Once again I’m writing about silly censorship claims. I might stop writing about this if silly people stopped complaining that books which are widely available for purchase are somehow "censored" or, better yet, "banned."
The latest trumped-up controversy is about some kid’s novel called Boy Toy which is apparently about statutory rape. You can read all about the alleged controversy in the School Library Journal. I haven’t read the book, because I’m a grown up and thus read great big grown up books, so I don’t know if the statutory rape is a good thing or bad thing. Some 12-year-old boy has sex with a teacher twice his age. Is it good for him? Bad for him? Do we really even care? I don’t, but I’m assuming it’s a bad thing. When I was that age I don’t remember wanting to have sex with any of my teachers, even though my eighth grade English teacher was sort of hunky, but the kid’s grow up so fast these days it’s hard to tell.
The guy who wrote the statutory rape kid’s novel apparently wanted some controversy, at least according to the article. "When Barry Lyga finished writing his second young adult novel, he knew there’d be trouble." Knew! "After all, Boy Toy was about a 12-year-old who has sex with a beautiful teacher twice his age, and Lyga expected it to spark letters to local papers, trigger complaints to the school board, and incite some parents to yank it off library shelves." I just can’t understand these people who write stuff hoping to be controversial and trigger complaints and discussion. I really don’t.
Lyga should be satisfied, though, because the only one complaining seems to be him. Though the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times loved the book, it seems that librarians and bookstores in the rural backwaters that make up so much of the rest of this great nation aren’t buying it or are stocking it with adult books or some such thing. "Kids weren’t getting the book because adults weren’t letting them get the book," the author says. Oh, those mean old adults! Then of course he goes on to call it censorship. He had to say something to drum up discussion once he realized no one was buying his rape novel, I suppose. He could have just written about something less provocative than rape or maybe left out the "erotic" scenes, but that would have been the coward’s way out! Instead, better to write rape books and then complain that people don’t buy them. Cry me a river, liberal.
The SLJ article, or opinion column really, uses this tawdry tale as a hook to hang a hand-wringing exercise bemoaning "self censorship." Lordy . "Self-censorship. It’s a dirty secret that no one in the profession wants to talk about or admit practicing. Yet everyone knows some librarians bypass good books—those with literary merit or that fill a need in their collections. The reasons range from a book’s sexual content and gay themes to its language and violence—and it happens in more public and K–12 libraries than you think." Oh no!
So a librarian not buying a book is censorship? My goodness, that means that for most school libraries just about everything is censored. Those school librarians who decide not to buy rape books are just evil censors, I suppose. It might be a secret, but is it really dirty? I’m not even going to go into the fractured logic of censorship that the ALA employs when discussing nonsense like this. Anyone who thinks Internet porn is "intellectual" isn’t really playing with a full logical deck anyway, so the game’s just not fair to them. Let’s look just at the pragmatic side of this, at the worst case scenario for not buying rape books and other fun stuff.
I’m going to ignore the moral reasons one might employ not to buy a book like this, and ignore the obvious rejoinder to the spurned author that his book is published and available for purchase, so nothing is censored. If it was such hot stuff, people would be ordering it from Amazon. It’s not that popular, so he’s no doubt trying to spark some controversy hoping people start buying it to see what all the hubbub is about. But we won’t discuss this.
Instead, according to the article, lots of librarians don’t buy crap like this because they’ll face vigorous complaints from parents about the books. It’s funny we don’t hear so much as a whimper from these people if someone doesn’t stock controversial books on Islam because they’re afraid of being bombed, but then again complaining parents are much less scary than murderous religious fanatics, so it’s easier to defend "intellectual freedom" from them.
We all know that it’s terrible for parents to complain about any book that the New York Times or the ALA-OIF likes. You can easily detect the snide disdain for concerned parents in a quote from one author regarding a book that used the word "fucking" (it’s right there in the SLJ article, but don’t try that in the comments section of this blog, boys and girls!): "These parents don’t want to believe that their little darlings know this vocabulary so they edit reality." Yep, that must be it. That’s probably the same reason most parents (at least that I’m aware of) don’t say "fuck" when dining with their children. It’s because they don’t want to believe the "little darlings" know words like this. Has absolutely nothing to do with decorum or a resistance to vulgarity. Nothing at all!
