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September 23, 2014

Banned Books? Or Freedom to Write and Read?

Blue sky beyond barbed wire fence with text: Banned Books? Or Freedom to Choose?

This week is Banned Books Week, an annual event sponsored by the American Library Association celebrating the freedom to read. The ALA works with librarians, teachers, and community leaders to ensure that controversy doesn’t lead to book banning.

Many have already blogged about the political aspects of this event, such as what it means for readers to be able to seek out unpopular ideas and what it means for writers to have the freedom to express those ideas, so I’m tackling this issue from a less serious perspective. Sort of. *smile*

Freedom to Write

As writers, we know the importance of having the freedom to explore the ideas in our head. For many of us, our subconscious-muse doesn’t like being restrained from thinking wild (maybe even nonsensical) thoughts. Such restraint can freeze our creativity all together.

We all too easily think our work is crap already. We don’t need someone from on high telling us that our writing doesn’t meet a standard or breaks too many rules.

Fiction writing often is about bending or breaking rules. We break rules about sentence fragments, and we break rules about the existence of dragons. We can imagine ourselves a different gender, age, or ethnicity through various characters. We push the envelope to encourage people to think deeper about issues.

I’ve mentioned before that my stories often include at least one element that makes me uncomfortable. That’s okay. I enjoy knowing I have the freedom to do what’s right for the characters and the story.

Playing it safe won’t allow me to dig into my characters’ weaknesses, failures, or emotions. I have to be willing to push them to reveal the deeper truths that give my stories meaning, and that means I have to be willing to push myself—and those “rules.”

Between the edgy aspects of my characters and the paranormal/fantasy aspects of my stories, I can guarantee my stories would fall under someone’s definition of “should be banned.” (Some in my extended family would gleefully add me to that list—just for writing fiction, never mind the romance or the paranormal aspects.) Some of my characters follow no accepted religion, some don’t answer to human laws, and some of my characters swear, have pre-marital sex, or seem like a deviant.

(And some of my characters don’t do any of those things. It’s all about what’s right for the characters and the story, not about me breaking rules just for the sake of being edgy.)

I want the freedom to write my stories without worrying about the subjective preferences of one person or another. I trust that my stories will find their way to those who would enjoy them, and I’m fine with everyone else ignoring them. *smile*

Freedom to Read

Many of the challenges to ban certain books come down to those same subjective preferences. Maybe someone doesn’t like the religion or sex portrayed, simply because it doesn’t match their definition of normal. (Given that my motto is “Why be normal?” portraying only “normal” doesn’t hold much appeal for me. *grin*) Or maybe someone doesn’t think the subject matter is age appropriate. (But that makes the assumption that all kids of the same age have the same maturity level.)

Not all stories will appeal to or are appropriate for every reader. Some adults don’t want to read about profanity or sex, and some don’t mind those elements. Some teens (and even some preteens) are mature enough to handle the dark messages of, say, Hunger Games, and some aren’t. It shouldn’t be up to a random person to decide what we can or can’t choose to read.

Just because something doesn’t appeal to us doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. Like we discussed when comparing literary and genre stories, a preference should not lead to a judgment of value. Yet that’s exactly what banning books equals: a judgment of value based on personal preferences and subjective measures.

Celebrating Stories: What Some Don’t Want Us to Have

To celebrate these freedoms in the face of book-banning controversies, I want to take a moment and highlight the stories that others might want to ban, such as for the most common reasons:

  • sexually explicit
  • offensive language
  • unsuited to age group
  • violence
  • homosexuality
  • occult/Satanic themes
  • religious viewpoint
  • anti-family

Do any of your stories include elements that others might challenge for one of those reasons? Take a look at this list of the Top Ten Challenged Books of each of the past 13 years. Are any of those books on your “enjoyed” list?

For example, I enjoyed The Hunger Games, despite its supposed “religious viewpoint,” “insensitivity,” “occult/satanic,” etc. issues. (I’ll admit that enjoyed might be the wrong word for the trilogy because it was a hard read in many ways. However, the powerful story has stuck with me over time.) I also enjoyed Twilight despite its issues, and the Harry Potter series is one of my all-time favorites.

On the other side, I haven’t read another frequent target of book banners, Fifty Shades of Grey, because of the abusive relationship, ethical issues, and poor writing quality, but I still wouldn’t call for the books to be banned. Again, just because I dislike or disagree with something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist.

