Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Yawn. Yet Another "Banned" Book Controversy

Some of you by now have read about the Scrotum Controversy, which I think is the title of the latest Ludlum novel. Even the Times has covered it, and since that's the paper of record you know it must be important. If you haven't heard, some Newberry Award winning children's book has the word "scrotum" in it and some children's librarians have refused to order it for their libraries under the strange impression that the word isn't appropriate for children's literature. My contention is that any word appropriate for polite conversation is appropriate for children's literature, which leaves the burden of proof up to you. Would you start talking about scrotums to your work colleagues? If so, I'm glad you don't work with me.

(For some reason, this whole discussion makes me want to read La Comedie Humaine or pay special attention to the cinematography in The Fabulous Baker Boys.)

The author of this little gem is a librarian, and she has responded to the clamor: "I was shocked and horrified to read that some school librarians, teachers, and media specialists are choosing not to include the 2007 Newbery Medal winner in their collections." Shocked and horrified? My word, we are easily shocked and horrified, aren't we. I guess I'm not that easily shocked. But then again, I don't get any royalties if a library buys this book.

But her pseudo-outrage goes further: "If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child's reading myself—I'd be appalled that my school librarian had decided to take on the role of censor and deny my child access to a major award-winning book." So we can tell from this that she is not a parent of a middle grade child, which might be important to note. But what I most note is that she's "appalled." Now she's shocked, horrified, and appalled. How unpleasant it must be to be her.

And of course she's taking an idiotic line right out of the idiotic ALA playbook and crying censorship. So some librarian doesn't purchase this book and it's censorship? Has the word censorship become so debased in our society that we're supposed to take this seriously? Or is it only ALA-inspired librarians who seem to have such a poor grasp on the term?

Who's being denied access to this book? The book's published and publicly available. You can buy the stupid thing on Amazon. How is this censorship? What sort of bonehead thinks that a librarian has the power to "deny a child" access to this book if the parent wants their child to read about scrotums? As with the "banned books" nonsense emanating from the ALA, we've entered into some parallel universe where the library is the only place where books are available and where a librarian not buying a book is somehow the same as government suppression of information.

I'll put this in simple sentences. Libraries don't buy everything. They can't afford to. They don't want to. Librarians make choices. These choices are not censorship. These choices are called selection. Perhaps you've heard of it.

My favorite quote from the author is in the Times story, where she says of the allegedly offending word that "the word is just so delicious." She was probably licking her lips at the time and thinking of a bag of Rocky Mountain Oysters.

I haven't read the book and never will, but I was struck by the second paragraph (quoted in the SHUSH post):
"Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked ‘62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum."

This is the allegedly offensive term in context, and what a context it is. If I were going to not get this book for a child, it wouldn't be because of the one word, it would be because based just on this paragraph it sounds like a trashy book. If I were the parent of a middle grade child (two can play this game!), I wouldn't want my child reading about some trashy people in some tiny, trashy town getting drunk and falling out of their cars. I don't read stories about trashy people as an adult, so why would I want that for a child?

Of course I haven't read the book, and it might not be about trashy people getting drunk and falling out of their cars. That might be an exception.

I am as puzzled as anyone by this jumped up controversy. I'm not a children's librarian, obviously, and I don't read children's books. I'm a grown up, so I read great big grown up books. If someone wants their child to read about people getting drunk and biting their dogs on the scrotum, fine. Then perhaps they and their children can sit around and smoke dope and bemoan all the puritans in the world. I couldn't care less.

What puzzles me isn't the dubious literary taste of some librarians or parents, but that people claim to be shocked that librarians aren't buying the book. Obviously, lots of children's librarians, and probably a lot of parents, think this is an offensive book, so they're not buying it. And then comes the pseudo-outrage. How dare they exercise some judgment! How dare they not buy a book that has some stupid award! How dare they be so intolerant! We can't tolerate that! They're censors! This is a matter of intellectual freedom! It's a child's God-given right to read about scrotum-biting drunks!

Is anyone willing to die on the barricades of intellectual freedom for this book? If some poor child doesn't get to read this book, will the republic crumble? Don't these people have anything better to do?

33 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure the controversy will in the end raise book sales. BTW, my father used to "harvest" mountain oysters from our hogs. I can still hear the pigs squeal, and its been more than 30 years. ack.

