Unlocking Self-Censorship

Katherine Longshore 2 Tuesday, September 27, 2011

So here we are, almost in the middle of Banned Books Week.  Donna provided some excellent ideas for celebrating/protesting at the beginning of her post yesterday, and I’d just like to add that jenbigheart at I Read Banned Books has organized a massive blog hop to celebrate all challenged and banned books this week.  She’s an incredible resource and very passionate about keeping books on shelves and minds open.

Our contribution this week is to talk about censorship and challenges that we face as writers.  This doesn’t have to be the efforts of external forces, relegating our books to bonfires for satanic influences or violence or sexuality.  As Donna pointed out yesterday, through the writing and editing process, we are faced with challenges that we have to choose ourselves as our hills to die on.  Or not.

I make very specific choices when I write, wanting to illustrate an authentic experience not just for the time period, but for readers today.  I want the events in my books to reflect the reality of life in the trenches of high school so my readers can relate to them.  So it’s not all courtly etiquette and Austen-esque love-making and chivalric romance.  There is cruelty.  There is sex.  And there are choices made with life-altering consequences.

Then a scene in GILT was challenged by several potential agents and critique partners (none of them Muses).  I was advised by more than one person to cut the scene entirely.  Or to write about the events obliquely.  But I really wanted to capture not only the events themselves but the emotional state and subsequent aftermath experienced by the person who witnessed them.  So I kept it.  And found an agent who supported my decision and helped me to make the intention behind it more clear and illustrative within the text itself.

However, the result of this is that now I self-censor – never a good thing when writing a first draft.  I find myself wondering, “Am I going too far with this?” as I’m deeply in the middle of a difficult scene.  One I want to keep for its emotional, social, and historical relevance. 

But the problem is that I just don’t understand the reasoning behind challenging a book. In the Night Kitchen for nudity?  The Lord of the Flies for violence?  Crank for drug use?  To Kill a Mockingbird for racial themes?  Any number of books for sex and sexuality. 

It’s enough to make me pull my hair out.  Compared to most kids, I lived an extremely sheltered teenaged life.  And I knew kids who did drugs.  Who had sex.  Who tried to commit suicide.  Who used questionable language.  My feeling is that you can’t keep young people from experiencing all of these things in their day to day life – from seeing it all on the news – so why limit their interpretation of these things by preventing them from reading books that might just show an emotional and logical path through the minefield?

So I keep writing.  Through the self-censorship and self-doubt.  And when I revise, I question my motives all over again.  By questioning myself, I am able to make a much clearer and well-defined choice.  Am I writing this to make a point?  Or to score points?  And that’s when I have to decide if it’s a hill to die on.


Well said, Katy!

Now, of course, I'm even MORE eager to read GILT. I didn't think it was possible.

Thanks, Beth! That means a lot to me.

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