Award-winning journalist David Aaronovitch was joined in conversation with Irish young adult author Claire Hennessy and Saqi Books publisher Lynn Gaspard.
Another year, another stack of banned books
An annual celebration of the freedom to read, Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a surge in book censorship in schools, bookshops and libraries in the USA.
Since then, over 11,300 books have been banned. Thankfully, there have always been those committed to challenging censorship, including authors, librarians, teachers and students.
But what are the censors so afraid of? Here are 10 books banned in 2017 to give us an idea.
13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher
The Netflix adaption of Jay Asher’s young adult novel 13 Reasons Why has been causing controversy over its exploration of teenage suicide ever since its release in March 2017. So much so that New Zealand’s classifications body created a whole new category of censorship, RP18, to restrict the showing of the series to anyone under the age of 18.
Naturally, the treatment of the book itself has followed suit, with many calling for the book to be banned over its perceived irresponsible or unrealistic handling of issues of mental health.
An official Mesa County Valley School District in Colorado, USA, briefly ordered librarians to pull 13 Reasons Why from school bookshelves in April 2017. However, after the intervention of a number of librarians, the curriculum director for the district reversed her decision.
The works of Howard Zinn fall foul of US Republican lawmakers
Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is part of many school and college curriculums across the country, is an attempt to bring to light parts of US history that aren’t covered in-depth elsewhere, including equality movements throughout the 20th century.
Many US conservatives argue that there is already too much focus on race and class, including slavery and the genocide of Native Americans, in school curriculums. Bills such as Hendren’s — and that of an Oklahoma lawmaker in 2015 which sought to correct the fact that the USA was not portrayed in a positive enough light in history curriculums — are intended to redress the situation.
However, Hendren’s bill has only increased demand for the works of Zinn. Some 700 copies of A People’s History of the United States were sent free to teachers and librarians throughout Arkansas thanks to the controversy and thanks to a flood of donations copies are being given away to any middle or high school teacher or librarian in Arkansas who asks.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
In December 2016, a US school district has banned To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn after a parent complained about use of racist language. The books were removed from classrooms and school libraries in Accomack County, Virginia.
It came after one parent told a school board meeting: “I’m not disputing this is great literature, but there is so much racial slurs in there and offensive wording that you can’t get past that, and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”
Racism is a central theme in Mark Twain’s classic work, which explores the oppression of black slaves in pre-Civil War America. It includes the word “nigger” over 200 times. But it is a satire which tackles racism with irony and many fans of the book would agree that is, in fact, a great anti-racist novel. Which is why so many were dismayed in 2011 when a new edition of Huckleberry Finn was released with all uses of the offending word removed.
Likewise, the treatment of To Kill a Mockingbird seemed to be more motivated by the words characters use rather than its critique of racism.
The Adivasi Will Not Dance – Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
Along with thinking of the children, protecting the dignity of women has always been a mainstay of the moralists. In 1928 all of Chicago’s public libraries removed the Wizard of Oz for “depicting women in strong leadership roles”. Such attitudes are not a thing of the past.
In August of this year, the Jharkhand government in eastern India banned The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of short stories by the award-winning Indian writer Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar, for daring to depict women from the Santhal tribe in a sexual way.
Authorities, claiming that the content of the book may disturb law and order situation in Jharkhand, began seizing copies and the author, a government doctor, was suspended from his position.
Shekhar vowed not to edit a single word and advised all who have a problem with it to take the time to actually read it.
Fanny Hill – John Cleland
Sexual content has been the number one reason for the banning of books this century, and just because a book wasn’t written in this century, doesn’t mean it escapes the censor’s pen.
Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, more widely known as Fanny Hill, an erotic novel first published in London in 1748, has been peeving off puritans since it was first printed. While it doesn’t contain a single rude word, John Cleland’s work is about a sex worker who enjoys her work.
For this, the author was prosecuted for “corrupting the king’s subjects”. The book is one of the most banned in history, and in August 2017, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, Judith Hawley, said she would worry about upsetting students by teaching the work. Many in the media have accused Hawley of banning the book outright, some saying she removed it from a reading list, but she claims she hasn’t as it was never on the course in the first place. But when is a ban a ban? Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Hawley said of the book: “I use it less than I used to. In the 1980s I both protested against the opening of a sex shop in Cambridge and taught Fanny Hill. Nowadays I’d be afraid of causing offence to my students.” She also raised concerns that her “students would slap me with a trigger warning”. Not teaching something for fear of offending students or to avoid becoming a trigger warning does amount to a ban.
“We shouldn’t assume that pornography is really speaking about sex, or that the only way to speak about sex is pornography,” she later added, but then expressed her worry at the “pornification of modern culture”.
LGBT books banned at Honk Kong book fair
Unless a book contains strictly conventional values and conduct, it has probably irked someone in a position of power somewhere along the way. Unfortunately, this means if you write a book called Gay Soldier’s Diary, you’re likely to to face trouble.
This was the case at the Hong Kong Book fair in July, where several titles, including Gay Soldier’s Diary, were banned on the grounds that they were “indecent”. The books depict no violence or nudity, so don’t actually breach the fair’s rules on indecency, but this didn’t stop organisers removing nine of 15 titles at the Taiwan Indie Publishers Alliance stall, including A Gentleman’s Wedding and Crying Girls.
Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
In 1988, when official censorship ceased in the Soviet Union, banned publications suddenly became easily accessible to the general public. Works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Leon Trotsky and even Henry Kissinger, which were critical of the Soviet Union or deemed in some way to be subversive.
Whenever the vaults in China finally open, Chinese citizens will find curiosities like Winnie the Pooh, English writer AA Milne’s children’s series.
Pooh Bear’s only crime was to resemble China’s current president Xi Jinping, which some Chinese dissidents were only too eager to point out. Memes that went viral included a 2013 photo of a meeting between Xi and then-US president Barack Obama alongside a picture of Winnie the Pooh and his friend Tigger. As a result, the Chinese name for Winnie the Pooh (Little Bear Winnie) is blocked on Chinese social media sites and those who write”Little Bear Winnie” on the site Weibo are met with an error message.
Breaking the Silence – G25
G25 is a group of 25 Malay-Muslim leaders whose goal is to preserve the basic rights of freedom of expression and worship in Malaysia, where Islam is the official religion.
A book by the group, Breaking the Silence: Voices of Moderation – Islam in a Constitutional Democracy, has been banned after the Malaysian government deemed it to be “prejudicial to public order”. According to G25’s Noor Griffin, “it is meant to encourage debates about the Islamic religion”.
Deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi authorised the ban on the book on 14 June.
In 2014, a comic called Ultraman was banned in the country because it referred to the hero as “Allah”.
Little Bill – Bill Cosby
Challenges to Bill Cosby’s Little Bill children’s book series followed allegations of sexual assault were made against the comedian by a number of women, reaching back over many years. The censoring of Little Bill books is believed to the first time a title has been targeted solely for its author and not its content, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Director James LaRue said.
This article was updated on 28 September to add more context to Judith Hawley’s views on Fanny Hill.