Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Censorship or Not: a Quick Review

Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides not to carry a book because it offends the librarian or bookseller.

Things that are not censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides not to carry a book because they don't think a reasonable percentage of their clientele would be interested in it.

Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but other people object because they are offended.

Things that are not censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but asks the author not to read the sexy bits aloud where it could be overheard by children.

Things that are censorship:
Telling a poet she shouldn't open her fat mouth.

Things that are not censorship:
Telling a poet she's an idiot after she's opened her fat mouth.


anonymous said...

Okay, I'll bite.
WHAT did they say?


Anonymous said...

What is it about erotic poetry that immediately suggests an author both utterly humorless and desperate to prove something?

Turn-ons: funny, easy-going personalities willing to accomodate.

Turn-offs: pretentious twaddle-mongers with victim complexes.


Hope Vestergaard said...

I like how she compared her work to David Sedaris', saying something to the effect that if they'll let him read "uncensored," they should certainly let her. Umm, erotic is probably the last word I'd use to describe Sedaris' work!

Jill Murray said...

Obviously not the best way to "build a positive relationship" with a local book store... I wonder if she's doing it intentionally to provoke publicity.

Anonymous said...

I just came over from agent Nathan's website, where his latest post is entitled, "The No A**hole Rule." It's about how most successful authors are genuinely nice, and in today's world, they have to be.

Apparently Ms. Beatty hasn't gotten the message yet. The store needs to apologize to her and let her read whatever she wants? Good grief.

Wendy said...

One of the first things you learn doing readings is how many bookstores have their events area right smack dab next to the children's section. Especially the indies, who usually have to make do with far, far less floor space than the big chain stores.

I know in this twit's case it was a sound system issue, but still. She ought to know by now that you have to watch where you show off your hot heavy couplets.

Deirdre Mundy said...

EA, your post makes is sound like all censorship is BAD -- but is it really?

According to the Chambers Dictionary one of the definitions of a censor is

"an official who examines books, papers, telegrams, letters, films, etc, with powers to delete material or to forbid publication, delivery, or showing"

Hmmm.... sounds a lot like an editor, doesn't it?


Personally, I don't think censorship is always bad. "Adult Book Stores" SHOULDN'T be allowed to display their wares on billboards --- cursing on TV during the family hour really ISN'T good.... etc, etc.

Oh... but (more dictionary geekdom here) the poet isn't COMPLETELY wrong.....

a less common definition is anyone who expresses "an unfavorable opinion or judgement"....

So she WAS censored.... because she was censured, and apparently the two words are merging into one...

so now, if you tell someone their writing stinks, you're a censor!

Robert said...

"Things that are censorship:

When a library or bookstore decides not to carry a book because it offends the librarian or bookseller."

I disagree. You are right when it comes to public libraries, or an library receiving government funding, but the term "censorship" shouldn't apply to buying decisions made by private booksellers.

There's a fine children's bookstore in my town owned by a dedicated and knowledgeable woman. You will not find even the most popular books about flatulence on her shelves. She could probably sell them, but she started her store because she wants to promote the books that she loves, and, apparently, she's not that fond of farting.

But her reasons are beside the point. If she didn't want to sell Harry Potter because she is offended by witches, it's her store. She is "censoring" no one. Her own first amendment rights include the right not to purvey speech she doesn't want to purvey.

If she were the town librarian, though, I would be among the picketers outside the door denouncing censorship and calling the ACLU.

working illustrator said...

Bravo, robert... I think that's just about right.

Censorship, as dierdre's dictionary rightly suggests, has the implication of political officialdom suppressing something in the public sphere broadly. Libraries count.

Bookstores, on the other hand, are private businesses. Their decisions are their own. If they're willing to forgo potential revenue for reasons of conscience, then that counts as free speech and they're entitled to it.

Somewhere in between, though, there's a shady middle ground with the old-fashioned name of propriety... which I think varies from community to community and from room to room within those communities.

Other people's proprieties may strike us as either too lax or too prudish, but upping the ante so you can claim the moral high ground either way only leads to self-righteous posturing.

working illustrator said...

On the other hand, EA:

"Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but other people object because they are offended."

Not quite.

Objecting is not censorship; it's free speech. Removal is censorship. If the book is still freely available, it hasn't been censored, no matter how many people are howling about its contents.

And again, I think bookstores have a different set of rules. I'd look askance at any bookstore whose shelves contained Mein Kampf, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion or any number of other crazy hate screeds; I'd look equally askance at any full-service library that didn't have this sort of material, since there are all kinds of non-crazy reasons for wanting to read and study it.

Anonymous said...

You're totally wrong there, bud. Objecting is an attempt to censor by proxy.

"I would like to exercise my free speech by objecting, however as a point of principle, leave the offensive materials where they are."

