The joys of censorship

I was on a panel for the California Association of Teachers and Educators this week, with Gillian Roberts, Cara Black, and Nadia Gordon (plus various pseudonymous identities–seven writers for the price of four!) and one of the things that came up was censorship. Namely, a poor beleaguered teacher (not here in California) who is being taken to task by her school board for turning her students into career criminals by–yep–having them write mysteries.

This, clearly, is an oversimplification, but not as much as you might imagine. And it’s one of those all-too-commonplace bizarrenesses that makes any sensible person just stand gobsmacked and wonder where to begin.

Are we, as professional crime writers, a particularly bloodthirsty lot? Actually, any gathering of crime writers I’ve attended has been filled with polite and helpful people, without a knife (even a verbal one) in sight. And really, when you think about it, crime fiction is probably the most moral art form there is: an examination of consequences is built into the very bones of the genre.

I understand the concern of parents, that we might not wish to have our kids researching explosives and poisons on the Internet, but a detective story encouraging murderous impulses? Have we as a country gone absolutely insane? Must we pander to the limitations of the terminally unimaginative and chronically uneducated? Political correctness (also known as Good Manners) is for the most part desirable, but really, can’t we just draw a line after which we say, “Oh for Christ sake, do shut up.”

Or am I being ill mannered?

***
I should mention that if you’re not signed up for the web site’s e-newsletter, you might want to do so. The next one will be out in a week or so, and will have not only a photo of my cat (or portions thereof) but of my husband. This is especially for all those members of the mystery community who have expressed doubt concerning his existence.

There’s also a survey coming onto the site, with prizes.
***
To respond to a couple of the remarks–No, I haven’t had to re-read the Russell books (although no doubt I should do so, regularly.) I did read O Jerusalem before I wrote Justice Hall, in order to get the voices of those two characters straight in my head, but not the others. Some day I may be forced to, maybe two years from now when I haven’t worked with Russell for a while, but so far I’ve avoided it.

And as to the question of why I “released GRAVE TALENT for publication” when I wasn’t happy with it–honey, if I waited until I was ecstatic about a book to let it go, there would be no Laurie King books out there. I’m never satisfied with a book, period. The best I can hope for is being satisfied that it’s the best I can do with it. It’s like raising kids: You cannot impress absolutely everything upon them. You work to shape them to a few essentials (such as: Not looking when you step into the street is harder on you than it is on the oncoming car; Generosity is a sign of strength, not weakness), then you pray that the things you haven’t managed to plant in their minds don’t prove too disastrous. And then you turn them loose.

Comments

  1. As a high school student, and, as a result, a target for all the bad influences of today’s media, education system, etc., I would have to say that even just reading mysteries has resulted in my own research on lock picking, poisoning, and other forms of crime. However, beyond a natural curiosity about how these skills could be learned and used, I have had no inclination towards a life of crime myself.

    It is my personal opinion that the current idea that “so and so teenager committed this violent crime because she/he read this book/listened to this artist/watched this television show.” is ridiculous and insulting. Surely we young people have the ability to make our own decisions, whether they be idiotic or intelligent.

    In other words, I agree. Completely. I am also thrilled to see that you’ve created a blog. My parents, no doubt, will not be, as it will only be another reason for our dinnertime conversations to revolve around your books or opinions.

    -Rachel

  2. I too am a high schoolstudent in NZ, Politically correctness is probably the worst thing ever to be invented by modern society, we over here have parents complain about mundane issues like the use of a title which may present an insult to a small minority of the popualtion, so a large scandal and discussion occurs while in the background our country goes to hell.
    Political correctness is the outlet for old nagging women to complain about every little insignificant thing. if we were to live in a P.C. world we would rebel as Arthur Schopenhauer put it, in his book ‘On the Suffering of the World’: “we require at all times a certain quantity of care or sorrow or want, as a ship requires ballast, to keep us on a straight course”

    we need difficulty and strife for without it how would we know to better ourselves to correct ourselves.

    Without wrong a person can know no wrong.

  3. I would like to second Rachel’s comment above, about the current idea of books/music/artists/etc. being the root of wrongdoing in our population today…I think it is totally wacked, myself.

    The idea that anyone is powerless to resist the power of suggestion put forth by music, books, movies, etc. and therefore everyone must be insulated or shielded from the same or–this is important–books, music, movies, etc must be rigidly screened for content or otherwise controlled is insulting to everyone’s intelligence and freedom of choice.

