Friday, May 1, 2009

Push the Limits

For as long as they've been around, books have enlightened , instructed and given pleasure. Despite this, and freqently because of it, too, they have also offended and outraged in equal measure.

The history of book censorship is long and colourful, from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to Lady Chatterley's Lover and beyond. And if you thought that in this enlightened, more tolerant age censorship was on the decline you'd be wrong. Each year more and more books are challenged and removed from bookshelves on the grounds of what is deemed to be "inappropriate" content. It may surprise you to know that the immensely popular authors J.K Rowling and Judy Blume have both fallen under the hands of censors.

Censorship mainly occurs on a local level, affecting the distribution of titles through local or school libraries only, although a government will occasionally step in to ban a book. Whilst it still remains legal to read these titles, the rulings can make them difficult to find especially in those countries where the government is perceived as being particularly militant or repressive.

Booksellers have also been guilty of removing books from their shelves, caving in to pressure from their customers or from perceived threats from consumer groups. Public outrage can be a powerful tool though sadly seldom wisely exercised.

What follows is an account of ten of the most challenged books throughout the history of literature. Some have ironically grown infamous through the controversy, leading to them being more widely read than ever. Others are lesser known, and some are just plain surprising. Whilst by no means a definitive list nor in any particular order, it does however demonstrate that our basic concerns about what is deemed suitable for a public arena have changed very little over the centuries.

1) Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945)

Now considered one of Orwell's most popular and enduring works Animal Farm was completed in 1944 but delayed for publication by British publishing firms for fear of offending their Soviet allies. Utilizing the form of the animal fable, this novelette chronicles the attempts by a group of barnyard animals to revolt against their human masters in an attempt to create a Utopian state.

On a larger scale, commentators widely view Animal Farm as an allegory for the rise and decline of socialism in the Soviet Union and the emergence of the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin. Critics regard the story as an insightful and relevant exploration of human nature as well as political systems and social behavior. After its translation into Russian, it was banned by Stalin's government in all Soviet-ruled areas.

2) American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)

Despite the huge amount of press coverage regarding the apparant social, moral and sexual dereliction of Easton Ellis's novel, it only romped in at number 60 in the 2005 American Library Association's 100 most frequently challenged books.

A first person account, told from the perspective of serial killer and Manhattan businessman Patrick Bateman, the novel chronicles the double life of its protagonist in unswerving and intimate detail. Originally intended for publication in 1991 by Simon and Schuster, the publishers later pulled out of the deal because of the novel's content. It was eventually published by Vintage in a heavily edited form. The book has received an R18 content warning in New Zealand prohibiting its sale to persons under the age of eighteen.

In 2000 a film adaptation of the book opened to mainly positive reviews. Ironically the mother of the film's star, Christian Bale, was one of the novel's main detractors. Gloria Steinem spoke out vociferously on the subject of the book's relentlessly mysogynistic themes. Of all the books in this list, this is the one which most of my friends say has been the hardest to complete, many giving up in the face of its relentless violence without the mitigation of either remorse or emotion.

3) The Catcher in The Rye by J D Salinger (1951)

A great example of a book that is both lauded and admonished in equal measure. Originally published for adults, the novel has become a common inclusion in both school and university curricula being translated into almost all of the world's major languages. Around 250,000 copies are sold each year, with total sales of more than sixty-five million.

The novel's anti-hero, Holden Caufield, has become an icon for teenage rebellion and defiance.
The first person narrative, which follows the weeks following Caufield's expulsion from his American prep school, is both a story of maturation and degeneration as Caufield's increasingly unreliable narrator slowly deteriorates into a state of mental breakdown.

Taken to the hearts of disaffected youth throughout the world, the book remains one of the most challenged in literature probably due to the perceived negative influence it is said to have over its target audience. In particular, it has been criticised for its expressions of profanity, sexuality and teenage angst.

4) Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

Morrison's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, also named Best Book of the last 25 years by The New York Times, is a loose interpretation of the life and legal trial of slave Margaret Garner. The book's epigraph: "sixty million and more" refers to the estimated number of slaves to have died in the trade.

The novel examines both the mental and physical trauma caused by slavery as well as its effect on survivors and follows the story of Sethe and her daughter Denver as they try to rebuild their lives after having escaped from slavery.

In 1998 the book was made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Oprah Winfrey.

American groups, including Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools, objected to the inclusion of the book onto its cirriulum due to
its depictions of "incest, rape, pedophilia, graphic sex, extreme violence, sexual abuse, physical/emotional abuse, infanticide, and an extensive amount of profanity". It may also be that they felt uncomfortable publicy distributing a work which showed the depravity of a period in their history that was still too recent for comfort...

5) Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

Bradbury's speculative novel about a future American society in which hedonism is encouraged at the expense of critical thought and freedom of expression. The central character is employed as a fireman, which in this dystopian world translates as someone whose job it is to burn books.The title comes from the temperature at which paper auto-ignites (although the factual correctness of this has since been disputed).

