Banned Books Week is upon us. Or was upon us, I guess. I’m always reminded of its passing because some writer or other of a conservative bent inevitably uses his or her platform to rail against it. This year it fell onto Matthew Walther, who comes at it ax-in-hand for The Week. It is “far and away the worst” of our fabricated holidays, he writes, a “festival of cloying liberal self-satisfaction beloved by people who like the idea of reading more than they do actually sitting down with Edward Gibbon or even Elmore Leonard.” It ratchets up pretty steadily from there.
It’s hard to disagree with Walther in the general. To say that Banned Books Week is an empty gesture is to be generous. It is a spectral gesture, but more like a specter that always haunts the wrong house. It is that kind of offspring born from an orgy of civil servants to be offered at the altar of a liberalism whose adherents are out of power for the duration and so are coping by binge-watching The Deuce with a “borrowed” HBO Go password.
But there the agreement ends, for the time being anyway, as I think a deeper irony is missed.
The piece, as with its sibling pieces, rests on an irony, of course. Though it is the irony of transgressive censoriousness, a notion born out of our post-liberal reality in which it is now hip to be square. Tipper Gore was right; John Denver and Dee Snider were wrong. John Lithgow #ACTUALLY was the hero of Footloose while Kevin Bacon was literally ISIS. Ditto Edward Woodward in The Wicker Man. (Actually I’ll give them that one.) The irony is rather shallow, however, when compared to the more consequential one surrounding Banned Books Week.
Walther describes Banned Books Week as “a marketing campaign for publishers,” which is true, but it is just as much a nostalgia trip. It harks back to the dark age where the censors seemingly had full run of the cultural asylum. To have some civil libertarians tell it, not a week went by in the peak Cold War years where there wasn’t some kind of obscenity trial for some now undeniably great work of literature. Fanny Hill, Naked Lunch, Tropic of Cancer, Lolita, Ulysses, Howl, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are all united in having been put to trial for their corrupting contents and having prevailed. They are all readily available to be read, though I’d hazard none of them really are. Purchased perhaps, but not read. To be deemed by law as a gross but poignant work of art, regardless of any distinction each one has from the others, seems merit enough.
J.G. Ballard did not receive this memo when it was The Atrocity Exhibition’s turn to go to the chopping block. Though the novel (for lack of a better term) also survived its obscenity trial, it was with no assistance from the author, who has not called as a witness for the defense because, in his words, “of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” And Ballard is correct. It is a masterpiece of depravity, but of a very deadpan, clinical sort; the kind befitting a former medical student and widowed father of three rather than the spoiled, neglectful heroin addict to whom he is often compared. Ballard was perhaps wise to the cult of “redeeming social value” that grew up around these trials. Whatever the Roth and Miller tests did to protect the rights of the creative class to create in the short term, it did so at the expense of artistic merit and integrity in the long term.
“Redeeming social value” has done more to engender the new era of censorship than any reactionary resurgence. Indeed, those young adult fiction readers Walther mentioned are one of its most fervent police forces. If a novel does not defer to their liking to this or that nostrum of progress, it will be tried on Twitter and Tumblr with the hopes of it getting pulled by its publisher. The situation, to paraphrase a friend, resembles LARPing composed entirely of orcs. You see the same mentality acted out person to person at Evergreen State. Also during football games. And it looks like it will stick around for a while, which is annoying and unnerving enough, but made all the more so because it is totally needless.
Censorship of any kind is more about imposing authority than correcting morals. It is a mediocre authority by necessity, requiring the broadest possible understanding of what does and does not repulse public sentiment. But it errs in the Rousseauian assumption of a consumer’s natural innocence, taking little account of his or her innate humanity that is somehow simplistic and unpredictable at the same time. While authorities were working overtime to ban Naked Lunch, the public just went on reading Peyton Place. If authorities deigned to ban A Little Life today, the public would just go on reading Fifty Shades of Grey. Authority can ban all it wants, but the metric of offense is in what the consumer prefers to shun.
This, anyway, is the conclusion I came to while I was writing an essay on Horace McCoy in 2015, whose brutal 1935 noir novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? languished in the shadow of its peers before coming into the limelight in France. It is about two out-of-work Depression era Hollywood actors—the go along-get along Robert and the fatalist Gloria—who try one last attempt at success by subjecting themselves to a grueling dance marathon. When that doesn’t work out, Robert shoots Gloria at her request. The signature of the novel is that the crime is revealed in the first chapter, while the inevitable lead-up is paraded in agonizing and forthright detail. If I didn’t know any better, it seemed as if the novel was written almost with the intent to do actual harm to whoever read it. For all intents and purposes, 20th century literature began with that novel.
But most people didn’t read it. That’s because general consuming habits don’t usually bend to inward-looking widely scoped stories, especially when it comes to scandalous material. They prefer scandal seen from the outside, and which doesn’t make gestures at wanting to get inside a consumer’s head or character. David Simon’s success with everything he’s done since Homicide is rooted in that voyeuristic remove, whether Simon is aware of that or not. Nothing short of a miracle—say, Oprah reading it—would cause a book of unfathomable depravity to shoot up the bestseller list. Most likeminded books remain confined to a lost souls room of sorts, a literary “death for the dead.”
This is not to say that shunned books are, like banned books, implicitly meritorious simply because they are shunned. Hardly. Some of the worst books ever written exist in this category. Anita Dalton keeps track of them over at her blog Odd Things Considered, scraping the dregs of offbeat, transgressive, experimental, and plain bizarre art because the rest of us don’t want to. In a microuniverse teeming with edgelords, it’s good to have a tried and true critic whose tolerance is boundless and whose judgment I can trust.
But shunned books are in any case more adequate gauges of what unsettles human readers and so what might more directly indicate as humanity’s most pressing dilemmas. For every few works of rotten imagination there is one work of real substance that cuts to truth however precisely or however incidentally. Censors and liberals alike are convinced that truth can be manicured into simple lessons either of prudence or tolerance, eliciting respectively maturity or cheerfulness. “The writer has no business making moral judgments,” Ballard said, “I think it’s far better, as … I’ve tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.” Truth, then, might also be posh Londoners seeking sexual gratification through car wrecks.
Lovers of Banned Book Week, Walther continues, “are people with cartoonish conceptions of history, in which the vast sweep of human affairs, the march of technological development, the fluctuations of wealth, the accumulations of capital, the misery of wars, the famines and floods and massacres, have been an inexorable progression culminating in America in 2017, where reading a pornographic pastiche of children’s fiction called 50 Shades of Grey is an inalienable right.” Here agreement resumes, but up to a point. Walther, unlike me, is generous not to include all readers in this assessment. Unlike me, he has not lost hope or patience in the habits of readers ever being refined out of this torpor. I look just as clearly as he looks on the vast sweep of human affairs and all that, only to conclude that our work is not nearly obscene enough.
1 Disclosure: this is nothing against Walther himself, who is a friend, an excellent writer, a generous editor, and a man of impeccable taste all around, not least of all in horror.