Anonymous said...

I'm reminded of the scene in "The Music Man" in which Mayor Shinn's wife upbraids Marian the Librarian for recommending Balzac to her daughter:

Marian: "Wouldn't you rather have your child reading a classic than Elinor Glyn?"

Mrs. Shinn: "What Elinor Glyn reads is HER mother's concern!"

Anonymous said...

AL,

What do you have against trashy people? Aren't you for diversity? Isn't this a part of the ALA code? Trashy people deserve to be served just as every other group does.

Next you'll be saying the Man-Boy Love Alliance doesn't deserve to be served.

Put me down as shocked!! at your cavalier dismissal of trashy people.

Anonymous said...

Here's David Frum on this wonderful piece of literature (and the Newberry Award generally) which exactly mirrors my thoughts AND the opinion of my daughter:

Well Imagine That!
The Newberry award is the best known annual prize for children's literature. This year, the book selected contains what one teacher calls , "Howard Stern type shock treatment." But in fact, that's nothing new - it seems almost impossible for a book to win the prize unless it deals with drug addiction, racism, disease, sexual deviance, or some other shock-the-booboisie delight for librarians determined to overcome their profession's unhip image.

I suppose as a parent I should express shock. But actually, I have found the Newberry award a very helpful guide. My kids learned long ago that any book bearing the Newberry gold star is to be avoided like the plague. If not perverse, it will be vapid; if not politically correct, then it will be grimly didactic. We own hundreds of children's book, many contemporary - but no Newberry winners of later vintage than Johnny Tremain (1942). That saves a lot of time!

Anonymous said...

I do hope that those who object to this should never let their children alone with the King James Version. Thee Song of Solomon would be totally beyond the little dears.

fahrenheit451moderator said...

I agree that parents should be more upset about the drunk guy and I couldn't really understand why an author would include that. A reason for banning it? I don't think so. I have not read the book. However, I understand that the book is about a person who goes into a 12-step program. For all of the children who face a parent each day who is an addict -- alcohol, gambling, drugs, etc. this would be a valuable story.

Privateer6 said...

The author said:
"If I were a parent of a middle-grade child, I would want to make decisions about my child's reading myself—I'd be appalled that my school librarian had decided to take on the role of censor and deny my child access to a major award-winning book."

Yet I bet that when a group of parents DO make a decision about their child's reading assignments and complain to the media coordinators, school board officials, and/or public library boards, this same author takes the complete opposite stand.

Anonymous said...

There's only one "r" in Newbery, dang it!

And that's all she scrote--er, wrote'em!

AL said...

You're lucky. I almost called it the Newbelly Award.

Anonymous said...

No child should read about scrotum- biting drunks. I have encountered scrotum biting drunks, some delicious and some of drunk. Nothing in my middle school reading would have prepared me for these encounters. Except, perhaps, Penthouse Forum "letters" furtively perused, though none of them seemed to involve biting, per se.

Curiouser and curiouser.

--Taupey

AL said...

"For all of the children who face a parent each day who is an addict -- alcohol, gambling, drugs, etc. this would be a valuable story."

For children who face this every day, I'd think this would be the last book they'd want to read. Surely they would want the escape a well written story provides, not some moralistic tale. But then again I'm always skeptical about "valuable stories" and didactic fiction. They always seem like something adults think is good for children. That's probably why it got an award. Some story about a guy going into a 12-step program sounds about as boring as it could possibly be, for an adult or a child. Is that really what the kids like these days?

And I'm still not convinced that not buying a book is the same as banning it. But I suppose that stance doesn't grab as many headlines.

Dances With Books said...

The fuss is probably over the fact that it was not selected, because, oh my, it says "scrotum" in it ("scrotum, scrotum, scrotum!!!!!" there I said it, do I get banned too?). I am betting the beef is that one would say, sure you can buy it at Amazon or anywhere else, but what about the poor masses who cannot afford to buy the books? Or the ones that don't have computers to buy them? One may take those questions in the light spirit, but they could be asked as well. As for me, I say, give them the scrotum book and every other "controversial" book while you are at it. As first anonymous says though, this will likely raise sales. Had they not made the fuss over it, it would have gone under the radar. Oh well.

