When Should Books Be Banned?

When Should Books Be Banned?

How far can you go in a book before people start to react negatively to it, perhaps even to the point of banning it? How far should you go?

These days, the Western world is so obsessed with feeling like they’ve got total freedom of speech that banning a book usually results in an internet outrage and numerous petitions, even if it’s only forbidding it to be taught in schools and not expressly banning it completely. (See: Looking For Alaska, where much of nerdfighteria campaigned to have this decision overruled.)

But in the past there’ve been all sorts of books that have been banned just because they went too far. There’s a ‘Banned Books Week’ where people celebrate these books by reading them. Yet what exactly is too far?

See, nowadays we’ve got horror movies and books with intensely detailed descriptions of gore; we’ve got access to almost anything on the internet, and a result, people are kind of desensitized to reading about violence, let alone sex or controversial social issues. The world has also moved on a lot in terms of civil rights, so books like To Kill A Mockingbird that challenged racism wouldn’t be banned these days, even though they have been in the past.

I don’t think these days that graphic violence or sex are reasons that books are controversial, for the reasons I’ve stated. Yeah, so they might get put in a different section of the library, like Horror instead of General Fiction, but they’re not going to be taken out and burned. So writers, go ahead and include that torture scene you wrote. 

But there are still books that cause issues, and maybe rightly so.

I’m currently studying A Clockwork Orange. Most of you probably know a bit about it, or you’ve read it, or you’ve seen the film. The film itself was incredibly controversial, and the book perhaps more so. However, if you don’t know anything about it, I’ll give you a quick rundown:

Alex, our narrator and main character, is fifteen at the start of the book. He’s violent, anti-social, and skips school to listen to Beethoven and rape ten year old girls. The entire novel is narrated in first person from his point of view, even during horrific moments of violence, but his use of ‘nadsat’, a slang language spoken by the characters that was invented by Burgess using elements of Russian and Cockney Rhyming Slang, means that as readers, we’re slightly detached from this. It’s quite hard to read at first, but by the end of the book you start to understand Alex’s language.

Do you start to understand Alex, though, as a result? Do you start to see things from his point of view?

It’s generally accepted that this use of language is designed to make us gradually understand Alex’s speech and therefore his perspective, and this is one of the reasons why this book was so controversial. Alex enjoys violence, and sees it as something beautiful. We’re reading it from his point of view, therefore we’re kind of being asked to think of it like that, which can make you feel very uncomfortable after a while.

Are things like this okay?

The YA genre in particular has a lot of responsibility, because many teens are shaped by the books they read and, more widely, the films that are based on them (as these may attract attention from those who don’t enjoy reading, but they’re beyond help anyway). If certain attitudes and behaviours are presented as okay, that’s going to cause some concern among parents and teachers who might just try and stop their teens reading those books, thus ensuring that they do so ;)

I don’t believe books should be censored, and I also believe that telling your 12-year-old sister not to read a book because it’s unsuitable is only guaranteeing that she’ll read it as soon as you go to university and leave your bookshelves unattended (I totally didn’t do this… ahem), but I think as a YA author, one has to watch out. To ask questions:

1. Is this novel sending a message that could be considered controversial?
2. Was this deliberate?

Because if it was deliberate and you’re trying to raise questions about society, then it’s hopefully going to come across as that. A Clockwork Orange is asking us about free will and governmental control, and that is made very obvious. It’s controversial because it seems to be saying that Alex has the right to be evil, as otherwise good means nothing. The questions are raised very obviously and didactically, and it makes a reader think.

But if you read your novel back and you realise only then that your character are violent racists and that this is never addressed as an issue, you need to watch out. Whatever you write, your readers are going to have that opinion in their minds. Even if they don’t agree with it. Even if they don’t want to agree with it. It’ll be lurking there, and who knows what influence that might have on them in the future? 

Controversy can be great — if it’s thought through. If it’s deliberate. If it’s there to make a point. But you have to be careful.

8 thoughts on “When Should Books Be Banned?