C'mon. Like that ever happened.


Robert said...

No, he's correct. Your telling me that I should not object, on the other hand, would smack of censorship, since you are telling me that I shouldn't be saying something that I want to say and have every right to say. Although once again, if the government isn't doing it, it's not really "censorship," it's just a discussion. Free speech contemplates disagreement, or else it would not require protection. It makes no sense to say that very disagreement constitutes censorship.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Robert--- in the common usage, the ability to censor is not just limited to govt. figures.

For instance, we often speak of self-censorship.

self-censorship is another example of GOOD censorship. Not everything that crosses my mind needs to be said, especially when it makes a situation worse.

Though I think a lot of people (including the subject of the post) tend to just use the term "censorship" to end a discussion.

Because once you've labeled someone an eil-fascist-censorship-loving-pig, and gotten it into the papers, you don't have to sit down and try to deal with their objections in an adult manner.

(Like trying to make a case for why it's really NECESSARY and BENEFICIAL for you to read those particular poems to children, rather than simply "what I feel like.")

Anonymous said...

To clarify my intent:

Object to your friends, okay. Object in your newspaper column, fine. Video yourself objecting for purposes of Youtube, go nuts even!

But go up to a bookstore manager to register your displeasure? You are only trying to deny that title to others. That is censorship, sorry, not freedom of speech.

working illustrator said...

anonymous p. said:
But go up to a bookstore manager to register your displeasure? You are only trying to deny that title to others. That is censorship, sorry, not freedom of speech.

Maybe, in going to that store manager, you are just trying to make your feelings known. They may be stupid feelings, boorish feelings, even, but - sorry back atcha - you have a perfect right to express them. Even if you are red-facedly trying to have the book removed from the store, the store manager or book buyer, has an equivalent perfect right to tell you to go jump in a lake. And to hold to that position no matter what.

I suppose I could accept this scenario as an attempt to censor (at the mildest and outermost margins of the word's meaning), but as long as no action is taken (and this is just me), I'd file it under "no harm, no foul."

I think the risk of conflating protest and censorship is that you get an exaggerated sense of the first word and a diminished sense of the second. Whether you think it's necessary social control of free speech or inexcusable suppression it (or some combination of the two), censorship is serious in a way that commonplace objection is not.

Deirdre, I think you've fallen into this trap a little, accepting - for example - 'self-censorship' as a synonym for 'self-control.' It's not: self-control is you deciding not to say something inappropriate; self-censorship is when fear of outside forces cause you not to say something you otherwise would have freely said.

I do agree with you that accusations of censorship are used to shut down discussions. I'd add though, that in cases where limiting speech is actually on the table, the burden of proof should be on the censor, not the author, to prove what is, in your phrase, "NECESSARY and BENEFICIAL."

Which is not to say that the case can't be made: from what I read, the poet who inspired this discussion has behaved like a self-important ass.

Robert said...

To clarify what I meant, if you tell me not to complain to a bookstore owner about a book I find offensive, you are trying to "censor" my speech no less than I am trying to "censor" the speech contained in the book I find offensive.

Am I only allowed to praise bookstore owners for the choices they make, or otherwise hold my peace? Only positive feedback is allowed? Or might even praise be a form of censorship, since, by encouraging the store to carry the sorts of titles I like, I am encouraging the store to deny its limited shelf space to books I don't like as much? Maybe free speech in this context means I am obliged to say nothing. Pretty ironic.

Deirdre, I know that "censorship" is often used to refer to non-governmental actions, but I find its use in those contexts to be counterproductive and downright paradoxical. It's paradoxical because government censorship involves the repression of free speech, but non-governmental "censorship" of the kind we have been discussing involves the exercise of free speech.

It just doesn't make sense to me to say it is censorship if I use my own free speech to disapprove of other people's speech. To me, this is the definition of free speech, not the definition of censorship. There's no such thing as free speech if everyone is obliged to agree with one another.

Of course, the entire publishing world has censored me by not publishing all my children's poems and printing off several million copies that libraries, for fear of censoring me, will be obliged to purchase and bookstores, for fear of censoring me, will be obliged to feature in their window displays.

Robert said...

(I cross-posted with working illustrator).

Editorial Anonymous said...

Yay! I love arguments.
Smart people with opinions, trying to convince other smart people with opinions!

Deirdre Mundy said...

If we're only discussing GOVERNMENT censorship, or even self-censorship at the request of the govt., I think it might still have a place under certain circumstances ---

For instance, in a ripped-from-the-headlines example:

The recent kerfuffle over Drudge leaking word of Prince Harry's service in Afghanistan. The British press had known, but kept it a secret as a matter of national security (if it became known, Harry's unit would have been in danger, etc.)