Greg said...

Yes, if no one 'makes a fuss' then it just goes 'under the radar'. There is a long list of things that no one 'makes a fuss' about anymore, at least when its happening. Only after the fact do we complain about how rude and denigrated society has become. Not making a fuss when it counts is how civilization has become decidely less civil.

Anonymous said...

I love the AL, but I wish she would acknowledge the obvious fact that "political correctness" isn't a liberal phenomenon, but a side effect of a larger victim culture. Conservatives play this card as much as anyone. In a county next to mine in the "hellhols of secession", the ACLU has filed suit to stop the sectarian Jesus prayer that preceeds County Councli meetings and the local Christians are all crying victim about the loss of "freedom". Who is doing anything to stop their freedom to pray? This is like saying not allowing me to undress in a County Council meeting prohibits my right to nakedness. The antics of these pious folks are no less silly and deluded than librarians who cry censorship every time a book isn't selected. The AL is clearly a yankee as she is unfamiliar with the victim mongering of Christian conservatives that is commonplace in the South and folks like David Frum, who was admiringly quoted, who like to prick silly liberals for their heated rhtoeric seem to have a blind spot for these conservative PC mongers who cry victim every time their claim to special rights is challenged appealing to relativism just like the left does to make roomo for their views.

I am a media specialist and i am no fan of "problem literature" or YA books at all, but in some placesaround the country (places the AL has already admitted she knows nothing about in her post about places she will and won't live) censorship or bracketing of secular ideas (such as evolution) is still a present reality. While it is fun to laugh at the overbearing and self-important information freedom fighters, folks like David Frum or, say David Horowitz aren't the ones to be making the argument given a huge blindspot for their own PC sympathies on the right that pander to a conservative populist relativism.

If, as a media specialist, I refused to stock TIm Lahaye's absurd Christian apocalypse vengeance trilogy, the local Christians would pillory me for censorship before I could even blink. If I refused to collect books approved byt he Discovery Institute challenging evolution, I would be criticized for not "giving a balance of viewpoints" as if all viewpoints on this matter were equally valid. The right has learned to love the vocabulary of victimhood and relativism that the left pioneered.

AL said...

"'Political correctness' isn't a liberal phenomenon, but a side effect of a larger victim culture."

Consider it acknowledged.

And I'll make you a deal. Find me a group protesting because libraries aren't buying the LaHaye books, and I'll make fun of them, too. Little underprivileged millenial dispensationalists (did I get that right?) will just have to go without, just like the little underprivileged children who can't afford books about scrotums.

If, that is, you find a group protesting that some library across the country isn't ordering the book. That's what distinguishes your local Christian conservatives from the ALA types. The locals protest when their local library doesn't reflect their values. The ALA-types protest when someone else's local library doesn't reflect their ALA values.

That's also what distinguishes the ACLU lawsuit from the locals protesting it.

P.S. I didn't mention Frum.

Privateer6 said...

Anon 3:29,

You are right in that some right leaning groups are using hte vocabulary of "victims." But my question is this: Do left leaning groups like the ALA, ACLU, etc make mountains out of molehills? Which groups started the "victimhood" vocabulary in an attempt to get their ideology accepted inthe mainstream? Also which groups deliberately attack the opposing ideological groups for their own, using whatever ideological attacks they can use, even if it conflicts with their previous positions, both legal and otherwise, in order to win for their casue? Also what organizations habitually intimidate and bully their positions so that the opposition just caves in becasue they do not have hte finacial means to defend themselves? Also which organizations get paid out of public funds (read TAXES) and gets paid no matter if they win the case or not becasue of antiquated laws?

I think conservatives are tired of the liberal BS and are using the left's own methods to defend themselves.

On a personal note, I think AL hit it onthe nose, kids who are living with problems daily do NOT need realistic literature. I know that as I youth I hated some of the books I read because they reminded me of my real life circumstances. I turned to fantasy-adventure: C.S. Lewis, John Christopher, The Choose Your Own Adventure series, etc. I was trying to escape my problems by leaving the familar, not to relive my normal problems and be moralized by some book.

Anonymous said...

"If someone wants their child to read about people getting drunk and biting their dogs on the scrotum, fine."

