Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-winning thriller White Heat and its upcoming sequel, Broken Windows. His story “Ghosts of Bunker Hill” won the 2016 EQMM Readers Award, and his story “Windward” has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Louise Penny; the story is also nominated for both the Shamus and Macavity Awards. In this post, Paul takes up an important topic—book banning, and its modern social-media equivalent.—Janet Hutchings
How political should an author be in public? There’s a lot of rancor in the country today. It’s on social media. It’s in public places. It’s in the air. Many people are up in arms about the country’s immigration policies and Supreme Court appointments, among other things. Many writers spout off about these and other issues on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. And often when one person disagrees with another the flame wars and defriendings begin.
I generally tend to keep my opinions to myself, at least on social media. I see posts I agree with and others I vehemently disagree with. But I don’t think I’m going to change anyone’s mind and they’re not going to change mine, so mostly I keep quiet. Nor do I see any point getting into flame wars. In my younger, wilder days, I loved to argue. Hell, I got into my share of physical fights. But these days I’m older and “wiser”. And my wife, Amy, has calmed me down to some extent. But there’s still part of me that yearns for the good fight. That said, I’m not sure the Internet is the place I want to make that stand. It reminds me of people yelling at each other from the safety of their cars. It’s easy to flip someone off from behind your windshield. Much harder to do to their face, with no safety glass between you. So I’m not opposed to a good discussion, but that’s not what seems to happen on social media.
I’m also a free speech absolutist. I believe people should be able to say pretty much anything they want to. I remember the days when people on all sides said things like, “I might not agree with what you say but I’ll fight for your right to say it.” That seems to be a dying sentiment. And I believe the antidote for speech you disagree with is more speech, not defriending someone because you don’t like what they’re saying. People are too quick to unfriend. You can try arguing your point, but what’s the point of unfriending someone? Isn’t it good to see another point of view? And isn’t it good for the other party to be able to see your POV too?
While I’m constantly seeing people on FB, the social media outlet that I use the most, talking about how they defriended someone for this or that reason, I’ve never defriended anyone because of their opinion. But I did get defriended one time for something I put up. A couple of years ago around Christmas I put up what I thought was a funny, satirical video and song, The Season’s Upon Us, by the punk band the Dropkick Murphys, about families at Christmas. One of my FB friends got extremely offended by it and reamed me out in private e-mails. I apologized to her three separate times, saying I certainly didn’t mean to offend her—but I wouldn’t remove the video from my timeline. She defriended me. Other than that one time I don’t know of anyone who’s defriended me for anything I’ve posted.
I find it both sad and scary that discourse has become this vitriolic and contentious. It seems very overheated. In real life—people I know in person—I have friends from all sides of the spectrum. Sometimes we agree to disagree and don’t talk politics when we’re together, yet we still maintain our friendships and liking of each other. Other times we argue the hell out of issues. And yet again we maintain our friendships. I’ve lost friends because of one reason or another, but I don’t think I’ve ever lost a friend because we disagreed about political issues. So, I don’t mind arguing issues, I’m just not sure social media is the hill I want to die on.
All that said, my books and characters often deal with issues that we recognize from the real world. One of the most interesting things, to me, about my novels White Heat and Broken Windows, its coming sequel, is that, though they’re mystery-thrillers and take place in the 1990s, the issues they deal with, racism and immigration, respectively, are still things that top the news today. You know what they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I think that reading these books gives us an insight into things that are happening today through the prism of the recent past and in the form of mystery-thrillers. And when I wrote them I was concerned that people would be turned off for one reason or another. I did add an Author’s Note warning people: “Some of the language and attitudes in the novel may be offensive. But please consider them in the context of the time, place and characters.” Today we’d call it a Trigger Warning. I don’t mind doing that as long as no one stops me from saying what I want to say. So I’m not averse to dealing with controversial subjects, I just don’t see the point of spending my time arguing about them on social media. Of course one doesn’t want to get too polemical or hit people on the head with a sledge hammer in our books either. Nobody wants to be preached to.
Banning friends because one disagrees with their opinions seems similar to banning books because we don’t like what they say. Do we really want to limit what people can read—or say? I don’t think we should ban books, either the Communist Manifesto or Mein Kampf, to use two examples from opposite poles, and I don’t think we should ban friends. I mean, from the “now I’ve seen everything department,” someone wanted to ban Where’s Waldo?. And don’t forget that when John Steinbeck wasn’t nice to Kern County they wanted to ban The Grapes of Wrath.
If we start censoring and defriending each other or engaging in flame wars, it’s like censoring books. Think of all the books you might not have seen because someone censored them, and you don’t have to like what they say but at least they’re out there.
Here’s just a partial list of banned books from the ALA and the reasons for their banning.
- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — Mark Twain — Coarse language, racial stereotypes and use of the word N word
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer — Mark Twain — Coarse language; racial stereotypes
- All the King’s Men — Robert Penn Warren — Depicting a “depressing view of life” and “immoral situations”
- Always Running — Luis J. Rodriguez — Gang violence, drug use and sexual references
- An American Tragedy — Theodore Dreiser — Sexual content; abortion; murder
- Animal Farm — George Orwell — Political (Communist) commentary
- As I Lay Dying — William Faulkner — Dealing with issues of death; abortion
- Black Boy — Richard Wright — Themes of Communism, racism and atheism
- The Bluest Eye — Toni Morrison — Themes of racism, incest and child sexual abuse
- Brideshead Revisited — Evelyn Waugh — Themes of homosexuality, alcoholism, infidelity
- Bridge to Terabithia — Katherine Paterson — Allegations that the book promotes secular humanism, New Age religion, occultism, and Satanism
- The Color Purple — Alice Walker — Offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- Fahrenheit 451— Ray Bradbury — Obscene language, references to smoking and drinking, violence, and religious themes
- Friday Night Lights — H. G. Bissinger — Obscene language, sexual content, and racism
- Go Tell It on the Mountain — James Baldwin — Obscene language, explicit sex, references to masturbation, rape, violence and sexism
- Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell — Several uses of racial slurs, the book’s portrayal of slavery, and references to rape
- Goosebumps (series) — R. L. Stine — Supernatural themes, violence, and encouraging disobedience
- The Grapes of Wrath — John Steinbeck — Portrays Kern County, California in a negative light
- The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood — Sexuality, profanity, suicide, violence, anti-Christian themes
- Harry Potter (series) — J. K. Rowling — Unsuited to age group, witchcraft, religious viewpoint, anti-family, darkness/scariness/violence, and for “setting bad examples.”
- Heather Has Two Mommies — Lesléa Newman — Homosexuality
- The Holy Bible — various — Religious viewpoint, violence
- The House of the Spirits — Isabel Allende — Sexual content
- The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins — Religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — Maya Angelou — Sexually explicit
- In Cold Blood — Truman Capote Violence — sexual content, and obscene language
- Invisible Man — Ralph Ellison — Obscene language and sexual content
- The Naked and the Dead — Norman Mailer — Obscene language
- Naked Lunch — William S. Burroughs — Sexual content
- Native Son — Richard Wright — Violence and sexual content
- Nineteen Eighty-Four — George Orwell — Pro and Anti-Communist views, sexual content, and violence
- Of Mice and Men — John Steinbeck — Offensive language, racism, violence
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — Ken Kesey — Obscene language, violence, and references to mental illness
- Ordinary People — Judith Guest — Obscene language and sexual content
- The Outsiders — S. E. Hinton — Anti-religious content
- The Pillars of the Earth — Ken Follet — Sexual content, and references to violence toward women
- A Prayer for Owen Meany — John Irving — Anti-religion and criticism of the Vietnam War
- Private Parts — Howard Stern — Sexual content
- Rabbit, Run — John Updike — Sexual content
- Slaughterhouse-Five — Kurt Vonnegut — Sexual content, anti-religious content, violence
- Song of Solomon — Toni Morrison — Sexual content, beastiality, and racism
- Sophie’s Choice — William Styron — Sexual content
- Sons and Lovers — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content, and incest
- The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien — Violence, animal abuse, obscene language, and criticism of the Vietnam War
- A Time to Kill — John Grisham — References to slavery, rape, and the text includes racial slurs
- To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee — Offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group
- Tropic of Cancer — Henry Miller — Sexual content
- Twilight (series) — Stephenie Meyer — Religious viewpoint, violence, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
- Ulysses — James Joyce — References to masturbation
- Where’s Waldo? — Martin Handford — Nudity
- The Witches — Roald Dahl — Misogyny, encouraging disobedience, violence, animal cruelty, obscene language, and supernatural themes
- Women in Love — D. H. Lawrence — Sexual content and misogyny
- A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L’Engle — Supernatural themes, and religious themes
I don’t want to see these or any books banned for their opinions. And I’m not saying don’t be political or express your views, but allow others to have their POVs too, even though you might find them distasteful. So maybe we can live and let live. We don’t have to agree but we don’t have to defriend either. And maybe it’s best to remember what your mother taught you, don’t talk politics or religion in polite society.