This seems pretty appropriate to me. The good done by releasing the info (more royal gossip!) was far outweighed by the harm that releasing it would cause, hence the self-censorship of the British Press/ pressure from the British govt.

Which is why even government censorship isn't bad in every circumstance.

Of course, you have to strike a careful balance between national security needs and free speech.

The Chinese, Zimbabwean and Thai govts. DEFINITELY come down too far on the side of quashing free speech.

But things like US Newspapers leaking detailed military strategies are a lot murkier....

I don't know what the right answer is here. I think erring on the side of free speech is better because the power of the censor can easily be abused... but on the other hand, I think sometimes censorship is warrented.

(And now, back to work and off to bed... Thanks, EA, for giving me a great discussion to procrastinate over today! It's like being back in college, but with less likker! =) )

Anonymous said...

Interesting points.

Still, I'm questioning the purpose of exercising this free speech to specifically a bookstore owner in the first place. After all, they aren't forcing you to purchase the book -- which would be the second copy presumably, since *who* would be *idiot* enough to protest something they hadn't already thoroughly consumed, gleaning the *precise message therein*?

Anyway, although someone may be exercising free speech by leveling such a complaint, the sole purpose remains to bully the store owner into censoring a specific title, as I see it.

Now, the complainer is not technically-speaking the censor, I agree. And I may not technically be a murderer for goading someone into jumping off a building either. But that doesn't stop the both of us from being regarded as total sh*theads deserving of contempt and scorn, at the end of it all, who initiated the entire tragedy.

(Whenever I post here, I wonder if you are my editor, EA, and can somehow tell I am not working...)


Anonymous said...

I just want to get to the point where a bookstore would STILL try to get me to come after all this diva behavior -- rather than me having to beg them to let me come, even though I'd be bringing all my relatives who want to buy a book. :-/

Robert said...

Actually, goading someone into jumping off a bridge may very well be murder, or at least a form of manslaughter. But the analogy is false in any event, since "goading" someone into doing something that is legal and may very well make a lot of sense (assuming that the "goader" has good taste in books) really can't be compared to goading someone into doing something that is unquestionably violent, destructive or illegal. I wouldn't want anyone deciding, even on his own, to kill himself, but I would have no problem with a bookstore owner deciding which books to carry. In fact, it's impossible to be a bookstore owner without making such decisions.

I'm also confused about why it would be "goading" to express one's opinion to a bookstore owners. I have had very nice discussions with my local children's bookstore owner, who seems to like nothing more than to talk about children's books. Am I "goading" her when I tell her that I wish she would carry more children's poetry, even though she already fills all her shelves and doing what I ask would mean that something else would have to go? Should I withhold my opinion that a given book she carries isn't very good, choosing instead to praise every inventory decision she makes? Must I simply assume that the last thing she wants is to make inventory decisions based on customer feedback?

I assume you're not saying this. Maybe the situation you're thinking of is what happens after she declines my sage advice and I protest with a bullhorn in front of her store with a big sign saying "Unfair to Dr. Seuss!!!" If that's what you mean, I sort of see your point. But if you mean that customers are engaging in attempted censorship whenever they give customer feedback, I'm just not seeing it.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Also, if someone tells a bookstore owner they're offended by the selection, they're welcome to shop elsewhere.

But by letting the bookstore owner know WHY they're taking their business elsewhere, they're simply making the owner aware of market forces.

For instance, imagine I was REALLY offended by "Guess How Much I Love You." So I told the manager of my local Borders that the book made me puke, I didn't want my children corrupted by their ten-foot high display, and as a result I would now only shop at "Bob's Bunny-Free Book Emporium"

Well, if I was just one person, they'd probably file me away in their "crazy customer file" and forget about it.

But suppose that 20 or 30 people made the same complaint. And business started dropping off and Bob's was thriving. Then the manager might bow to market forces and remove the hateful rabbits from sight, or at least shelve them more discreetly.

Now, this might offend the Bunnyphiles out there. But they would also be free to complain and shop elsewhere.

And eventually the bookstore manager would craft the most economically feasible policy-- or the one he liked best.

This is how free speech WORKS. You can't say that carrying a book is free speech and NOT carrying it is censorship.

And you're not really infringing on the AUTHOR's free speech by refusing to carry a book your customers find offensive.

After all, Free Speech means I can't stop you from expressing your opinions. It doesn't mean that I have to listen to them, or provide space (at my expense) for others to listen.

The idea that not selling a book is "censorship" always reminds me why I HATE banned books week.

People get their panties in a knot because someone wants "Captain Underwear" removed from a school library. They claim it's been "Banned."

There is no legal penalty for reading it. Anyone can order it on Amazon. You will NOT be thrown into jail for loaning it to your friends.

