Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Not in my library!

Over in America, they ban books. The British are much more daring: the UK government is closing entire libraries. Can't be too careful. Anything the oiks read might be subversive. Best to be on the safe side and shut down the entire system. Think big, Yankees!

So what's on this year's American Library Association top ten of challenged books?

1. And Tango Makes Three (penguin chick adopted by two male penguins)
2. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (teenager masturbates in one part of a book about being a disabled Native American schoolboy: if they can't read about it, they won't do it)
3. Brave New World (eugenics dystopia)
4. Crank (teenage drug addiction and naughty words in free verse!)
5. The Hunger Games (dystopian violence, sex)
6. Lush (sex, drugs, profanity - but it's a novel about a teenage girl dealing with her father's alcoholism)
7. What My Mother Doesn't Know (sex): it's poetry about a teenage girl's coming of age - and sounds rather good.
8. Nickel and Dimed (distinguished journalist takes menial jobs, points out that Americans are exploited horribly!)
9. Revolutionary Voices (homosexuals' stories about being homosexual!)
10. Twilight (violence and religious objections).

I'm ashamed to say I have only read Brave New World and Nickel and Dimed. The trend seems to be towards stopping teenagers reading educational books dealing with adolescence. After all, if they don't know about these things, they'll never discover them and won't have to deal with them. That's the way the world works, isn't it? I doubt, somehow, that Crank, for instance, is actually encouraging teenage girls to become crystal-meth addicts…

Nickel and Dimed is a bit of a shocker. It seriously seems to imply that some Americans don't object to their fellow citizens living in permanent utter poverty - they just object to anyone else knowing about it. Do buy the book: the secret to America's economy is that illegal migrants and desperate citizens prop up the system by living hand-to-mouth, denied healthcare, housing and a decent standard of living. That's why big business isn't keen on Tea Party politics: the TPs don't like immigration, whereas the corporations see it as a perfect way to smash the working classes and keep wages down.

On Twilight, I'm just surprised that the objection isn't literary quality. Yes, it's Mormon, reactionary, misogynistic propaganda, but based on a quick scan in a bookshop, her offences against literature are far more serious.

In some ways, this is a better list than last year's for liberals. In 2009, classics like Huckleberry Finn were on the list because liberals didn't like that novel's use of racially-charged words. I was horrified: you can't rewrite history. Twain wasn't racist by the standards of his day, far from it - but he was enmeshed in the culture and vocabulary of his period, and pretending otherwise is an horrific distortion of history. Acknowledge it, think about it, deal with it: don't pretend it didn't happen. See also: Enid Blyton's Here Comes Noddy Again ('golliwog' car thieves) and other novels (many of Blyton's books have been re-edited) and Agatha Christie's Ten Little Niggers, renamed And Then There Were None in the US at the time and everywhere subsequently (check out the artwork on that link). I don't think the title should be prominently displayed in bookshops, but we shouldn't pretend that it never existed. Changing titles doesn't help if the text is hopelessly racist either…

Children's books are tricky: I wouldn't want a child reading original Blyton because the casual racism and misogyny is pervasive, and without the experience and understanding which comes with age, a young reader might well absorb these attitudes without question. Far better to give a child something else (especially as Blyton's work is such utter dross too). But I'd still defend the continued existence of Blyton's unedited work for historical and literary purposes. She expressed a specific set of cultural positions, and they struck a chord in a way in which very few other works did. People read this stuff in their millions, so it's important that we think about why and how rather than pretend they never existed. This is why popular fiction is a serious subject for academic study.


The Red Witch said...

My daughter tells me that Crank is on the shelves in her school library. We are Canadian but no strangers to censorship, what on earth is A Brave World doing on the list? And where is Judy Blume?
I agree old books should not be 'cleansed'.

The Plashing Vole said...

Oh Canada! Hope you depose Harper… No idea why they object to Brave New World: its politics are anti-authoritarian rather than left or right. Poor Judy Blume: clearly no longer shocking!