Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Books that gratify and pander

Pearls Before Swine

I begin this post with the above comic because it's very apt. Not only have we become a society in which, for many, books have been replaced by TV, movies, electronics, computers, multifunctional game-laden cell phones, and the like, we've also become a society which expects our books to entertain us and pander to us the way all of our other forms of entertainment do.

Nothing makes this clearer than stories like this one:

Each winter, Humble Independent School District, located in a suburb northwest of Houston, hosts a literary festival. The all-day celebration of books, which alternates yearly between a children's literature and a teen lit event, has quickly grown into one of the nation's leading festivals. Last January's "Peace, Love & Books" gala at Creekwood Middle School featured nationally acclaimed authors and illustrators and drew hundreds of children and families, despite the damp weather.

But this school year, there will be no such celebration of books. Not because of budget cuts, and certainly not because of lack of interest. This school year's teen literature festival has been canceled because of a string of events that followed the banning last month of best-selling young-adult author Ellen Hopkins — just in time for the controversy to ripen for Banned Books Week, which is commemorated during the last week of September.[...]

"Banning authors isn't the same as banning books, but the intent is the same," says Hopkins, whose most recent novel, Fallout, the final volume of her Crank trilogy, just debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times series list (which is devoted to series of three or more). The trilogy (which also includes Crank and Glass) has been lauded by educators and reviewers alike. Its popularity among teens is rooted in Hopkins' pull-no-punches story lines that tackle issues such as crystal-meth addiction, teen prostitution, suicide and incest. [...]

Hopkins' banning and the resulting boycott lit up the blogosphere and social-network sites. Several industry publications rushed to the author's defense, and a letter of protest from six national organizations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the National Council of Teachers of English, excoriated the superintendent for violating "basic constitutional principles." "Those kids surely lost out," Hopkins notes. "However, those same kids will now view censorship through completely different lenses, and I hope they understand why authors must defend the ability to write books without fear of would-be censors."

Hopkins' critics questioned whether a formal invitation had ever been extended and contended that a disappointed author was merely throwing a bruised-ego tantrum. Yet Hopkins says she had negotiated the terms of her appearance and received a confirmation e-mail from a festival coordinator. Still, her critics apparently saw little value in young people reading about such edgy and unpleasant topics.

The thing about Ellen Hopkins is that she's entirely misunderstanding what censorship is (no surprise, since the whole Banned Book Week thing also misunderstands what censorship is). As Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 illustrates so brilliantly, censorship is about some widely-controlling authority, such as a government, forbidding altogether the publication, sale, and distribution of material it deems harmful to its own goals and aims, and enforcing this prohibition through forceful or coercive means, if necessary. It is most emphatically not the same thing as a community voluntarily determining that its standards are in conflict with some proposed public entertainment, for instance, or as a group of concerned parents asking about the appropriateness of a particular book for a group of elementary children or middle-school children.

And it's definitely not the same thing as uninviting an author to speak at a public event, because some parents have picked up her books, read the verse-novels (yes, I kid you not) which contain graphic rape and incest scenes, descriptive uses of prescription drug use and its effects, teen prostitution, suicide, homosexuality and the like, and decided that maybe perhaps it's not the best thing to invite this woman as a role model to speak to eleven-to-fourteen-year-olds at a middle school.

Don't take my word for what the books are like; here's a School Library review posted at Amazon.com:

From School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up–Kristina, the meth-addicted antiheroine of Crank (2004) and Glass (2007), has five children by four different men. Fallout is about the lives of her three oldest children. Hunter lives with his grandmother in Nevada. He cheats on his girlfriend and smokes a lot of dope. Autumn lives with her sweet aunt and gruff granddad in Texas. She has OCD and knows little about her mother. Summer lives in a trailer in California with her father and a string of abusive/slutty/stupid girlfriends. She hates pretty much everyone. Hopkins's not-quite poetry is as solid as ever, though her use of visual formations gets more mystifying and extraneous with each novel. Unfortunately, it's unlikely that Glass is fresh in the minds of most readers. As such, the Venn diagram of Kristina's baby-daddies, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and drug buddies -is impossible to follow, and may frustrate even the most interested readers. So much deciphering cripples the pace of Fallout. The plot is choked with the perpetual damage of meth addiction–there's too much message and not enough action. Hopkins spreads the narration too thin between three unlikable narrators, and none is ever fully realized. The mood here is just as depressing and cautionary as Glass, and Hopkins's presentation is even more self-indulgent.Johanna Lewis, New York Public Library
And this is the woman a group of parents thought might not be perfect to speak to sixth graders (the book itself is recommended for grade 9 and up--is that, too, a form of "censorship?").

Now, I know that some readers will object: after all, we make students read about gory topics all the time, when we have them read The Iliad or The Odyssey or Shakespeare's tragedies or anything by Edgar Allen Poe. So why not novels in which an author expresses in verse, some of it shaped like little houses or other objects on the page, the horrors of teenage dysfunction?

