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3 December 2021

We should all be worried about the blacklisting of literature

It may not be true censorship to blacklist books in a Western country with free and open internet access. But it's still deeply concerning.

By Megan Nolan

My mother gently let me know from an early age that she didn’t believe in what I was being taught in my Catholic school and in Mass. I managed to hang on to my self-important, girlish faith for a good long time. But when I was in my mid-teens I became very righteous indeed – only, it was the opposite of the righteousness usually encouraged by nuns. I was filled with moral indignation having learned about the Church’s atrocities – including those that occurred in my own neighbourhood, even to my own family.

I was especially upset about what they told us about abortion, and the way they did so: showing a 1980s American conservative horror film named The Silent Scream (which purports, among other things, to show a foetus at 12 weeks thrashing around in pain, an effect created by speeding up the footage). I walked out of class when they had us watch that, and fell out with a friend by doing so. She held the opposite view from mine, and we could not find a way to talk about our beliefs without shouting.

Not long after that episode I read the John Irving novel The Cider House Rules. In it, the two characters we care most about – Dr Wilbur Larch, an obstetrician who runs an orphanage, and one of his orphans, Homer – have divergent perspectives on abortion. Dr Larch, having seen first-hand how back-street butchery caused women to die, considers providing safe abortion to be the moral choice. Homer, his protégé, can see that this is a valid perspective – but as an orphan who would not exist had his mother been able to terminate her pregnancy, he does not feel able to endorse their provision.

Reading The Cider House Rules did for me what much of the best fiction does, which is to serve up some “issue” that feels absolute and intractable, and to present it in such a way that the complexity of life is rendered vivid and obvious. I didn’t change my mind about abortion when I read it, but I did understand how people were able to see it their way rather than mine, which is one of the more valuable things one can learn to do.

[see also: Abortion could be banned in 26 US states if Roe v Wade is weakened]

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The Cider House Rules is one of 850 books on a list drawn up by the Texas Republican state representative Matt Krause. The list mostly contains books that refer in some way to sexuality, race, gender, or abortion, or which “make students feel discomfort”. Krause told the Texas Education Agency that he was “initiating an inquiry into Texas school district content”; so while it isn’t clear exactly what action he intends to take about those books, such blacklisting of literature interested in lives and choices deemed unacceptable by conservatives is a worrying development. This comes in the aftermath of another Texas bill that aims to prevent critical race theory, a discipline mostly engaged with at university level, from being taught in American public schools (critical race theory proposes that racism isn’t individuated but systemic).

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Literary censorship has an inextricable and emotive association with the horror of book-burning. In particular, given the content of the books Krause has chosen, it is difficult not to think of the Nazi destruction in the 1930s of Dr Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexuality, when pioneering documents of transgenderism, homosexuality and intersexuality were lost forever. One of the books on Krause’s list is the brilliant Jeffrey Eugenides novel Middlesex, one of the few mainstream novels to focus compassionately on an intersex character. It’s clear that the exposition of variant bodies is of particular concern to the right.

But what does it mean to censor today, in a Western country with comparatively free and open internet access? The works on Krause’s list will not be removed from the world. Andrew Solomon, whose book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity also appears on the list, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece: “I don’t wish to overdramatise; I am on a proud list that includes Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Crichton, Henry Louis Gates Jr and William Styron. None of us is rotting in jail; nobody has been forcibly silenced. The Texas document constitutes a cynical electoral stratagem by a bigoted politician in a beleaguered state.” But, he continues, “That same state has just passed the nation’s most misogynist abortion law – and after they go for the women, they usually attack the blacks, the gays, the disabled and the Jews.” 

[see also: This book has been cancelled]

It is likely that conservatives would offer the same rejoinder as I did above: if a book is available to purchase there is no true censorship involved. On the left there is a risk of wishing to believe that history trends towards justice. So when things like this occur, it’s tempting to dismiss them as irrelevant or merely gestural. We may not wish to give more credence to attention-thirsty demagogues than is strictly necessary. Certainly, it is a gesture, a bit of theatre, as Solomon calls it. But gestures aren’t irrelevant, even if they don’t entail or cause immediate physical or material action. What must it like to be a gay child, or the child of gay parents, or a gender-variant child, or a black child concerned with racial justice in America, and live in this battleground? What would it be like to know that the reality of your own experience is denied by your school system, which can feel like the whole universe while you live inside it? To be told that the life you live is somehow simply not decent? This censoring is one example of many in an era of cognitive dissonance. People who have historically been oppressed are told that everything has been resolved because their existence is now technically tolerated by law, but this is a fallacy. Freedom isn’t freedom when it comes with so many caveats.

[see also: The doxxing of JK Rowling harms everyone]