    It also reminds me of the way the old Soviet regime–yeah, remember the Socialists?–would justify intruding itself into the lives of its citizens, to the point of dictating what they read, thought, listened to, expressed verbally or in print, even dictating the state of their souls and consciences through the abolition of religion.

    Any of this sound familiar, yet?

    How much of a difference is there between Political Correctness (as it’s practiced over here) and the methods the Soviets employed to keep their people in line? Okay, I realize that we don’t have it as bad as the Soviets did, such that if we make an allegedly offensive remark, the KGB will drag us out of our beds in the middle of the night to be shot in our driveways, but the court of public opinion can be used to do the same thing… in a figurative, instead of a literal, sense. Even the term “Political Correctness” smacks of the Cold War and the misery of life in a totalitarian system. Zero tolerance policies play right into this.

    Why don’t we look into the agendas behind Political Correctness and zero tolerance policies as instituted by our schools, universities and municipalities? I doubt sincere effort to make the world a kinder gentler place comes anywhere near them, not any more. I think it is actually all about power and control, and so far the smoke screen of “being unoffensive” or “being for the good of our children” is working.

    As for taking the high school teacher to task for encouraging her students to write mysteries, which, btw, helps students learn logical thinking, cause and effect, law enforcement, etc…I stand with you, Laurie. “Gobsmacked” pretty much covers it. (Like that case in Wilmington NC, where that teacher was severely punished for using the word ‘niggardly’ in English class. A student complained to his/her parent and … you know the rest. The book under discussion was by Dickens, IIRC…)

    *sigh*

    I want to apologize if I have offended anyone with my obvious political leanings. It really wasn’t my intention to be horrid to anyone. Having said that, I also want to apologize for my cowardice in playing along with the game of protesting my innocence from racism/political incorrectness/insensitivity while expressing my opinion. If more people refused to play along, maybe we could turn back to a saner stance on this sort of thing.

    I thought the war against socialism and the thought police had been won when the Berlin Wall came down. I guess I was wrong, eh?

    Maer aka “Merely a whim.”
    — who remembers the Cold War and isn’t too eager to bring her young children up in another one…but there’s a fight to be fought here. Any takers?

  4. I hope this teacher has a robust sense of humour.

    Actually, I once had a teacher who encouraged us to plot our future world-takeovers. He used to wander around the classroom, listing off the Department of Education minions he’d like to bump off.

    I wonder where he is now…?

  5. Come to think of it, my sister once wrote a guide to taking over the world for her english class. I can’t recall if I had to write anything objectionable. I did write a short piece in the style of the Canterbury Tales that was horribly disturbing and had a disgusting metaphor involving pus, but that was more my bad taste. The whole situation just reminds me of when a teacher was forbidden to teach evolution. At least this teacher was getting her students to write.

  6. Whilst this hasn’t made the news on the East Coast, I can quite see this happening here as well. The only difference is that the NYC teacher’s union is likely to tell the educrates to piss off. But I digress.
    This bit of mess made me think of the case brought against the band Judas Priest back in the 1980’s by the parents of two teenagers who offed themselves after listening to one of their albums. The prosecution tried to claim that there we subliminal messages involved. The case went nowhere, but still, I wonder if it would end the same way today.
    In our Windexed PC world, the child, or rather the youth, has been sanctified and de-sexed to the point of dehumanization. In a total reversal of the Victorian treatment of the child as a mini adult, for us, anyone under the magical age of majority is a helpless innocent to be coddled and protected. Never mind that one can make his own choices while under the age of 18, or that it\’e2\’80\’99s a rare adolescent who’s a virgin by Prom night.
    As a direct result of that pedagogy of innocence, our public education system is being supplanted by largely religious private vouchers and our curricula are dumbed down. That in turn produces a more malleable, or to be blunt, dumber citizen and a dumber citizen is the most desirable follower after all. A member of the horde who is taught from infancy that he is weak, and an innocent to be protected, rather than a complete citizen with choices and responsibilities, is an even more desirable and easily led member of the populace.
    I\’e2\’80\’99ve figured that out whilst in public school in the now defunct USSR, and it feels applicable to the situation. In the USSR, the teacher would have been reprimanded for promoting hooliganism. Here, he\’e2\’80\’99s corrupting the youth. Not much of a difference, is there?

  7. It’s easier to say that something defined — video games, some kind of music, the internet, books — causes bad things to happen. You can do something. Oh, of course people don’t suddenly stop killing if they no longer can play Doom — people have been killing forever — but action has been taken (and, conveniently, easy action).

