Oct 4 2012 2:00pm

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors Sound Off About Banned Books and Censorship

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Authors Sound Off About Banned Books and Censorship

It’s Banned Books Week once again, a time to celebrate the freedom to read and to spotlight the necessity of free and open access to information. Genre fiction has naturally been the victim of unwarranted censorship over the past decades, due to it probably being just a little too fun and creative for some folks.

While raising awareness of this issue is key, what’s really exciting is when great writers strike back, utilizing the razor-sharp wit that makes their work so appealing in the first place. Below, we’ve gathered a collection of responses from famous authors speaking out against, banned books, burned books, and censorship in general.


Kurt Vonnegut  in A Man Without a Country

“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”


Margaret Atwood on Why We Must Defend Writers (Speech to American PEN Literary, 2010)

Voices can be silenced, but the human voice cannot. Our languages are what make us fully human—no other creature has anything like our rich and complex vocabularies and grammars. Each language is unique: To lose one is to lose a range of feeling and a way of looking at life that, like a living species that becomes extinct, can never be replaced. Human narrative skills are found in every language, and are very old: We all have them. We writers merely use them in what we fondly believe are more complex ways. But whether written down or not, stories move—from hand to paper to eye to mouth, from mouth to ear.

And stories move us. This is their power. Written stories are frozen voices that come to life when we read them. No other art form involves us in the same way—allows us to be with another human being—to feel joy when he laughs, to share her sorrow, to follow the twists and turns of his plotting and scheming, to realize her insufficiencies and failures and absurdities, to grasp the tools of her resistance—from within the mind itself. Such experience—such knowledge from within—makes us feel that we are not alone in our flawed humanity.


Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451

“There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.”


Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler) in The Penultimate Peril

“The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding—which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together—blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labor that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author.”


George Orwell in F**K

“Early this year I met an American publisher who told me that his firm had just had a nine-months lawsuit from which it had emerged partially victorious, though out of pocket. It concerned the printing of a four-letter word which most of us use every day, generally in the present participle. The United States is usually a few years ahead of Britain in these matters. You could print ‘b—’ in full in American books at a time when it had to appear in English ones as B dash. Recently it has become possible in England to print the word in full in a book, but in periodicals it still has to be B dash. Only five or six years ago it was printed in a well-known monthly magazine, but the last-minute panic was so great that a weary staff had to black the word out by hand. As to the other word, the four-letter one, it is still unprintable in periodicals in this country, but in books it can be represented by its first letter and a dash.  

In the United States this point was reached at least a dozen years ago. Last year the publishing firm in question tried the experiment of printing the word in full. The book was suppressed, and after nine months of litigation the suppression was upheld. But in the process an important step forward was made. It was ruled that you may now print the first and last letters of the word with two asterisks in between, clearly indicating that it had four letters. This makes it reasonably sure that within a few years the word will be printable in full. So does progress continue—and it is genuine progress, in my opinion, for if only our half-dozen ‘bad’ words could be got off the lavatory wall and on the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.”  


And while this one isn’t from a science fiction author, we love, love, love this letter from To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee:

Monroeville, Alabama
January, 1966

Editor, The News Leader:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

Harper Lee


Regardless of genre or voice, we encourage you to share your favorite responses to banned books below.

Matthew Smith
1. Blocksmith1
While it is within each individual to choose not to read a book or subscribe to a certain ideal based on one's personal beliefs, it flies in the face of a democratic society to attempt to curb such ideals by "burning" books, either literally or figuratively. That said, there is nothing that insights interest and intrigue more than trying to restrict or suppress access to such creations. Having read three of the books on the list, I can honestly say they are some of the most thought provoking and meaningful stories that I have read.

So to all of those that seek to suppress and smother those literary works that push the limits of "accepted" thinking within their period of publishing, I submit that ultimately, they have failed. And to those authors, those visionaries, that have pushed the envelope and opened some minds, eyes, and hearts, I salute you.

