookstores.

Jan Christensen said...

This is a really hard thing to think about and deal with. I used to think that even children should be able to read any book that caught their interest. My idea was that until they reached a certain age, some of the "bad" stuff in it would be over their heads, and wouldn't harm them at all to read. Now, they all get so much information on other media, they probably know a lot more than former generations about a wide variety of things. And yet, still, if they don't know, or what's happening in the book goes over their heads, then no harm, no foul. My father hid the Mike Hammer books from me because he didn't think they were appropriate for a young girl to read. (My mother told me this years later.) But thinking back, I'm sure I wouldn't have understand most of the sexual stuff in them because I hadn't been exposed to it yet. So, I still lean toword letting kids read whatever they want to, no matter the age. Excellent article, Jacquie.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Nancy, Sharon, Bobbi, and Jan,

I read each of your comments and found much merit. Censorship is a complex and disturbing problem for authors, teachers and parents as well as librarians.

Molly MacRae said...

Thanks for providing the historical perspective and your own thoughtful take on censorship, Jacquie. I'm lucky enough to work in a public library which isn't so much a gatekeeper as a gateway for all kinds of families. We do have patrons who don't want their children to read books about Halloween (satanic) or Santa Claus (satanic) or military weapons or negative racial stereotypes or pumpkins that are used for anything but pumpkin pie (really, we get that question every year - you'd think that's about Halloween again, but they don't want Thanksgiving mentioned, either). But our patrons usually only ask us to help them find the books they want, and they don't ask us to remove the others. We try hard to be open and welcoming for people of all persuasions, even the parents who don't want their little girls to fall under the spell of Disney. (I tried to add italics to the words 'gatekeeper' and 'gateway' but not sure I did it right.)

Molly MacRae said...

Look at that! I did get the italics in. Feeling accomplished.

Warren Bull said...

Great blog. I am considering using a pen name for some of my writing to indicate the material may not be appropriate for younger readers.

jrlindermuth said...

Great discussion of the topic. Though we may feel some topics are not appropriate for young people, they generally 'know' more than many suspect. And we each have our personal bias, so even parents may not be the best judge of what should be withheld. I favor providing a warning for parents but oppose straight out censorship.

Susan Coryell said...

Interesting and relevant blog, as always. As a secondary school teacher I made a point of teaching "banned books" for a variety of reasons--but I always chose with literary value in mind. I, too, write YA and feel language and content should be carefully considered to fit the audience. Yay for the librarians of the world--my heroes!
Thanks for posting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Molly, Warren, John and Susan,

Thank you each for adding your thoughtful comments to this discussion. It's important to get the perspective of librarians, authors and readers on this important topic.