Written in the early years of the Cold War, the novel is a critique of what Bradbury saw as an increasingly dysfunctional American society and is frequently interpreted as being critical of state-sponsored censorship. In 2007 Bradbury himself stated that the intention of the book was to explore the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature although in an earlier edition, a coda was added to the book which made multiple comments on censorship and its relation to the novel.

A more obvious interpretation seems to be that a government which tries to suppress freedom of expression should be opposed. In the early 1950's, when this book was written, the advocacy of opposition was seen as a bad thing by real world authoritarian groups (e.g. McCarthyism) that claimed to have all the answers.

Initial complaints about the book cited the use of the words "hell" and "damn" which were perceived to have a corrupting effect on its readership. There were also complaints arising from the fact that one of the books burned in the novel is the Christian Bible.

Like the opposition to "1984", the opposition to "Fahrenheit 451" seems to grow as the depicted society grows too similar to our own. One of these uncomfortable parallels is today's increased use of entertainment in place of learning and culture. Ray Bradbury has stated that this dumbing down was one of the concerns he was trying to raise.

In 1966 Francois Truffaut made a film adaptation of the book which has since gone on to critical acclaim.

6) A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck (1972)

This young adult novel is a semi-autobiographical work which revolves around a boy's growing relationship with his father, a butcher who slaughters hogs, and his pet pig named Pinky. Based in the fictional town of Learning, Vermont, Robert Newton Peck involves his own childhood in this story to reveal the problems the young protagonist faces growing into manhood.

This book is often listed on the American Library Association's 100 most frequently challenged books. Objections are based mainly on its appropriateness for its target audience specifically citing the incidences of drug taking, profanity and sexual relations in addition to scenes touching on murder and the exhumation of an infant's grave. Other objections were that the depiction of life and death on a farm were just too realistic for a young adult audience. Most of these objections have since been overruled by the relevant authorities on the grounds that none of these scenes are gratuitous and are indeed intrinsic to the nature of the story.

According to the BFI database, the rights to the book were bought by Morgan Freeman's production company with the intention of making a film adaption with both Freeman and William Hurt starring. It seems, however, that this has become a shelved project.

7) A Light in the Attic, written and illustrated by Shel Silverstein (1981)

A children's anthology of poems published by Harper Collins in 1981. Despite winning a number of national book awards, the book has been criticised for its overly morbid themes and encouragement of childhood disobediance. Specific cited examples include "How Not To Have To Dry The Dishes" which is criticised for encouraging messiness and rebellion against authority and "Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony" which describes the death of a girl after her parents refuse to buy her a pony. Other objections have centred on mentions of the supernatural.

Supporters of Silverstein's work have insisted that there is much humour in the anthology and have praised his realistic approach which encourages the admirable, indeed vital idea that life is not always perfect.

8) Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

An extraordinary post modern anti-war novel which deals with the memories of a soldier during World War 2 and his experiences with time travel.

The novel has been the subject of many censorship attempts based on its purported frequent expressions of profanity and acts of sex. In addition, it was apparantely the first work of fiction to explore the idea that homosexuals were among the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

In the American Library Association's list of the 100 most challenged books between 1990-2000, Slaughterhouse Five turns in, rather appropriately, at number 69.

9) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2004)

The Kite Runner tells the story of Amir, a young boy from the Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul, who betrays his best friend Hassan, the son of his father's servant, and lives in regret. Set against a backdrop of tumultuous events the novel chronicles the fall of the monarchy in Afghanistan through the Soviet Invasion, the mass exodus of refugees to Pakistan and the US and the rise of the Taliban regime.

The story, which includes the rape of a boy, provoked challenges in the US over what objectors saw as sexual content and offensive language. Some objections led to the removal of the book from library shelves, while others saw it replaced with bowdlerised versions minus the offending scenes.

Despite the objections the novel remains a critically acclaimed and masterful work.

10) And Tango makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (2005)

All Images plus title image via Google Images

Topping the American Library Association's top 100 list of challenged books for the third year running, And Tango Makes Three is a children's book which tells the story of two male penguins who raise an orphaned chick.

The book, based on a newspaper article which described a zookeeper's experience of watching two penguins trying to hatch a stone, has been criticised for being pro-gay, anti-religion and anti-family. It appears that some parents are unprepared to let their children have access to anything which challenges the notion of stereotypical parenting methods, despite the alternatives being a recognised and largely accepted concept in the modern world.

As a writer there are many responsibilities we face in honouring our contract with our readers. But If the above examples prove anything it is that we can never expect to please everyone all of the time. Rather, we should write from the heart; with integrity and passion for our material so that no matter how we are judged we will at least have pleased ourselves.


doodle said...

what an interesting article. It is amazing how many books are censored because of the possibility of upsetting a select few- surely those people could just not purchase the books.
i can't wait till my son has some english homework on this subject- i reckon he would achieve an A+ if he read this!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant article. I'd never heard of 'A Light in the Attic' and 'And Tango Makes Three'... think I will have to check them out.

And agree with you on American Psycho – I read that when I was about 15/16, which in retrospect was probably too young. It is a really difficult book to get through but one I think that's worth it if you can stomach it.