2. Gerry__Quinn
Most people are in favour of censorship. They often disagree on exactly which writings/opinions should be suppressed, though.
3. Rancho Unicorno
While I believe that all of the authors listed make excellent point, I do look at Orwell's closing remarks with some sadness.
if only our half-dozen ‘bad’ words could be got off the lavatory wall and on the printed page, they would soon lose their magical quality, and the habit of swearing, degrading to our thoughts and weakening to our language, might become less common.”
From my perspective, the habit of swearing, degrading our thoughts and weakening our language hasn't been the end result of moving words from lavatory walls to books, music, and film.

Public discourse seems to be laced more heavily with swearing and derogatory comments, an embracing of degrading thoughts, and a resultingly weaker language. All the more disturbing is that as a society we embrace our liberation of those lavatory words while simultaneously endowing other words of degradation with that same fear.

It is as if we are unable to truely commit to a course of action, trying so hard to overcome our fear of printed and spoken word while cutting out the tongues of those who dare to use terms that offend us.
stephanie keenan
4. adriel_moonstar
Hooray for banned books week!!

When Iwas in high school (not terribly recently) my senior english teacher brought in a list of the ten most banned books in the US. Almost all of them were required reading at my school...a fact that I am still proud of to this day.

Strangely, my only personal experience with anyone trying to restrict my reading materials was when the local library wouldn't let me check out Little Women, of all things. To be fair, I was in second or third grade and they thought it was "too hard". But when I told my mom about it she took me back to the library and made them give it to me. It just goes to show that well-meaning people can find a reason to restrict anything!
5. wfsch
I remember a time when my Western Civ. teacher assigned us an an essay to write jumping off from a button we was wearing on his lapel:

FREE SPEECH - use only as directed
6. Brandiv87
Fun librarian story. In middle school my mom told me I should read The Little Prince by Saint-Expurey and so I checked it out at the school. The librarian scanned it, raised an eyebrow and said "Just so you know, this isn't a kids' book. It may have pictures but there is much more." I looked back and said "Ok. Thanks" and went about my day. Fast forward thirteen years and I'm still baffled at how amazing that book is, and that the librarian hinted to me about deeper meanings in stories--and also that she had the confidence in me that I would understand what they were at 12 years old. I wish I could remember her name. She was cool.
Fredrik Coulter
7. fcoulter
@3: I've attempted to teach my daughters that "those words" should be used sparingly. If sh*t is used in every paragraph, then how can you express the real pain you feel when you hit your thumb with a hammer. Those words are very emphatic, and life is generally not so emphatic. The overuse of those words flattens life.
Scott Silver
8. hihosilver28
Man, that Harper Lee letter is basically perfection. Brilliant stuff.
Thomas Simeroth
9. a smart guy
I laugh at anyone who thinks that they can ban books. Even if they ban it, millions of people have read that book. Furthermore, if they are banning a book, they must have heard of the argument in that book. The only way to kill a book, is to erase all thoughts of that book, all writings of that book, and all criticisms in that book. Ideas never die; they thrive.
Stephen Dunscombe
10. cythraul
That Harper Lee letter is pure gold. :D
11. S. M. Stirling.
Smart guy: whenever I hear someone say "you can't kill an idea", or something of that order along the lines of your posting, I reply "when was the last time you you met an Albigensian"?

It's perfectly possible to suppress a book, or kill an idea. The Crusaders and The Holy Office of the Inquisition did an abundantly sufficient number on the Cathars. It's wrong, but quite possible.
12. S. M. Stirling.
In my experience, it's all a matter of whose ox is getting gored. It's dead easy to see and be against… somebody else's prejudice.

If you want to really test someone's commitment to free speech, present them with a book or other form of expression that drips with everything they consider vile, hateful, evil, destructive, dishonest and harmful.

Then see how energetically they defend that, and the people pushing it.

For example, I've never yet met a coastal cosmopolitan in the United States who fails to see why it's wrong for a hardshell Baptist to try and ban books that have naughty words in them.