Heck, some want the entire romance genre to disappear. They say romance stories harm marriages (even though studies have proven the opposite), create harmful expectations (because “weak-minded women” can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality?), and don’t have any literary value (because a whole genre can be judged by someone’s preconceived ideas?).

There are too many who want us to feel guilty or ashamed of our reading (or writing) choices. So I want to take this opportunity to celebrate our reading choices, whatever they are, because choice is important.

We don’t have the right to go through life never being offended by anything we come across. That “right” would create a hideously bland world and would never allow for discussion, much less growth from outside ideas.

So let’s celebrate the stories that don’t appeal to everyone. Let’s celebrate the stories that some try to make us feel guilty or ashamed about but we enjoy anyway. Let’s celebrate the freedom of choice. *smile*

Do any of your stories contain elements that might make some want to ban them? How important to you and your creativity is the freedom to write what you want despite those controversial elements? Have you enjoyed any books on the Challenged Books list? How important to you is the freedom to read what you want? What “guilty” or “secret” pleasure reads do you want to celebrate?

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What do you think?

33 Comments on "Banned Books? Or Freedom to Write and Read?"

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Loni Townsend

I was never afraid of my book being banned, but I did worry that my family would judge me for what I wrote. They’re mostly conservative Christian, and here I was creating a world where other gods were very real and powerful.

I’ve since gotten over my fear.

I don’t like the idea of banning books. It’d be better to educate and let people choose. Otherwise, our world may end up like one of those dystopian novels.

Carradee
I want the freedom to write my stories without worrying about the subjective preferences of one person or another. I trust that my stories will find their way to those who would enjoy them, and I’m fine with everyone else ignoring them. *smile* This. Do any of your stories contain elements that might make some want to ban them? My most popular book right now—with more than 660k reads on Wattpad as of this writing—features a narrator who’s the product of incestuous rape and who lives in (legitimate) fear of experiencing the same. It’s first in a series that also features a narrator who is homicidally insane (book #2), and another who’s the “other” woman in a relationship (book #3). Book #4 opens with a liar and killer having a “Oh, shoot” moment because she got drunk enough to sleep the the guy she’s in love with. (He’s already married.) For my Destiny Walker books, the narrator is a teenage slave with severe PTSD and suicidal tendencies. It’s probably easier to tally which of my books don’t have ban-able elements. I’m well aware that some parents will deem my stories unsuitable for their children. Fine. But I’m of the opinion that sheltering does kids more harm than good. Sure, there are things you protect a child from, but a child needs to learn to think, and how are they going to do that if all they ever experience is the four walls of their parents’ brand of “normal”? Let them… Read more »
Carradee

And yikes—I didn’t mean to indicate others’ condescension = persecution. I changed tacks halfway through writing that and left the transition. *facepalm*

But anyway, if you never see anything or anybody who conflicts with your idea of “normal”, you’ll just come to believe that your “normal” = reality, which means you’ll react all the harsher when confronted with evidence that doesn’t match up, because that evidence will conflict with one of your core beliefs about the world.

R. A. Meenan

I really don’t worry that my books will be banned. None of them fall into any of those categories.

Personally, I don’t like books with sexual content. It’s one of my biggest turn offs, and I’ll often drop a book completely if I find a sex scene in it. But that doesn’t mean those books should be banned. Heck, banning books often makes the book MORE desirable since people like looking into the Forbidden.

A fellow teacher of mine recently said that her high school banned “The Diary of Anne Frank” because it’s “too depressing.” Out of all the books in the world, that is probably one of the worst to ban. It’s historical. It’s talking about a piece of history. Are they going to ban talks about the Holocaust in history classes too? And actually, out of all the books to come out of the Holocaust, Anne Frank’s is probably one of the most uplifting, if you can call a Holocaust book “uplifting.”

Book banning is, in my opinion, just one action shy of the events in Fahrenheit 451.

Melissa Maygrove

That depends on where the ‘banning’ is occurring. If you mean no publication at all, then no, don’t ban. But if you mean in a school library where my kids are going to be turned loose without my supervision, then yes, there needs to be considerable selectivity in stocking the shelves.

