I think everyone agrees with the message of this year’s theme for Banned Books Week: a banned book is a story silenced.
But are there other ways stories are silenced, ways we as consumers (of written text, art, music, film, theater, etc) aren’t conscious of?
In a word, Yes.
“How so?” you ask. Well, consider these questions: Who gets published? Who gets funding to compose or create art? Who is on the boards that make these decisions? Who reviews artists’ works? Who makes decisions about how and where works (print, music, art) are displayed, played, or sold?
Agents, editors, and publishers, especially those working in the field of children’s literature, have within the last decade begun pledging to support the work of diverse authors writing about diverse characters. The result: more books featuring minority, gay, transgender, or otherwise “non-traditional” protagonists dealing with issues of identity, sexuality and prejudice (good result). But many of these books end up being challenged (bad result).
Of course, the challenges usually backfire. Any hullabaloo only makes people more determined to read the book and find out what all the fuss is about. After hearing that his novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had been banned (the first in US history, according to PBS’s American Experience), Mark Twain quipped to his editor “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure.” Twain certainly knew that there’s no such thing as bad press.
We all need to be less afraid of things that are unfamiliar, different, contrary to our expectations about the world.
So, on that note, today’s featured artists are the “disinvited”. I cringe as I write this, because I haven’t yet decided how I feel about problematic authors/content. For instance, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books are valuable historical documents of the western expansion in 1870s/1880s US history, but she doesn’t hide her mother’s racist attitudes towards Native Americans, nor does she give any recognition to how white settlers displaced huge numbers of people. Am I bothered that an award once named after her is now called the Children’s Literature Legacy Award? Only a tiny bit, because I can understand why the change was made. This move doesn’t take the books away from readers, and Wilder herself much later approved revisions to language in her novels that denigrated Native Americans.
What about awards rescinded, as with Sherman Alexie’s award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (the award was the American Indian Library Association’s 2008 award for best YA book, rescinded due to allegations of sexual misconduct). Again, I understand the reasons, and this move in no way lessens the importance of Alexie’s book. (Plus, he still has the 2007 National Book Award.)
But, and here’s when I’m stuck for an answer, what about rescinding invitations to speak, which seems to happen frequently these days? I’ve heard arguments on both sides of this issue, and I’m relieved that I will never be in a position to have to make such a choice. This quandary includes whether to interview controversial people for radio/TV talk shows/print articles, etc. Once the interview is completed and written up, is the publisher required to print/broadcast it? Again, I’ll never be that interviewer or publisher, for which I’m grateful, because I can’t decide what’s right here.
Tomorrow: “Dear Banned Author.”