Flannery O'Connor had an answer to that, in her excellent essay Total Effect and the Eighth Grade. Here's some of what she has to say on the subject:
I would like to put forward the proposition, repugnant to most English teachers, that fiction, if it is going to be taught in the high schools, should be taught as a subject and as a subject with a history. The total effect of a novel depends not only on its innate impact, but upon the experience, literary and otherwise, with which it is approached. No child needs to be assigned Hersey or Steinbeck until he is familiar with a certain amount of the best work of Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, the early James, and Crane, and he does not need to be assigned these until he has been introduced to some of the better English novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The fact that these works do not present him with the realities of his own time is all to the good. He is surrounded by the realities of his own time, and he has no perspective whatever from which to view them. Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped backward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable. (Flannery O'Connor, Total Effect and the Eighth Grade)
What Flannery O'Connor says here is very wise, like so many of her writings about books, writing and reading. A sixth-grader may, indeed, know someone who has used drugs; he may even know someone who has been a victim of rape or incest, or been a prostitute, etc. But if he has, it is almost certain that he lacks any sort of context or perspective from which to read a literary effort centered around those topics--even if Ms. Hopkins' books are true literary efforts, and not a mere pandering to the tweeny-teen audience and its unfortunate lust for books (and television shows, and movies, and video games, etc.) featuring sex, violence, bloodshed, and the like. By O'Connor's standards, the typical middle-school audience isn't the best group of readers to be given Golding's Lord of the Flies (though, alas, this remains a popular choice for educators of middle-school children), a work whose literary credentials have been fairly well established. It is not because they are incapable of relating to Golding's characters and their descent into savagery and brutishness--it is because they are all too capable, and see lurking inside their classmates those very characters, which does not give them the distance necessary from which to cultivate perspective on the matter.

If Ms. Hopkins' books are truly of any literary merit, then her adult readers and critics should read and discuss the books--which they are, of course, perfectly free to purchase or obtain from libraries, no actual censorship being in operation. But children in the sixth-to-eighth grade range most often lack the maturity, experience, ability, or perspective to tell the difference between books which really do seek to explore seriously the fallen human condition in all its bruised and broken variations, and those which merely feed an unhealthy curiosity about adult topics, or a morbid desire to wallow vicariously in the pain and dysfunction of others.

To go back to Bradbury, for a moment: the giant TV screens referenced by Goat in the Pearls Before Swine comic above played truly inane stuff, either a clown violently attacking people in a brutal evil twin of today's reality programs, or an interactive program in which people living in the house could read their "scripts" and play a character whom the actors on the screen pretended was right there in the room with them. Entertainment had devolved into the worst sort of emotional gratification and consumer pandering--and it would seem that even books are falling prey to that disease in our twenty-first century culture, an ill that Bradbury did not foresee in the novel.


MacBeth Derham said...

Thank you for taking the time to put into words what I have been trying to sort.

freddy said...

Excellent! Well reasoned, insightful and eloquent! I was unfamiliar with O'Connor's essay, but have always lived it in my own reading as well as my children's, and find it a solid -- in fact essential -- approach.

Anonymous said...

I love this - the O'Connor excerpt and the very important reminder about the difference between parental/community discernment and censorship. Thank you.

David said...

Totally agree with you, Erin - it absolutely amazes me that we have to argue this sort of thing today. What good does it do children to read about the worst side of human life without giving them the means to make sense of that side?

Here, little Johnny - just you sit down now and read this book about drugs and incest.


MightyMighty said...

Fantastic synthesis of the issue and the outside sources needed to illuminate the matter.

When I was much younger, a high school friend thought she was being very avante garde by saying that she would never "censor her children." We all asked her things like, "What about porn? What about extreme violence?" She maintained that a 7-year-old would never be interested in those sorts of things, and thus it wouldn't matter.

I remember feeling then, and thinking now, "And if he does want to watch porn? Would you really let him become engulfed in a porn addiction at age 7?"

A good example of censorship in the modern day media is anything that has to do with the personhood of the unborn child. Ever noticed how there are NO images of aborted babies to be found anywhere but through pro-life efforts online? The government doesn't do the censoring, the media does.

priest's wife said...

Two of my favorite people- O'Connor and Bradbury- this morning! Bradbury's work is the reason why I refuse to buy a tv that is larger than 24 inches and only use it to watch dvds. There is just something about those super-big-screens that weird me out- probably because I got into Bradbury when I was far to young for O'Connor's tastes :)

eulogos said...

I am of two minds.

I think parents have the right to make this sort of decision for their own children, and groups of parents have the right to elect school boards who make this sort of decision for schools.

That doesn't mean those school boards will make sensible decisions all the time. When I was young the local school board banned a book called "My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world" which went on to have the little Russian boy say that his country was the most beautifuy country in the world. It was a book about how we love what is our own. But this was in the depths of the cold war when the USSR was our enemy, pure and simple. Some simple minded folks thought any praise of Russia was therefore wrong. There was also pressure on the library board to remove the book, about which there was a major local battle. I would still go with local control of schools; if libraries are solely locally funded an elected local board should also be able to decide, even if they are idiots.

I myself did not tell my children they shouldn't read anything. I tried to read what they read and shared my opinion of it or asked them what they thought of it and then commented. We had thousands of books in our house, including most of the classics of English literature, and hundreds of children's book including pretty much all the children's classics,
and we didn't have a TV, so my kids had plenty to compare this sort of thing to and I feel sure they would have soon tired of it, as they tired of other shallow trendy books.

Susan Peterson

Siarlys Jenkins said...

There is a difference between censorship and community discernment. There is also a difference between community discernment and parental discernment. If one group of parents want a book banned from the school library, and another group of parents wants it available in the school library, then we have a political question, and shades of censorship. After all, while parents remain free to buy the book for their children, if its not in the library, children who don't want to read it don't have to pull it off the shelf.

But this woman is not someone I would choose to invite to a school event. The fact that her books are best sellers is not enough. Out of all the best selling authors who could be invited, she's just way too far down the list to ever get around to.