Sparked by Words

Hey, You Can’t Write That!


Over the centuries that books have been published, certain titles have incited self appointed morals committees to assign them a “banned” badge. It only takes a quick jog on the Internet to find lists of books deemed at one time unsuited for public access, for reasons of sexual erotica, salacious language, unpopular political viewpoint, sadistic violence, extreme politics, cultish religious persuasion, heinous crimes, bizarre mores, or other “inappropriate” activities. Sometimes it’s just irreverence for someone else’s venerated principles. This is especially true when outcast pursuits are sympathetically promoted by the author. Salmon Rushdie’s name comes to mind when I think of censorship. His book The Satanic Verses so inflamed some in the Islamic world that religious extremists put a contract on his life, and he was forced to keep his whereabouts secret for years.

Rushdie is in good company with Alice Walker for The Color Purple, Ray Bradbury for Fahrenheit 451, Toni Morrison for The Bluest Eye, F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Cormier for The Chocolate War, Maya Angelou for I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Mark Twain for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Boris Pasternak for Dr. Zhivago, John Steinbeck for The Grapes of Wrath, Katherine Paterson for Bridge to Terabithia, John Steinbeck for Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger for Catcher in the Rye, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Malcolm X and Alex Haley for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Vladimir Nabokov for Lolita, Aldous Huxley for Brave New World, Joseph Heller for Catch-22, and Aristophanes for Lysistrata. These share the honors for banned books and are also considered literary classics. The Bible, both Jewish and Christian versions, made it too. If your favorite banned book isn’t on this list, it may be because I have not read your selection, and you’d be reading only the titles until next year’s Banned Books Week.

We sneer now about many of the original judgments, but we are privileged to live in a society that (mostly) accepts all manner of writing. Incendiary or bigoted work raises eyebrows and may draw intense attention, as does outlandish historical distortion and manipulation of documented facts, but it still gets published.  As a free society, we are open to all viewpoints. Despicable work allows us opportunity to present the other side of the coin and argue for consideration.

Still, I suspect that some writers look over their shoulders to be sure “no one” is offended by what they write, “no one” being perhaps an employer or family member or someone with an ax to grind and a wallet thick enough to pursue a lawsuit. With everyone only a key click away from public comments about anything, with misinterpretation and misinformation a frequent flag waver of rash opinions, and the word “viral” familiar even to young children, it doesn’t take much to understand why a writer, especially a new writer, might exercise caution.

Writers should balance how appropriately a controversial topic or unpopular position contributes to our stories more than whether or not to include it. If writing is salacious, provocative, or seductive, does it generate salivating readers or promote thoughts about difficult ideas among thinking people? Words have the power to incite rage. They instigate sympathy, tempt action, or ask insightful questions. To struggle with what challenges us is to confront what holds us back. The danger of shying away from controversy that might be banned is that the result might be a warm mush of boredom.

The primary theme of my own books concerns family relationships. I’ve included aspects of abortion, child abuse, physical abuse, sex, homosexuality, murder, violence, and borderline psychotic behavior. Not just a sentence about a woman who got an abortion, or a comment that someone had sex, or a mention of a character who was gay, but fully descriptive passages as they’ve suited my stories. Am I brave or foolish? Not sure, but my biggest concern involves how well written these passages are, not whether I should have included them at all. If readers are uncomfortably stirred, well then, life is like that. Books, especially fiction, should be a safe place to explore controversial material even if we prickle or blush as we read. I suggest that writers focus on good writing, whatever their topic or genre. We should all be so recognized on the same podium as the authors listed here.

September 24 to September 30 is this year’s Banned Books Week. Libraries and book stores will feature the titles of books that once made the infamous cut. Banned Books Week celebrates not only the freedom to read, but also the freedom to write our concepts of truth, to plumb what is dangerous, and to expose what horrifies us. Censorship stems from fear of the unknown, hatred of other allegiances, marginalization of those who are different, and jealousy of universal vision. A just world will be borne on the flight of daring ideas. It’s the world I strive for.

May you find a way to celebrate Banned Books Week that is true to your spirit, whether reading a book on the list or writing something from the other side of the safety net. Be daring. Read outside your comfort zone. Write well no matter what.



 Painting Young Girl Reading by Jean Honore Fragonard



Comments on: "Hey, You Can’t Write That!" (29)

  1. I was taken aback by the list of famous and great books that had been banned. I guess it all has to do with the era we live in.
    Today is more promiscuous than ever and it would be nice to see less gratitious violence and sex being portrayed. In a way I would compare it to the food we eat and drink we consume. Are they strengthening us as human beings.?

    At the end of the day there are as many opinions as there are readers/wiewers as films fall under the same umbrella.
    Thank you Sharon for your great and informative post

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was really stunned by some of the titles I discovered had been banned, but it’s important to consider the times in which it happened for each book. Our community’s social mores change as the times change. My feeling is we readers should get to choose what to read. Where children are involved, parents get to make the final decision. Other than that, it’s no one’s business.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Writing well and at all times!! Something that should be actively encouraged and reinforced as strongly as you do here, Sharon! Uncomfortable topics should not be avoided, just approached with sense and sensitivity… you keep writing what’s in your heart. As for the list of banned books, wow! Some I knew struggled to be printed, otherwise I was less aware of, most I’ve read! I followed the banning of Salmon Rushdie’s book closely at the time, the effect on his and his family’s life and the strength and courage it must have taken to not withdraw it, rather to stand up for free speech. Great post, Shari.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The issue over Rushdie is not only that his book was banned but that his life was threatened. That is unacceptable and I applaud his decision not to be cowed by those who persecuted him. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Annika.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. There are still countries where Bibles must be smuggled in. Sometimes we take our many freedoms for granted. I’m against banning of books no matter the subject or how the subject incites others. None of us have to react with violence. It’s a decision we make as free people. Yet I do have a problem with some schools deciding to expose young children to books that tackle themes that are questionable in terms of age-appropriate content or ideologies that may be trending with teachers but not with the local community.