See, now you're adding to the confusion/distortion about this book. The guy didn't get drunk and bite his dog on the scrotum. A snake did the biting. Now, for all I know, the guy who was drunk may have been a snake - metaphorically speaking, but it was, after all, one of the reptilian variety that actually did the deed.

Anonymous said...

"And I'll make you a deal. Find me a group protesting because libraries aren't buying the LaHaye books, and I'll make fun of them"

You won't find many of them because librarians are generally too mired in PC thinking themselves to take a principled stand priveledging facts and sound rigorous evidential standards against wishy washy relativism and "considering all viewpoints" even when this benefits their ideological foes.
Nothing inflames the self-righteousness of the "banned books" crowed when they can show their impartiality bonfides by championing access to viewpoints tha "they personally don't agree with".
Few librarians want to be accused of censorship, even in the name of providing accurate and up-to-date information or making judgements of quality. The tendancy in librarians that you rightly ridicule also happens to benefit conservative populism. I blame this bending over backward to accomodate viewpoints that have little merit when rigorous standards are applied for a dimunition in reality and evidence-based thinking on all sides of the political spectrum. Liberals pioneered it, but it has its uses all around.

My state library association opens its meetings with a sectarian " in jesus name" prayer. How's that for political correctness? When anyone complains, we are gently accused of hindering freedom or promoting intolerance.

Anonymous said...

To answer privateer, religion is BY FAR the biggest recipient of political correctness in the US because it is permitted to make claims that deserve special attention and respect completely devoid of evidence and to make laws based on these evidence-less beliefs. Christians pioneered the victim culture int he first century and haven't looked back.

"I think conservatives are tired of the liberal BS and are using the left's own methods to defend themselves."

More victim thinking. I am not sure what liberal BS you are talking about that isn't as bad as conservative BS such as denying the facts of evolution or global warming because of pre-existing ideological commitments and then demanding equal time for them and decrying opponenets as "elitst". THe problem here is ideology - having a pre-existing worldview that is immune from engagement with new facts and rigorous standards and this is a problem of all ideologies.

Norma said...

Where are these overly sensitive librarians who blush at the word scrotum? Can we hire them? We couldn't get our library (next to an elementary school) to remove the explicit, gay free-circ newspapers with illustrated explanations on performance from the library lobby. Instead, they built a special display case and brought them inside.

janitorx said...

I am probably one of the few liberal posters here and I offer a more simplistic, perhaps even reductionist view. The bottom line is the book sounds like it plain old sucks. Most juvenile literature (and I use the term literature loosely) is trash. I think the youth would be better off reading the classics where one would find issues that are still relevant today and maybe kids will absorb proper vocabulary, syntax, etc.

I am a literature snob.

Anonymous said...

"Political Correctness" inhibits the fundamental freedom of the majority and simulatneously elevates statistical minorities, all in the name of controlling the structure of a society. It is nakedly about politcal power qua political power.

A community comprised of a majority of a certain group, religious or otherwise, trying to impose some worldview on the community or prohibit something they find abhorrent may be unconstitutional or otherwise "wrong" but is not an example of being "politically correct." It is equally nakedly about something, it is about being free from the tyranny of the minority.

Subversive vs. coercive.

In a democracy, the majority's wishes are often ameliorated to accommodate the minority's wishes, but that same majority usually bristles at being forced to accommodate by edict.

--Taupey

AL said...

Wow, what a hornet's nest. I want to comment on my strongest critic, because I appreciate the amiable disagreements.

First, on the LaHaye books. I would no more read one of them than I would copy of Hustler Magazine, nor could anyone credibly accuse me of being a conservative evangelical Protestant. On the other hand, I don't have the enmity for such people that the critic seems to have. Intolerance and victim politics, as everyone has noted, are not reserved to any particular group. The main distinction I made was between a librarians being criticized because they adhere to local standards or because they don't adhere to some national standard. If any of these libraries not buying this book had a request for it from a local person and still did not buy it, then the librarian should certainly be criticized unless a strong case could be made why it shouldn't be bought. "Offensive" isn't really a strong case, since I'm offended by all the garbage fiction most people read.

