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The glaring omissions of Banned Books Week [Sep. 23rd, 2013|05:11 am]
When we all got together to keep a book from being published and then forgot about it:
The glaring omissions of Banned Books Week


If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all. -- Noam Chomsky


It's banned books week, and that's a good thing. It's good that we hold attempts to keep people from information up to the light and waggle a finger, though holes in their reporting methods keep some of the most challenged books in America from being recognized while singling out others challenged by single individuals.

First, let me point out that everybody who wants to stop someone else from reading a book does it for a good reason, or at least a reason they think is good.

Their reason may be that they think the book is devoid of any educational or literary content, such as in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey pulled from library shelves in Brevard County, Florida -- it may be because they believe the information in the book is too dangerous for you to know, like the frequently challenged though now classic bomb building manual "The Anarchists Cookbook -- it may be because they think the text is insulting to a group of people, as in the case of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses --  or, they may think that it will incite people to harm other people -- which was the reason the Texas Department of Corrections has given for censoring Christian Parenti’s Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis -- fear that the book about prison reform would cause racial disharmony and riots.

Since 1982 the American Library Association, among others, has been keeping tabs on books that people have tried to get removed from library shelves. Every year they produce a list of the books that received the most challenges. According to their website they logged nearly 5,100 requests to have books stricken from shelves between 2000 and 2009. In 2012-2013 the number one book on their list is Dav Pilkey's series Captain Underpants – an adorable comic about two fourth graders who turn their school principal into a hypnotized superhero running around in his underwear. We read this, we make a funny face, say “Who the hell would want to keep people from reading Captain Underpants? We laugh at the silly people who still freak out over The Catcher in the Rye and get indignant that they don't understand Beloved or Huckelberry Finn and we sit around feeling intellectually superior to those rubes who would get so worked up over a book about gay penguins that they'd write a letter to a library demanding it be pulled from shelves.

So when the 2012-2013 list came out last week I was a little surprised to see that Banned Books Week ignores completely, what I think were inarguably two of the most challenged books of the last year, or at least the only books I ever saw any news articles about, namely the unwritten behind-the-scenes tell-all by George Zimmerman juror B37 which was squashed six hours after it was announced by avalanche of Internet protest bombarding the nascent authors literary agent until she dropped the project, the second was Reddit troll Ken Hoinsky's attempt at self publishing Above the Game a book on how to act like a jerk and pick up women. His Kickstarter received $16,000 worth of advance orders, but an Internet petition with more than 63,000 signatures caused the crowd funding website to shut down his project and pull it from their website four hours before the end. In response to the outrage Kickstarter eventually issued an apology to the public for even allowing the project in the first place and announced a ban on the entire genre of so-called "seduction guides".

The threshold for getting on the list of Banned or Challenged Books is low; some were challenges by a single person, often a parent or school principal. Take, for example, the case of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card which, according to Banned Books Week was "characterized by one student and one parent as pornographic." Or Sarah Brannen's picture book Uncle Bobby’s Wedding which was “Challenged, but retained at the Brentwood, Mo. Public Library (2012) despite a resident who did not like the book’s subject matter.” (Gay guinea pig wedding? Bring it on! I say.)

While the list specifically targets attempts to remove books from official institutions; schools or libraries (and a book can only be "banned" by a government entity), ignoring books that were prevented from ever reaching a publisher is a bit like asking members of a country club if they think the membership requirements are too strict without surveying the hoi polloi at the gates demanding to be let in. After all, Banned Books Week isn't cataloging the number of time a government body removed a book from the shelves; they're documenting the number of times someone ASKED a government entity to remove a book, so you'd think they'd be interested in the number of people asking publishers to never let a book be printed so that it could end up in a library in the first place. Removing a copy of a book from a shelf makes it more difficult for some people to get access to that book. Keeping a book from being published keeps everyone from reading it. By ignoring larger threats to books, I think BBW may be spending too much time counting fish in their own aquarium.