Amanda

Thirteen Reasons Why was amazing! I think everyone should read it.

I’m pretty sure most of my books would end up being considered “sexually explicit”, which is totally fine with me. If I didn’t want them that way, I wouldn’t have written them that way. But there are other elements, too – right now I’m getting ready to pitch a book about an assassin. She doesn’t just kill bad guys. She kills whoever pays her the most money. So you might say she has a morality issue 🙂 And a book I’m releasing next year is violent and deals with a looming communist threat from the former Soviet Union (oh, and it’s a romance, so there’s that sexually explicit part again).

The truly ironic thing, though, is the other story I’m working on, the MC is writing a research paper on the psychology of why books end up being banned – what is it about them that makes us afraid?

Mary Roya
Mary Roya

I don’t think books of any type should be ban. I do however, think that some should be restricted to an age limit. But you know as well as I do that would be hard to enforce.

History shows that if you ban something people want it. When the restriction is removed, the need or want dissipates.

Banning a book makes me think that the next step will be burning. The only time a book should be burned is that you in the middle of artic freeze and your life depends on the fire.

Sara L.
Harry Potter?! Well, now that I think about it, I guess I can see why… but I adore Harry Potter. 🙂 I’ve also read the Hunger Games trilogy and the His Dark Materials books, as well as The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (which I also loved). I absolutely believe that readers should be free to choose whatever they want to read. Like you’d said, Jami, some subjects won’t appeal to everyone – and that’s OK. Some people love the sexual content and violence of, say, George R.R. Martin’s books. I didn’t mind it in the beginning, but as the series has gone on the excessiveness of both is starting to wear on me. Hmmmm, the WIP I’m working on right now… I haven’t thought about whether the material would make it “ban-worthy” (I’m being fascitious when I say that). It’s epic fantasy, so there’s sword-fighting and battles (violence), magic (occult??), discussion of one race’s nature-based religion (religious viewpoint) – and my target audience is YA, so I imagine the “unsuitable for age group” bit could come up… Well, I think I know where this is going then. *LOL* In some ways, though, you almost can’t worry about whether your stories will be banned. If you have an idea, and you love it and feel so passionate about it that you must write it, chances are people are going to love it. At the same time, chances are others won’t like it. You just have to be willing to take… Read more »
Mike

Great article! I tried to read 50 Shades, even bulled my way through six pages, but the writing was so atrocious I surrendered.

I loved the Hunger Games, but guess I missed the religious aspects. Pretty much straight sci-fi and political commentary to me.

Maybe *I* should be banned?

Anne R. Allen

I saw a list of FB of books that have been banned by school libraries and they had me laughing, but I felt underlying horror. Books like Winnie the Pooh (“talking animals are an insult to God”) and Beatrix Potter’s bunny stories (bunnies of different colors sleep in the same bed which offended the Southern Baptists in the pre-civil rights days.)

The truth is there are always going to be people so ignorant they can be offended by anything. I recently read a comment by somebody who was offended by a book that used the word “fatuous” because they felt it was insulting to persons of size. 🙂

Banning any books can be a slippery slope, although I think the Canadian and UK taboos against child porn/incest/rape/bestiality is probably very sound. We don’t have such strict laws in the US and you see a lot of stuff on Smashwords that would be illegal in most countries.

