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Monday, May 17, 2010

Dirty Little Secret?

Last year, School Library Journal ran an article on self-censorship.

"It’s a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about or admit practicing. Yet everyone knows some librarians bypass good books—those with literary merit or that fill a need in their collections. The reasons range from a book’s sexual content and gay themes to its language and violence—and it happens in more public and K–12 libraries than you think."

The article quotes Judy Blume, one of the most banned children’s authors in the United States: “I always tell people, 'You think you’re safe? Think again, because when you’re writing, anything can be seen as dangerous.’”

Christian writers are certainly used to encountering caution tape when it comes to objectionable content, and many feel oppressed by the unspoken restrictions in Christian fiction. Like the young adult authors interviewed in SLJ, they wonder, Should I include ____? Should I not? Will it hurt my chances?

One thing is sure. If writing a novel is sitting down and opening a vein, censure is literary lemon juice. It gets personal, and in their quest for freedom, authors often gravitate toward the article’s attitude: “[D]on’t put restrictions on kids, because they’ll regulate themselves if given the freedom to read. Children will put down what they can’t handle or what they aren’t ready for…”

While this may be true of many adult Christians, when taken in context, the position is a precarious one.

When regulations are abolished, literature is robbed of any common standard and purpose. We recognize the concept in history and politics; why not the Arts? Certain mores may be ridiculous, but the opposition eventually devours the freedom it claims to champion. "Librarians [you could easily insert "authors"] need to remember that it’s not their job to impose their own ideologies on the kids they serve…”

What we really need to remember are the words of Paul in I Corinthians. All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.

The example that comes to mind is Melina Marchetta’s young adult novel,
Jellicoe Road, versus Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Every time I shelve Nick and Norah, I remember scenes that, if detailed, Gina would delete from this post (irony intended). When I shelve Jellicoe Road, however, I remember a novel so painfully brilliant that I was gutted for weeks. Both novels include the realities of teenage life—sex, drinking, profanity. But only one story succeeds in transcending the issues.

Without caution tape, without self-censorship, literature--whether CBA or YA--is full of sound and fury. And yet, tales told by Christians should not be tales told by idiots. We of all people know that life signifies something. In our desire to "regulate ourselves" as writers, remember "that by [writing] well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men." All things may be permissible, but the strength of a good "dangerous" story lies in the significance of its dirt.


  1. Intersting post, Noel. It's a fine line we writers, as readers, as parents, and teachers. We need to be on our toes. We can exhale in Heaven. I've got to put that book on my tbr pile.

  2. Nothing grates at my soul more than the suggestion of book censorship. There is part of me that would like to clutch my chest and say I find the suggestion disturbing because it stabs at the artistic vein of my soul. I know the real reason is what I discovered at 13.

    I was intrigued by hearing the words of BYRDS song, ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ were from the Bible. I went looking for Ecclesiastes to find ‘There is a season’ and I had one of those wind experiences. A page in my Bible turned and I was looking at the ‘ Song of Solomon’. After reading a couple of verses, I quickly looked around to see if anyone was looking. Whoa! Nobody has ever mentioned this book! What is it doing in my Bible?

    I decided I wouldn’t tell anyone I found it; they might take my Bible away from me! This discovery did teach me the truth of the great principle, everything you need to know is in the Bible. More importantly, God wants me to know about all of those things. He put them in His Holy Word.

    I have found this to be true as well. No matter what criteria you could use to ban books, The Bible would be at the top of the list.

  3. Being a librarian, the only censorship I have practiced is to remain within the financial limits of the book budget. If a review raised a flag, the book with a raving review won. I will confess that I have done reverse censoring. If I thought something was too much "me," I might pass over it tempered by what was already in the collection. The collection needs to be balanced.

  4. I have to agree there is a lot more censoring of the good stuff going on these days than the bad, and I sometimes wonder if the "Friends of the Library" are really our friends. Our local chapter has made it possible this year to trade Water Babies, Tarzan of the Apes, and a complete collection of Jules Vern for multiple copies of the Twilight series and a new chair for the lounge. Now, we have a policy of never keeping a book more than five years old, so that our shelves -- rather than being a reflection of the wisdom of the ages -- look more like a parade of the latest fashions.

    It makes me wonder if this type of thing is going on only in small rural libraries (such as mine) that have space restrictions, or if similar trends are affecting the larger, metro libraries, as well. I also agree that children should be allowed to wander through a library at will. But I do not advocate taking advantage of their trust by presenting only present-day philosophies as the "real" world.

    Great post, Noel, and beautifully written.

  5. Okay, I confess. I'm a censor. I've taken books donated to one of the lending libraries for cruisers (you donate/you take/you return one/or you don't -- because there are always more coming in from boaters who can't store them all, and the library in the next port can use what you have just read. Which, in reality, will be visited by most of the folk here at one time or another). Once or twice (okay, perhaps even thrice) I've been so disgusted by miserable writing (poor grammar -- why don't they teach pronoun usage any longer?) coupled with a non-existent story line or graphic ugliness, that I've chucked it instead of putting it back on the shelf for someone else.

    Hate me if you will, but the teacher in me, the one who loves language, who accepts a variety of taste but cringes at miserable use of our language, sometimes roars loudly when confronted with the dregs (albeit in a pretty cover) that I have picked up. And why did I slip it in my bag? Because of the cover and because someone bothered to publish it, a feat which my fiction has yet to achieve.

    You might say, who are you to make this choice? Good question. I don't have an answer. This is merely confession time.

    And you know what? If I'd written any of those books, perhaps in some unhappy early day of my career, I'd rejoice if someone tossed it in the trash instead of spreading my infamy to the next hapless soul.

    I'm going to publish this anonymously, something I normally abhor. I certainly should take responsibility for my words. But I'm running shy of the internet these days, so I ask your forgiveness and forbearance this time.


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