In literature, the freedom to write what you want to write always walks a tightrope.
July 8, 2013
For the past week, we have been hearing about and talking about and thanking fate, time, and circumstance for our freedoms.
It’s the holiday I cherish most.
We cling tightly and diligently and prayerfully to freedoms bought and paid for by love and honor, sacrifice and lives.
We know them all, especially the four freedoms voiced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
Freedom of Speech.
Freedom of Worship.
Freedom from Want.
Freedom from Fear.
And for those of us who scatter words on a printed page, we are blessed withthe freedom to write anything we want to, any way we want to write it, any time we want to publish it.
Of course, that’s covered by Freedom of the Press.
Are you sure?
You may be surprised. There have been times in history when writers had their freedom to write taken away from them.
By the government?
Occasionally but not necessarily.
You never know who is lying in the shadows waiting to ambush or sabotage the next novel you publish.
Aldous Huxley had written Brave New World and thought it was a nice little parody on the utopian future described by H. G. Wells in his Men Like Gods. It even possessed a touch of George Orwell’s 1984. But Ireland ripped the novels off the shelves of its bookstores and libraries to protest Huxley’s controversial portrayal of childbirth, and many states throughout America fought to remove the book from the curriculum of their schools because Huxley had the audacity to write about, of all things, “themes of negativity.”
A freedom wasn’t lost. But it did hang in the balance.
John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was a haunting and tragic look at a family of Oklahoma sharecroppers struggling to survive the drought, poverty, and hardships of the Great Depression. They drive on toward California in a desperate effort to find jobs and a measure of dignity in their lives. Sure the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, but the book was banned across the United States and burned because so many were angered about the way Steinbeck described the poor, the beaten, and the downtrodden in American. Nobody had lives that bad, they said. Steinbeck agreed. Their lives were much worse, he said. And the bonfires burned hot with copies of his book.
A freedom wasn’t lost. But it had almost gone up in smoke.
In The Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller dared write about the most forbidden subject of all – sex. Mostly it was an expose of the sexual encounters among a lost generation of expatriates living abroad. They just happened to be his friends. He was a struggling young writer searching to find himself in a book described by Supreme Court Justice Michael Musmanno as “a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” In case anybody was listening, George Orwell just happened to call The Tropic of Cancer the most important book written in the mid-1930s.
The freedom survived. But for years, Miller’s novel was read in secret and behind closed doors. Reading it was as forbidden as the sex scenes steaming up its pages.
When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, the author became a hunted man. A price was placed on his head because many in the Islamic community saw Rushdie’s view of Islam as blasphemous. You could be imprisoned for fifteen months if you were caught reading the book in Venezuela, and Japan issued severe fines for people who sold the English-language edition. In the United States, several bookstores refused to sell the book because of the death threats they had received.
A freedom wasn’t lost. But the price to keep it was high. The promise of eath always is.
J. R. R. Tolkien wrote, perhaps, the greatest fantasy trilogy of all time: Lord of the Rings. Yet some feared it. Some found all sorts of demonic symbols hidden away within a story that follows the forces of good and evil as they battle to find and possess the magical ring. New Mexico believed the novels were satanic, and, as late as 2001, members of one church burned the book, which is quite ironic. Tolkien, it seems, was a devout Christian, and many literary and religious scholars have noted and praised the Christian themes in his book. New Mexico preached otherwise and cleansed Tolkien with fire.
Freedom exists. But sometimes it can be kicked aside by the zealots who speak for all mankind and are heard by only a few. Then again, Christians have long posed a problem to writers.
They attacked Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on the grounds that the book was indecent, objectionable, and obscene. Many religious groups claimed that a novel depicting man – not God – creating life was in conflict with the principles of their faith. But don’t worry. The controversy has only been going on now for a couple of centuries.
And the same preachers who got upset with Frankenstein saved some of their wrath and venom for poor little J. K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. Why? The stories were aimed at children, they said, and promoted the positive side of witchcraft and paganism. May hellfire and brimstone forever fall on the Deathly Hallows. The didn’t know exactly where the Hallows were, but knew they weren’t anywhere in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. They had checked.
Right now, as writers, you have the freedom to write what you want, the way you want to write it, anytime you want to have it published.
That’s all well and good.
But keep an eye over your shoulder.
In literature, freedom always walks a tightrope, and you never know when the next book banner or burner will rise up and take umbrage with page eighty-four.