Still, regarding my challenge to find a group protesting that somebody else's library isn't buying LaHaye, I got this comment:

"You won't find many of them because librarians are generally too mired in PC thinking themselves to take a principled stand priveledging facts and sound rigorous evidential standards against wishy washy relativism and "considering all viewpoints" even when this benefits their ideological foes."

For the most part, I find little to disagree with in that, but I do wonder how privileging facts and sound rigorous evidential standards (which I'm all for) has anything to do with fiction, religious or scrotal.

"Few librarians want to be accused of censorship, even in the name of providing accurate and up-to-date information or making judgements of quality."

This seems accurate, but librarians in fact make judgments of quality all the time. But these judgments are harder with fiction. Is some LaHaye novel any worse than some romance novel or sci-fi novel or some trashy thriller? Are we talking about literary quality? Because if so, it would be hard to argue that most of the novels on library shelves deserves to be there. Public librarians should buy what they think their publics want. Just like academic librarians often buy just to support the curriculum.

"The tendency in librarians that you rightly ridicule also happens to benefit conservative populism."

You're probably right. I've criticized the ALA in several posts for their inability to apply any intellectual standard to their criticism of banned books. And I'm certainly no populist.

"I blame this bending over backward to accommodate viewpoints that have little merit when rigorous standards are applied for a dimunition in reality and evidence-based thinking on all sides of the political spectrum."

I'll just say, I don't bend over backwards for anybody!

"My state library association opens its meetings with a sectarian "in jesus name" prayer. How's that for political correctness? When anyone complains, we are gently accused of hindering freedom or promoting intolerance."

Gently accused? If things are as bad as you say down in Dixie, I'm surprised you aren't lynched!

Anonymous said...

Apparently Michael Gorman (past president of ALA) thinks librarians are engaging in censorship, not selection.

On 2/21/07, Gorman wrote to the ALA Governing Council listserv:

"Am I the only one who has been profoundly depressed by the news appearing the New York times, on NPR, and on and on, about librarians "banning" The higher power of lucky? I thought we left censorship up to the nitwits outside our profession who seek to challenge and ban books that offend their delicate sensibilities. Are we now doing their dirty work for them?"

Michael

AL said...

But I'm sure when they don't buy books at his little university library, it's called selection.

tanner said...

There is a difference between selection and censorship. Of course school librarians should be judicious in selecting materials for their libraries. Books of poor quality don't belong there. The point is that this particular book was not selected, despite whatever good qualities it may have, because of the use of a single word. I'm still amazed to discover after all these years that there are actually librarians who practice censorship instead of trying to fight it, as we were all taught in library school.

Oh, and I definitely would use the word "scrotum" in polite conversation, if the particular conversation ever called for it. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single instance in the workplace that would call for me to utter the word.
(Oh wait... how about: "Suzanne, I really think you need to include the subject heading "Scrotum" in this bibliographic record.")

AL said...

"(Oh wait... how about: "Suzanne, I really think you need to include the subject heading "Scrotum" in this bibliographic record.")"

Very funny. Yes, a completely appropriate situation!

Obviously I can use the word "scrotum" as often as anyone when appropriate, and this is a family blog after all. But if a colleague came up and started talking about scrotums, especially that creepy guy in the archives, I wouldn't like it.

Privateer6 said...

AL,
What's wrong with archivists?

Anon 9:07
How has Christianity developed the "victim culture" in the first century and never looked back. As for religion, esp. Christianity, receiving political correctness., I don't see how. When cities and counties are removing historic markers becasue they have a religious symbol, even if a religious organization founded the now secular community, that is not PC. When you can make public jokes about religion and get away with it, but you make a public joke about criminals and get ostracized, that's not having religion receiving PC.

In answer to the BS, I refer to the ACLU's lawsuits against the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) in one lawsuit, they claimed that the BSA was a private, religious entity and should receive no support from any government entity because it violates separation of church and state. YET at the same time that lawsuit was in the courts, another ACLU lawsuit states that the BSA is a public accomodation and has no right to refuse membership to people who disagree with the BSA's principles. So which is it ACLU, is the BSA a private or public organization? And the best part is that the taxes are paying for the ACLU to bring these lawsuits.