Anyway, so it seems some concerned parents complain about books and despite what the ALA tells them somehow think that not everything is appropriate for children to read. I’m sorry, for their "little darlings" to read. Sometimes these complaints can be quite outrageous, it’s true. Take this story, for example:
"As someone who made ALA’s list of the 10 most frequently challenged authors of 2007, Lauren Myracle knows what it’s like to be the target of organized attacks by censors. Her ttyl (Abrams, 2004), which contains vulgar language and descriptions of sex, teen drinking, and an improper student-teacher relationship, is intended for highschoolers . But a middle school librarian in Round Rock, TX, thought it was appropriate for her older students, a decision that angered a group of parents who sentMyracle hate mail, called her a pornographer and a pedophile, and prayed that she be rescued from Satan.
"Some of these parents can be so relentless in their attacks, and the attacks are personal," says Myracle, whose book was ultimately pulled by the school superintendent who circumvented the formal review process."
The reaction here was certainly outrageous. The outrage is palpable. There’s no indication at all that Myracle is a pedophile, for example, and that complaint was just thrown in to be mean. But a pornographer? Well, aren’t sex scenes pornography? I’m not knocking them. I like a well written sex scene as much as anyone, but if we take the etymological route – and as librarians the etymological route should be one of our favorite paths – then pornography is "writing about sex." So it looks like Myracle really is a pornographer after all. As far as praying that she’ll be rescued from Satan, I’m not sure what to say. Except for the implied self-satisfied hypocrisy of the fundamentalist bigot who strikes at the mote in someoneelse’s eye while ignoring the beam in her own, is that really so bad? I don’t want to end up with Satan, even just at a nice formal dinner, and if someone’s prayers will keep me from that so much the better. (Note, by the way, the language of the article. "Attacks by censors." So much for journalistic objectivity.)
There are other stories of "attacks by censors" in the article. One junior high school librarian in Backwater USA says, "I’ve had friends who’ve lost their jobs, had their marriages destroyed, developed mental and physical illnesses due to the stress of having their collection-development decisions challenged formally, informally, or even merely questioned." If that’s true, and I’m not questioning it, that’s some serious stuff, or some of it is. If having your collection development decision "merely" questioned destroys your marriage or your sanity, they probably weren’t that strong in the first place, frankly.
Why exactly should librarians feel bad or "dirty" then for not buying a book if that’s what they might face? Are these school librarians paid enough to deal with this garbage? Is it really worth it? Does it matter that much? These librarians make very rational decisions. "This is a vulgar book. If I buy it, I could be harassed incessantly by rubes. I’ll pass on this one." Indeed, especially for the rural backwater librarians, not to follow this logic would be a sign of irrationality.
And please don’t come back with any of the standard arguments against librarians not buying vulgar books. They’re shopworn and their spines are creased. Don’t say, for example, "first they come for the books with vulgar language and I did nothing. Then they come for the books with sex in them and I did nothing. And when they came for me, there were no vulgar sex books left to protect me!" These books are out there. They’re published. The complainers seem to think that librarians don’t exist in the real world or that their actions will have no consequences.
There’s also the standard response about concerned parents trying to make decisions for everyone. But they also claim every book that an author or review journal claims is written for a particular audience is actually appropriate for that audience. It might be, but that still involves adults making decisions about what is appropriate for children; they just don’t like it when other people try to get in on the game. The argument is never about whether adults make the decisions about who gets to read what. That’s just malarkey. The argument is over which adults get to make those decisions. The authors? The ALA? Or local librarians responsive to local parents concerns? Typically, the complaint is that someone you don’t know living somewhere you don’t live doesn’t buy a book you think they should. Oh, the horror!
And please don’t start talking about intellectual freedom. I’ve yet to see an even remotely compelling argument that if any given book isn’t available in a school library that anyone’s intellectual anything is compromised. It’s easy for the ALA-OIF or for authors to whine about how awful it is that libraries aren’t buying more tawdry books for kids. It’s harder out in the real world beyond the confines of ALA headquarters. There’s nothing courageous about writing or buying a kid’s book that has graphic sex or swearing or whatever it is that people object to. There’s nothing particularly intellectual about any of these books, and picking one of them as the hill to die is a fool’s game.
As the SLJ writer says, "The truth is, no one ever really knows which books might end up changing a kid’s life, helping him find comfort, or gaining a better understanding of a subject." If that’s the case, why do we assume that the books that might end up changing lives are the ones with sex scenes and vulgar language? The OIF says, "Who knows? That very book that you thought was inappropriate may be the one that turns a child in the direction that he needs to be going or that gives a child quiet hope about a situation."
Then again, it probably won’t be.