Banned Books Weeks And the Woes of Publishing
What do the stories of sharp-tongued riff raff Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; junky drifter William “The Agent” Lee in William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, Margaret, the pre-teen poster child for the plight of puberty in Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and the lovesick Jay Gatsby of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby have in common? Each is an iconic masterpiece, each has contributed greatly to the American literary trajectory, each has helped define its genre and each has, at one point in time, for one reason or another, been banned. Though, like all other books that have been banned, protested, formally challenged or actually removed from library stacks or children’s classrooms, these works were celebrated during National Banned Books Week, which wound to a close on October 3rd.
While book banning—perhaps one of the most blatant types of censorship known to man—may seem foreign to most American readers, hundreds if not thousands of titles are challenged in schools and libraries across the country each year, from the edgy, highly sexualized works of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Kesey; to the seemingly innocuous novels by the likes of Judy Blume and Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, who co-authored And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two homosexual penguins that has risen to the top of the list. Disturbed by these figures, the American Library Association decided to do something about it, and in 1982 launched Banned Books Week as a way to celebrate the fundamental right and freedom to read whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want. And last week, WORD Bookstore on Franklin Avenue threw a party in its honor.
“People forget that books are still banned here. When people think of banned books, they usually assume it’s in other places, other countries,” said Stephanie Anderson, a manager at WORD. “Banned Books Week has been embraced by booksellers and librarians to remind people that the freedom to read is great, and we take it for granted, but we should celebrate it.”
The event was hosted by Mike Edison, a rabble-rousing pornographer, musician and author of I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and The Most Notorious Magazines in the World, who has contributed to several publications indicted as obscene, such as Screw and High Times. The panel also featured independent publisher Richard Nash and Lizzie Skurnick, author of Shelf Discovery.
Edison took to the modest basement stage like a hurricane, hurling papers around the room and shouting verses from Roald Dahl’s The Three Little Pigs, a poem that has been banned in the past, into the microphone in his unmistakably gruff voice, while “Sam the Beatnick” banged on a couple of bongos in the background.
“I have been working as sex and drug magazines for so long—outlaw publishing—and have worked for and with people who are true first-amendment heroes, free speech is at the core of everything I do and write,” Edison said. “There are a lot of small-minded people in this country, and a lot of fear, and I don’t have all the answers. There is always going to be homophobia and weird “family values” that inspire people to challenge certain books, but there are also other forms of censorship, that are much more insidious, that we have to be concerned about too.”
While book challenges—any attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group—have largely replaced out-and-out book banning—the actual removal of materials from a given institution—there are other forms of first-amendment infringement, namely the impossibly stringent and opaque dynamics of trademark and copyright law, that can be just as detrimental to a person’s right to read. In his remarks, Nash mentioned, as an example of the far reaches of copyright, that the happy birthday song is copyrighted, and in order to use it in a film, the filmmaker is required to pay exorbitant royalties. The situation is much the same with written material, creating a culture in which it is near impossible for a small publishing house or independent press to survive, let alone publish everything they’d like to.
“All art is built on what has gone before, and copyright and trademark law is dramatically restricting the capacity of the culture-makers of now to use the culture that has come before us,” Nash said. “Shakespeare was, after all, one of the greatest copiers of world literature. [The consequences] can be even worse than banning, because banning draws attention to itself, whereas unavailable information is just that. You don’t know what you don’t know.”
Though just as Banned Books Week takes something negative—the notion of banning—and turns it into a celebration, such was the conversation about the fate of writing, reading, publishing and media-making: not all is bleak in the world. The dwindling economy has certainly put a strain on publishers and presses, especially independent ones, and some view the internet, blogs, twitter and alternative media as a threat to literature and traditional forms in general, but Nash and the others remained optimistic, especially during Banned Books Week.
“I like that we celebrate banned books, rather than bemoan their banning,” Nash said. “The future of writing is bright, because more and more people are getting access to the tools needed to be able to create. And for that reason, the future of reading is great, because there are more ways we can read. And the future of publishing is murkier in the short and medium term, but in the long run it is great, because writers and readers need help getting connected to one another. The sooner we embrace the change, the better the future of publishing will be.”