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Controversial Books: Once-Celebrated, Now Unpublished

November 18, 2012

Many books you’ve read and loved have made it onto the banned books list. Let’s see here. There’s Harry Potter (violent), The Great Gatsby (language and sexual references), The Catcher in the Rye (obscene, lurid, sexual references), The Grapes of Wrath (vulgar), To Catch a Mockingbird (language), and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (pornographic, encourages crime). Many different organizations, including the American Library Association, have compiled lists of the most-often banned books, and writers and readers like to examine these lists and exclaim over some of the entries. That’s because some of these books represent truly great contributions to the world of literature.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the banning of books, for selfish purposes. I have completed my second-to-be-submitted middle grade novel, Wounded (working title), and I have some concerns about the content. It deals with issues like war, violence, drinking, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I believe the presentation of these subjects is fine, but you just never know when you’re going to offend someone. After all, I don’t think that Tolkien ever expected his novels to be burned in bonfires because he ticked off the Church.

Back in the day, it was okay to be controversial. Even if The Sun Also Rises offended a few groups, it didn’t matter because it was also a great book. Also, of course there is the intrigue of the forbidden – I’m sure that some people read it because it was banned.

Now, however, a book that straddles the line between acceptable and unacceptable might not get published. I think this is true especially for the middle grade genre. The publisher’s target audience is not only the children who read the book, but the schools and the parents who buy it. Thus, if a book is offensive so the latter two groups do not buy it, sales will suffer. Accordingly, unless the publisher expects the book to win a Newberry, the publisher will pass.

I’m not genuinely worried about Wounded’s subject matter or its presentation. I’ll have my agent weigh in on this, of course, but I think I pulled off writing a book that will not offended parents, teachers, or religious groups. I’m hoping that they’ll actually find the book educational and informative.

It’s simply interesting to note that my cognizance of the possibility of offending or distancing certain groups shaped this novel. I know that this is a time where getting a book published is an extremely tough accomplishment, and it’s important for a writer not to do anything that would hurt sales.

While I don’t think I compromised anything about Wounded’s story or the message I aim to convey, this thought still makes me a little sad. How many truly great writers out there are stifled because they worry that no school will buy their book? And how many publishers pass on amazing works because they think parents might not find them appropriate?

On the other hand, however, how many books have been made better by taking out gratuitous violence, sex or language?

In today’s economy, it’s hard to get published, and even harder if there’s something about your book that will alienate part of your target market. Unless you’ve written the next 1984, I recommend being cognizant of the market. Don’t think of it as the curbing of your creativity – think of it as an opportunity to achieve the same end without the unnecessary offensive parts.

It’s important to think this way. Because if you don’t, it’s really, really depressing.

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