Category Archives: censorship


On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?


Art and Commerce

Last week I came across an op-ed piece, K’naan, on Censoring Himself For Success – that really stuck with me. In his essay, Somali born rapper and musician K’naan discussed a down-side of his considerable success, the pressure he felt to court and retain a mainstream audience. His record label was keen to see his lyrics, which had been steeped in the politics and history of his home country, “all the baggage of Somalia — of my grandfather’s poetry, of pounding rhythms, of the war, of being an immigrant, of being an artist” to be more accessible, familiar, American.

“If this was censorship, I thought, it was a new kind — one I had to do to myself. The label wasn’t telling me what to do. No, it was just giving me choices and information, about my audience — 15-year-old American girls, mostly, who knew little of Somalia. How much better to sing them songs about Americans.”

I realize that K’naan’s dilemma is no perfect analogue, and that the book business and the music business are different in a thousand substantive ways. In book publishing, I think the field is both broader and more fractured and the financial stakes lower, but the author’s central dilemma, tugged between the countervailing poles of personal expression and the broader marketplace, between remaining true to an inner voice and figuring out how best to broadcast it, is probably familiar to many writers. In an era when publishers and agents exhort writers to build a platform, create a brand and market yourselves, to what degree do you think these pressures affect the creative process? Do you find that marketing concerns influence the content of what you write? Or do you think that there is no inherent contradiction in writing a book and then figuring out how, and to whom, to sell it?



It’s hard to think about anything else today besides the noise and excitement going on nine stories below. If you’re not in NY (particularly Union Square) or another major city today, Occupy Wall Street is having its May Day protest. Without delving into the politics of all that, let’s talk books.

Books have historically been vehicles for major revolutions, just think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Common Sense, and The Communist Manifesto.

So, what do you think the “Bibles” of OWS should be? What books have served to inspire you to make a drastic change?


Censor censure

I’ve been on a bit of a Words With Friends kick lately (okay, more a debilitating obsession than a kick but no one’s kicked me off a plane yet) and one of the frustrating things I’ve found about the game is how it censors what it considers unacceptable words. Not sure what geniuses (or algorithms) decide what works and what doesn’t but when you’re behind by 15 points and you’ve got the letters to wipe your opponent out with a word you know is a word but that WWF won’t allow…well, it makes you a little short tempered.

Thing is, censorship is all around us and, by and large, we tend to overlook minor instances of it as long as the big freedoms aren’t compromised.   I can shake my head and keep playing WWF, say, because who cares about a silly app game.  But, is that the right attitude?  When you hear about Seth Godin’s experience with Apple refusing to carry one of his “manifestos” because there are links in it to the Amazon store, the whole Big Brother thing becomes a bit sinister.  This is censorship seasoned with monopolistic bullying, in my opinion.

How much freedom of speech can be guaranteed when behemoths like Apple and Amazon censor what is available to consumers for any reason other than that the work(s) in question poses a real physical threat to individuals?  Sure, a privately owned retailer may choose what goods and services it wants to offer, but when you have two or three entities responsible for the dissemination of vast amounts of information, it seems to me that it should not be morally, ethically, or legally okay for those entities to decide what consumers may or may not be able to buy.

Those of us in the publishing business have a rather bedeviled relationship with Apple, Amazon and B&N (especially the first two).  On the one hand, we need them in order to place our authors’ wares.  On the other, we are increasingly concerned with the practices of these soulless corporations whose only interest is the financial bottom line and for whom books and the entire publishing world are but a blip in their massive spreadsheets.  Is it time for the government to step in and regulate how content is served up?  What can we do as consumers (and book lovers) to safeguard our ability to buy any book (or story or manifesto) we want?  Should we be outraged or should we shrug our shoulders and lump this with the Word With Friends shenanigans?

What’s your take on all of this?  Am I over- or under-reacting?


Don’t read that, it’s bad for you!

In case you weren’t aware, it’s Banned Books Week right now! An annual event from the American Library Association, Banned Books week celebrates “the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment.” These are important things! Censorship, in most cases, is stilting and leads only to frustration and ignorance. However, it also makes things enticing. While this is hardly an original thought, it’s undeniable that banning or censoring something only makes it more desirable to those being denied the knowledge or access. One could even argue that it encourages would be non-readers to pick up a book or article simply because they know they’re not supposed to.