  1. For a lot more background on A Clockwork Orange, I’d suggest reading Anthony Burgess’ autobiography where he goes into what was going on at the time, and about how using nadsat was partly down to a bet that people could learn a foreign language without formal lessons.

    I’d then *really* recommend reading A Clockwork Testament, a little known Burgess book about an author whose obscure book gets shot into the limelight when a Holywood director turns it into a film that then triggers copycat crimes.

    A Clockwork Orange is an amazing book, but the events surrounding it only help put it into perspective.

    1. I’ll definitely have to check those out. My exam for A Clockwork Orange is approaching too fast for me to try and read them before it, but I will do so afterwards, when I have a more lenient school schedule.

  2. Well said! I’ve not read “A Clockwork Orange” (yet – it’s on my list for this summer), but I’ve heard about the controversy, and for the most part people seem to come down on your side. I think some others would say that the message was great, but the illustration of it went a bit too far.

    Like you said, though, I think the messages need to be handled carefully. You can have characters who express controversial or “evil” opinion, but one has to be aware that they are there. Whether you deal with them or not is a different matter, as not dealing with them may be part of your image (y’know an “evil sometimes goes unpunished” message or something). Still, awareness of them is important. Especially as people are likely to ask you questions about it, and if you simply don’t see the message that’s not going to reflect well on you, is it?

    1. Indeed; it relates to the post I wrote a while back about sending messages through writing (I think that was my post about allegory). Whatever you write people will take a message away from it, and that’s how they’ll perceive the writer.

      1. Indeed, indeed. Although sometimes people are just in it for some escapism and fluff. If we looked for messages all the time, we’d be tired. Then again, we do pick things up without even looking for them sooo . . . yeah, ignore me :P

  3. I asked my dad if I could read “A Clockwork Orange.” He said to wait a few more years. I’ve heard it’s good, but violent.

    Did you know that Harry Potter was once banned because Dumbledore was gay (mentioned by J.K. Rowling in an interview)? I thought that was absolutely absurd. Of all the reasons you could’ve banned a book, someone chose that one.

    I know some people who try to stir up trouble just to do it. They like to argue or watch people argue. I bet some authors do the same thing by deliberately adding something controversial to their books. I just like to slip in subtle sentences (ignore my accidental alliteration–ugh, there it is again!) about things that could be portrayed a few different ways. For example, one thing that the king might say could just be some helpful advice, or it could be a lesson on equality. It all depends on how you look at it.

    1. I accidentally wrote a series where one of the main plot points (magical gifts) could be seen as allegory … but hey, it worked, so who cares?
      People ban things for all sorts of reasons. Tithe by Holly Black has a thing on it saying “Advisory: Adult Content”, and I’m fairly sure that that’s not because of the nasty violent fairies, but because one of the characters is openly gay, given that the other two books in the series feature the nasty fairies but don’t feature him, and they don’t have the same label. The second book actually has serious drug use and stuff, which is fairly Adult in many ways, but nope. Nothing. Just the first one.
      Needless to say, I consider that discriminatory.
      (I think more recent printings of the book don’t have that label, but my copy does. Incidentally, that’s the book I read as soon as my older sister went to university, as mentioned in this post.)
      A Clockwork Orange IS fairly mature. I mean, I’m seventeen and many members of my English Lit class found it fairly horrifying, and the film worse, so… it’s for those with strong stomachs, I think!

  4. Interesting post. Sometimes (very rarely) an author may decide to effectively ban their own book – or at least take it out of print.

    In 1977 Stephen King published a book called “Rage” under a pseudonym, Richard Bachman (his use of a pseudonym had nothing to do with the book’s content). “Rage” is a novel about a student who shoots dead two teachers and holds his class hostage. Then some years later, the book was connected to a number of real school shootings in America, with the perpetrators owning copies of the book and believed to have been heavily inspired by it.

    Eventually, these real school shootings convinced King to allow the book to go out of print (although, it took a while for it to completely disappear). Whilst not banned as such – copies can still be found in libraries – it’s no longer possible to buy a new copy of it, something which King has said is a good thing…

    So, yes, authors do need to be careful in thinking about the influence that their books have…

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