[Great Debates] Volume 2: Censorship and Problematic Books

November 1, 2017     The Bluestocking Bookworm     Great Debates, Reading

Hello, bookish lovelies! Welcome to Great Debates, a new and original feature on Bluestocking Bookworm! In this column, I will be tackling issues and opinions that are prevalent in the bookish community. Obviously, everything in here is my own opinion, and nothing more.

Today’s post was sparked by something that happened on my Twitter (as per usual). It may get long and I may ramble a bit, but I have a lot of thoughts about this, so please bear with me.

In Great Debates: Volume 1, I tackled the whole idea of problematic books and tried to identify what they are and why it matters. That post is important, because today’s post kind of springboards off of that. If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, I encourage you to check out my first post for the very basic overview.

I need to start off this post by saying that this is in no way a defense of problematic books. I have nothing personally invested in these books that have been called out lately. I haven’t read them, nor do I plan to. Rather, I want to address the language used sometimes when discussing these books.

It has a cyclical quality to it. A book has ARCs made. Reviewers read the ARCs. They voice their opinions. Sometimes, as is the case recently with books like The Black Witch by Laurie Forest and American Heart by Laura Moriarty, the backlash is huge. Reviews and articles are written about the forthcoming book, naming the problematic aspects. This is a part of what book reviewers are for. I have absolutely no problem with this process, and I really value it. I mean, I do it as well. I talk about the representation of women and disabilities in literature a lot.

Generally speaking, once a book has been called out, the author has their say. This is generally when the word “censorship” gets thrown around. And then the bloggers (and sometimes other authors) will respond, because obviously it isn’t censorship!

But I want to take a moment and talk about what censorship actually is. I did a lot of searching, and I cannot seem to find the definition a lot of people cite when they are talking about how censorship is not what is happening. A lot of vocal bloggers will talk about how censorship includes the act of punishment. But I honestly could not find anything that states punishment as part of the definition. It may be a historical thing, but I am honestly not sure.

What I did find was the Merriam-Webster definition.

to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable

I don’t see anything about punishment for noncompliance in there. I tried to hit up Encyclopedia Britannica, but it wanted a credit card. Sorry, nope.

So, is the act of writing a negative review censorship? No of course not. However, when certain vocal bloggers take it further and try to push back or stop the publication of a book, THAT is censorship. Even the whole idea of sensitivity readers is a form of censorship. But I think that might be another blog post for another day.

When a school district wants to ban their students from having access to a book via the school, we aren’t afraid to say it is censorship. We know that is what censorship looks like. And since it is usually going against marginalized people, we are always quick to battle it (as we should). But when a blogger encourages people to stop the publication of a book because of what they identified in it, it is also censorship. There are no two ways around it. But the waters are a little murkier here, because if we are doing it for the good of marginalized teens, isn’t it a good thing? I can’t answer that. It isn’t my place.

The fight against problematic books is a long and multi-layered one. Publishing needs to do better on the base level. And we, as bloggers, are great tools when it comes to identifying problematic books that have been published. But censorship shouldn’t be the answer.

So, what are some alternatives? What are some things that we can do to help the fight without resorting to censorship? What can we do without crossing the line into deciding what is best for everyone?

  1. Review the books you read. Especially if you are part of a marginalized or underrepresented demographic (But only if you can do so safely! Your mental health is MOST important.)
  2. Learn the difference between problematic content and triggering content. Work to remove the stigma from triggers and trigger warnings.
  3. Boost marginalized voices. While marginalized people aren’t a monolith, their voices are the ones that matter.
  4. Boost an alternative book.
  5. Talk about the problematic aspects. Again, it is important to NOT talk over marginalized voices with this one, but saying “This book is problematic” is completely different than saying “This book is problematic because it relies so heavily on the white savior trope”. The latter is a better option for education with minimal emotional labor.

So, that is my two cents’ (more like a twonie) worth on the topic of censorship and problematic books. It is so important to remember that marginalized people are not a monolith, and that there is a HUGE difference between the words “I didn’t find this offensive” and “This isn’t offensive”.

How do you feel about censorship? How do you feel about its role in the fight against problematic books? Is it a necessary evil, or a sheep in wolf’s clothing?

Stay bookish, lovelies!

4 responses to “[Great Debates] Volume 2: Censorship and Problematic Books

  1. Lor

    Thanks for being blunt about censorship and how it’s a two-way street. If you are anti-censorship it means that you believe that everything, absolutely everything, even all the horrible things you don’t wanna see or think should be out there IS out there, and that there’s truly nothing you can do about it. As much as this may pain people or mark me as an enemy to some people, I’m rather pro-censorship. Things like The Black Witch shouldn’t be permitted to be published. At all. Ever. Things that are harmful like that shouldn’t be out there at all, and should be removed from the market. But that is censorship, and in the end, who truly has the right to say this is wrong? People almost went to jail writing about lesbians and sexual content back in the day. Was that right or okay? Some would that’s right, that that’s harmful content. I don’t think so, and many agree with me. It’s truly a conundrum, and a difficult subject. But we do need to stop pretending that we don’t need censorship, and that’s it’s cut and dry. It isn’t. If we truly start to censor stories, what stories deserve to be censored, and who has the right to censor the stories that are out there? Personally I will always censor my own personally library, and speak up and pay attention to problematic books. Because truly, that’s about as far as I’m willing to go.

    • This is a great comment! It is such a multi-faceted concern. When is the protection we are trying to offer too much? Does censorship always feel right from the point of view of the people doing the censoring? Look at the recently challenged books in the United States. Look at all the support for Banned Books Week and reading those very books that were challenged.

      I did a huge project on this in high school, and it always stuck with me. Everyone is OK with some level of censorship. Graphic pornography on freeway billboards? A lot of people will say they are against that. And that is OK. But where is the line? I don’t think that any one person (or even a committee) is equipped to say “This is the line for everyone” because no two people have the same line.

      It is really a fascinating topic. My personal preference is to lean towards letting people do their own censoring rather than having it done for me. This is where I value education. This is where I value the book bloggers who say “Hey, this book is harmful and here is why” so I know, and can pass on that knowledge.

      A great example is my niece. She is 12. I would never buy her The Black Witch, and if anyone in my family did, I would make them take it back. But I can’t control if she decides to pick it up on her own or if her other family gets it for her. All I can do is sit her down and talk to her about why it is harmful, and recommend something else to her.

      Thanks for the great comment. I love discussions like this!

  2. Sorry you’ve gotten so much flak over this! I haven’t been directly involved in this but I think you’ve still cleared up a lot for me, there’s a lot I was probably conflating with censorship. There do seem to be some fuzzy areas as you point out, like aren’t we doing it for a good reason, but we really have to careful not to cross that line. Let the reviews push back on the publishers and start to lead change rather than totally shutting a book down

Talk bookish to me!