Literature, with the naughty bits

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On judging books, and authors, by their covers

I have a whole new reason to write as E.A., rather than Elizabeth: what the Guardian is calling The Great Chick-Lit Cover-Up.

Chick lit is a wildly successful genre, of course, so publishers are evidently attempting to make every book by a female author look like chick lit. Now, this is insulting in several ways.

One, it's incredibly condescending to the female readers who want to read chick lit: do publishers actually think these readers won't notice the difference? And won't the readers be disappointed? If you're hoping for chick lit, you don't want a book full of subtle lyricism and intricate symbolism, no matter how much you might enjoy that book on another day. And you're bound to resent an author whose book isn't what you expected. So the publishers are actually doing a disservice to these authors, in the name of a quick sell.

Two, think about the typical covers of Big Important Literary Books. They do not look like chick lit (which typically proclaims its status with candy-bright colors). They look like they've been designed by Chip Kidd, or one of his imitators. Or, if enough time has passed, they have the little orange band that designates a Penguin Classic, or the logo that says the book has passed into public domain and Barnes & Noble is going to put out its own damn edition. But if all female authors are denied these designations, then hey, guess what, it doesn't matter how profitable our books are, or how well we've written them: we're all being kept out of the canon. It doesn't matter how meaty the book is, if bookstores everywhere are proclaiming it's candy. Far more people will walk past the shop windows than will ever crack the book.

And once an author has a reputation for candy, she's going to have a hard time convincing people she can write anything that isn't candy. (Just ask Stephen King.) What if you're Toni Morrison, and your books are entitled Paradise and Song of Solomon and Beloved, and they get rebranded with big swishy shiny letters, and suddenly everyone expects them to be bodice-rippers? How long do you think you'd have to wait for the Nobel committee to call?

I will admit, however, that I'm a teeny bit curious about how the chick-lit covers would look for, say, The Corrections or White Noise. For the former, I envision a close-up of a flat chest in a Wonderbra, and a lipstick scrawl of a title; for the latter...oh, it could be the typical cartoon of the skinny, harried young mother, with a shopping cart overflowing with name-brand products and a comical black cloud in the distance.

That suggests a bit of a guerrilla art project, doesn't it? A little fun for a feminist with a color printer. Just fold on the new dust jackets, move the Big Important Men's Literary Books to the chick lit table, and see who notices.

Wow, if anyone actually does that, I hope they'll send me the designs.

Monday, August 4, 2008

R.I.P. Alexander Sozhenitsyn

In case you have any doubt of the power of a single voice raised against oppression, take a look at an obituary for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (For those who prefer biography to hagiography, the New York Times offers a much more detailed life history, including descriptions of a seriously cantankerous Solzhenitsyn in exile.)

In any case, let's raise a glass to the memory of a man who believed that "it is within the power of defeat the lie."

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood

First Published: 1986

In a Nutshell: Atwood creates a future dystopia in which the United States has just become an oppressive fundamentalist dictatorship, the Republic of Gilead. Women are no longer allowed to read, work, or hold property; rather, they are property, assigned to men, and their sole purpose is to reproduce. Our guide through this world is Offred, the handmaid to a high-ranking Commander in the regime. (Offred is not her real name; the handmaids' names depend on their Commanders' names. Atwood never reveals Offred's real name--which, of course, makes it that much easier for the reader to substitute her own.) Despite extensive reeducation she remembers her life before, and pines for escape.

Censorhip History: It's always ironic when people try to censor a book that is, ultimately, about the futility of such efforts. Almost every character here finds a tiny or not-so-tiny way to defy the oppressive system, just as almost every interested 10-year-old finds a way to read what's on the school library's age-restricted shelf.

What's here to raise hackles? Well, the sexual content, of course. It's hardly the sort of sex you encounter in Valley of the Horses, but it is sex, and it takes place in a world defined by sex. Or, rather, defined by the renunciation of sex for purposes other than procreation. So it doesn't paint the most attractive picture of the Abstinence-Only movement, or of the loudmouth extremists who like to wave their Bibles around while they denounce other people's choices. (Not that Abstinence-Only deserves a flattering portrait.) A major character is a lesbian, and not in any way that might lead kids to think lesbianism is a sinful choice--she's a total badass, the one you want to be. (Not that lesbianism is a sinful choice.)There's also some incidental use of the f-word. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In Atwood's future, Texas is an independent republic again. You'd think that might have won some points with Texans. Not so: The San Antonio public schools considered banning The Handmaid's Tale on the grounds that it contained graphic sexual content and was offensive to Christians. One would-be censor, in what could be a verbatim line from the reeducation center's Aunt Lydia, claimed, "I have a responsibility to the country and our community to speak up for the values that will strengthen our society." (In an open letter, Atwood responded wryly, "It's encouraging to know the written word is still taken so seriously.") Texas isn't the only case--Handmaid is high on the ALA's list of most censored books--but it's one of the most recent.

Is it just the sex? There's far more graphic sexual content out there, and some of it is in classrooms too. I think the real problem is closer to what Atwood describes: women's liberation makes certain people very, very uncomfortable.

Fundamentally, this is a book about power--the forms it takes, how we wield it, who suffers under it. It explores the essentially benevolent motivations of the people who have created the new regime. If you care about government or civil rights, this is a great read; it's a glimpse inside what Paul Johnson calls a utopian dictatorship. And if you care about women's rights, you must read this, no question. (Atwood's status in the historically male-dominated genre of literary sci-fi has to count as another victory for feminism.)

That said, it's not really a book for kids. No one below high school is likely to grasp the real horror of the government's imposition into women's lives and bodies (though here's a blogger who read Handmaid at 12 and thereby gained her first real feminist awareness). It may take a serious relationship or two before you understand how awful it is for Offred to be torn from her husband and daughter or for the Commander's Wife to watch the Commander's forced procreation with Offred. It may take several years of earning your own living before you feel in your gut the utter betrayal of having the rules changed to take all that away from you. I first read Handmaid in high school, read it next as the Taliban was blowing up statues, and just read it again; different parts have hit home each time. As Clifton Fadiman points out, "When you reread a classic, you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before." But none of that is an excuse for censorship.

Real-World Correspondences: Of course, any story about the future is really a story about the present. In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood takes numerous social trends of the 1980s and extends them to their logical and chilling conclusions. But she also works within the known world so well that it's not hard to glimpse the borders of Gilead as you walk down your street.

The Reagan era was not a happy time for reproductive rights. Nor was it a particularly promising time for women, period. There were rumblings about the dropping U.S. birth rate (though in fact it remained at replacement level. As Susan Faludi documents in Backlash, many religious and political ideologues, unhappy about the recent gains of the women's movement, exhorted women to remember their sacred duty of motherhood. (The embittered Commander's Wife, a former televangelist, is a clear nod to figures such as Beverly LaHaye and Tammy Faye Bakker; she seems to have realized too late that achieving her goals would require her to stop working.) Women's newfound sexual freedom and abortion rights were particular sticking points. By the decade's end, "fetal rights" activism was responsible for several forced cesarians and at least one pregnant woman's being shackled to her hospital bed.

Of course, the fetal rights folks--who sometimes referred to women as "incubators"--knew the value of nomenclature. That preoccupation carries into Handmaid's Tale. Like much U.S. culture in the 1980s, the Republic of Gilead is a triumph of marketing. Extensive market research has gone into the definition of roles, the design of uniforms, the naming of events.

