Do book challenges harm diversity in writing?
April 14, 2015 10:30 PM   Subscribe

If a book like Beloved by Toni Morrison is challenged because it is “sexually explicit” and has a “religious viewpoint” and contains “violence” (these are the stated reasons for its challenges in 2012), is it simply accidental that Beloved is also a novel about an African American woman, written by an African American woman?
"I wondered if there was a correlation between books with diverse content — that is, books by and about people of color, LGBT people, and/or disabled people — and book challenges".
posted by MartinWisse (27 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Books with "progressive" themes are often vilified as being part of a culture war. I'm not denying that a culture war exists, but it takes two sides to make a war, and I think it's shameful that one side would gladly deny the existence of diverse viewpoints and cultures in the guise of protecting the youth.

Books still matter, but kids are the least dependent on printed materials for learning they've ever been. The real battle is for what kids see on the internet. Do people banning books realize what kids are seeing on the internet?
posted by JauntyFedora at 10:44 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

is it simply accidental...?
Let me be the first to call Betteridge's Law on this.
posted by oneswellfoop at 11:09 PM on April 14, 2015

Barbra Streisand, white courtesy telephone please.
posted by chavenet at 11:38 PM on April 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do book challenges work? A honest question (that turns into a headline after some googling). While the findings of the article are rather predictable, it's important that someone confirmed the hunch.
Best response: turn the challenged books lists into lesson material (not necessarily straight into mandatory reading).
posted by hat_eater at 11:46 PM on April 14, 2015

The "types of diversity" charts are kind of weirdly misleading. It would have been better to subdivide the 52%, and also to weight books with multiple appearances. All the chart shows right now is that if a book is challenged, the most likely reason is the nebulous "issues" it contains.

Though I agree with her hypothesis that pluralistic books are likely disproportionately challenged, I don't feel like her data support the claim she's making.
posted by klangklangston at 12:18 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Books still matter, but kids are the least dependent on printed materials for learning they've ever been. The real battle is for what kids see on the internet. Do people banning books realize what kids are seeing on the internet?

Have told this story before, am doing so again -

My high school required everyone take a class in "health", but offered two versions of the class - one with sex Ed and one without. I put off the course until my last semester (out of cussedness) and could only schedule the one "without". Our teacher, though, thought the whole idea of notoffering sex Ed was stupid and requested dispensation to show us an ABC Afterschool Special-type film that discussed contraception very briefly. She was told that we would all have to get a permission slip signed first - and that if even just one of us forgot, none of us could see the film. We all dutifully brought in our permission slips and watched it. (Said film was a tale of a young couple at a high school, and the mention of contraception was one brief question of "what about protection" when they were walking home after a date, with the guy saying "I'll take care of it" - cut to the next scene where she is telling him that "it didn't work").

The next day she gave us a pop quiz on the film, which we all finished within 15 minutes. Our teacher had nothing more planned, so she gave us the remaining 45 minutes as a free period. One kid saw a VCR and TV in the room and asked, "hey, I've got PORKY's 2 on tape, can we watch it?" And the teacher said "sure, go ahead."

The silver lining is that my high school was later debating opening a clinic that would offer students counseling on sexual health, but the town had a shit-fit about that and so the school board had a town meeting during which anyone could get up and speak for 2 minutes upon whether they were for or against the clinic. I went to defend it and told that story to explain why. There was something really gratifying about watching all seven board members' jaws drop open simultaneously at the part about PORKY's.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:45 AM on April 15, 2015 [21 favorites]

it is “sexually explicit” and has a “religious viewpoint” and contains “violence”

That's basically true of the Bible, isn't it?
posted by Grangousier at 2:18 AM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

I suspect this data is skewed because we don't have the contrast class. It's not: "young adult novels" but rather young adult novels assigned as summer or course reading.

On the other hand the data is skewed because the author doesn't weight books that are repeatedly challenged and banned. Then, too, it would help to know how often books are challenged and successfully banned, and what the stated reasons are.

I too suspect that diversity is often challenged using "cover" reasons, but this analysis actually undermines that belief, at least so far.
posted by anotherpanacea at 3:42 AM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

I guess it's more eco-friendly than burning books you disagree with.
posted by walrus at 3:54 AM on April 15, 2015

>> it is “sexually explicit” and has a “religious viewpoint” and contains “violence”
> That's basically true of the Bible, isn't it?