My own affinity for seeking out banned books started when I was in junior high and came across Places I Never Meant to Be: Original Stories by Censored Writers, edited by none other than YA censorship queen, Judy Blume. I remember not even knowing, at the time, that books and writers were still banned. My only conception of censorship came from history class or photos of letters to the home front in WWII with words and information precisely chopped out, rendering the missile something of a paper snowflake. Surely these things didn’t happen in my lifetime. But it did, and still does in many places—schools and libraries especially. I can understand a guidance system, similar to movie ratings, say, where young children wouldn’t have access to racier topics, but outright forbiddance is unacceptable.

In any case, it was with excitement that I bought Places I Never Meant to Be and raced through it’s contents, hardly feeling scandalized by the writing, but sensing a little thrill of deviousness nonetheless. These were stories by people you weren’t supposed to read. I’ll admit, I felt a bit superior, having devoured already Judy Blume’s oeuvre and books by a couple of other included authors as well. We had just gotten our first computer, and so with this new world of home internet, I looked up lists of other banned books and counted off ones I’d heard of or read, scoffing at the craziness of some people.

While it’s fought at every turn, censorship and book-banning is still very much a part of our world, though I imagine it’s getting more and more difficult with the ever increasing permeation of the internet and other electronically accessed sources. Do you have a strong argument against–or who knows, even for–censorship? Are there any books that you love that were discovered only after you learned that they were banned?


More Banned Books Week

by Michael

As Jim pointed out earlier this week, it’s time to celebrate those books that others have tried to silence. I’m excited by the response that readers and authors have had to the situation with Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and by the fact that the attention garnered by book-banning tends to help raise the profile of said book. While keeping a book out of a library or school is a terrible thing (especially an important and amazing book like Speak), I’m grateful that the ensuing controversy makes the book all the more prominent.

One of the bigger controversies of the past few months was the one surrounding Ellen Hopkins and the Humble, Texas Teen Lit Festival. When Ellen was “disinvited” from the festival, her fellow authors decided not to appear, and the festival was cancelled. It’s terrible for the teens who didn’t get to have the event. Representing teen authors, I’ve seen first-hand how important these authors are to the readers. I’ve seen more than one kid crying and thanking an author for what they’ve written, how their life has been changed for the better. It’s hard not to get emotional about the impact books can have. But it’s important to make a stand, and I hope the teens understood the difficult decision those authors made.

But, this post was really an excuse to link to Ellen’s fantastic Anti-Censorship “Manifesto,” which you can find here. It’s short, powerful, and well worth the read.


Banned Books Week

by Jim

Two things I love: controversy and online quizzes. As we kick off annual Banned Books Week, the Guardian has a quiz on the subject. I confess, I only got 7 of 12 right.

But it’s the Independent which has far more interesting things to say about Banned Books Week. As they note, it’s pretty easy to laugh off people who think Harry Potter will make kids Satanists or that Judy Blume will destroy the moral fabric of a nation. Boyd Tonkin, though, digs a little deeper and presents a list of ten books that make the question of book banning a little trickier: Holocaust deniers, pedophiles, racists…should they ever be banned? Or, a different way to look at it: do they deserve to be published?

For me, the latter question is infinitely more difficult to answer. Because I’m solidly on the side that no books should be banned. At the same time, there are plenty of titles I would never represent. Take Richard Howard’s Did Six Million Really Die? He had every right to publish it, but I wouldn’t have touched it in a hazmat suit. I’m curious whether that would make me, in a manner of speaking, complicit in the “banning” of books. I’m not saying I wouldn’t represent an author I don’t agree with—there are just different levels of disagreement, you know?

Would love to know your thoughts on the issue. And whether folks think they’d be able to work with authors they thought were reprehensible in order to make money on their books.

P.S.  Just after writing this, I learned that my very own client Richelle Mead has had her entire Vampire Academy series banned at a junior high in Texas. The most striking thing about this is that the sixth book in the series, Last Sacrifice, isn’t even out yet. So it’s been banned…in the future. Magical.



by Chasya

A few days ago EW’s Shelf Life blog linked to the just released American Library Association’s list of top ten books most frequently challenged in 2009. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the list, their site explains that frequently challenged books are those that are formally, through written request, asked to be removed from a library’s bookshelf for inappropriate content.

I looked at the list for 2009 along with the 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade in astonishment. The 2009 list includes most notably, as EW points out, the Twilight series. It takes me back a while. In school we learned that The Catcher in the Rye was at one time censored, and I remember feeling incensed by the notion and proud that those days of narrow-minded censorship were over. But lo and behold, there, staring back at me at #6, was the 1951 Salinger classic. I was aghast to see other titles that shaped and influenced me in my youth on the list: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky (#3) and To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (#4). The list of 100 Banned/Challenged books were equally as shocking and included an all time favorite, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle (#90). It was just one among many, many others that I had read and loved as a child. And what was at #1 on the list of 100, you ask? Why it’s the one and only Harry Potter series—a contemporary classic that pretty much introduced a new generation to reading, period. Among the quibbles that they are arguing make the books on the list unsuitable are topics such as Satanism, objectionable religious viewpoints, offensive language and homosexuality. While I will say that it’s true that a book should be age appropriate, and that parents of young children should have the right to determine what that means individually, removing books from the shelves is not today, and has never been, an acceptable course of action. ALA Director Barbara Jones puts it perfectly when she says, “Protecting one of our most fundamental rights—the freedom to read—means respecting each other’s differences and the right of all people to choose for themselves what they and their families read.”

We learn and are shaped as people by learning about subject matter that exposes us to the harsher (or truer) realities of life. Some of the most important things I have learned about, I learned from reading books just like these. Many people would be appalled that To Kill A Mockingbird is still on the top ten list. As EW’s Catherine Garcia points out, the objection that it incites racism misses the point entirely. But even books that legitimately tackle subjects that some parents would want to shield their children from are beneficial to us in a way that we may not even know to appreciate. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (#65) is about war, sure. But few other things convey the heartbreak, the magnitude and the ramifications of it the way O’Brien’s words do. It is more than just about war—it’s about people, individuals. And the lessons I took from it were complex, eye-opening, and, dare I say, good for me. As someone who read a whole lot of stuff that was age inappropriate (the first time I became fully aware of sex and attraction it was in Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes, #87, I was 8), I can say that I don’t believe I turned out any worse for it. I felt armed with knowledge that the world was a bigger place, with more for me to learn than I was able to wrap my head around. And personally, I rather enjoyed unwrapping those layers of ignorance; it is much like the satisfaction I feel when peeling away the skins of a tightly wrapped onion.

What about you, readers? Which of these books were you surprised to learn people are objecting to?


The Leader Orders an Arrest

by Jessica

A week or two ago Rachel posted on censorship, which is always a hot-button issue, even among citizens of a country who generally agree that freedom of speech is a good thing, and are pleased to exercise it, in tones both civil and hysterical, as often as we can. Yet despite how absorbing questions relating to censorship and the first amendment can be, it can be eye-opening to look beyond our own borders, where limits on civil society (or even shrieking, rabid, partisan society) are far more onerous. And dangerous.

Earlier this month at the Cairo International Book fair, Egyptian security officials confiscated a novel entitled The Leader Cuts His Hair, and arrested its publisher on the grounds that the books insults Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. The novel, written by the Egyptian novelist Idris Ali, looks at social conditions in Libya in the late seventies, a period during which Ali was living in Libya. Egypt has long outlawed books that cast aspersions at its own President, Hosni Mubarak, now in his 28th year in office, but I’m surprised that Qadhafi is afforded the same treatment. The Egyptian Writers Union protested the incident, calling it an embarrassment and a stain on the nation. Indeed, this is hardly the sort of behavior that will win the Cairo Book Fair—now the largest in the Arab world—the kind of international status that it quite deservedly seeks. Which is too bad, since the fair, which throws open its doors to thousands of publishing professionals and millions of Cairenes, is an experience to behold. Whole families make a day trip of the fair, and when not browsing the miles of bookstalls in search of bargains (take note, Strand Bookstore, home of “18 miles of books”), they picnic on the grounds. Between the ice-cream vendors and balloon sellers and the impromptu soccer matches are people of all stripes, laden with books. It’s a far cry from the trade oriented fairs at Frankfurt or London, but it’s a clear demonstration that the culture of the book is thriving—despite, as recent events again demonstrate, some very serious obstacles.


Censorship shmensorship

by Rachel

An article in the Guardian caught my attention this week regarding the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the banning of certain books. Alice Walker, John Updike and even Pablo Neruda are some of the authors whose books are banned from entering correctional facilities. Texan prison officials say that restrictions on reading material are for the good of everyone.

This got me thinking. The only reason I first picked up a copy of Lolita was because I’d heard it had once been banned. And this is precisely why I grabbed a copy of Madame Bovary when I was in the seventh grade and read it over a weekend. If you’re going to ban a book, there’s a good chance people will want to read it and will read it. Humans are inquisitive! Tell us something is bad or immoral, and we’ll need proof of that. So, we’ll stay up all night (I will, at least) reading banned or formerly banned books, trying to understand why a story has been censored.

I’m not sure I agree with books being banned anywhere. Some people might argue that certain books should be banned in prisons to avoid disrupting an inmate’s rehabilitation, but I’m not a fan of censoring ideas of any kind, whether people think it’s for the greater good or not.