Atwood also explores the Reagan-era nuclear nightmare: part of the reason the birth rate is so low is that the rate of birth defects has skyrocketed. Toxic waste from industrial pollution and a series of nuclear accidents has contaminated nearly everyone. Other people have fallen prey to that other Reagan-era nightmare, AIDS, or a drug-resistant strain of syphilis. Atwood understands the decade's neuroses so thoroughly it's a wonder she doesn't also create some surprisingly lethal side effect of wearing shoulder pads.

If the women's uniforms--voluminous, shapeless, all-concealing, with mandatory hats and veils--remind you of chador, that's no accident. Atwood drew a great deal of inspiration from a 1978 trip to Afghanistan. Some details also, clearly, come from the Holocaust: the new regime is purged of blacks and Jews, and the handmaids all receive identifying tattoos. In fact, when people argued that the book should be censored because of the horrible inhumanity it depicts, Atwood pointed out that it doesn't show anything that hasn't actually happened.

Just think about that for a second.

Eerily Prescient Bits: The coup that leads to the creation of the Republic of Gilead is initially blamed on "Islamic fascists" so the new government has a scapegoat as well as an excuse for suspending the Constitution. And the new government creates some "National Homeland" something-or-others, which hits a bit too close for comfort.

Atwood also accurately foresaw the dominance of paying by electronic debit rather than cash; in Gilead, this allows the government to freeze all women's assets. I still occasionally get a what-if chill when I reach for my debit card.

What Else: I can't believe I just posted a link to Beverly LaHaye's site. From an anti-censorship blog, at that. I feel filthy.

And Perhaps You'd Like to Pair That With: Backlash, for a sobering look at the real-life trends behind the made-up world; The Kite Runner, for an example of life under the Taliban; Brave New World and 1984, for other classic fictional dystopias.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


First Published: 1974

Author: Stephen King

Censorship History: If you Google "Carrie censorship," most of the hits are for Sister Carrie. Which is ironic, given that Carrie was in the top 100 challenged books for 1990-2000, and Sister Carrie didn't even crack the list. The censors, evidently, have bigger, dirtier fish to fry these days.

What's more curious, to me, is that most of the links for this Carrie lead to the same piece of text:

Considered "trash" that is especially harmful for "younger girls."
Challenged by Clark High School library, Las Vegas, Nevada, 1975. Placed on special closed shelf in Union High School library, Vergennes, Vermont, 1978.

That's it? You do get the odd note about parents requesting a blanket ban on all Stephen King books (he has three or four in the top 100, quite a respectable showing), and one columnist describes his books as being on an age-restricted shelf at her school's library (which actually seems like a great strategy for getting younger kids to read). If you search for "Ban Stephen King" you get lots of hits about his public stance against banning video games. But there's very little about any actual censorship of Carrie. One must conclude that either the would-be censors are keeping their efforts very, very quiet--which might not be a bad strategy if you're up against a fiction behemoth like Stephen King--or that the reports of Carrie's censorship are greatly exaggerated.

One can, at least, find an article in which King discusses censorship: "Run, don't walk, to the first library or bookstore you can find and read what they are trying to keep out of your eyes because that is exactly what you need to know." Amen.

In any case, Carrie is the sort of thing every high school student should read; if they did, high school might be a kinder place. The book's real power comes not so much from King's gift for horror as from his utter empathy for his title character. No one who reads this should ever again be able to dismiss a misfit with an easy conscience. King is relentless in finding not just the overt cruelty of Chris, the Queen Bee, but also the more passive cruelty of the good girls who go along with the group--the ones who are, in essence, just following orders.

What Happens: At 16, Carrie White, the class misfit, starts her first period in the shower in front of her entire gym class. The other girls mock her cruelly. She has no idea what is happening. It emerges that her mother is a religious fanatic who believes menarche is God's punishment to girls who harbor sinful thoughts. Mrs. White also beats Carrie regularly and locks her in a closet. Carrie, however, is not quite defenseless. She is discovering a mysterious ability to move things with her mind, and she begins to train this ability to protect herself from her mother.

Sue Snell, one of the girls from the gym class, regrets her role in teasing Carrie, and persuades her boyfriend to take Carrie to the senior prom as a way of helping Carrie come out of her shell. For a few blissful hours Carrie transcends her misery. The other students accept her. She is beautiful.

Then--in what is one of the best-known episodes in Stephen King's vast canon--Chris, the gym class ringleader, douses Carrie in pig blood. Carrie's vengeance is swift and only half voluntary. She dies, but not before taking out several hundred others.

And How About That Death Scene: Plenty of writers attempt to take you inside a character's head at the moment of death. Few do it in a way you suspect you will remember at your own death: Tolstoy in War and Peace; Toni Morrison in Sula; A.S. Byatt in Still Life; a handful of others. I'm going to have to add Carrie White's death to that short list.

A Confession: I was something of a Sue Snell in high school, only without the boyfriend and the sex and the good looks. I was a very good student and by most standards a good kid; I didn't sneak out or drink or even try one of Kris Nielsen's cigarettes; I didn't trust my body enough to wear anything close to revealing (although there were some really regrettable tie-dyed leggings around 1990); I had a mind, but I was just beginning to discover that it was my own.

I was the butt of a few jokes. But I was also privy to a few jokes on students even lower in the pecking order. To my eternal shame, I did nothing to stop them; sometimes I went along with them. There are a few regrets I don't suppose you ever get over. That's one for me. Reading Carrie opened that old wound as if it had never healed. There's a twenty-some year gap between Carrie's prom and mine, but that whole kill-or-be-killed world is apparently a constant, and oh, boy, does King nail it. If he nails the reader in the process, well, that's the point, isn't it?

What Else: If you want to get a look of carefully restrained pity from your librarian, check out Carrie and Sister Carrie on the same day, as though you think they're related, along the lines of Gone with the Wind and The Wind Done Gone.

Carrie was King's breakthrough. He was inspired by a couple of girls who went to his high school, miserable outcasts of an instantly recognizable type. He describes the whole process quite movingly in On Writing (another one that should be required reading for high school students). Anyone who thinks of King as a sort of pulpy genre author is in for a fantastic surprise, because his style here is quite inventive, and not in the self-conscious, faintly desperate way you associate with first novels. This is flat-out good.

Trivia: Carrie was made into a notoriously bad musical, some say the worst flop of all time, in 1988. (Gee, I can't tell why it flopped.)

There's also a film version by Brian DePalma I hear is pretty good, and another film called The Rage: Carrie 2 that sounds pretty pointless and awful, what with Carrie dying in the first one.
FIRE CHIEF: Remember? Remember the horror?
SUE (trembling): Yes! Yes, I remember! Oh, the memory is so horrible!

Etc. There are times when the best compliment you can pay to a story is to let it end where it's supposed to end.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

No blog on censorship would be complete without noting the passing of George Carlin, one of the shrewdest and funniest voices for free speech. Everyone remembers the "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," but for my money this was his most inspiring line:

Why is everything like this? Why isn't it different?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Sister Carrie

Author: Theodore Dreiser

First Published: 1900

What Happens (Here Be Spoilers): Carrie Meeber, in her late teens, forsakes her small-town life to come to Chicago, hoping for work. She stays with her sister and her sister's husband in their humble apartment, and immediately realizes she wants a life less shoddy than theirs. She hopes for a comfortable position as a shop girl in one of the new department stores, but can't afford the stylish clothes that would secure such a job, and finds grueling, underpaid work in a shoe factory instead. Eventually she loses even that.