I worked in a bookstore during what were probably the two biggest attempts at book censorship of my generation, and neither came from the US government; the publication of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and the first non-publishing and then eventually publishing of Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho. I dutifully bought and read both and eventually ended up coming to believe they were both masterpieces. I seriously doubt that either Above the Game or Juror B37's unnamed book would rise to their level, but some individuals were so certain that Rushdie's book was of no value that people were murdered over it and people at Simon and Schuster got up from their desks quit their jobs over the decision to publish the misogynisticly violent American Psycho (Vantage eventually published it). I think the public responded properly to the challenging of those books – by getting irate, buying them, and reading them (or at least buying them) in a symbolic middle finger that says “you can't tell me what ideas I can be exposed to!” The publishers took a risk (especially in the case of the paperback edition of Verses which was ghost published by an anonymous group mysteriously called “The Consortium”) in putting out the books but eventually decided it was a moral obligation.

From the “Books Challenged or Banned” report come these words:

Even when the eventual outcome allows the book to stay on the library shelves and even when the person is a lone protester, the censorship attempt is real. Someone has tried to restrict another person’s ability to choose. Challenges are as important to document as actual bannings, in which a book is removed from the shelves of a library or bookstore or from the curriculum at a school. Attempts to censor can lead to voluntary restriction of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy; in these cases, material may not be published at all or may not be purchased by a bookstore, library, or school district.

This is high minded rhetoric and I, for what it's worth, completely agree with it.

We [and by “we” I mean “me”] enjoy furrowing our brows over ignorant people who get bent out of shape over The Kite Runner's "vulgar language" or "some parents" in the ironically named "Liberty, South Carolina" who were furious that Romeo and Juliet was "too mature for kids because of the sex," we shake our heads and and are glad that we live in enlightened environments that wouldn't run from a book. We think we're champions of ideas and, especially, we think we're champions of controversial ideas, because we know that's the right side of history to be on and we've all benefitted from controversial ideas that someone, somewhere, tried to keep us from reading.

Banned Books Week rightly charges us to take action and protect our right to read:

"The First Amendment …” they point out, “ensures that none of us has the right to control or limit another person’s ability to read or access information. Yet, when individuals or groups file formal written requests demanding that libraries and schools remove specific books from the shelves, they are doing just that—attempting to restrict the rights of other individuals to access those books."

They go on to admonish: “The best way to fight censorship is to be aware that it’s happening. When you encounter it, be prepared to speak up or let others know."

So I am.

Googling "banned books week" + "Above the Game" I get only two relevant results; one is someone musing that it's probably wrong to ban books, whatever they're about, and the other is a small publishers blog celebrating Banned Books Week in a laudable entry which ends "Here’s to all the banned books, the good, the bad, the brilliant and the brave," and then a scant four entries later, a post announcing that the publisher is pulling their work from Kickstarter in protest for it being used to fund Above the Game saying "we cannot in good conscience continue to ask potential backers to support Kickstarter at this time."

I think quietly, in the backs of our minds, regardless of what we say publicly, we'd mostly all prefer a free exchange of ideas that only involved ideas that we like, but that's not really what a free exchange of ideas is. If we want to protect speech, we also have to protect speech that we find tasteless or morally reprehensible, because that's what we're expecting everyone else to do.

The only valiant place to throw stones from is from the moral high ground. It is not, by any means, a safe place from which to throw stones, but seize it, set up camp, and don't leave. Especially when you find yourself speaking up for a bunch of people you don't believe really have anything worth saying.






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Comments:
From: zqfmbg
2013-09-23 05:22 pm (UTC)
It distresses me that people think the First Amendment exists primarily or solely to protect themselves. Never mind the self-entitlement garbage; it doesn't take much thought to realize that it's a directive to protect others. Oh well; I still think we've jumped the shark anyway.
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[User Picture]From: elusis
2013-09-23 06:41 pm (UTC)
What on earth does the First Amendment have to do with two private companies' business decisions?

Judges will accept "fuck all" or the equivalent.
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[User Picture]From: elusis
2013-09-23 06:39 pm (UTC)
Neither "Above the Game" nor the Zimmerman juror's cases were in any way "banned" books. In both cases, the public said "if you (Kickstarter or wossit publishing house) pay this person to do this project, you will have a shitstorm of publick opinion to deal with." "Above the Game" got funded, and presumably will exist at some point in time if the author hasn't gotten sued into a million tiny pieces by one or more people who have followed his advice and gotten accused of rape. Kickstarter, a private corporation, said belatedly "funding rape manuals is kind of not what we're in business for, so if that's your bag, go for it, just not with our help." The Zimmerman juror's publisher had a moment of "wait, people might have FEELINGS about a juror profiting off a tell-all that she sold before the verdict was even in?" and opted for the better part of valor.

