Anna Tambour presents 


The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted
A Rebirth of the Imagination
By Spencer Pate

 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” books. 

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. 

AT Notes: 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 didn't 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.


"Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak
just because a baby can't chew it."  
- Mark Twain
Banned Books Online
from the University of Pennsylvania
The Banned Books Week
from the American Library Association:

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"A Rebirth of the Imagination" copyright © December 2005 by Spencer Pate.
This essay appears here with thanks to Spencer Pate, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This is the first in a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004–2011