In the 17th century, William Prynneâ€™s cheeks were branded with the letters SL, standing for â€œseditious libelerâ€ after he published pamphlets critical of Anglican clergymen. Such punishments are long gone in the UK and US, but as this yearâ€™s Banned Books Week gets under way, the chief executive of Index on Censorship has warned that the â€œanger of the mobâ€ online has spawned a new, modern kind of censorship â€“ particularly when it comes to young readers.
â€œThere is a really worrying trend of popular pressure forcing childrenâ€™s books off shelves,â€ said Jodie Ginsberg of the campaign group, which is part of a coalition of UK organisations staging events, panels and discussions to mark the annual celebration of the right to read.
Last year in the US, Scholastic pulled the picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington from publication following criticism of its upbeat depiction slavesâ€™ lives, while the author of the picture book A Fine Dessert was forced to apologise for its depiction of slave characters. Ginsberg also pointed to the UK tabloid press campaign in 1986 against a book about a child with two fathers, Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin.
â€œItâ€™s particularly true in the US. Itâ€™s not as prevalent in the UK but itâ€™s not unheard of,â€ said Ginsberg. â€œWe arenâ€™t branding cheeks for seditious libel; we no longer have a censor in chief. But we have a different kind of censorship â€¦ that allows the anger of the mob to force both publishers and authors to censor themselves out of fear.
â€œIn 2017, we can read what we like but there is a different kind of censorship in operation, not coming from the state but from an outraged public. We really need to be aware and wary of it and weâ€™re not, sufficiently.â€
Ginsberg was clear that censorship isnâ€™t something that happens far away. â€œIt has happened in the UK. In every library, there are books that British citizens have been blocked from reading at various times. As citizens and literature lovers we must be constantly vigilant to guard against the erosion of our freedom to read.â€
UK events this week include a discussion with Melvyn Bragg and members of the Salman Rushdie Campaign Group on The Satanic Verses controversy at the British Library, as well as David Aaronovitch, Irish author Claire Hennessy and publisher Lynn Gaspard exploring modern-day censorship at the Free Word Centre in London, as well as events and promotions in public libraries.
Organisers are keen to make the week a major part of the UK literary calendar. It was launched in the US in 1982, to mark what the American Library Association (ALA) said was a sudden surge in attempts to have books removed or restricted in schools, bookshops and libraries. Since then, more than 11,300 books have been â€œchallengedâ€, with last yearâ€™s most controversial title the award-winning graphic novel This One Summer by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki â€“ â€œbecause it includes LGBT characters, drug use and profanity, and it was considered sexually explicit with mature themes,â€ said the ALA.
Almost all of the books on its annual list of challenged books are picture books and young adult novels, flagged because of sexual content, transgender characters or gay relationships. The only exception on this yearâ€™s list, the Little Bill series, was challenged because of the high-profile sexual harassment claims against their author, comedian Bill Cosby.
â€œWe live in a society where the individual is far more empowered, but that brings other challenges. Once the mob gets going, it is very easy to silence authors, or to get publishers to pull books from publication. And that raises questions about the books that are getting out: who is writing them? And who is being approved to write them?â€ said Ginsberg.
Theyoung adult novelist Hennessy pointed to a recent Vulture piece about the â€œtoxicâ€ online community around young adult books, where novels are being â€œtargeted in intense social-media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons â€“ sometimes before anybodyâ€™s even read themâ€.
The pieceâ€™s author, Kat Rosenfield writes: â€œIn recent months, the community was bubbling with a dozen different controversies of varying reach â€“ over Nicola Yoonâ€™s Everything Everything (for ableism), Stephanie Elliotâ€™s Sad Perfect (for being potentially triggering to ED survivors), A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J Maas (for heterocentrism), The Traitorâ€™s Kiss by Erin Beaty (for misusing the story of Mulan), and All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater (in a peculiar example of publishing pre-crime, people had decided that Stiefvaterâ€™s book was racist before sheâ€™d even finished the manuscript),â€
Hennessy said there was a worrying trend for YA authors to be required to have personal experience of the issues they write about. â€œThe idea of authenticity is a preoccupation for reviewers and bloggers and it is very frustrating â€“ I disagree with it completely,â€ she said. â€œItâ€™s a very dangerous path to go down â€¦ Itâ€™s a strange bubble. On one hand thereâ€™s the feeling that itâ€™s just on Twitter and Goodreads, but then these are the places where the writers are, and where the people in publishing are, so it is a bubble full of relevant people.â€
â€œTwenty years ago,â€ Ginsberg added, â€œit required a lot of effort to campaign against something. Now you can create that outrage and pressure almost instantaneously. And publishers respond to that very quick outrage on social media. Itâ€™s really vital for publishers who have invested in their books and believe in their value to defend them even when the madness of the mob descends. What worries me is that publishers do sometimes cave in, when they should be part of the frontline [defending] free expression.â€
The 10 most challenged books in the US last year:
1. This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
Reasons: Challenged over LGBT characters, drug use and profanity. It was also considered sexually explicit, with mature themes.
2. Drama, written and illustrated by Raina Telgemeier
Reasons: Challenged because it includes LGBT characters, was deemed sexually explicit and considered to have an offensive political viewpoint.
3. George by Alex Gino
Reasons: Challenged because it includes a transgender child, and the â€œsexuality was not appropriate at elementary levelsâ€.
4. I Am Jazz written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, and illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas
Reasons: Challenged because it portrays a transgender child and because of language, sex education, and â€œoffensive viewpointsâ€.
5. Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Reasons: Challenged because its cover has an image of two boys kissing, and it was considered to include sexually explicit content.
6. Looking for Alaska by John Green
Reasons: Challenged for a sexually explicit scene that might lead a student to â€œsexual experimentationâ€.
7. Big Hard Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction, illustrated by Chip Zdarsky
Reason: Challenged because it was considered sexually explicit.
8. Make Something Up: Stories You Canâ€™t Unread by Chuck Palahniuk
Reasons: Challenged for profanity, sexual explicitness and being â€œdisgusting and all-around offensiveâ€.
9. The Little Bill series by Bill Cosby and illustrated by Varnette P Honeywood
Reason: Challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author.
10. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Reason: Challenged for offensive language.