"Banning" has nothing to do with either case.
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[User Picture]From: fengi
2013-09-23 07:32 pm (UTC)
With the Zimmerman juror nothing was banned because there was no book. She had gotten a literary agent, that's it. There was no publisher, nor any writing beyond a vague proposal. She was trying to cash in and blew the imaginary potential market there was by mishandling things.

That's like saying some grade z celebrity who got an agent was "banned" after all the gossip rags said a book would never sell.
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[User Picture]From: devotdsatellite
2013-09-30 08:10 am (UTC)
I agree with this comment. Both authors are free to self publish. The govt is saying no. Private business is.
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[User Picture]From: coffeeem
2013-09-23 07:01 pm (UTC)
Good post. I'm full of thoughts on this that I can't quite articulate, but your essay gives me more material to meditate on, and that's an excellent thing.
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[User Picture]From: fengi
2013-09-23 07:19 pm (UTC)
Above the Game isn't mentioned because it has nothing to do with banned books. Neither the first amendment nor free speech means "entitled to free money to publish when you want to beg for it".

Kickstarter isn't government nor a library it's a private for profit financing scheme (and a dubious one in my opinion), reserves the right to reject any proposal and has terms of service which exclude certain project. They regularly refuse problematic proposals for various reasons, are all of these "banned"?

It's even more absurd to assert refusing to patronize a crowdfunding site one doesn't like is "banning" anything. People are not obligated to use businesses they don't like.

Free speech means free of governmental interference. It doesn't entitle one to money for that speech or exempt one from the costs.
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2013-09-24 04:04 pm (UTC)
The ALA is playing fast and loose with the word "banned" -- none of the books on their list are actually "banned" -- they're all widely available -- and you won't get arrested for trying to import a copy of Tropic of Cancer into the U.S. as you once were. And since they're doing that -- using a definition which involves "one person somewhere saying that a book shouldn't be on a library shelf" -- they're open for criticism of their interpretation of what "banning" is. I would, and do, argue that thousands of people keeping a book from being published or trying to keep a book from being published is more significant than one parent in Georgia demanding that a principal pull a widely available and already published book off of a school library shelf. If the ALA and their associate organizations are really interested in " to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society." like they say on their website, then they're myopically missing a lot of challenges to the availability of information.

I'm not suggesting also that a publisher boycotting kickstarter is anything like banning -- my point is that the publisher, like many of us, lauded Banned Books Week when it brought to light small-minded attempts to keep good books from people, but then jumped in to stop a book they didn't like from getting to people. That's the best example of this dichotomy. Do we support the freedom to publish information or is there some information that we all think is too dangerous to be printed? Where's that line.
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[User Picture]From: fengi
2013-09-24 08:24 pm (UTC)

Boycotts are free speech.

In a free society people can choose what businesses to use and free speech allows them to say why and encourage others to do the same. Boycotts are free speech, and like other things, aren't restricted just to when we think they are fair.

The ALA is playing fast and loose with the word "banned" is playing fast and loose with the concept of "fast and loose". The ALA has clear criteria:
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others.
This about published books.

The ALA quote in your post argues says banning books "can lead to" other negative effects; the point is about actual banning. It's not about failing to get money for an unwritten book.

The juror merely got an agent, no deal or even a sign she could write. Kickstarter already had content restrictions (no endorsing political candidates or hate speech) which it enforces inconsistently and was arguably being held to them.

If the ALA and their associate organizations are really interested in "to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society."...then they're myopically missing a lot of challenges...

First, this quote is from an introduction which says: "this bibliography is incomplete" and "does not include challenges to magazines, newspapers" etc. It's not pretending to be comprehensive and is clearly published work only.

Second, the information is widely available. The juror gave national interviews. Ken Hoinsky made his name by posting his work on Reddit. Losing one opportunity to get paid is part of a free society and their own behavior. It's not banning and largely self-imposed restraints.

I'm not suggesting also that a publisher boycotting kickstarter is anything like banning

Your entire argument suggest it. Saying there's a double standard in promoting banned books week but protesting Kickstarter means you are saying their alike. The suggestion is more open in the next sentence accusing Reflection Press of trying "to stop a book they didn't like from getting to people".

Which is a lie. Reflection press didn't say Ken Hoinsky should be stopped or banned. They stopped using Kickstarter because they didn't to associate with such projects. Free society and free speech means freedom of association and being able to state one's beliefs.

Side notes of accuracy: Hoinsky didn't make $16,000 in advance sales, there were pledges in various amounts for an unfinished project. Those "scant four entries later" are actually over a year between posts.
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[User Picture]From: Patricia Crebase
2013-09-24 03:47 pm (UTC)

thinking thinking thinking

So I have been percolating this in my brain and have a couple of thoughts:

I heartily agree with you that banning books is wrong. I have grabbed my Shel Silverstin or "Catcher in the Rye" to read in public just to acknowledge that I have the right/ability to read them.

I disagree that Juror B37s book being quashed counts as censorship or banning. A book (or painting or sculpture) is an object that someone has toiled (perhaps without skill talent or insight) to create. It is a tangible product that people can choose to like or dislike. Juror B37 had not done any of those things. There was no book at that point. If Juror B37 sits down and actually writes the book, and then finds a publisher or self publishes, then that book will be out in the world. I will not spend my money on it, but I'm sure there is someone who will. The freedom to say they were going to write this came with the freedom to accept public hue and cry.

"Above the Game" is more difficult for me. From what I know of it, it is a guide to circumvent a "no" in any situation, including relationships. (This topic triggers some very strong opinions but I will stick to topic.) Hoinsky has the right to write* a piece of drivel. People have the right to give (or not give) him money for the book. Kickstarter had the right to pull something they deemed reprehansible. If Hoinsky can find a publisher he can publish. Nobody had yet said "you cannot publish this nor can anyone else." They have said "I will not publish/support this."

In these situations, these people have the absolute right to their jackassery.
They also get to suffer consequences of that jackassery.
I get to vilify them and refuse to give them my money. I get to tell agent/publisher/kickstarter that I think these books are awful and if you do publish it you damn well won't get my money for this book. If I care enough about it I might tell said agent/publisher/kickstarter that they won't get my money for any of their other books as well. If the agent/publisher/kickstarter thinks the book is more important than my opinion, they can publish it.

This is not banning or censorship. This is the (no longer) invisible hand of the market economy.

*hehe "right to write"
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[User Picture]From: kylecassidy
2013-09-24 04:36 pm (UTC)

Re: thinking thinking thinking

Nothing on the Banned Books List I think technically really counts as banning, I think the ALA is being dramatic. But what we have here, I think, is akin to an angry mob showing up on a publisher's doorstep saying "you will not let this information be printed!" -- which is fine -- it's what angry mobs do, but then I think it's wrong for the members of the angry mob to show up at a free-speech rally later saying "We support the free exchange of ideas! Down with angry mobs!" and patting ourselves on the back. We need signs that say "We support the exchange of certain ideas that fall into these parameters!" and Banned Books Week needs to acknowledge that when talking about "the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them" (like they do on their website.)
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[User Picture]From: fengi
2013-09-24 08:55 pm (UTC)
"Nothing on the Banned Books List I think technically really counts as banning". The list has clear criteria and substantiation, one example: "Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology
Alyson Books
Banned by the Rancocas Valley Board of Education from the Mount Holly, N.J. High School library shelves (2010) after a local conservative group expressed concern that the book was too graphic and obscene. The local group, part of the 9/12 Project, a nationwide government watchdog network launched by the talk-radio and television personality Glenn Beck, called for the banning of three books, all dealing with teenage sexuality and issues of homosexuality." How does that not count?

Now there is a lack of criteria for comparing critical statements on Twitter and an online petition to angry mobs. That's consumer feedback which a business can choose to ignore. Again, a product of a free society.

There were no threats or coercion beyond "I will not give money or support" which isn't "angry mob" behavior.