    Oh, some things are about power, wanting to have it, or not wanting to give it up. But mostly I think it’s that there it is: a problem that needs fixing. Real fixes are hard and will anger people, and won’t work perfectly even after years and money. A fake fix looks like immediate action’s being taken.

    And — independently — there are good reasons to research poisons or explosives online. (Why is TNT explosive? That’s a standard intro to organic chemistry lesson. What does cyanide do to cells? Intro biology.)

  8. While I suppose it is just possible a criminal might get an idea from the media, I tend to think not. And surely not books – I’ve always assumed that most criminal types were too stupid to read, anyway! And while there are certainly things I would not like to see my children exposed to (if I had kids)I think officially sanctioned censoring is a bad idea. Human nature is such that people go in droves to see a movie that has caused a lot of controversy, for example. Want to sell something? Just ban it!

    When I worked in retail, there were always cutomers who complained about our store selling a particular book(Harry Potter books, just to name one instance), or the cover art on a DVD!! One woman had a fit about a semi-clothed woman on the cover of a DVD. Actually, the actress was more covered up than most people are on any beach. I felt sorry for her kids – they probably never get to leave the house.
    I mean, I’m 54 and no radical, but censorship, hypocrisy, the increasing mingling of church with state, and the push to make certain groups of people into second class citizens, is all so narrow-minded and bigoted, it absolutely infuriates me!!

  9. ManUtdGal04 says:

    I think this is all rediulous. First, the “ever wise” American Government put a kid in jail for writting a story about zombies attacking a high school (an act of terrorism)-not even his, just a generic school- and now a teacher gets in trouble for “turning her students into criminals.” All this just hurts my brain. How many people need be “crusified” in order for people to say… hum… maybe we’ve gone too far with this censorship stuff.

    I totally agree with Rachel when she said “so and so teenager committed this violent crime because she/he read this book/listened to this artist/watched this television show.” is ridiculous and insulting. It is insulting. I’m 21 and I grew up with that stereotype. The stereotype of kids are dumb and highly impressionsable. So much that video games/tv/books/movies/and the like could warp our brain and turn us into mindless killing machines. That everything we read or write means we are going to go postal on our fellow man/woman/and children. It just hurts my brain.
    On a happier topic. I can’t say how excited I am you started a blog. I’ve read every single one of your Mary Russel books and loved them all. I can’t wait to read the next one. Although, It was a school assignment that made me read Beekeaper’s Apprentice. 🙂
    Thanks again!!

    –Chrystal

  10. Colonel Mustard\’e2\’80\’a6 in the Library with a \’e2\’80\’a6 Sounds like she was having them write a story around the game of CLUE. So are they going to get rid of that as a corrupting influence too?!?

    Do they think they can keep kids wrapped in a cocoon of goodness and safety until they are suddenly adults and then expect them to make good choices\’e2\’80\’a6without having wrestled out issues for themselves in incremental lessons along the way? Becoming a criminal based on a homework assignment? \’e2\’80\’a6whatever happened to personal responsibility? I wonder what message her class is really going to learn here.

    My daughter\’e2\’80\’99s dealing with another PC school issue – school mascots\’e2\’80\’a6 There been a big school spirit campaign at the high school this year, but the mascot\’e2\’80\’99s been controversial and occasionally debated\’e2\’80\’93 so, as a result, we now have a headless school mascot running around at pep rallies because the school administrators are worried that someone might be offended. The kids are disgusted with the administration\’e2\’80\’a6you want us to be proud of our school but not who we are and our mascot??? Intelligent response.

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  12. azureavian says:

    Are we, as professional crime writers, a particularly bloodthirsty lot? Actually, any gathering of crime writers I’ve attended has been filled with polite and helpful people, without a knife (even a verbal one) in sight. And really, when you think about it, crime fiction is probably the most moral art form there is: an examination of consequences is built into the very bones of the genre.

    I understand the concern of parents, that we might not wish to have our kids researching explosives and poisons on the Internet, but a detective story encouraging murderous impulses? Have we as a country gone absolutely insane? Must we pander to the limitations of the terminally unimaginative and chronically uneducated? Political correctness (also known as Good Manners) is for the most part desirable, but really, can’t we just draw a line after which we say, “Oh for Christ sake, do shut up.”

    exactly. and i actually recommended to my kids that they read mysteries. yours, martha grimes, perhaps patricia cornwell (tho she might be iffy for the younger-than-13 set, just depends on the maturity of the kid). maybe that all just means i’m a bad mommy; regardless, i will encourage them to examine what makes them thinking, moral, confident people.

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