    I’ve seen education professionals use banned books week to suggest that if parents don’t approve of certain books for their children that they are guilty of “banning books.” I think that’s blurring the line. So there’s my controversial thought to add. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • In Russia, during the Refusnik era, the Torah was banned and to sneak them into the country was dangerous. That’s totalitarianism and dictatorships for you, and why I ardently defend democracy.

      As for schools and controversial books, parents always have the right to choose alternate books for their own kids. I don’t object to difficult subjects, only to topics that are beyond the ability of a particular age group to grasp. Life is controversial and many young people are exposed to controversial situations in their lives.

      Adrienne, I always appreciate your thoughtfulness.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. What do you think of the push to rewrite Huckleberry Finn without the N word?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Still, I suspect that some writers look over their shoulders to be sure “no one” is offended by what they write…”

    Yes, the worst thing I did for my poetic voice was told my family and friends where they could read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That happens, unfortunately. I know a lot of people who don’t tell their closest family about their blog. Always something to consider when starting a blog. I hope your family has not given you grief, Adrienne.


  6. I did not know the Bible made the list. Is it Marxism that started that one?

    I worry about family reading what I write and being offended because more of my characters resemble them in some way. Even though I do not want to, I think I am going to have to come up with a pen name.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know specifically why the Bible, (several versions) was banned, but I think it has to do with not allowing a particular group to impose its religious ideology on other people – in other words, the captive audience situation in public places, especially schools where children are required to be attentive to a teacher.

      As for your personal dilemma, Glynis, I suggest you write what works for your story but make subtle changes – name, gender, age, occupation, physical appearances, character traits, etc. People who feel threatened or insulted try to ban books and/or sue the writer of the publication. I have a close personal friend who publishes under a pen name and feels protected because of it. But I suspect that in today’s climate of exposing everything, a pen name will probably not protect a person from having their identity revealed.


  7. Whether it was authored by Mark Twain or “God” humans have rewritten and reinterpreted (and as you point out outright banned) usually to suit their own agenda or perspective. Language shapes culture and culture shapes language and as such is a living organic expression of who we are at any particular time and place. I suspect that when a writer looks over their shoulder, fearful their words will offend, or looks the other way, hoping their words will offend, they have self-censored by silencing their true voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a very perceptive comment, Judy. Some do write to offend and others smother their voices. But banning books is done by readers with myriad agendas. For myself, I write to expose human foibles and the nobility of human endeavor. Only readers can tell me if I am successful but they will not prevent me from trying to present truth as I see it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Goodness me Sharon, I didn’t realize so many books have been banned! What do you think of retrospective banning? A very simple example is when some of the children’s books written by Enid Blyton in the 50s and 60s (e.g. the Famous Five series) were banned by some UK libraries for being sexist by the standards of the 21st century. (These books ignited my love of reading, and I don’t believe I have turned into a sexist monster).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Revisionist history concerns me, especially when it’s done not to correct untruthful reporting but to assuage someone’s current take on the world. I’m not familiar with Enid Blyton but I read plenty of books that could be considered sexist. Culture changes over time but banning books should be the province of parents. They should always be involved with helping choose their kids’ books. I often read the books my sons were reading, not to make sure I would approve them, but to give us a base for conversation. They introduced me to outstanding stories, especially the Douglas Adams books. Banning books is covering another person’s eyes and ears. Better to open everyone’s. Thanks for your contribution, Denzil.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This makes good sense Sharon. In the end, many of these stories were rewritten quite severely by someone else to make them more politically correct, and in doing so they apparently lost their original brilliance. I think not banning, but discussing, is a good way forward.


      • I’m very against rewriting someone else’s work to be politically correct. The way to acknowledge alternate concerns is to allow brief commentaries by affected, knowledgeable people to be added to newer editions. There are plenty of conversations on the Internet where everyone spouts off their opinions, and anyone still offended can stand on that soapbox. The other option is not to read what bugs you. We all do that anyway. I, for instance, do not read Tweets. Ever.


  9. Australia is a very conservative country and in my youth many many books were banned, including Lord of the Flies for its use of blood, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Books were banned simply because they used the word dammed. Luckily we have moved on a bit from those times although we still have a censorship board, who knows what they are doing.
    These works are so important in getting a conversation going and perhaps presenting another side of an argument – I’m sure that the subjects you have dealt with will make people think – just get those books published.


    • I think America is also very conservative and becoming more so, though we are also becoming more divisive, unfortunately. No one is being served well by either extreme. I didn’t realize Australia had an official censorship board. I don’t think we have such a federal authority here, but lots of local organizations find ways of imposing their views by limiting access to books as well as many other forms of entertainment and information.

      Irene, thanks for always urging me toward publication. I might be making a bit of progress. And what about you? You’ve suggested on your blog that you’re returning to your writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Sadly, I’ve met public librarians who still ban books. There was even a school librarian who rejected Dr. Seuss books in her library, finding them offensive


    • I’ve heard the same about the Dr. Seuss books. I believe she wanted to promote her own favorite books. While some books do become dated, and librarians have a responsibility to make current books available, I still think it should be up to parents to decide what their kids can and can’t read, especially if it’s extracurricular. Thanks for reading, Jonathan.

      Liked by 1 person

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