It is indeed. The Bible also tends to be found not acceptable on school summer reading lists.
posted by jfuller at 4:54 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I suspect this data is skewed because we don't have the contrast class. It's not: "young adult novels" but rather young adult novels assigned as summer or course reading.

I was thinking the same thing- she does admit that the NYT is not a perfect comparison. I wonder how hard it would be to get a large enough set of summer reading lists/course books-- if you had that, it would be easy enough to do some simple stats to see if certain types of writers were over represented in the banned pile; ditto with certain themes/characters/etc. Which, I don't doubt is the case, but it would give this a little more punching power.
posted by damayanti at 5:16 AM on April 15, 2015

I suspect this data is skewed because we don't have the contrast class. It's not: "young adult novels" but rather young adult novels assigned as summer or course reading.

Parents do go ballistic when it comes to things like that. When I was in high school, the required reading was Fifth Business and one mommy hit the roof because there was some mention that people had sex. Book wasn't banned, but the teacher was very shaken up. (Same year, my gym teacher did not stop two girls from playing a full-blown hardcore porn movie for their presentation, mind you, that hit the fan, but it happened).

The author has a legitimate point. I also think a lot of these books are meant for an adult audience, and so, are filled with expletives and other mature frills of that nature, and are vulnerable to successful bans.

Teens are not adults; they only think they are, yet they absolutely need to be exposed to diversity to become well-balanced and sensitive adults. There needs to be that in-between type of book that does introduce teens to the world in all its wonder, but is mindful of the fact that there are ways to introduce it.

As an author, I am very aware of the need to make multiple balances, and do with my work, but it requires the right sort of introduction, meaning an author often has to be aware of literary etiquette. Just as I don't come up to a stranger and start talking to him as if we're old friends and then get mad at him because he doesn't "get" me and is alarmed, authors need to have works that introduce new audiences to their worlds -- the ones they created, and the parts where they make their home.

The author here has hit upon the problem, but the solution is understanding the audience, their various gate-keepers, and how to fill the void so that those challenges don't result in getting banned (mind you, when I was younger, nothing sold a book faster to me than hearing it was one was ever going to tell me what to read...)
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 6:11 AM on April 15, 2015

Do book challenges work?

Sure. I've a relative (New England Obama boosting state and town) who got The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian pulled simply by quoting a dozen or so passages for the local middle-school administrators, who reacted much as board members learning about PORKY'S.

The salient fact to me was that whatever committee put the book on the reading list had, by their own admission, never read the thing. Which suggests that other committees nationwide don't read what they recommend. Which would help explain why the issue keeps coming up.
posted by BWA at 6:15 AM on April 15, 2015

So, I've actually read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (great book), and every time I hear about it being challenged/banned for its supposedly salacious content, I keep thinking of the poor kids and how disappointed they will be, because there is as much sex in there as the average 14-year-old nerd would have (i.e. not much at all). There is less sex than in the YA novels shelved in the kid's sections in the 80s. Lots of thinking about sex, maybe, not much doing.

The author, Sherman Alexie, promises that he isn't paying anyone to challenge the book, even though his sales jump every time it is challenged.

Which is awesome - it's a profound book about race and class and trying to better your own life without betraying where you came from.
posted by jb at 6:37 AM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

David Levithan, who worked for years at Scholastic before becoming a young adult novelist himself, has said that he went out of his way to avoid swear words, sex, and violence in writing his first novel, Boy Meets Boy, so as to leave censors no choice but to admit that they were challenging it because it was a love story about two teenage boys. It is the sweetest, purest little book in the world and it has been challenged so. many. times.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 6:57 AM on April 15, 2015 [26 favorites]

Why Sherman Alexie is controversial is beyond me...SMH.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:03 AM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Also, I find it disheartening that we have to resort to data to prove that "diversity is under attack". It's pretty clear to me that it is, but alas, here we are regardless...

...So given the state of things, I wonder if by looking at the districts where the challenges are being filed and then looking at the types of bills being introduced at the county, state and federal levels we could derive more data that could help point towards the types of bias at play here. Because, there is absolutely has to be some bias towards a ideology, the questions is, what is the prevailing pattern?
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:12 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Issues about religion, which encompass in this situation the Holocaust and terrorism

I don't understand the reasoning behind classifying references to terrorism generally as issues about religion.
posted by layceepee at 8:40 AM on April 15, 2015

Why Sherman Alexie is controversial is beyond me...SMH.

