We have an update on that school board in Missouri that banned Slaughterhouse-Five from a high school libary. In case you missed it, the Republic school district had banned two books (including Vonnegut‘s masterpiece) after a citizen (who did not have children in the district) complained that they contradicted his interpretation of the Bible. Since then, the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has offered to give away 150 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five, and the ACLU has expressed interest in litigating the policy.
After all of the blinding national attention, the board reconsidered its position and is allowing the books to return to library shelves. It isn’t a complete victory for free speech advocates, as they will only allow parents to check out the books on behalf of their children. This may mean that students may still read the book in the reading room, as well (this has not yet been tested). What do you think of this compromise?
All of this comes just in the nick of time for Banned Books Week, which starts this Saturday. In celebration, we suggest that you get to work on the Banned Science Fiction & Fantasy Books list that we introduced in July. You can kick things off by reading any of Vonnegut’s banned books for only $3.99 on Kindle.
By the way, if you know of a banned SF/F book that has not made our list, please let us know in the comments. We’ll add it right away.
A recent blog post about Slaughterhouse-Five being banned (yet again) got us to thinking: How many other SF and fantasy books have been banned over the years? How many are banned right now? Then, we looked at all of the lists we maintain and realized there might be one list that doesn’t yet exist… perhaps the most necessary list of all: Banned Science Fiction & Fantasy Books. To celebrate the launch of our new list, we thought we’d discuss just a few of them.
There are many reasons a book might get banned. Here are three examples from our list.
Animal Farm had problems getting published from the very beginning. George Orwell tried to publish it in the early 1940s, but publishers were loath to print anything that might threaten the British alliance with Russia. When Orwell finally did publish it in 1945, his preface on the English self-censorship was itself censored from the print runs.
In 1963 the John Birch Society challenged its status in Wisconsin schools, despite its anti-communist stands, simply because it contained the phrase "masses will revolt." Just in case that wasn’t ironic enough, a district in Georgia received challenges to the book because it had objectionable "political theories." The same thing happened in New York state because, a study concluded, "Orwell was a communist." At least the Russians understood what Animal Farm was about when they suppressed its presentation at their 1977 book faire!
The most recent attempt to ban Animal Farm was in 1987, in a fascinating case where the banning of one book (for obscenities) led to the district having to ban 64 classics out of consistency, which also included (or should we say excluded) 1984. The embarrassment led the district to eventually reinstate all of these books.
Today, it’s more autocratic regimes that tend to proscribe the book. In 1991, Kenya quashed the stage adaptation of Animal Farm, because it criticized corrupt leaders and Kenya’s one-party rule was, well, corrupt. Most recently, in 2002, the United Arab Emirates banned it for "contradicting Islamic principles."
It came as no surprise to me that Stranger in a Strange Land is often banned for sexual content. It is, after all, a very sexy analysis of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. What did surprise me was that Brave New World is challenged even more for the same reason. It was banned right out of the gate in Ireland in 1932, for being "anti-family" and "anti-religion." Today, parents are far more likely to object to the fact that it addresses sexual promiscuity. Nevermind that Huxley himself was depicting the sexual acts as a negative example of disconnecting love with the act.
In many ways, his novel’s ban confirms Huxley’s own predictions. In this classic dystopian novel, all pain is eliminated so that citizens won’t have to deal with the burdens of knowledge. One California school board might have been thinking the same when they decided the classic contained too many "negative activities." Apparently, students were only supposed to think happy thoughts. Perhaps it is incidents like these that lead Huxley to proclaim, in 1959, that the dystopia he foretold is developing far faster than he originally predicted.
The second most challenged book(s) in 2010 was Philip Pullman’s very popular His Dark Materials Trilogy. Far from being sorry about it, Pullman must be thrilled. It wasn’t too long ago that he expressed surprise that so many people were objecting to Harry Potter, yet weren’t more upset about his books. After all, he exclaimed, "My books are about killing God." Well, Mr. Pullman, you got what you wished for. Bill Donahue, of the Catholic League, has called for a boycott Pullman’s works, describing it as "atheism for kids." A boycott isn’t a ban, however. In fact, it’s democracy in action. If you don’t agree with a book, then don’t buy it.
Making decisions for your whole community is another matter. The Halton Catholic school district went that extra step in 2007, when they pulled the His Dark Materials series from their shelves (while still allowing students to request the books from behind the counter). Shortly thereafter, the Calgary Catholic School district also pulled books from their library shelves. To their credit, after reviewing these decisions, both districts restored His Dark Materials to the shelves. The Calgary board noted, "There is no doubt that the text is harsh in terms of its language about organized religion and that it presents a consistently negative view of church, clergy and faith-based institutions; however, there are glimpses of light with opportunities for positive reflection." Criticism of the Church, they added, can be better answered without censorship, so that Catholic teachers can answer the criticism.
Although the Catholic districts (and there were far more than these two) got a lot of attention for trying to ban His Dark Materials, they were private institutions (albeit, ones that received government funding). Public districts, however, have received challenges so often that only a book about gay penguin dads beat it out for the most challenged book of 2010. Better luck next time, Mr. Pullman.
Lest you think we’ve told the whole story of banned SF/F books, know that we have merely scratched the surface. No doubt there are other SF/F books that have been banned or heavily challenged so if you know of any that we should include here please let us know, and we’ll add them to the list.
“A book is a loaded gun.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
We like to think that the banning of books is a thing of the past or, better yet, the stuff of fiction. These days, banned books are celebrated across the world, even (perhaps especially) in public school libraries. One Missouri school board, however, didn’t seem to get the memo, banning Kurt Vonnegut’s classic Slaughterhouse-Five both from the curriculum and from the local high school library after a local resident (with no children in the district) complained that it contradicted his interpretation of Christianity.
The WWEnd staff Some of the WWEnd staff would like to respond is considering responding. While we figure out the best way whether to protest, we’ll leave you with the best response of all: Vonnegut’s.
In 1973, another board (Drake Public School Board in North Dakota) reacted to a parental complaint by banning Slaughterhouse-Five, going to so far as to collect student copies and set them ablaze. Here’s a copy of a letter that Vonnegut sent to the board in response:
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.
Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.
I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?
I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.
After I have said all this. I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.
I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.
Please return to this blog in the coming days.