A question that is often
asked here in the United States is "Why can't Johnny read?"
The answer is quite simple: Johnny can't read or be
stimulated by literature because he is not allowed to read
books at school, even at high school, that will actually
make him think.
Censorship is possibly the
most paradoxical form of repression ever created, and yet I
always marvel at how quickly Americans will give up their
right to read and express themselves how they wish.
Recently, I have encountered an instance of censorship at
school where a teacher has been forbidden to make The
Things They Carried, Snow Falling on Cedars, and
The Power of One required reading largely because of
profanity in these works. All of these novels are valuable
pieces of literature, and the only reason that they are
censored is because they are not “safe” or “comfortable”
But then again, is a book
worth reading if it does not make us look at the world in a
new way? That is how G.K. Chesterton once defined fantasy -
a genre that takes hold of the world, lifts it up, turns it
180 degrees, and sets it back down so that we can see it for
what it truly is. Censorship still exists for the same
reason that fantasy exists: Society as a whole no longer
values the imagination.
Writers of fantasy, science
fiction, and horror are in a unique position to make us look
at the world in a new way. From M. John Harrison’s
examinations of the existential ennui and longing beneath
the surfaces of modern life to China Miéville’s stories of
failed revolutions and humanized monsters, fantasy is a
genre that consistently confirms the importance of the
imagination and the individual.
Fantasy is by its very nature
dangerous because it requires a certain amount of audacity
to create a better world in fiction or to point out the
flaws in ours. Even the Harry Potter series by J.K.
Rowling, which has come under attack from both Christian
conservatives and pretentious literary elites, has as its
key themes: free will, the power of love, and the
difficulties of friendship.
Fantasy literature has a long
history of being attacked by censors. In Britain, the
owners of Savoy publishing were subjected to imprisonment
and harassment by the police. In the U.S., the Harry Potter
books have been burned and condemned as tools to convert
youth to Satanism. And almost everywhere, The Lord of
the Rings trilogy and most works of science fiction were
labeled escapist and therefore bad.
Granted, things have improved
- Savoy publications are no longer confiscated by the
police, Harry Potter books are beloved by pretty much
everyone who reads them, and The Lord of the Rings
has found its rightful place in the literary pantheon - but
there are still legions of people who automatically reject
literature that doesn’t repeat old clichés or conform to
what is popular.
There is also a more
insidious form of censorship that is still being practiced
by the publishing world. Big publishers are not likely to
take a chance on an unusual or truly inventive fantasy novel
until it wins an award (Christopher Priest’s The Prestige),
becomes popular as a small press edition (Jeff VanderMeer’s
City of Saints and Madmen), or fits in with
publishing trends (M. John Harrison’s reprinted
Viriconium novels). A great deal of fantasy fans are
also guilty for accepting repackaged “elves with big swords”
trilogies instead of the great literature that comes about
through cross-pollination with the mainstream.
In recent years we have
witnessed a profusion of creative, genre-bending fantasy by
the likes of Jeffery Ford, Jonathan Carroll, Gene Wolfe,
Kelly Link, Steve Aylett, and Geoff Ryman. Few of these
writers have caught on with the reading public. The novels
and short stories of these writers do not offer mindless
entertainment or tell comforting lies; they challenge their
readers to think critically about the world and society.
If fantasy is to remain
relevant as a literary genre and as an outlet for
experimentation and creative freedom, then readers,
publishers, and writers need to reject silly labels like
“the new weird” and “interstitial fiction” and to promote a
rebirth of the imagination in literature. Someday,
hopefully, there will be no distinctions between genres -
pulp will rub shoulders with high literature and fantasy
will finally be accepted as a legitimate art form. With any
luck, the writers of fantasy today will help to make the
world a better place tomorrow.
Spencer Pate is
a high school junior from Hamilton, Ohio. His abiding
passions in life are reading fantasy books and writing,
neither of which he gets much time for because of homework. Nevertheless, Spencer still finds time to
compete on the Academic Quiz Team at school, which is a
perfect outlet for his massive knowledge of useless
facts and trivia. In fact, the most common rumors about
Spencer are that he reads the encyclopedia for fun and
that he was selected to go to college back in elementary
school. Neither of those are true, of course, but
Spencer’s science fair project involving chocolate chip
cookies with actual crickets in them is still quite
infamous among students and teachers. Spencer hopes to
attend Miami University and major in middle childhood
education with an emphasis in math and science. He
plans to travel and write during his summers off.
Spencer is a collection of didn'ts.
He expressed himself online as "angry" about censorship,
but he didn't rave. In fact, he was so articulate that I
took a chance on a kid and asked him if he'd like to
submit an essay to me on this topic. He then
submit his first draft. There are a few more didn'ts
that I've experienced with Spencer, and they've all
impressed me in the same way. Of course I have demanded
that he write up his chocolate chip cookie project, so
look for that soon.