Talk to people in Cuba, Iran, Sauda Arabia, China, etc. and THEN tell me again how we have the right to get all holier-than-thou about "Banned Books" here in America.

(My husband the librarian claims there is ONE book banned in the USA -- something instructing people how to avoid paying taxes to the IRS....)

Robert said...

Deirdre, I was with you most of the way on your last comment, but there have, in fact, been more than one book removed from school and public libraries because some librarian, on her own or bowing to parental pressure, has been offended. Even "good books," like Catcher in the Rye, have been purged from school and public libraries every now and then. And this, to me, is quite different from a private bookstore deciding not to carry it. When a book is already in a school library, paid for and on the shelves, but is removed because some parent doesn't like what it says, that's censorship in my view. The fact that the book may be available elsewhere really doesn't matter. Not everyone is able to order every book they want on Amazon. Some people use the library because they prefer using their money for rent and groceries. Government attempts at censorship should not be excused simply because the government cannot be entirely successful. You might as well say the government can close down a church or synagogue because the church or synagogue is always free to open up elsewhere.

As strongly as I have defended the right of a bookstore owner not to carry a book, or a bookstore patron to "goad" the bookstore owner into not carrying a book, I condemn the idea that a librarian should make that sort of decision.

Robert said...


The fact that folks in Cuba, Iran, Sauda Arabia, and China have it far, far worse than we do is quite beside the point. If we do not insist on being holier than thou on the subject of censorship, we'll end up in the same boat. It's a slippery slope we do not want to start tripping on. And we should not allow for "small" exceptions to our antipathy to censorship. Freedom is not likely to disappear all at once (I hope), but it can be eroded, as one Supreme Court Justice put it, by "stealthy encroachments." No book is safe unless they all are.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to be goaded into defending my blatantly over-the-top murder analogy.

Free speech ain't worth nothing once the audience starts glazing over.


anthromama said...

Here from The Publishing Curve.

Things that are censorship:
When a library or bookstore decides to carry a book, but other people object because they are offended.

Hmm. I think people are free to be offended and even object, whether to a public or private institution. I think the resulting action of the institution is where the issue lies.

I believe a public library should not censor its holdings. Libraries can make materials restricted (references that cannot be checked out, rare book rooms, etc.) in ways that could in theory limit offending patrons or exposing minors to obscene material. I believe public libraries should be repositories, and thus there should be complete freedom to carry anything and everything.

Acquisitions librarians have to make choices about what to acquire, and they may not purchase potentially offensive material because they believe their community of patrons would not make use of it.

Likewise, if a library acquired something that was never checked out because it was considered offensive by the community, but no one objected, I think the library could ethically remove the material based on practicalities such as shelf space.

A library patron can say "That material offends me," and the librarian can say "Thank you for your feedback." If the patron says "I think it's inappropriate for that smut to be right by the children's section," then the librarian can decide to move the "smut" or not, but not remove it from the holdings.

Within the private realm, bookstore or library, there is complete freedom, both on the part of the owners and patrons. Censorship can happen, and for myriad reasons. And patrons can go elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Can I just say one thing as a public librarian?

You have an absolute right as a taxpayer to "object" (we call it a request for reconsideration) to anything on the shelves at any time. As long as you don't yell at me or throw the book at me, both have happened. But that is your right as both a citizen and taxpayer and is free speech.

What is not going to happen after your challenge is removal of the book because it is offensive to you. Most likely, if it results in anything at all, it will result in a purchase of something reflective of the other side of a hot issue. In *very rare* cases, the book might be moved (if your complaint is that it literally is shelved wrongly, such as explicit material on display near children's areas.)

But if I remove the book because you (or frankly I) don't like it...that is censorship. If you try to block others from having it, that is attempting censorship.

May sound like splitting hairs, but that's the world in which we live.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Thank you to the librarian.

As I understand it, the difference between free speech and censorship is the difference between objecting to WHAT is said/written and objecting to its BEING said/written.
Feel free to object to the *content* of people's expression, as long as you don't object to the *fact* of it.

Anonymous said...

The librarian again, just one more thing. I'm not an acquisitions librarian, but I know that selectors cannot base their choices on whether or not the community may find material offensive. Good public and school libraries have written selection policies that detail criteria (because you don't have an unlimited budget and can't buy everything), but we select a broad range of resources and somewhere in there is something that offends everyone (believe me, there's plenty that offends me).

I do deselect (remove) materials as part of my job. We can remove materials for a variety of reasons (condition, age, disuse, etc.), but again, I cannot remove something just because my community finds it offensive. If it never gets used and space is an issue, then I can, but there's a reason professional librarians do the selection and deselection...there are both budget and free speech issues at work there in addition to shelf space, condition of the collection, etc.

I swear I'm done now...these discussions just fascinate me.

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