I’ve previously written about my books being edited so that the vocabulary, punctuation and spelling make sense to overseas readers. However, I didn’t mention another issue, which is that different countries often have very different cultural values. Contrast, for example, attitudes (and legislation) in Australia and the United States regarding gun ownership, capital punishment and universal healthcare. And also, book banning.
Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Magpies (an Australian journal about literature for children and teenagers) and was asked about the reaction of US readers to the epilogue of The FitzOsbornes at War. As the book hadn’t yet been released in the US, I talked about reactions to the previous two books. I said I’d always expected some US reviewers and readers would object to my gay and bisexual characters, but that I’d been surprised by some of the things they’d also deemed ‘controversial’ – for example, that some of my characters were atheists or socialists, that not all of the married couples were happily married, and that there was a brief discussion of contraception. One US reviewer of The FitzOsbornes in Exile complained at length about the “sketchy moral questions that permeate the book” and hoped that there’d be some signs of moral improvement in Book Three. Um . . . well, not really.
But I suppose it depends on how you define ‘moral’. I think The FitzOsbornes at War is all about morality, but I quite understand that some readers won’t approve of some of the characters’ actions. It’s a novel full of conflict and drama and people in extreme circumstances making difficult (and occasionally stupid) decisions. But reading about characters doing things that you regard as against your own personal moral code is not the same as doing those things yourself. For instance, teenagers reading about a gay character will not suddenly turn gay (unless they already are gay, in which case what they read will make no difference to who they are, but might possibly make them feel less alone). Will reading about such ‘immoral’ behaviour make the behaviours seem more ‘normal’, more ‘acceptable’? Well, maybe. The US librarian who’s pulled The FitzOsbornes at War off her library shelves certainly seems to think so.
Note: Sorry, I’m going to have to include plot spoilers for The FitzOsbornes at War here. If you haven’t read the book but are planning to read it, you might want to skip the next seven paragraphs of this post.
I’m not going to link to the librarian’s review, because I don’t want anyone to go over there and hassle her. (Not that you would – I know the people who regularly visit this blog are always respectful and courteous, even when they disagree with a post – but just in case someone else does.) Still, I found the librarian’s reasons for removing the book really interesting, so I would like to quote from her review, which awarded the book one star out of five:
“Does it not bother anyone that this novel seems to have characters that are entirely amoral? I was wondering whether to overlook the PG13 content and language because of the educational aspects of this well researched historical fiction World War II novel, but really–I just have to wonder about everyone being okay with the gay king living with his wife and his wife’s lover and their children in happy wedded bliss (This was a recommended book in the Parent’s Choice awards!)…Sorry this one is not staying at our library.”
Firstly, as far as I know, the book isn’t recommended in the Parents’ Choice awards. A Brief History of Montmaray was, several years ago, but The FitzOsbornes at War hasn’t been.
Secondly, is it just me or does it read as though it’s okay to have a gay character in a book, but only if he’s utterly miserable? Heaven forbid that gay people and their children could ever live in “happy wedded bliss”, either in books or in real life. Oh, wait, some people’s version of heaven does forbid it . . .
Thirdly, if the “content and language” is regarded by the librarian as PG13, doesn’t that mean that this book should be okay to shelve in the Young Adult fiction section? Shouldn’t it be suitable for readers over thirteen, with some parental guidance if necessary? Can’t teenage readers and their parents decide for themselves whether they want to read this book?
Fourthly, does this librarian truly believe the characters in The FitzOsbornes at War are “entirely amoral”? The word ‘amoral’ doesn’t mean ‘disagrees with my own moral values’. It refers to someone who has no understanding of morality, no sense of right and wrong. I’m assuming the librarian is referring to Toby, Julia and Simon, given the reference to the “gay king” and his family (although, who knows, perhaps Veronica and Sophie are included in the condemnation, for having had sexual experiences outside marriage). Really, these characters are “amoral”? In a novel that also contains Hitler, Stalin and Franco? So, should all books with amoral characters be banned from libraries? I’m guessing that particular library doesn’t have a copy of Richard III or Macbeth, either. (Not that I’m for one moment suggesting that my novels approach the literary quality of the works of William Shakespeare. But it seems ‘literary quality’ isn’t a factor in determining which books are stocked at this library, anyway.)
(Fifthly, and quite irrelevantly, did the librarian really describe Simon as the “wife’s lover”? Poor Toby! You’d think he’d have more of a claim as Simon’s lover than Julia, after all those years.)
This is where the cultural difference thing comes in, because I am trying, and failing, to imagine a librarian in an Australian public library taking The FitzOsbornes at War off her library’s shelves – not because a library patron had complained, but because the librarian herself thought the book ‘amoral’. Australia has a long history of banning books, but it would be very unusual for a book in an Australian public library to be challenged or banned nowadays, particularly if the only objection to the book was that it contained a gay character who was happy.
Still, I’m in pretty good company. Here are some of the books that were most frequently banned or challenged in US libraries between 2000 and 2009:
The Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Bridge To Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451? Seriously, a novel about books being outlawed in America is on the US banned books list? I can only shake my head and turn to John Stuart Mill, who’s quoted on the American Library Association’s website:
“. . . But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”