Not trying to change the subject, but you did bring it up so I will respond. In reference to global warming, just as there is evidence to prove it does exist, there is also evidence to prove it doesn't exist. A large number of climatologists disagree with global warming and cite specific, verifiable evidence to support their argument. And please remember that there was a major argument within the American Meteorlogical Society (AMS) when one AMS member stated publicly that those AMS member who disagree with Global Warming should have their certifications revoked. Apparently alot of meterorologists don't agree with global warming either.

Now getting back to the book. Is selection censorship? If you say yes, then those librarians who do not select books because they disagree with them are practicing censorship. If a librarian wouldn't purchase a book opposing global warming becasue they feel it doesn't have enough "rigorous standards," then they are practicing censorship.

Or beter yet, if the librarian refused to purchase a book that has been completely discredited by the author's professional community because he falsified information and made up sources that do not exist, like Michael Bellesiles "Arming of America" which cost him his job at Emory and had all it's awards revoked, then that is censorship and not selection.

While censorhsip is anathema to me, we must remember that when we select books for our libraries, we must understand and respect the needs and values of the patrons that utilize ourr facility. We we think a book would not be appropriate for our patrons, then we need to use our limited resources to get what they will use. If push comes to shove, we can always ILL the book.

I'll give you an example from my new job. We received a donation of two medical books, one from the 1910s, the other 1940s. the books are an interesting read, but the need some conservation/preservation work, and have outdated information. I have limited space in my library so my question is: bynot placing these books in circulation, am I censoring these two books. Obviously the answer is NO I am not censoring the books, becasue they do not meet the needs of my patrons.

AL said...

I don't know if anything's wrong with archivists in general. I was thinking of the creepy guy who works in the archives at my library.

shade said...

Very interesting. More fuel for the "give 'em what they want" argument. I haven't read this book so I can't make a statement as to its worth or lack thereof but I think as far as selection/censorship goes it does cause a problem for children's librarians. In essence, by winning the Newbery Award the book was selected - and by the ALA's Association of Library Services to Children no less. When the professional association for your field chooses a book for its highest award - and you don't want to carry it - well, you're kind of screwed. I mean can you imagine a library refusing to carry the latest Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction? (You've made it clear you don't read fiction, AL, but I can't think of a correlating prize in academic publishing.) You'd be teased unmercifully. Being a children's librarian ain't easy - but if you're not offending somebody, how do you know you're doing your job?

dances with books said...

Don't worry Shade, the Pulitzers are also given for various categories in nonfiction. (See their website at www.pulitzer.org).

And as I said before, if no one made a fuss over this, the little book, which is likely low quality, would have gone under the radar. While there certainly are things worthy of making a fuss over, I don't see why this is it.

"Scrotum!!!!!!" (sorry, just had to say it, too much fun)

Anonymous said...

Shade,
In history there is the Bancroft Award, and I know of a few universities that were advised AGAINST purchasing a Bancroft Award winning book because faculty in the history departments questioned the validity of the book. Is was Michael Bellesile's ""Arming America, The Origins of a National Gun Culture" and basically said that gun ownership didn't exist until after the civil war.

Lots of controversy, but in a nutshell the work was proven to be a fraud. People Bellesiles cited stated that he misinterpreted their info, and records he cited either show contradictory information, or did not exist at all. He was discredited by two committees at Emory, one internal the other external, resigned from teaching, had the Bancroft Award rescinded, and the original publisher ceased publishing the work.

Again some libraries would not purchase the book because of the controversy; the libraries used their local experts to see if the work was actually valid or not. Some libraries purchased the work, only to discard it once it was discredited. My wife's library placed it permanently on reserve because a prof. requested that her library keep it so that he could show what happens when academic dishonesty occurs. And I am sure some libraries kept it in circulation either through ignorance, apathy, or partisanship on the issue.

Now in this case, is it censorship for someone to not purchase the book because there are serious questions about the validity of the work from experts in the field? Is it censorship to remove the work once it was proven by several teams of experts to be false?

Privateer6

Anonymous said...

I though that it was the rattlesnake that bit the`dog's "male-sac" but maybe the drunk got to join in later. Modern literature is so complex!!!!
So, I am shocked, horrified, veclemped, enraged, confused, twitterpated, outraged, drowsy, perplexed, etc. etc. etc...