Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Make an Author Go Ballistic

Want to know what really pisses-off an author?

The list is long, I admit it. Bad reviews, puny advances, MS Word, Goodreads, cat hair, hipster bookstore clerks, people who boast that they buy only used books…I could go on.* 

But the one thing that REALLY sends an author into the vein-popping bourbon-swigging spouse-beating nether regions of self-destructive fury is this: His (or her) book gets banned by people WHO HAVE NOT READ THE BOOK.

It happens a lot. And not just in the world of children’s literature. Do you think that the bluenoses in the U.K. and U.S. who banned James Joyce’s Ulysses back in the 1920s read the book? Nah. They just read the sexy bits of Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy—just enough to get their puritanical juices flowing through alarmingly intimate and unfamiliar channels—and they screeched “Obscenity!”

Authors like to talk about context. For example, if a YA author uses the word fuck, she wants the reader to understand why she did so. And if a parent at a school board meeting stands up waving a copy of her book and shouts, “This book contains the f-word!” the author feels that some allowance should be made for the fact that 50,000 non-f-words surrounded it, and that no other word was available to effectively replace it.

I say, “That’s f-worded up.” The problem is not that the parent in question did not read the whole book. Context doesn’t mean a rat’s ass to such people. Context won’t change the mind of someone who is mortified by a particular word, or by the sexual orientation of a character, or by a disagreeable religious or political position, or by the mention of a dog’s scrotum. The problem is that some people feel their personal sense of outrage can and should be imposed upon their extended community.

Me, I am easily offended. I go through life in a constant state of sputtering outrage. When my neighbors erect a “wrong” political lawn sign, I feel rage, sorrow, pity, disdain—the whole self-righteous package. But I don’t tear down the sign. Okay, I did, when I was eight years old, on Halloween, knock down a few Nixon signs—but only when they gave me Circus Peanuts.

Ahem. Back to my original topic: the outrage felt by authors whose books have been challenged by people who have not read them. (Here comes the questionable metaphor.) Imagine you are a chef who has prepared, at great expense and effort, a seven course tasting menu. You have worked on it for months, and it’s only $16.99** (wine pairing not included). You present your lovingly designed menu and some guy looks ahead at the third course and says, “Foie gras! I do not eat foie gras! Foie gras is evil, and the chef should be banned from serving such food.” Whereupon he storms out of the restaurant, organizes a picket line, and leaves the other diners picking disconsolately at their first course, which happens to be locally sourced beet root carpaccio, to which no one objects.

Okay, the foie gras hater*** has the right to express his opinion, and the other diners have a right to become uncomfortable in the face of his moral outrage. But the chef?

THE CHEF IS FURIOUS. And he has a cleaver.

 * Actually, I did go on, but I shortened the list for this post.
** Coincidentally, that’s what my latest  novel goes for.
*** And the geese.

I'm going to try to post something every day for Banned Books Week. Celebrate by reading something that makes you unreasonably angry.

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