Seriously? I mean, in a just world he wouldn't need to be. But he is basically confrontational. He's in the right, but he's going to stick to his positions on race and class and genocide, and he will not cut you slack because you're a left-leaning liberal.

Find one of his appearances on The Colbert Report: he doesn't play along the same way so many other people do.

Which is good! But it doesn't surprise me that he stirs up controversy, it's one of his goals.
posted by suelac at 8:42 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I completely agree that complaints against language and thematic material can be a stalking horse for parents who are really objecting to literature with racial and gender diversity. Certainly, you have the Kanawha County textbook war of the 1970s in which the Ku Klux Klan endorsed efforts to censor textbook context. On the other hand, the proof in the blog post is relatively weak. There's no real hypothesis testing here, because the author doesn't have any comparable control group. Without such a control group, she can't say whether the frequency of challenges against racially diverse authors and young adult content is higher than what would result from a random distribution of complaints. You can definitely say that challenges against nonwhite authors, women authors, and racial or gender content are higher than they should be, but there's no attempt to figure out what the total number of complaints would have been in an ideal non-racist, non-sexist scenario.
posted by jonp72 at 9:47 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

"It is indeed. The Bible also tends to be found not acceptable on school summer reading lists."

Which is fair — I read it in public high school in a class called "Bible as Literature" and that was one of the best classes I took specifically because of the lesbian Jewish atheist who taught it. But without a clear, critical teacher, it's too much of a slog and too full of dubious palaver to foist on kids unsupervised.
posted by klangklangston at 10:23 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sherman Alexie being interviewed about topping the challenged books list (at work, so haven't had a change to listen).
posted by jb at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2015

It is indeed. The Bible also tends to be found not acceptable on school summer reading lists.

Huh. I went to high school in three different public school districts in a not-particularly-religious part of Canada and The Book of Job was required reading or summer reading in all three. I also think we covered some psalms as part of a poetry unit. I always just assumed portions of the bible were even more widely assigned in the U.S.
posted by northernish at 11:13 AM on April 15, 2015

I went to a Jesuit high school in the Midwest, and, while we talked a lot about the Q source and Douay-Rheims vs KJV and whatnot, we only read the Bible itself in small chunks for textual-analysis purposes.
posted by box at 6:12 PM on April 15, 2015

I'm not arguing that banning books is right to do, but not everything is about race. There are a lot of socially conservative schools. I've gone to a school which didn't allow sex-related talks, and didn't even have a sex education. Yet, it was not a Christian school either. Most of the teachers were actually progressive, politically. Simply playing a song aloud with the word sex was reason for alert. There were black teachers who willingly, even zealously enforced it; this includes songs by black artists who wrote about sex, and sexually explicit representations of blacks in music videos.

If I don't want to read a book by a Black Panther, does that make me anti-black? I'd just as equally prefer not to read a book by David Duke. I'm not anti-white, either.

I don't think overly sexually explicit content is appropriate for kids of a younger age, but whether the author is black or white, and whether or not the content is about a black or even white person, is not even relevant to me. I have no problem with blacks, simply because I would rather not have my child learning about sex.

While there is still racism in the world, it's not in every and all situation.
posted by Grease at 12:48 PM on April 25, 2015

I hear ya, and I know what you're going for, but that Black Panthers/David Duke analogy still seems... less than ideal.
posted by box at 5:33 PM on April 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Actually, if you refuse to read books by Black Panthers then it's at least possible that you're anti-black, yeah. It's fine to hold off on teaching some of those works to young children (although really some of them ought to be a part of the standard curriculum) but if as an adult you're still classing Huey Newton with David Duke and Black Panthers with white supremacists than you're at least confused. It's possible that your refusal to read is part of the source of that confusion.

You realize you'd be denying yourself Angela Davis & Toni Morrison, right? Clarence Thomas and James Baldwin were also Black Panther supporters: I know lots of people who'd rather never read an opinion by Justice Thomas but they're usually big Baldwin fans. Weird to reject both. And--really--none of them are David Duke.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:14 PM on April 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

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