To equate feedback, criticism and boycotts with mob violence is condescending both to activists and victims of actual angry mobs. No matter how one squints, Hoinsky and the Juror are not Rushdie.
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[User Picture]From: handworn
2013-09-26 02:55 pm (UTC)

Re: thinking thinking thinking

In library school we were taught that there are many, many forms of censorship-- "censorship by selection" being our particular bete noir. That is, censoring by simply not buying those books for our library's collection. In a similar vein, it's possible to censor by preventing books from being published, or by preventing them from being circulated, or by punishing the speaker by shouting them down, or by making them suffer, career-wise. It's a tough topic.
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[User Picture]From: coffeeem
2013-09-24 06:01 pm (UTC)
I'm contemplating this in light of the recent Goodreads abuse of the reviewing process. In it, a surprising number of people appear to have given one-star reviews to a book that they not only hadn't read, but couldn't have read, since it hadn't been released yet.

Those reader-reviewers must have had their reasons. Do they want to discourage self-publishing? Do they dislike romance novels and wish there were fewer of them? Do they want to display their cutting wit? Or are they addicted to the thrill of mobbing?

The First Amendment may or may not apply to your examples or mine. I don't think that's the point here. The issue is that there seems to be a growing intolerance for diversity of thought and expression among the people who historically have pushed for greater toleration. To say, "I won't support that idea with my dollars" is not unreasonable. But to say, "I will prevent anyone from supporting that idea with their dollars" is anti-democratic. It's bullying.

It's also patronizing; those who prevent a work from being published are not only saying their judgment is the correct one. They're indicating they don't trust other people to be able to judge good or bad, safe or harmful, for themselves. Democracy is based on trusting the judgment of others. Declaring that people can't be trusted to judge is one of the gateway excuses for totalitarian government and the dismantling of the democratic process.

Legislating against intolerance isn't impossible. Goodreads can't make people tolerant, or keep them from acting on their intolerance. But it can put rules in place that discourage it in that community. No reviews of unread work. No reviews of the author, or the author's beliefs or behavior, in the guise of a book review. A reporting system for violations, and warning that reviews in violation of the rules will be removed.

Would those rules be tyranny and intolerance in reverse? Societies and communities make rules for themselves, and enforce them by, ideally, a regular and regulated set of procedures: the rule of law. Those rules are widely published and agreed to by the community in some public way. Tyranny has no public process. Bullying doesn't enforce community standards; it enforces the standards of the bullies.

You're right in pointing out the selectivity of the ALA's banned-books list. They're dodging the genuinely controversial cases, and having seen the bullies at work, I'm not sure I blame them. But there's a reason I support the ACLU, and volunteer for them when I can: they speak up for the right to hold unpopular opinions.
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[User Picture]From: fengi
2013-09-24 09:44 pm (UTC)
I suggest reading the ALA's banned book reports in which they lay out their criteria and point what's not included; claims like "They're dodging the genuinely controversial cases" due to bullies are simply not true.

Only a very few powerful people have the power to say "I will prevent anyone from supporting that idea with their dollars". That's not those who organize boycotts. People and businesses are free to chose or not.

Free speech doesn't mean freedom from criticism or consequences. Criticism isn't itself bullying. The Salon article is about rape threats on Goodreads, not criticism, not boycotts, not dumb comments, not the situations discussed here.

The anonymous juror chose to stop trying to get a book deal after criticism; there was no deal. The self-publisher can still self-publish and fundraise, just not on Kickstarter.

The phrase "a growing intolerance for diversity of thought and expression among the people who historically have pushed for greater toleration" is nonsense, like claiming racism against bigots. "Tolerance" doesn't mean uncritical acceptance of every idea or giving unpopular opinions a pass.
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[User Picture]From: coffeeem
2013-09-24 10:53 pm (UTC)
...Well, at least we agree on what "tolerance" doesn't mean.
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[User Picture]From: handworn
2013-09-26 02:48 pm (UTC)
Unpopular opinions should be stomped on?
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[User Picture]From: handworn
2013-09-26 02:47 pm (UTC)
The iffy question to me is not about legally permitting or not permitting expression, it's about chilling that expression with moral or social pressure. A couple of local school administrators were caught using what the headline writers primly referred to as "the n-word."

Probably they'll lose their jobs. And those who swing the ax on them will not think they've effectively just driven the emotions or opinions underground. They'll simply point out that they haven't put the speakers in jail and claim that therefore they're supporters of the First Amendment. Whereas they'd be outraged and making my points loudly if principals in Alabama, or someplace, suffered in their careers for expressing pro-choice views. It's a very ethically gray area.
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