I wrote the essay below the last time I had a taste for a serious banning. It went away for a while, but like all bad habits, my appetite has been resurrected. I find that I want to be banned now more than ever. So it is with great pleasure that I accepted Lit Bites’ offer to dust this plea/rant/dare off and run it again, with new and improved material sandwiched between prior genius. To that end, please read this slowly, and with due attention. If you care about me at all–even a little bit–I’m sure by the end you will consider tossing me (in the form of crates of my books purchased at full cover price) out into the streets and duly soaking them with whatever accelerant is at hand, before gracing them with a kiss of cleansing flame.
I thank both you and the strong smell of purloined kerosene in advance.
Yours in pyromaniacal suppression of thought,
Please ban my book. Please? Hey, I’m fine if you choose any of the three of them. Maybe Going Nowhere Faster because between flatulence jokes lies a hidden Marxist subtext plunging us all one step closer toward socialized medicine. Or maybe Fade To Blue because some enterprising Wiccan chick just discovered if you read chapter six backwards a message from the Lord Of Darkness (Brodie Jenner) is revealed. Or even the otherwise squeaky clean and loveable You Killed Wesley Payne, because your friends keep reading it in the caf and choking with laughter on their French fries and you’re just too lazy to learn the Heimlich Maneuver.
Listen, at this point, if your book hasn’t been banned somewhere in the world, you’re probably not trying very hard. If Salman Rushdie hadn’t had the old fatwa slapped on him, he never would have become a punch line on Seinfeld, let alone a household name. And if a generation of fellow authors and politicians had not refused to stand by his side out of fear and ignorance, failing to state in public en masse that The Satanic Verses had as much right to be proudly displayed in any bookstore window as The Idiot, and, further, had not disgracefully allowed even the whisper of the notion that any work of literature “deserved” condemnation by a small and fanatical group for deigning to wrestle with dangerous ideas—well, then Mr. Rushdie would still be a creaky academic with good reviews and mediocre sales. Hey, cowering fear and threats of death are a proven unit-mover! In fact, being banned is the new biceps tattoo and chopped Harley of cultural outlaw-ism. And I, for one, want in on this gang. I want to join the ranks of George Orwell, S.E. Hinton, Charles Bukowski, Jim Carroll, Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsburg, Judy Blume, William Burroughs, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Kurt Vonnegut, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. We can all hang out, drink gallons of black coffee, quote Rimbaud at terrified locals, and roar around town in our matching leather pants. Softball teams? Facebook groups? Lawnmower collector’s symposiums? Forget it, baby. This author wants to run with the banned, tongue hanging out, arms up like extras from the Thriller video, looking for action.
And yes, where you have a burned book, a banned book, or just a slyly omitted “we don’t carry that” book you can be sure you have something worth reading.
The thing that doesn’t seem to have sunk in yet for the What Is Appropriate Crowd, is that the forces of banning always lose. Always. If it takes six months or twenty years, they are inevitably revealed as prudish, reactionary, closed-minded, finger-sniffing, mayonnaise-eating, and just outright boring. The forces for censorship invariably have an agenda for restricting art that is wholly different than their stated intent–namely easing their personal fears or increasing their economic gain. It is rarely because the work itself is too dangerous. There’s no such thing as dangerous art. It’s easy to forget, after all, that when Richard Strauss’ opera Salome
was first performed in 1905, the audience TORE DOWN THE OPERA HALL because they were so scandalized. Now, Salome is used as the background music for dental exams and Flo-nase commercials. There is nothing at all that can be written, from de Sade to Kathy Acker, that is scarier than someone telling you that you can’t read it. And there is nothing more stunting than some billion dollar hype-machine paper-thin novel being pushed down your throat and being told “here is something that’s okay.”
And then there’s sex. Sex! In a world where a six year old, with an already practiced click, can evade any parental controls and view the most graphic acts imaginable, is it really possible that something can be written that is too salacious to be read? Please. Everyone knows that sex is impossible to write about, and even good authors fall to their knees in a welter of clichés and maudlin prose as soon as their characters even consider dropping trou, let alone doing something once they have. The best abstinence program you could ever come up with would be forcing people to read most authors at their libidinal worst. Or even best.
A modern offshoot of banning is Oprah-ization. Just ask Jonathan Franzen. Of course, Big O’s imperial nod toward The Corrections made him an unlikely celebrity and wealthy man, but it seems to have also handcuffed him to some degree as an author. And no matter what other books he pens—brilliant or otherwise—he has been permanently placed in the realm of pop artifact. There are some things worse than being reviled, and maybe being loved too strenuously is one of them.
Of course, other books tend to want to ban themselves. Like the latest remaindered tomes from Ann Coulter or Michael Moore, which fill the national consciousness with something legitimately distasteful: rants that are too stridently mean, too manipulative, too fact-malleable, and too cynically calculated to divide. But we need to protect books like these as much or more than Roth’s or Nabokov’s. The easiest targets tend to go quietly, but once they’re gone, the circle of moronicism draws tighter around those that are actually worth fighting for.
And as the line between high and low culture shrinks ever further, to the point that Paris Bieber is as well known a fictional character as Holden Caulfield or Doctor Benway, it becomes harder and harder to find a subject matter that shocks, offends, or even just dribbles off into tedium. And while Janet Jackson baring her décolletage on national television was decried as the final blow to decency, every great book ever written has passages in it which would cause the very same contextually challenged whistle-blowers to demand a bonfire in the streets. More likely, book banning lives with us now in a more insidious form: the quiet refusal to stock library shelves. Or an unwillingness to take on a fervent school board by assigning a controversial book. Banning is too easy to fight. Indifference is a much more difficult foe.
So ban me! Now! Soak down You Killed Wesley Payne
with lighter fluid and hit your Zippo! I dare you.
Thanks for contributing, Sean!