Are writers involved in book banning before their manuscripts even reach the final word?
One of the most complex responsibilities weighing on a writer is honest engagement with life and ideas, and history. This is probably a concept that barely resonates in a world where it’s impossible to know whether Lady Gaga is a feminist icon or a feminist disgrace, and where the moralizing force behind every stripe of argument is enough to make anyone completely disconnect from the debate.
Gender, race, religion, and politics have become equally polarizing over the last century or so, when the velocity of change has swept away most social certainties, leaving opposing factions to duke it out for ownership of our brainspace. The silenced grey areas between seem to have become so fogged in by agendas as to thwart critical thinking altogether.
A few years ago a group of writers, all of whom were highly educated and at various stages of their writing careers, were sharing their work. The majority were men. After a while the women in the group began to recognise a pattern in the men’s writing: it was frighteningly misogynist. In almost every story the characters – both male and female – bowed unquestioningly to women’s roles as idiot, sexual object – mostly sexual object – whore, slut, stupid, fat, ugly cow, hot babe. Not once were women presented as fully human. This wouldn’t have been an issue if it were an intentional misogyny, written to allow the reader into an important debate about gender attitudes and the failure to raise generations of better men. To have male writers involved in such social critique would have been welcome, because the critique is not just about how men treat women or what they think about them, but about what women exemplify as well as what we think of ourselves.
How did the women recognize the difference between writing about misogyny and being mysogynist? For one, the writers could not understand how their work could be conceived as misogynist. There was no conscious grasp on the message they were writing. Their characters were a stark expression, not of an ugly social reality but of their own unmediated attitudes (and obviously those of most men they knew) rather than a mirror in which readers could evaluate social attitudes themselves. Intelligent readers can’t be engaged by writing that is not greater than the writer’s ideas. Otherwise it’s just a screed.
I use this anecdote to illustrate the conditions of modern literary discourse, which is becoming reflected in the final product: how do writers define when they’ve crossed the line between a social-historical context portrayed with integrity and one that screams inadvertent or malicious bigotry?
This is so brutal a subject to engage in openly and honestly. In my own experience with writing and teaching difference – how difference informs the way we write ourselves and what we write – the predominant reaction to the very topic, before any critical theory had even been presented, before anyone had begun to engage in the discourse, was deafening silence and a physically palpable discomfort.
In pre-WWII life our parents and grandparents would have taken a Sunday drive to the beach on a sultry summer day. Towels and picnic baskets and kids and umbrellas in hand, they would have stepped from the pavement of a parking lot or curb onto a sandy stretch and quite possibly passed a sign reading “No dogs or Coloreds or Jews allowed” (actually, some of the nomenclature was worse, but we all know that). The sign would have hardly begged a glance. Unless, of course, you were a black or Jewish family. With a dog.
When was the last time any writer brought such signs into a story where the characters (or the writers) weren’t deeply and personally targeted by them?
When was the last time any writer portrayed that world, here in the West? What does it do to historicity if that world is forgotten? How will we understand ourselves when it is?
Here’s where the writer comes in. Writers are taking the easy way out. We’re bowing out of the responsibility of recording life with historical integrity. Characters are no longer occupying a real time and place where ugly, painful realities and Otherness are part of the air characters breathe. How do we write about a racist society without always making the protagonists enlightened, compassionate, colour-blind? How do we write misogyny without writing misogynist literature? How do writers portray – honestly – the world as it really was, and still is?
The truth is, it just isn’t happening. Writers are creating stories that turn a blind eye, erase, edit, and reinvent reality, just as the moralizing book-banners are trying to do. If we forget that the world of Huckleberry Finn really existed, we lose our grasp of what our society once was. We risk denying that the pandemic rests dormant within us still. The society that no longer understands the past nurtures the viral nature of ideological and social disorder.
We must write the world in all its complexities; to do otherwise is to risk writing caricature or idealizing, demonizing, or infantalizing either a majority group or a minority. Otherwise we’re no better than those who ban Solzhenitsyn or Salman Rushdie for doing exactly what writers should be doing – writing toward an honest social discourse. To write ignoring fact or reality denies us our reasons for needing change and action – in terms of how and who we enfranchise and disenfranchise, and in terms of how groups rethink themselves.
In essence we’re banning the book we should have written.
Make a choice to write courageously, to say something important about life, it’s glories and its disgraces alike, right from the seat of the powerful to the very bottom of society. Make readers think and engage. Fire up our critical thinking faculties. Make us rage and cheer and doubt. Change us.
Animal Farm. Brave New World. Candide. All Quiet On The Western Front. Diary of Anne Frank.
All banned somewhere at some point.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex the protagonist’s grandmother Desdemona, a Greek immigrant, goes into Detroit’s Hastings Street, the heart of what was then Paradise Valley where the majority of black citizens lived. It’s a moment that would make any reader’s mouth go dry (is he a racist for remarking on such a thing? For writing it? Are we racists for reading it or because somehow Desdemona’s eyes saw what our eyes have seen? Is it okay to make a critical observation about a minority? Why does it make us feel all weird inside?). It must have filled Eugenides with deep self-doubt and discomfort to write.
In the hands of a lesser writer the scene would have unfolded as a slightly disguised rant against racist America, or described in the tradition of the noble and downtrodden. But Eugenides sidesteps that ugly nowhere land. Here’s why he nailed it:
1. He remembered his character. A European immigrant at that time had no meaningful concern about America’s race history, or that segregation was at all odd. Cultural groups huddled together for comfort and survival. Nothing more, nothing less. The immigrant’s whole being is focused on their own survival, not someone else’s. You worry about your own problems, I’ll worry about mine; and if you fail at solving your problems – well, that’s your problem. To inject a sudden social consciousness into Desdemona’s mindset would have played false and smacked of pandering.
2. He remembered his characters’ cultural group. You work hard, you succeed: the immigrant credo. That’s the lens through which the character’s reality is filtered. So Hastings Street to Desdemona is framed up on the timber of dichotomy: hard-working/lazy, smart/stupid, moral/immoral. Eugenides knows cultural history, and as readers we know intuitively that there’s an internal integrity to the scene because of it.
2. He remembered the time. The characters’ attitudes reflect the attitudes of the day. Them. Us. That’s how the world was divided. Eugenides infuses his narrative with the consciousness of the era, not his own.
But in the end, Desdemona’s observations do not dehumanize because Eugenides writes that society in the same normative tone as he does the Greek culture. Desdemona’s perception is not the writer’s perception or the only perception.
If you want to read another gulp-producing take on a polarizing issue, read Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It’s an unflinching look at the Vietnam War and the young men who served, and probably the best war novel ever written. Bring Pepto. The author never takes the easy way out.
On the other hand, Franzen’s Freedom tries, then flinches and backs off. Maybe he didn’t know how to write Otherness without revealing something about himself.
Great writers face the tough stuff head on. This is the integrity that’s needed in writing today, not to service agendas or to hang a festoon across a book’s pages. The narrative has to be bigger than the writer, more intelligent, more open to possibilities than the most iron-clad of a writer’s beliefs. For great storytelling a writer has to rise above him or herself t0 depict even a world they despise. Storytelling has to be honest to character and experience and place, to bring about a squirm factor rather than run from it. This is the only way we, as readers, can be transformed by the written page. We squirm in that discomfort, then we examine exactly what it is that makes us squirm – our own notions about the world, ourselves, others. If writers fail to engage the reader this way, then we must finally acknowledge that contemporary writing is a mere confection meant to go down easily. But beware: when it’s all confection, we perish from malnourishment.