However, she catches the eye of Charles Drouet, an up-and-coming salesman. Drouet showers her with gifts and whisks her away from her sister. Soon they are living together. Carrie no longer needs to work at all; she spends her days reading. Drouet promises to marry her as soon as he makes a big enough sale to cover the expenses. He introduces her to friends as his wife.

He makes the mistake of introducing her to Hurstwood, who resolves to win Carrie away from Drouet. Carrie--who now has the luxury of time to think--has begun to recognize Drouet's shortcomings, particularly the hollowness of his promises of marriage. She admires Hurstwood's intelligence, extravagance, social connections and superior taste. She refuses to leave Drouet unless Hurstwood marries her. Hurstwood agrees, neglecting to inform her that he is already married.

Hurstwood's wife susses out her husband's duplicity and threatens divorce, a move that would leave him without property. It's safe to say Hurstwood does not respond well: He steals $10,000 from work, lies to Carrie, and flees with her to Canada, where he marries her in a ceremony that he only later reveals is a sham.

White-collar crime has apparently not changed much over the years. Hurstwood's employers fire him but agree not to press charges if he returns the money. But he is in too much disgrace to return to Chicago, or to work in the elevated social circles to which he is accustomed. He and Carrie move to New York. There, he struggles to find work. For the first time in his life, he must pay attention to a budget. Carrie, for her part, discovers the essential poverty of spirit that underlay all his previous generosity. When he does work, he neglects her in much the same way he neglected his first wife. Their resources dwindle.

Finally Carrie is fed up. She gets work as a chorus girl. In the past she has shown some talent as an actor, and the theater begins to recognize it. As her income grows, she leaves Hurstwood. Gradually she becomes a recognized star; the shows are trifling comedies, but she earns a handsome income. She also earns legions of male admirers but--to the bewilderment of her castmates--remains indifferent to their offers of wealth and wedded bliss. Drouet, now quite affluent, seeks her out; they reconcile civilly but she is no more interested in him than in the other suitors. She has discovered independence.

Hurstwood, on the other hand, continues his decline into poverty. The book ends with him, a ruined man, in the waning twilight of his life.

Censorship History: Sister Carrie was condemned early and often; like Ulysses it was censored and bowdlerized enough that we no longer have a single authoritative edition. (Bowdlerizing--named for the Reverend Thomas Bowdler--originally meant removing content "unfit to be read by a gentleman in the company of ladies." It has come to imply "withholding certain details and thereby weakening the whole," in much the same way that future generations will speak of Rumsfelding an invasion.)

Most censorship, of course, is less a comment on the work than on its times. Many early descriptions of Sister Carrie refer to Carrie as "a woman of loose morals." Given that she is the dupe of both Drouet and Hurstwood, neither of whom thinks anything of a little casual philandering on the side (and one of whom steals a great deal of money), it's pretty appalling that Carrie gets the blame. But I'm afraid it presents an accurate picture of just how circumscribed women's lives were in the 1890s. Poverty, not baseness, drives Carrie to accept Drouet's gifts and attentions. Her insistence on marriage reveals her awareness of social code; unfortunately, she is also more or less powerless to enforce her wishes, and at first she's too ignorant to to recognize the men's deceit. It's plain that she is not unique in her ignorance. Drouet and Hurstwood both expect her to believe their lies; women in their world do not ask questions. Carrie's society--the same society that sought to ban this book--kept women ignorant in the name of preserving their innocence.

Carrie's moral slips occur when she becomes aware of the differences between her material wealth and the wealth of others. This is a tragedy of capitalism more than anything else. The plot shows the natural consequences of income disparity. When Drouet first offers Carrie gifts, she is too poor to afford a winter coat (and that's a serious problem in Chicago). It's hard to blame her for choosing the comfort and surface respectability of life with him. Plenty of women make the same decision today. If the arbitrary lack of a ring is all that makes Carrie immoral, that proves Dreiser's point rather better than it proves the point of his censors. Of course, I'm making these observations from the perspective of a century, but Dreiser is always quite clear about Carrie's circumstances and motivations, and I imagine many women of Carrie's time read this and wondered what, exactly, was so terrible about her efforts to survive.

In any case, no amount of Bowdlerization can remove the implications of the plot, which remain quite radical: that capitalism is amoral; that wealth is neither always deserved nor always a reflection of moral character; that poverty is not noble; that we cannot always pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; that pay does not always accurately reflect the difficulty of the job; that women are not innately moral and innocent but rather gain judgment from their experiences in the world.

It says plenty about the character of the times that Dreiser could be censored for implying extramarital sex but that the casual sexism of some of his commentary--the broad observations about women's consciousness of fashion--could go unremarked. (As for the accuracy of these generalizations, all I can say is, Go to a literacy conference, Theodore, and discover the depths of frumpiness to which women can sink when they give most of their effort to meaningful work.) And as far as I can tell no one has found much issue with Drouet's description of a client as "a regular hook-nosed sheeny." These biases are allowable, I think, because the occasional sexism of the commentary pales next to the near-revolutionary independence of the female character, and because the "sheeny" comment serves to illustrate Drouet's small-mindedness. (Or, sadly, perhaps it was the sort of thing people said all the time then, and no one noticed anything amiss.)

Off-the-cuff anti-Semitism notwithstanding, the Nazis banned Sister Carrie in 1933. It's a safe assumption that if your work is banned by a fanatical dictatorship, you're doing something right.

What Else: Dreiser has taken a lot of lumps over the years for his writing style. Dorothy Parker notably opined,

Theodore Dreiser
Should ought to write nicer.

But it's not as though Dreiser is unlettered, or his sentences are artless in the same way that, say, Dan Brown's are artless. One gets the sense that Dreiser is wrestling constantly with the language to make it do his bidding. He has examined all the available words and found them lacking; none is quite precise enough. Where some writers would go for the word that comes nearest the point, and others would try for a metaphor that would transcend the words, Dreiser just keeps cramming words into the sentence, hoping that in combination they will refine his meaning as singly they cannot.

That said, his syntax is far more complicated than most American writers would even attempt today. And it's not just that long, complicated sentences have gone out of vogue; it's that must of us don't know how to string together clauses and phrases the way even second-rate hacks did in the 19th century. (Take a good hard look at some of Poe's sentences, for example, and remember that he was considered inferior in his day. Then imagine a roomful of MFA students being asked to parse a sentence, and blanching in unison.)

Anyway, I think what's really happening here, stylistically, is that Dreiser is ushering in the era of American modernism. (This is not itself a modernist book--it's naturalism--but it's a giant departure from what had come before.) He wrote at a turning point in American literature, a turning point he helped to cause, and Sister Carrie--his first novel--sometimes justaposes the flowery 19th-century high style he must have grown up reading with the cleaner, harder modern lines and ideas he was starting to choose for himself. The last sentence--which will haunt you--leaves no doubt that Dreiser ultimately comes down on the side of the modern.

For all the jabs at Dreiser's language, there is real craft in the images he chooses--for example, the bum Hurstwood ignores early in the action, who foreshadows Hurstwood's own fall. And when Dreiser gets it, he nails it. Describing Hurstwood on the social scene: "It was greatness in a way, small as it was." Describing a community theater production: "The applause and good nature of the its surprise at not being tortured, went to the extreme of hilarious commendation."

May I Suggest a Nice White to Accompany That: Devil in the White City takes place in the same Chicago. Larsen's architectural history will give you a thorough idea of the backdrop of Carrie's life. Dreiser's description of Carrie's relative poverty and artlessness will help you understand how the killer in White City was able to prey on so many similar young women.

And perhaps you could follow with The Jungle as a nice digestif, for further meditations on income disparity, or A Room of One's Own, for thoughts on women's independence. Carrie's trajectory is essentially that of Woolf's hypothetical Judith Shakespeare.

And on a Personal Note: As the Field Guide grows, my life seems to mirror the books to a degree that is sometimes alarming. I had to borrow a hacksaw for a home improvement project the week I was reading American Psycho, and found myself walking into a crowded bar with the saw concealed in a shopping bag. But with this book it was less creepy. Dreiser knows Chicago very well. Carrie sees Joseph Jefferson on stage, for example; and here I was, a woman who came to Chicago to act, reading this novel the week of the Jeff Awards. The utter realness of Carrie's world lingers with me.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Author: Mark Twain

First Published: 1885

What Happens: Twain warns in his preface that "persons attempting to find a plot...will be shot." So the, ahem, sequence of events takes place after the end of Tom Sawyer. That novel ends with Tom and Huck each in possession of $6,000. In the sequel Huck has been taken in by a kindly widow, but his violent, alcoholic father soon gets wind of Huck's fortune and comes to town to claim it. Pap kidnaps Huck, who eventually flees. Huck meets up with Jim, a slave who has run away from the widow's farm. The town assumes Pap has killed Huck. Huck and Jim escape on a raft down the Mississippi. They hope to get to the town of Cairo, where Jim can pass himself off as a freeman, but they overshoot and wind up in slave territory, where Jim is in constant danger. A picaresque series of escapades ensues; Twain is at his best describing the townspeople along the river and the contradictions of human behavior. A pair of shysters, the King and the Duke, tag along, bilking the townspeople as they travel.

The King and the Duke print up false billets to collect rewards on Jim as a runaway slave; the last of these has resulted in his imprisonment. Huck sets out to free him. Then, in the much-discussed (and much-maligned) last section of the book, Huck encounters Tom, who has come to visit his Aunt Sally. Tom, under the influence of countless gothic adventure novels, insists on complicating the rescue to a degree that places Jim in physical torment and prolongs his confinement for a month--even though, as it turns out, Tom knows all along that Jim is actually free, because the old widow has died.

The Obligatory Discussion of the Problem Ending: Twain has indeed created a bit of a Problem Ending, in much the same way that Shakespeare (or Bacon, as Twain would have it) wrote a few Problem Plays. I think the real problem comes at the beginning of the end, when Twain gives Tom precedence in Huck's story. Huck has matured on his journey; Tom is still a boy. For the ending to feel more related to the rest of the story, pragmatic Huck would need to triumph over romantic Tom. The two would free Jim using Huck's practical means and thereby get into really serious trouble. (George Saunders, in his excellent introduction, suggests that Twain may have avoided this route because he sensed that the trouble might be so serious as to turn the novel into a tragedy.)

Once Twain has chosen to give Tom the reins, I don't see any better way for the story to proceed than the way Twain has written it. The great human comedy has become something closer to parody or farce, and a farce has to progress to a crowning punchline. Having established the meaninglessness of the events from the moment Tom insists on his complicated plan, Twain has to progress to the crowning meaninglessness: Tom has known all along that Jim was already free. (And yes, that was two meaninglessnesses in one sentence, and I don't see any way around that either.) Tom's machinations result in his getting shot; that's fitting too, since under narrative logic he should be most punished for the stupidity of his actions. It all works as narrative and as comedy.

The problem is, we've already seen much better comedy: the life along the Mississippi, through Huck's singularly frank and sometimes naïve vision. Huck and Jim have emerged as people we care about, and they must go back to being pawns who are battered by the blows of farce. The ending feels odd not because it's inferior writing--it is still Twain, after all--but because it's not quite part of the same book. It would have been fine as a short story, and Tom's revelation would have worked the same way an O. Henry ending does. However, I have already devoted enough attention to it that I fully expect to be shot.

Trivia: Jane Austen spoofed gothic novels in essentially the same way in Northanger Abbey: A too-susceptible character imagines drama in innocuous situations and thereby gets herself into trouble. The device is a bit more successful there, because it's the central gimmick of the plot, and the heroine's snooping eventually does create enough real complications for the climax to be satisfying. Perhaps that has something to do with Twain's well-documented distaste for Austen: "Jane Austen's books," he said, "are absent from this library. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn't a book in it."

Censorship History: We tend to think of Huck Finn's censorship as being one of those tragic cases of the smothering of all non-PC thought, but the book raised hackles from the beginning. Though today's readers may see racism in Twain's writing, his views on race were shockingly progressive to many of his contemporaries. Even more shocking was the book's true emotional climax, in which Huck realizes that saving Jim from captivity will mean going to hell--and he chooses to go to hell. A horrified Louisa May Alcott opined, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them."

Huck Finn is still in the top ten of the American Library Association's list of most challenged books, and that's no mean feat when you consider that American Psycho is #60. Huck's challenges nearly all have to do with the word nigger and the sometimes minstrel-ish potrayal of Jim. (Interestingly enough, African American writers Toni Morrison and Alex Haley have spoken in defense of the book.)

Huck Finn has quite a few things in common with another book that gets challenged on similar grounds, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both authors grew up in the South, and certain assumptions color their writing despite their best efforts. Both of them show racism through the perception of a child--and a white child at that, a child just beginning to be aware of his or her own prejudice. If it's clear from the discussion of race that Huck predates Mockingbird by almost a century, it's also clear that the device endures as a way to present honest portrayals of the adult world.

However, where Mockingbird's Scout is naïve because she is priviliged and quite young, Huck is naïve because he is ignorant and largely unschooled. He has unthinkingly absorbed many of Pap's worst traits. Pap is the anti-Atticus; he thinks Huck is putting on airs by attempting to read and write, and he rails against perceived slights from every corner of society, blaming the government, the rich, and eventually even "free niggers" for his drunkenness and poverty. Pap's drunken monologue is instantly recognizable. Twain is unsparing and pretty much letter-perfect in depicting the weaknesses that underlie human cruelty, and what was not yet called addiction. (In many ways, today's clinical vocabulary weakens our ability to describe characters, reducing them to collections of symptoms rather than true people who bear some responsibility for their actions. We fiction writers will have to find some ways around that.)

Huck, Twain, Racism, and Bus Rides: Twain's father owned slaves, and Twain's perception of race and racism evolved considerably between childhood and adulthood. I have to imagine that, consciously or not, part of his impetus for writing Huck Finn was to convey his awakening to the injustice of racial prejudice. (The book was published twenty years after the end of the Civil War, so he's not lobbying for abolition here; he's talking about basic human interaction.)

To me, it's pretty clear that Twain wanted to contrast Jim--who protects Huck, sacrifices for him, listens to him, conspires with him, and ultimately loves him--with Pap, who drinks, extorts, picks fights, abandons and then kidnaps his son, turns instantly and savagely violent, refuses to work, and sees Huck as a meal ticket. Later, when Huck and Jim are joined by the King and the Duke, it's quite obvious that Jim is the kindest and most honest person on the raft. It's unfortunate that Twain sometimes pushes Jim's guilelessness to the point of idiocy. But let's think for a moment about how many other Southern writers of the time were willing to see nobility and humor in the hearts and minds of slaves. Likewise, though many characters--including Huck--discuss the innate inferiority of the people they always call niggers, it's clear that the beliefs belong to the characters, not to Twain.

That said, a few days ago I was reading the book on the bus, fairly early in the story, when Huck is revealing some of his more unfortunate beliefs. A black man sat down next to me. We met each other's eyes and smiled, and I surreptitiously marked my page with my finder and shut the book. After a moment he glanced at the cover and said "Huck Finn, huh?"

I gabbled about how long it had been since I'd read it, how it was funnier than I remembered. I asked if he had read it, and he shook his head no, still smiling. The word nigger hovered unspoken between us. Was he supposed to accuse me of reading something offensive? Was I supposed to mention the topic we're not supposed to notice any more, the thing you don't talk about with strangers? We rode on in silence. After a few more stops I got off the bus.

I suppose it's something that we could ride on a bus side by side: that he could take the seat next to me without fear of reprisal, that I could look at him and see a person capable of legitimate offense. When strangers can honestly talk about race, though, we'll really be getting somewhere. Whatever the book's limitations, I think it's obvious that's what Twain really wanted, and I have a feeling it's more or less what his censors want too. That day might come sooner if we could start the conversation with a point of commonality--such as, say, all reading the same book.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

American Psycho

Author: Bret Easton Ellis

First Published: 1991

Why It's Been Challenged: Ellis drops the F-bomb on page 2 and the N-bomb four pages after that. But that's mild compared with what follows: racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, anti-Semitism; rampant drug and alcohol abuse; obscenely conspicuous consumption (you can skim over the descriptions of tabbed collars the same way you do the nautical passages in Moby-Dick); masturbation; graphic casual sex, hired sex, premarital sex, group sex; porn; necrophilia and hinted pedophilia; cannibalism; misinformation about AIDS; cruelty to animals; cruelty to mimes (threatened); and of course the psychopathic violence--towards children, towards the homeless, towards taxi drivers, but mostly towards women--that gives the book its title.

Censorship History: The release of American Psycho caused a bit of a flap. Aghast advance reviewers condemned the book (it does tend to cause a rather visceral reaction in the reader), and in the face of such negative publicity Simon & Schuster canceled publication. Vintage swooped in (some say they smelled profit in the public furor) and gave Ellis a new contract. There has been much discussion over whether this sort of suppression actually counts as censorship; Roger Rosenblatt and Lorrie Moore claim it doesn't, whereas John Irving (also writing in the Times) claims it does.

In Australia the book is still restricted to buyers under 18, and it is sometimes sold in shrink wrap.

It pains me to say this, but in the U.S., some of the loudest protests have come from feminists, especially the National Organization for Women. One woman was arrested for staging a "read-in," in which she read objectionable portions of the book out loud at her local B. Dalton. I'm a feminist, and I didn't particularly like the book, but look: The humorless suppression of non-feminist texts is one of the most lamentable and counterproductive aspects of feminism. Does our own liberation have to rely on the suppression of others? God, I hope not.

Value as Satire: A review on the back cover (from Katherine Dunn) compares Ellis's writing with Jane Austen's. Though it presents several glorious comic possibilities--the 13-year-old girl who has exhausted the Austen canon turning hopefully to the romantic escapades of Patrick Bateman, or the first page of American Psycho II: Pride and Extreme Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a victim")--the comparison is inaccurate. Most satire can be classed as either Horatian (generous, gentle, benevolent, à la Christopher Guest) or Juvenalian (darker, misanthropic, caustic, less likely to present a redeeming view of the world, à la Jonathan Swift). Austen can be scathing, but her sympathy for her characters puts her squarely in the Horation camp. American Psycho has no such sympathy, and nothing resembling redemption; it's Juvenalian. Austen is also, pace Ms. Dunn, a far better stylist than Ellis. Austen wields a chisel; Ellis wields a mallet, a hacksaw, and some battery acid.

Still, in its excessive depiction of excess, this has some claims to being over-the-top high satire. But is it really all that far from the truth? In the characters' amorality and self-absorption, no. (Newsweek quoted a yuppie after the 1987 stock market crash: "You don't understand. The wife expects a new Jaguar every year, and the two houses aren't paid for yet.") The 1980s, after all, were the decade that saw Dan Quayle elected vice president despite being outdebated by an 11-year-old.

And what of the central conceit, that everyone around Bateman is too awful and drugged up to notice that one of their friends is a psychopath? It's definitely funny, one of the book's most potent ideas, but again, no great departure from the truth. It turns out that pyschopaths tend to succeed fantastically in business, aided by their ruthlessness and manipulativeness. So, all in all, American Psycho is another case of a blow meant for satire landing squarely on the nail of fact.

Value as Erotica: Potentially useful, if you stop reading at the right place. But line between the sexual episodes and the violent episodes tends to blur, and if you treat this book as erotica you're probably going to feel a bit icky afterwards.

Value as Literature: Despite the initial foul press, a lot of people love this book. I think that, like Fight Club, this is a novel that (perhaps inadvertently) reveals how a generation wants to see itself and its demons. Still, for all the assurances that this is a big book, an important book, I feel cheated.

This story is indeed disturbing and alienating; it makes you look at familiar places and people and wonder what madness lurks just out of sight. And making the familiar strange, as Samuel Johnson put it, is certainly one of the big tasks of fiction. But this is still a fairly punishing read. It kept making me think of other books that cover the same territory. For satire of overconsumption, The Bonfire of the Vanities and White Noise; for creepiness, In Cold Blood; for splatter, From Hell; for real-life accounts of excess, The Clothes Have No Emperor and The Smartest Guys in the Room.

And the actual writing? Some of the narrative devices interfere with the narrative itself, and that's a problem. Form must nearly always follow function in narrative. It doesn't absolutely have to, but the novelist departs from that path at his own peril.

It's one of Ellis's satirical conceits that people in Bateman's world are constantly mistaken for other people, because these yuppies are so slavishly devoted to the same ideals of appearance and behavior that they are fundamentally interchangeable. But this means any chance for emotional growth or catharsis through continuity of character is pretty much shot.

Also, Patrick Bateman spends a lot of time under the influence of drugs; since it's a first-person narrative, that means the drugs interfere with the order and clarity of events. But that happens in a lot of books, and there are still ways to get that information to the reader. Ellis doesn't. Either he doesn't know, or he doesn't care, or he thinks it's somehow cool that we don't know. But this is not just a matter of minor confusion. It's the biggest question any novelist ever answers: But what happens? American Psycho is a story without a climax. Yes, it's sort of the point that Bateman never gets caught, but that doesn't explain how he gets out of a situation that seems certain to lead to his arrest, at a point when the reader is rooting for him to get caught. Ellis just breaks off and jumps to another episode, without explanation or reflection. That's lazy writing, and it breaks the contract between writer and reader. The climax may not be what the reader wants or expects, but by god it has to be there. Especially after you have made me endure the same endlessly repeated jokes, and scene after scene of gore, you had damn well better include a climax.

Ellis seems to have been going for shock. But one shock awakens; one hundred shocks numb. Eventually the reader succumbs to the same deadened resentment as Bateman's victims: you just want it to be over.

Trivia: The movie version of American Psycho was also censored before its release in the U.S.

In 1991, Australian Wade Frankum killed seven people in what seems to be universally described as a killing spree. The coroner made a much-publicized report that Frankum had a "well-thumbed" copy of American Psycho. It touched off much the same debate we saw in the U.S. when it was revealed that the Columbine gunmen were fans of Marilyn Manson. (John Irving hazards a wry guess that rape and murder existed before pornographic videocassettes.)

Ironically enough, Ellis received death threats because of American Psycho.

What Else: In the funniest example of how all that money can't buy taste, Bateman worships Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News (whom he compares favorably to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Beach Boys) but is unaware of Earth Wind & Fire or "some Irish band called U2." Again, this--coupled with my frustrated desire for catharsis--made me think of another book. I started imagining some sort of Literary Character Death Match that would pit Bateman against High Fidelity's Rob Fleming. Granted, Fleming is mild-mannered and likely unarmed. But with Dick and Barry at his side he might stand a chance, and they could at least get in a few choice zingers about "Sussudio" before the inevitable bloodbath.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Author: James Joyce

First Published: 1922 (in book form); 1918-1920 (in serial form, which started all the trouble)

What Happens: Joyce uses over 700 pages to describe one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin man convinced his wife Molly is cheating on him.

Each chapter of Ulysses corresponds to an episode of Homer's Odyssey, and scholars tend to refer to the chapters by episode ("Circe," "Oxen of the Sun," and so forth). Some characters correspond as well; Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus, the son figure to Bloom's Odysseus. For each chapter, Joyce uses a different narrative technique appropriate to the events of the episode. So, for example, when Bloom visits a friend whose wife is in labor, the technique is embryonic development, and the chapter's style therefore develops from early medieval Anglo-Saxon prose to a jazz- and slang-inflected 1920s patter.

Why The Odyssey? Well, in that story, Odysseus wanders the sea for ten years while his wife Penelope fends off suitors at home. A crucial difference: Penelope is faithful. She promises to choose a suitor when she finishes her weaving; then every night she surreptitiously unravels the day's work. (Oh, sure, it sounds a bit arbitrary, but it's actually the very same strategy the City of Chicago uses for road construction.)

Censorship History: Unholy. This is one of the grandaddies of literary censorship cases. Ulysses caused more burning, bowdlerization, piracy, arrest, smuggling, and destruction than the MacGuffin in a Dan Brown novel. In the process, it went through so many editions and revisions that there is no single definitive text. And it's still being censored today by certain Web nanny software.

But let's start at the beginning. Ulysses might not have been published at all without the efforts of Ezra Pound, who had championed Joyce and already helped him publish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce called Pound "a miracle worker." (In one of those episodes that illustrates the way talent grows in clusters, they had met through W.B. Yeats.) Pound helped Joyce obtain serial publication of Ulysses in the American literary magazine The Little Review. But the magazine ran into censorship trouble almost immediately. Pound himself deleted about 20 lines from the fourth episode; he suggested to the editors that they run a disclaimer: "'until literature is permitted in America,' we cannot print Mr J's next sentence."

The serial raised eyebrows a few more times, but the episode that really got everyone in trouble was number 13, "Nausikaa." In this chapter, Bloom sees a beautiful young woman on the shore, and he surreptitiously masturbates. (The narrative device is tumescence/detumescence.) Clearly, the idea that a man might masturbate--especially while looking at a young woman--was too much for the American public to handle. In bringing the magazine to the attention of the authorities, John Sumner, of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, said that the episode was "so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, and disgusting, that a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed upon the record thereof." Tell us what you really think, John.

Bail for the editors of The Little Review was set at $25 apiece. (Bail! For editors! Of a literary magazine! Of course, back then, archaeologists outran Nazis, and novelists fought bulls and fascists. How can we bring that level of adventure back to the desk job?) The ensuing trial declared Ulysses "unintelligible" but no less offensive for that; the magazine had to stop the serialization and the editors were fined.

The expat Sylvia Beach offered to publish Ulysses in Paris, with her small press Shakespeare & Company. That edition appeared in 1922, but it had some problems. For one thing, the typesetters didn't speak English. For another, Joyce's worsening glaucoma made his handwritten edits sometimes impossible to read. And there were multiple, sometimes contradictory drafts. Beach estimated that the 1922 edition contained one to six errors per page.

Shakespeare & Company sent 500 copies to the U.S., but they were nearly all confiscated or destroyed. In 1923, English Customs seized the replacement shipment and burned 497 of its 500 copies. Some copies were smuggled into the States in the literary equivalent of a plain brown wrapper--a binding bearing the title The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Through no effort of the author, Ulysses popped up in serial form again in the late 1920s. The U.S. magazine Two Worlds had pirated it and published it, heavily bowdlerized. Artists everywhere protested.

In 1932, the Odyssey press brought out an edition that it claimed was definitive, edited by Joyce's friend Stuart Gilbert. Though others have disputed the edition's definitive-ness, there's no doubt that Gilbert is one of the most useful authorities on Joyce; woe to the solo reader who attempts Ulysses without Gilbert's guide to the chapter-by-chapter narrative schemata. But whether his edition is definitive is unfortunately moot, since the printer's plates were probably destroyed when Hamburg was bombed in World War II.

Finally, in December 1933, the U.S. lifted its ban on Ulysses. In the same week, Prohibition was repealed. It's not hard to imagine one hell of an editorial party.

What Else: Ulysses is one of the watershed moments of modernism. Many people consider it the greatest novel of the 20th century. By most standards, it's a masterpiece of experimental prose. To my mind, looking for smut in a novel like this is like visiting Fallingwater and checking under the upstairs mattress.

But let's be clear: The average reader, working unassisted, will probably never make it to the passages that provoked such an uproar. The paragraphs are dense. The allusions are tricky and obscure. Bloom's stream of consciousness, like Bloom himself, wanders all over the place. In the hallucinatory "Circe" chapter you just have to accept that for the next hundred pages you won't know what's going on. The American reader must further get used to the Irish dialogue device of em dashes rather than quotation marks. Most readers give up long before Bloom discovers the Greatest Love of All.

If you do make it through, you'll be rewarded. The book justifies months of study and re-reading. It is part novel, part word puzzle, part song. Joyce's prose is some of the best ever committed to paper, and the catharsis of the final chapter is breathtaking.

Value as Erotica: If you're looking for a one-handed read, look elsewhere; your other hand may indeed be occupied, but it will be taking notes.

Trivia: Joyce wasn't the only writer who got a boost from Ezra Pound. Pound also helped Robert Frost and another censors' darling, D.H. Lawrence.

Though early opponents of Ulysses were particularly concerned about the book's effects on young ladies, young ladies--Sylvia Beach, and The Little Review's Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap--were responsible for actually putting it in print.

Ulysses tends to evoke some rather strong responses from other writers. George Bernard Shaw, playwright and professional crank, called it "a revolting record of a disgusting piece of civilization." E.B. White admitted he had attempted to read it but been unable to finish, and Vladimir Nabokov--another master prose experimentalist with his own share of run-ins with the censors--claimed that Joyce had never influenced him "in any manner whatsoever."

Random House published the first U.S. edition in 1934, but it used as its basis a pirated ninth edition from Shakespeare & Company, so it duplicated many typos and passed them into modern Joyce scholarship. Gabler's 1984 "synoptic" edition sought to correct many of these errors, and though many Joyce scholars endorsed it, others attacked its accuracy.

There have been at least two attempts at creating a hypertext version of Ulysses, but there has yet to be an electronic version free of the errors that have dogged the print versions. The Internet Ulysses includes Joyce's chapter-by-chapter schemata.

McSweeney's posted a fantastic spoof of Joyce's feedback from his writing workshop. (Surely, the MFA is part of why the adventure has leached out of desk jobs.)

Joyce had more say in his cover design than many writers do today. The first edition appeared as he wanted it, with the word "ULYSSES" in white letters against a deep Aegean blue, to evoke the Greek islands against the sea.

Characters from Joyce's earlier works Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man appear in Ulysses.

A 1935 edition, now rare, was illustrated by Henri Matisse.

June 16--the day on which Ulysses takes place--is now known as Bloomsday. Dublin observes Bloomsday with a festival, public readings, costumes, and walking tours. But Joyce originally chose that date because it marked his first excursion (some say his first sexual encounter) with the woman who would become his wife, Nora.

Nora, for her part, is said to have asked her husband, "Why don't you write books people can read?"

A postscript

The Onion just published this delightful op-ed by Atticus Finch.

And now that I've searched for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Mammoth Hunters, and Mein Kampf, Amazon's Book Recommendations feature has no idea what to make of me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Author: Harper Lee

First Published: 1960

Censorship History: Surprisingly, this was #41 on the ALA's list of the most challenged books of 1990-2000. Now, To Kill a Mockingbird is on a lot of high school curricula, and I have friends who read it as young as 12 or 13. Chicago's City of Big Readers program--in which all city residents are encouraged to read the same book--used it as its inaugural book in 2001. On Amazon, it has nearly 1,800 reader reviews, and it appears on lists with titles like "My Favorite Childhood Books." And the film version is equally beloved: With no disrespct to anyone's actual father, Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch is everyone's ideal surrogate dad, in much the same way we all want to be in Remus Lupin's class. It's safe to call this one a classic, cemented in the canon and in the hearts of readers everywhere. So why are people still challenging it?

When I saw it was on the list, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird to find out what could be causing all the ruckus. It doesn't exactly deal with easy subjects (but then, what good novel does?). There's alcoholism, morphine addiction, illiteracy, domestic violence, rape, poverty, religious conflict, violence toward children and animals, and widespread racism. And we see all this through the eyes of a child, Scout, who is herself just beginning to understand the jarring facts of the world. (I'd argue that's part of the book's genius: Through Scout's curious eyes the senselessness of human cruelty is far clearer.)

But the efforts to ban the book, it turns out, center on its use of one word, common enough in its day--and in fact, common enough in this day, but whispered as "the N word" in polite company. Can you reduce this rich, complicated novel to a single word? Apparently you can. Schools from California to Oklahoma to Nova Scotia have removed it from their reading lists.

This is where things get difficult. You sort of want to assume that people who ban books are all hard-line Nazis, or over-the-top nutjobs like the reverend who was convinced that Mighty Mouse was subliminally endorsing drug use, or the principal who torched Ramones albums in Rock 'n' Roll High School. That is, they are all Bad Guys. They are not on the side of truth and rightness. So it's disheartening when it turns out the people who are lobbying to remove the book are the NAACP.

Can we pretend that racism is no longer a problem in the United States? Not at all. It may not be as overt as it was when Scout was a girl, in 1935, but it's just as subtle, just as casual, just as insidious. It still calls for an Atticus Finch to stand up and name it and say it is wrong. All the same, a book about racism is hardly the same as a book advocating racism. Does anyone actually think that To Kill a Mockingbird is on a par with Mein Kampf?

This is a book about a community slowly learning to stand up and confront its own racism. Yes, it uses the N word. But there is never any doubt that it is an ugly word, or that the circumstances leading to its use are anything less than tragic.

I don't want to suggest that people are wrong to be offended by that word. People have the right to be offended by whatever offends them, and that word, more than most, is freighted with a repellent history. However, if we go about banning whatever offends us we'll never get anywhere, and the brave new world we create will be an intensely boring one. In the face of oppression, the healthy response, the constructive response, is not more oppression but honest discourse. And no discourse can be honest while it censors itself.

I do think there's a dicussion to be had about the more subtle racism of characterization, here and in many Southern narratives. Why is Calpurnia so devoted to the Finch family? Doesn't she ever resent her work? Is the accused, Tom, depicted as a man in full? If the book has shortcomings in that area, are they because Lee's vision is somehow unconcsiously limited by her background? Studying the evolution of white Southern writers' views of black characters would make a fantastic class, in fact. You could build a semester's curriculum out of that history, from colonial writings to Twain to D.W. Griffith and Gone with the Wind and "Everything that Rises Must Converge." (Then compare those works with black writers' views from the same period, and marvel that the country hasn't erupted into a full-scale race war.) But that doesn't seem to be the approach anyone is taking. It's far easier to remove one book from the shelf than to add a bunch of supplemental reading.

That said, I don't believe for a minute that Lee intends to imply that racism is somehow okay, or that she sees blacks as simpler souls in need of white protection. I think she wanted this book to fight the good fight. And in a very large part it succeeds.

Books like To Kill a Mockingbird teach us what racism looks and sounds like. How can we confront what we do not recognize? How can we find the courage to stand up to it if we have never seen an example of that courage? If anything, this is an opportunity for everyone who objects to the N word to become a hero in the style of Atticus Finch--to say, "Yes, this is an awful thing people do, but we will look at it unflinchingly in the hopes of making things a little bit better."

In fact, here's a start, since it seems hypocritical for a blog about censorship to submit to the soft censorship of politeness: The N word is nigger. Like all words, in and of itself, it has no power over anyone. It is six letters long. It is derived from the French and Spanish words for "black." All the rest is context and long, bitter history.

What Else: It can be hard to reread childhood favorites, because the books aren't always as good as you remember them being. I am delighted to report that this one holds up. If anything I appreciate it more now. As fiction, it works on every level. The voice is authentic and true. Lee's intimate knowledge of the community is so sure you can feel the dirt road under your feet. The characters are every bit as contradictory and mystifying as your own family. The story is a page-turner, propelled along by the intrigue of the Radley place and the growing doom of Atticus's trial. And though all these details are painfully specific, the book does what all great books do: it opens a world of greater truths. This isn't just the story of Scout's childhood but a meditation on childhood itself; on what exactly we mean by innocence and knowledge and freedom; on what children learn from our flawed examples; on justice and injustice; and on what it means to have a conscience.

I wept when I finished it.

I want to weep again when I think that people want to deprive young readers of this experience--a book that is a cardinal example of why we read books at all. I hope those kids are lucky enough to find the book on their own, or to wise up, like Scout:
"[A]s I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me."

Many people who attempt to ban books do so because they consider childhood a fragile time of uncorrupted innocence and purity. Harper Lee, bless her, never makes that mistake. As Scout figures out her world, she is as casually racist as many of the adults around her. It's clear that the older Scout recounting the story recognizes that flaw, but she never apologizes for it; it's the sort of mistake that teaches.

Trivia: Harper Lee is one of the great one-hit wonders of literature. This is her only novel.

Some claim that the character of Dill is based on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote.

In a thrilling example of People In Charge Who Get It, Chicago's library commissioner said that the city chose To Kill a Mockingbird because of the city's history of problems with racial and social justice. Yes! That's exactly how novels can help us understand ourselves and change things. The Chicago Tribune reported that, at the beginning of One City, One Book, Lee wrote to the organizers:
"When people speak their minds and bring to discussion their own varieties of experience, when they receive respect for their opinions and the good will of their fellows, things change. It is as if life itself takes on a new compelling clarity and good things get done."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Earth's Children series

Author: Jean M. Auel

First Published: 1980 (Clan of the Cave Bear)

Caught by the Fuzz: A lot. This series is #20 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Challenged Books of 1990-2000. That means it's received more challenges--attempts at banning or censorship--than, for example, The New Joy of Gay Sex (#28) and The Anarchist's Cookbook (#57). (Where's Waldo? comes in at #88, for no reason I can fathom.)

Trivia: An archeological dig actually found a Neanderthal skeleton in the position described at the end of Clan of the Cave Bear, curled fetally and clutching a giant ochre rock. Some archaeologists claim that Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans did indeed mingle and even interbreed.

What Happens: I have to admit that I've only read the first three books. By the time The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone came out, I had moved on as a reader, and I'm not patient enough to go back for those two now.

Anyway, in the first three books, Ayla, a precocious blonde Early Modern Human, is orphaned and adopted into a Neanderthal tribe. She learns their ways but is eventually exiled; she is too headstrong and independent to conform to their very strict gender roles. She lives on her own for years before meeting Jondalar, who has embarked with his brother Thonolan on a foot tour of Eurasia, bedding women wherever they go. Thonolan dies. Ayla and Jondalar fall in love and join a tribe of Early Modern Humans. Along the way Ayla turns the Ice Age steppes into a sort of prehistoric Menlo Park; she invents domestication, sewing needles, several major weapons, flint rocks, one method of tanning leather, quite a few herbal remedies, and birth control. Presumably by The Shelters of Stone she has moved on to agriculture and the Roman arch. But it's the birth control that's really important, because she and Jondalar have a whole heck of a lot of S-E-X.

It becomes necessary to invent a word. Biblioscoliosis is the condition a book acquires when its spine becomes so bent that the book automatically opens to certain pages. That is the condition of my copy of The Mammoth Hunters, and I am willing to bet that every copy of that book that falls into the hands of an eighth grader acquires the same condition in more or less the same places.

The writing is, unfortunately, pretty sloppy. Occasionally a contemporary idiom clashes with the prehistoric setting, so you'll have a stampeding mammoth indirectly compared to a freight train. As you reread the salacious passages, you notice that all sorts of modifiers are dangling along with the naughty bits. This means that sometimes someone who is clearly supposed to be performing a certain act on another character is, thanks to a trick of wording, actually performing the act upon himself. It is glorious when feats of grammar correspond with feats of anatomy.

What Else: Thonolan sounds like the name of a birth-control drug, doesn't it? Ask YOUR doctor about new once-a-week Thonolan!

Value as Literature: Negligible, I'm afraid.

Value as Erotica: Earth's Children : Internet :: flint rocks : Zippo. But when you are in eighth grade and you don't have the Internet and oh my god, did he really put his hand on her Plains of Passage?--then these are the best books EVER.

Credit Where It's Due: Auel has done some serious research. She's thought about almost every aspect of the societies she describes. She knows the purpose and growing season of each herb in Ayla's remedies. These details succeed fantastically. You do have a sense of being there as some sort of privileged observer of cavemen (and -women). And nearly 20 years after I first read Clan I still remember many of the characters' names; that definitely counts for something. The story's implausible, the writing is lowbrow, the sex is dirty--so very dirty--but that's sort of the definition of a fun read, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

First Published: 1953

Censorship History: Funnily enough, the book whose title is now synonymous with censorship was once censored in roughly 75 places by Bradbury's own editors at Ballantine. Conscious of the book's young audience, they sought to remove content that seems mild by today's standards--"all the damns and hells," as Bradbury puts it.

Bradbury says it's not actually about censorship, it's about how TV is killing public discourse; but in his Coda (first published in 1979) he does say that the novel "deals with the censorship and book-burning of the future." In any case, censorship is a main topic of the book, central enough that at least one library (Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem, NC) has chosen it for its annual Banned Book Week public reading project.

Trivia: Men must not walk too late: Clarisse mentions that her uncle was once arrested for walking alone at night. Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian" describes, if not this exact incident (the last names are different), at least a similar one. For what it's worth, an acquaintance who used to work as a cop in the suburbs of Chicago (around Downer's Grove) once told me that foot traffic was so rare that he and his colleagues would indeed stop any pedestrian they saw.

Though many people consider Bradbury a scifi writer, Bradbury claims this is his only science fiction book. As he sees it, much of his writing (such as The Martian Chronicles) is fantasy.

Eerily Prescient Bits (an important part of any scifi): "If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. . . . Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them so full of noncombustible 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without motion."

"We've started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumors; the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?"

The "seashell" radio earpieces sound quite a lot like those Bluetooth things, though people don't use them for two-way communication in the book--their media consumption is fundamentally passive.

What Else: The dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, like the one of Brave New World, has not come about because of a totalitarian despot. In the streets of this city, you don't hear the solemn gongs and basso choirs you associate with 1984 or Stalinist Russia. No, you hear ad jingles. This dystopia came about because of the ceaseless pursuit of fun and distraction.

That fun and distraction are not substitutes for joy and substance is clear: There are so many suicides and suicide attempts that, when people overdose, the hospital no longer sends medical professionals, just technicians who know how to pump stomachs. (You'd need more scientific training than I have to find a causal link between the distractions of American society and the rise in prescriptions of antidepressants, but I don't think I'm altogether amiss in suspecting societal causes for much of the ennui I see.)

The connection between distraction and forgetfulness--both short-term forgetfulness and the long-term forgetfulness of Bradbury's ahistorical society--is interesting. Distraction actually does impede certain cognitive processes. In other words, those blinking banner ads for IQ tests will lower your scores on the tests themselves. And distraction is a big theme in contemporary literature and film. Kurt Vonnegut explores a more sinister dystopia of distraction in the short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which people of above-average intelligence are forced down to average by being fitted with radio devices that periodically release squawks of static, so as to prevent the mind from lingering on any one thought too long. Plenty of scifi (Strange Days, The Fifth Element, Minority Report) assumes advertising will rule the future (though in other scifi it's curiously absent: Star Wars is something of a Ren Faire in space).

It's also worth noting that in Bradbury's world the banning of books didn't start out as a top-down decree (at least not according to Captain Beatty; as Beatty's discussion of Ben Franklin shows, though, the official version is not always to be trusted). No, people simply stopped wanting to read books. They're not illiterate; comic books are still allowed. (I'd say that's a rather unjust view of comic books, but unjust views of comics were rampant in 1953.) People simply wanted easier reading materials--whistles and bells. Clearly Bradbury was commenting on trends he saw in society at the time he wrote. If you look at the evolution of newspapers' front pages from 1890 to 1990--particularly if you take USA Today into consideration--you'll see that he was onto something. Why, then, do we read, if we are so resistant to new information?