What I do wish is that we could implement the ratings system you advocate: let people know if there’s torture or extreme violence before they buy. We have to judge by the covers and they don’t always let us know. Romance is a huge umbrella that now includes heavy-duty erotica. A monochrome cover with a man’s tie now means BDSM, but somebody not up on the latest covers wouldn’t know that. It would be nice if they’d let us know.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Some people want to ban romance as a genre?? Nooo don’t do that! I’ve only JUST gotten serious about romance writing! :O Lol. But seriously, romance is nice and many people who say they hate romance actually enjoy it secretly. Though it’s easier for them to allow themselves to enjoy it if the romance is couched under a different name, e.g. fantasy or action/adventure, haha. “We all too easily think our work is crap already. We don’t need someone from on high telling us that our writing doesn’t meet a standard or breaks too many rules.” Haha my writing insecurity/ security has changed over the years. At first I was more insecure and lacking in confidence in my work, even though people around me usually like my work. Later I became more secure because I can say my work is very good if you can define “very good” as “a story that makes Serena happy”, haha, but I still didn’t have much confidence that my stories would make others happy, and if someone says they like my story, I feel grateful and assume that I was just lucky that they liked it. But recently, I learned about the importance of believing in and respecting our own work. SO, I now think my stories are awesome to some people, good to some others, okay to some other people, and bad to yet some others, lol. So a range from awesome to bad depending on who the reader is! Actually I assume… Read more »
Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Oh I forgot to say that one of the main subplots in my current series is about this banned book!!! Well it’s not officially banned, but women and girls are highly discouraged from reading it. But this book is the hero’s favorite book; both his little sister and his crush bugged him to let them read it, because they were so curious about this book that the hero loves so much, and since he loves them both (his sister and his crush), he puts up this “initial resistance” of “Oh, it’s not suitable for girls to read”, but he quickly gives in and indulges them and lets them read to their heart’s desire. During the hero’s parents’ generation, the ban/ discouragement for women was even more intense, but the hero’s mom still managed to secretly read it anyway, and she even reread it several times in her life because she loved it so much, haha. And—this book is banned because it contains many explicitly violent (tortures and murders, etc.) scenes and even one notable rape scene. So this book represents the book banner’s greatest nightmare, haha. It’s interesting that the hero, a guy who is very strict about moral principles (TOO strict, lol) would fave this book! It hints that he is secretly fascinated by dark stuff in contrast to his strong moral stances, lol. But he is quick to tell the heroine that he doesn’t love the book for those controversial elements; he loves the book because of its… Read more »
Matthew Brown

Not much of what I write is in danger of being banned. I suppose you could make the argument that my books aren’t suitable for any age group. Seriously, though the only thing I do is make frequent use of foul language. @$&*! and #%@* are two of my favorite words. In my ebook Edge of the World, the two main characters drop f bomb after f bomb in a conversation until it’s noted that the question “Why?” technically constitutes an entire sentence without a swear word.

It’s funny though, I never get the complaint that there is a lot of foul language in Edge of the World. People are much more concerned with it’s size. “It’s kind of long, isn’t it?” I can only hang my head and surrender the point. It is kind of long.

(Forgive this last paragraph. It’s too embarrassed to come out from its parentheses. I just had to scratch a small itch. “They say romance stories harm marriages (even though studies have proven the opposite)” No, studies have SHOWN the opposite, not proved it. It can’t really be proved one way or the other. Sorry, sorry. I can be a pain in the @$$ about words sometimes. I once posted a 2000 word rant about how the word literally should be used.)

Taurean J. Watkins (@Taurean_Watkins)
This is why I never paid attention to religious markets because they don’t like anthropomorphic animals, whether in the paranormal realm like what you write, Jami, or the “Beatrix Potter” style tales I tell. Not all my animal characters are anthropomorphic, or it’s a hybrid of naturalistic and anthropomorphic. That’s part of me as a writer I can’t not do so I don’t focus on those markets for that reason. The only notable exception seems to be “The Berestain Bears” as they’re often put in the “Christian or spiritual” section of Barnes and Noble’s kid book areas (I’m a children’s author, just to clarify my points) Jami, THANK YOU for saying- “Some teens (and even some preteens) are mature enough to handle the dark messages of, say, Hunger Games, and some aren’t. It shouldn’t be up to a random person to decide what we can or can’t choose to read.” I would so NOT be able to have read “The Hunger Games” if it existed when I was a teen. I still can’t read it now at 27 because I’m far too chicken! Even so, part of me wants to read it simply because you told me about Peeta. As I’ve said before, I didn’t get into much YA because I most of the boys and men in YA felt so distant from me, and the fact that a book series this popular dared to have a non-barbarous guy (who wouldn’t participate in this “Reality Gladiator farce gone wild given… Read more »
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[…] As a romance author who faces “shaming” issues constantly, I’m very sensitive to the possibility of reader shaming. We all enjoy stories for different reasons, and we all have different reasons for reading what we do. […]

Ralph
Ralph

Hi,
Often, I feel guilty when I am gathering all the various tidbits and helpful stimuli that your website provides. I have never read, written or explored the genre that is your stomping ground. I know how popular and competitive it is..I applaud you for persistence and success.

Thanks for the support and gentle pushes…
Hoping new launch is uber-successful..

Ralph

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