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News Fri Jul 24 2009

Hemingway & Sedaris "Not Appropriate for Developing Minds"

Today in here's-why-we-still-need-Banned-Books-Week news: A school board member at a high school in New Hampshire wants short stories by Ernest Hemingway and David Sedaris, as well as two other stories by Stephen King and Laura Lippman, removed from the reading list of an upper-level English class. The school's principal removed the stories from the class reading list after a group of parents complained about the "mature themes," saying they were not appropriate "for developing minds that are very impressionable," only to have that decision protested by another group of parents and students and have the English Department head resign. The Hemingway story is, as you might guess as it's frequently targeted for its supposed impropriety, "Hills Like White Elephants." The story is thought to be about abortion, although the word appears nowhere in the very short text and, honestly, I never thought it was about abortion until it was suggested to me and I had to concede that, of the many things it could possibly be about, abortion might be one. The Sedaris story in question is "I Like Guys," which, as Book Club members might recall from our discussion of Naked, is not just about homosexuality, but about how, in dealing with our differences from the majority, we just might become the sort of oppressors from whom we are trying to escape. Both stories provide excellent teaching opportunities, so it's unfortunate, though not terribly surprising, that they would be challenged. After all, how horrible it would be for students who are at the age where they are struggling with things like sexuality to realize that others have gone through the same struggles as they. We can't have that happening.

Says a graduate from the school, in perhaps the best statement about any act of censorship in schools: "I'm ashamed this happened in my town. Sheltering people doesn't help anyone learn. It just dumbs down the school. It just sickens me that this can happen in my town." [via]

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Julie @ Publish Chicago / July 24, 2009 11:12 AM

Does it ever end? Sheesh.

Dennis Fritz / July 24, 2009 6:26 PM

Several things sicken me about this story:

1) That conservatives refuse to hang the dreaded PC Thought Police garland around the necks of book-banning Jesus freaks.

2) That school officials consistently cave into the demands ignorant, bigoted, knuckle-dragging, parents rather than back up their own staff (teachers).

3) That no one questions the idiotic assertion that certain kinds of words and/or images--mainly sexually explixit ones--have some mysterious, magical power to corrupt young minds and poison young souls.

4) That while conservatives fight for what they believe in, liberals too often whimper in corner, making excuses for not fighting. What is this crap about Naked being "not just about homosexuality?" Forgive me, I don't mean to personalize this, but why this evasive, apologetic posture? This incident wasn't "unfortunate"--it was OUTRAGEOUS. These people are IDIOTS and they need to OPPOSED, not coddled and compromised with.

Veronica / July 25, 2009 2:22 PM

Dennis -- This story, as any story of censorship or book challenging, is outrageous and administration far too often caves to a single voice who finds issue with the reading material. I use the word "unfortunate" with some sarcasm because the issue is clearly a pressing and a sad one. I obviously agree with the student's statment that this is "sicken[ing]." However, I find it reductive and unfair to say that Sedaris's books are just about homosexuality. To say that Sedaris, as a homosexual man, can only write about homosexuality is to do him a great disservice as a writer. The themes in his stories are often far more universal and relatable to a larger audience and that makes him a writer that is worth reading by us and by the students in this class. Saying that an author is much more than what a fearful and, possibly, bigoted person believes them to be is not "crap," but giving the author the credit they deserve.

Naumadd / July 25, 2009 7:37 PM

Saying that children are "developing impressionable minds" isn't an argument FOR censorship but rather one of the best arguments against it. A mind develops through abundant diverse experience and by making choices among the many options for a human life with which one is familiar. Obviously, one cannot choose options one isn't allowed to consider, thus any decisions are incompletely considered and likely wrong. With any child, I opt to expose them to as much as I'm able - with my mature guidance - that they have as complete a picture of themselves, other human beings and the universe in which we live that they may make the best-informed decisions regarding who and what they really are and the type of life they wish to live. A parent is a guardian and steward - not a master or owner. Censorship is chiild-abuse plain and simple. It is the parents job to guide the child through free exploration both broad and with depth. It is not your job to dictate their thinking or to hinder that thinking by hindrance of experience.