Other stuff… Sometimes not so much.
13. Jenny C.
@9, 11: It's been my experience that an idea can be killed, but only by conclusively proving its non-applicability in every imaginable circumstance in such a way that every single person in the world can understand it.

Under ideal conditions it should take many generations to do this, where the idea is tested thoroughly under realistic conditions, examined in free and frank discussion and only discarded when all possibilities that it may be applicable have been exhausted. And conditions in the world are typically far from ideal. For example, so-called National Socialism has been field tested on a large scale with disastrous and grotesque results, and there's still people around who're keeping it alive, far from convinced it's a bad idea. It might be another thousand years before it's unanimously determined to be unfeasible, at which time it will undoudbtedly have given birth to countless other, better ideas.
14. S. M. Stirling.
For example, so-called National Socialism has been field tested on a large scale with disastrous and grotesque results

– Disposing of National Socialism didn't involve much in the way of free and frank discussion. More like "blowing stuff up" and "burning things down".
stephanie keenan
15. adriel_moonstar
I don't know, I kind of thought that the "blowing stuff up" and "burning things down" was about stopping the German War machine from imposing National Socialism on the rest of the world. The actual disposal of the concept was undertaken in the public (albeit punitive) Nurenberg trials, Holocaust memorials and museums and films of camp liberations. Those seemed pretty frank to me.

(Personally, I count those films as one of Eisenhower's greatest acheivements. He made sure that he was in the films so that no one could later deny the atrocities.)

Exposure of the true nature and agenda of National Socialism is what makes it repulsive to most of us today. Isn't that the whole point of condemning the censorship that would keep us from viewing these materials because of 'nudity' or 'disturbing images'?
16. O.
It still baffles me, that there are banned words in countries, that claim to have free speech.
17. Copper
Adding on to this, it's Ray Bradbury again with "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."

I'm of the opinion that, like anything controversial, if you tell someone that they can't/shouldn't do something, what's the first thing they're going to do? Yup, they're probably going to try and do it. Or at the very least, see what it's about.

What amuses me is looking at a lot of the classically 'banned' books and then popping over to the NYT Best Seller list and looking at the stuff that's sitting in the top spots (most notably the paperback trade fiction section). I wonder what the people who sought to ban several of the books for use of certain derogatory terms would think looking at our most popular novels today.

And, lastly, @12 - While I'll admit that it is often difficult to rally under the free speech flag with regard to subject matter that goes against your own beliefs, you have to think that somewhere out there, there's someone else who may not like what *you* believe in. For me, it boils down to the oft misquoted: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." As long as there's opportunity for counter-argument (exercising *your* right to free speech), then they can say what they want.
18. arel1
One of the surest ways to get a book read is to try to ban it. In those long-ago days when I was in high school, "Catcher in the Rye" was banned by our school system and copies were confiscated when found. As a result, nearly every student in our high school read it. (These days it's on the required reading list, and very few of this generation's high-schoolers have actually read it...)
19. S. M. Is one
I'm of the opinion that, like anything controversial, if you tell someone that they can't/shouldn't do something, what's the first thing they're going to do? Yup, they're probably going to try and do it. Or at the very least, see what it's about.
– That depends on how they're telling you. If it comes with a credible threat of torture and death, not so much. And if you can force someone to act as if they believe X, after a while there is a very high probability that they really will begin to believe X.

That's the reason that totalizing systems tend to be so ferocious about enforcing conformity in "little things". It's not because – or not just because – they're compulsive orifices. It's because allowing psychological space for disagreement makes it much more likely.
That's the reason that totalizing systems
And if you can force someone to act as if they believed X And if you can force If you can force
20. Heathen_Knight
Fear and greed, those are the only motives that I have ever been able to see for banning of any book.
Regardless if it's fear of change, greed for power or prestige, or a baser, and more pervasive fear of standing apart from the herd by opposing such actions, those two factors have seemed to be at the root.
Neither I, nor anyone else, can honestly claim that our ideas are all inclusive, but denying that other sources may have a valid point or lessons to give is sheer hubris of the worst sort.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment