How far can you go in a book before people start to react negatively to it, perhaps even to the point of banning it? How far should you go?
These days, the Western world is so obsessed with feeling like they’ve got total freedom of speech that banning a book usually results in an internet outrage and numerous petitions, even if it’s only forbidding it to be taught in schools and not expressly banning it completely. (See: Looking For Alaska, where much of nerdfighteria campaigned to have this decision overruled.)
But in the past there’ve been all sorts of books that have been banned just because they went too far. There’s a ‘Banned Books Week’ where people celebrate these books by reading them. Yet what exactly is too far?
See, nowadays we’ve got horror movies and books with intensely detailed descriptions of gore; we’ve got access to almost anything on the internet, and a result, people are kind of desensitized to reading about violence, let alone sex or controversial social issues. The world has also moved on a lot in terms of civil rights, so books like To Kill A Mockingbird that challenged racism wouldn’t be banned these days, even though they have been in the past.
I don’t think these days that graphic violence or sex are reasons that books are controversial, for the reasons I’ve stated. Yeah, so they might get put in a different section of the library, like Horror instead of General Fiction, but they’re not going to be taken out and burned. So writers, go ahead and include that torture scene you wrote.
But there are still books that cause issues, and maybe rightly so.
I’m currently studying A Clockwork Orange. Most of you probably know a bit about it, or you’ve read it, or you’ve seen the film. The film itself was incredibly controversial, and the book perhaps more so. However, if you don’t know anything about it, I’ll give you a quick rundown:
Alex, our narrator and main character, is fifteen at the start of the book. He’s violent, anti-social, and skips school to listen to Beethoven and rape ten year old girls. The entire novel is narrated in first person from his point of view, even during horrific moments of violence, but his use of ‘nadsat’, a slang language spoken by the characters that was invented by Burgess using elements of Russian and Cockney Rhyming Slang, means that as readers, we’re slightly detached from this. It’s quite hard to read at first, but by the end of the book you start to understand Alex’s language.
Do you start to understand Alex, though, as a result? Do you start to see things from his point of view?
It’s generally accepted that this use of language is designed to make us gradually understand Alex’s speech and therefore his perspective, and this is one of the reasons why this book was so controversial. Alex enjoys violence, and sees it as something beautiful. We’re reading it from his point of view, therefore we’re kind of being asked to think of it like that, which can make you feel very uncomfortable after a while.
Are things like this okay?
The YA genre in particular has a lot of responsibility, because many teens are shaped by the books they read and, more widely, the films that are based on them (as these may attract attention from those who don’t enjoy reading, but they’re beyond help anyway). If certain attitudes and behaviours are presented as okay, that’s going to cause some concern among parents and teachers who might just try and stop their teens reading those books, thus ensuring that they do so ;)
I don’t believe books should be censored, and I also believe that telling your 12-year-old sister not to read a book because it’s unsuitable is only guaranteeing that she’ll read it as soon as you go to university and leave your bookshelves unattended (I totally didn’t do this… ahem), but I think as a YA author, one has to watch out. To ask questions:
1. Is this novel sending a message that could be considered controversial?
2. Was this deliberate?
Because if it was deliberate and you’re trying to raise questions about society, then it’s hopefully going to come across as that. A Clockwork Orange is asking us about free will and governmental control, and that is made very obvious. It’s controversial because it seems to be saying that Alex has the right to be evil, as otherwise good means nothing. The questions are raised very obviously and didactically, and it makes a reader think.
But if you read your novel back and you realise only then that your character are violent racists and that this is never addressed as an issue, you need to watch out. Whatever you write, your readers are going to have that opinion in their minds. Even if they don’t agree with it. Even if they don’t want to agree with it. It’ll be lurking there, and who knows what influence that might have on them in the future?
Controversy can be great — if it’s thought through. If it’s deliberate. If it’s there to make a point. But you have to be careful.