Dennis Fritz / July 26, 2009 3:47 PM

Veronica, I agree David Sedaris' work isn't just about homosexuality. No reasonable person would claim it was.

What I object to is pointing that out as a kind of shield, as a way of deflecting bigotry rather than taking it on.

When some neanderthal says, "I'm not letting my kid read that trash. Sedaris is a fag!" The appropriate response is, "go fuck yourself!" It is not, "Oh, well, yes, but, you see, he doesn't only write about being gay." My point is liberals need to learn to be just as brash, angry, and in-your-face as conservatives. Otherwise, they will continue to lose these important battles.

Veronica / July 26, 2009 4:11 PM

Dennis -- I'm not sure that I find the "go fuck yourself" model a good one for inciting change, but if that's what you believe in, I suppose that's what you have to go with. I won't even argue the point of whether appreciating all the fine qualities of author's work is living behind a "shield," but I would say that if you feel so strongly on this matter, I would suggest you expend your energies where they might be of some use. You may want to check out the American Library Association's website and see if there's a way you can contribute to their anti-censorship cause.

Dennis Fritz / July 26, 2009 5:09 PM

Veronica, I think you are missing my point, so I'm going to try this once more.

If you, or I, or anyone were discussing Sedaris' work in a neutral forum, of course we would it explore it in all it's dimensions. However, if someone entered that forum and demanded the duscussion be stopped because Sedaris is gay, the appropriate response would be, "So what if he's gay? Go to hell. We're going to have this discussion whether you like it or not."

Homophobia needs to be confronted openly and directly. It would be a bad mistake to say, "well, yes, he's gay, but that doesn't mean that's all he writes about." That is evading the issue. It is almost a concession to the other side. A serious homophobe would be likely to hear that as, "okay, you're right. He's gay. But look at all this other stuff he writes about..."

It sounds weak, apologetic. It comes across as passive-agressive, like telling somone who's seriously pissed you off, "I would suggest you expend your energies where they might be of some use." Hope that clears things up.

Veronica / July 26, 2009 5:24 PM

Dennis -- And I think you've missed my point, that aruging about this on a blog isn't going to get much done. However, joining forces with a more public presence such as the ALA might, which is why I directed you to their website.

Naumadd / July 26, 2009 5:50 PM

Well, clearly this issue is primarily the ill mental health and immaturity of those who wish to censor his work. As an author myself, it's clear to me that Sedaris writes to an audience other than those who might find his experiences and thoughts objectionable. Ths issue is not whether he is or is not gay, whether he writes about those themes or not, the issue is whether a mature adult need be genuinely challenged by immature minds regarding creative work they can little understand. My response is: No. Mature adults will not be challenged by immaturity - yet another point the immature can little understand but must be made to if at all possible. If you can't handle the subject matter, one is free to put down the close and put down the book. One is NOT free, however, to put a gag on the man ... or any other. Such freedom would, of course, apply to oneself if it existed. Thankfully, the more mature reign supreme in such matters.

Veronica / July 26, 2009 5:56 PM

Thank you for both of your thoughtful comments, Naumadd. You've captured the issue at heart perfectly.

Dennis Fritz / July 27, 2009 10:59 AM

Fair enough, Veronica.

Actually, I had to confront this issue back when I was a teacher. I had decided to have the kids read selections from Oscar Casares' book Brownsville. A parent objected to the use of four letter words in one of the stories and complained to the principle. His instructions to me were clear: stop using the book at once. I was stunned.

I sought support among my fellow teachers and not one understood why I was so upset. "Just skip the stories with the bad words in them," was their advice. I couldn't beleive it. The opinion among professionals in my school ranged from total capitulation (administration) to partial capitulation (teachers). It became clear that the main priority was to avoid conflict, not protect free speech.

Anyway, this post stirred those memories up in me and I took out my frustration on you. I apologize for that.

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