I tend to be a timid writer. I constantly second-guess myself as I worry about what people will think. I’m afraid that people will completely reject and even hate what I have to say. This rejection happens on a regular basis as many writers find their works challenged or banned, thus feeding my fear.
Fear aside, I’ve never really understood why people ban books. I’m of the mindset that if you don’t like something, then don’t read it (and don’t make a sweeping judgment for all of mankind). According to the American Library Association (ALA), books are typically banned for at least one of three reasons: “sexually explicit” material, “offensive language,” or material that is “unsuited to any age group.” The ALA has a list of 97 books from that Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century that have been banned and/or challenged.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov—banned due to themes of incest and pedophilia.
- Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien—challenged and burned for “satanic” content.
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote—banned for sex, violence, and profanity.
- Animal Farm by George Orwell—banned for “indecent images” and political content.
- As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner—banned for profanity, abortion, and questions regarding the existence of God.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi—banned for gambling, political viewpoint, and offensive language.
One of my creative writing professors at college always starts his classes with the same quote: “Art should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” This slightly adapted phrase from Finley Peter Dunne is supposed to encourage us to write good work, to not be afraid if what we put on the page is unconventional. Art is supposed to challenge us, and makes us uncomfortable, he says. Embrace that in your own work. Write what you have to say and don’t worry about what others think.
When I think about banned books in the light of that quote by Dunne, none of the reasons for banning books make sense. When a book is banned, it means that the content has challenged the reader to their very core. It has portrayed a way of viewing the world that has shook up a reader so much that they don’t want anyone to ever read it. The writer has made the reader uncomfortable.
But isn’t that what books are supposed to do? Shake us up and make us walk away seeing the world through different eyes? No matter what genre you write in—romance, sci-fi, literary fiction, suspense, anything—you are presenting a unique view of the world. What better way to know you’re doing job as a writer, than to have a book that has been banned or challenged?
Don’t be afraid of what you put down the page. Write. Hopefully you’re going to make a lot of people uncomfortable.