Monday, September 27, 2010


Today’s “books” are so different from what we used to call “books” that it’s hard to understand what “banning” them means. How does one burn an electronic book? How can it be suppressed at all? How can issues like pornography be pursued when books are no longer local, which is the locus of most obscenity laws for the simple reason that it’s different in different places? How can issues like political points of view be controlled when there are so many points and networks of transmission that efforts at interdiction simply call attention to what is supposed to be suppressed?

The change in the nature of “books” has been accompanied by such a radical change in the marketing of writing (what we used to call “publishing”) that content -- which is supposed to be what is banned -- is almost irrelevant. In some cases the banning has moved to the new focus of many censorship efforts: the author. Why ban books when one can ban authors? The most radical and effective way to silence dissent is to kill the speaker. Fatwa. One needn’t even pretend to read the books if the argument is that the author is just too wretched, heretical and obscene to be tolerated.

“Quills,” the movie based on the Marquis de Sade, vividly and wittily illustrates this phenomenon pitting content -- irrepressible and commercially profitable because so many people are avid to read it -- against that which certain interests are desperate to erase, usually for reasons that have nothing to do with the official reasons, more to do with elections and laws. It was not that de Sade was writing about sex in a offensive way -- it was that he accused those in control of idiocy and corruption. (At that point everyone was a little distracted by mass beheading. Why resent the upper classes when you can kill them all?)

It’s been fascinating to watch the Native American writers who were untouchable in the years when they were politically correct (and there was profit to be made from them) now being accused of obscenity a page at a time. When books were printed and bound volumes, they were condemned in those units. Now that people read excerpts and chapters, it is specific scenes, some only a page or two long, that are the cause of rejecting the whole book. James Welch Jr.’s book, “Fools Crow,” a conventional morality tale, is attacked on the basis of one dramatic set of paragraphs lining out the major illustration of the anti-hero’s immorality: he hides in a lodge where young women suffering from smallpox are sequestered, slides under their buffalo hides, and takes advantage of their naked and helpless state. Sherman Alexie, once an enthusiastic condemner of whites in feathers who write about Native Americans, claiming they were “stealing his heritage,” is now banned for writing about masturbation in YA books.

When I was teaching, there was a story going around -- evidently true -- about a school principal confronted with the sorts of issues in the paragraph above. Almost daily a parent would march in and attack some book in the school library. So this conscientious principal would promise to review the book, get it from the library and put it in his closet to wait until he had time to read it. When he moved on in a few years, some hapless person opened the closet door and was buried in the avalanche of books. This will not be a problem with ebooks: just hit delete. But why not censor at the point of objection? If one is offended, don’t read it. Of course, a lot of people are offended by the difficulty of mathematics and a certain part of education is learning things one doesn’t want to know.

Popular opinion suggests that dirty books sell better, but those who are experienced (I’m not, but I know people who are) suggest that this isn’t true. For one thing many consumers have gone to the image -- not sepia postcards of sinister men wearing nothing but socks with garters and doing things that experimenting children might think of, but videos that mix violence with graphic closeups. Tim Barrus suggests that today’s publishers are neither subtle nor leisurely enough to indulge in the irony of hoping books will be banned for the sake of publicity. Ray Stark, who with his wife wrote a witty pseudo-memoir of a porn queen, confided that they made only enough money for a nice vacation and it was such hard work that they really needed one. The real action now is not in suppression but in disclosure: government intrigues, corporate malfeasance, secret war negotiations and revisions. We’ve always known there was something going on. Leaks are the new pornography.

In a world where Wikipedia will tell you all the things that we used to try to look up in the dictionary (with very little luck), and supply graphic full-color illustrations of genitalia, death and money are still mysterious. In the end “banned books” have been crowded aside by TMI. The sweet-faced girl whose mother didn’t want her to read “Fools Crow” is fond of obscene ghetto-blaster music.

So what can “Banned Book Week” possibly be about now? The same things that most human strategies are about: class, prestige, control -- all more closely related to money than to sex. Our problem now is not how to get past guardians of decency at major publishing houses. Our problem is how to find the things worth reading, writing that tell the truth even if it has to be framed as a fantasy or a lie to protect the author. Printed books were a three-handed game: author, reader and intermediary supplier of capital to pay for printing and distributing the actual object. Then the poker game became crowded: critic, official regulator (especially at the international border since obscenity is local), marketing specialist, and corporate investor. Now the table is overturned and we’re back to only TWO intact players: author and reader, though some of us play solitaire.

Now it’s needle in the haystack. The new currency is time. The aggregator and the curator -- those who survey and sift -- are more important than ever but there's no money in it. The author writes in images and sound as much as print. No one can tell whether readers are lumping or splitting -- are they now content to read what the trendy media suggests, quite aside from issues of obscenity? Or are they putting up their own pickets in order to avoid what upsets them or seems dangerous? Are they reading to escape reality or to discover reality? What are we banning to keep from knowing?

No comments: