“The subject matter just makes me feel uncomfortable.”
I don’t remember the exact quote, but one of my classmates in my creative writing class said something to that effect recently. We were having a class discussion of Augusten Burroughs’ 2002 memoir Running with Scissors. In the book, Burroughs tells the story of his unconventional formative years, including his unsettling relationship with a grown man that started with a nonconsensual sex act when Burroughs was only thirteen.
The details of this illicit and dubious arrangement were, admittedly, disconcerting to read about. None of the adults in Burroughs’ life objected to the relationship, despite the fact that it was both bizarre and exploitative. Needless to say, I could see why my classmate felt “uncomfortable.” But did that change the fact that reading about Burroughs’ experiences was enlightening, and that I admired the way he crafted sentences?
Reading Running with Scissors got me thinking about subject matter in literature, and about whether there are certain things that authors just shouldn’t write about. This wasn’t the first time I had thought about this topic though. The concept of censorship has been at the front of my mind at many points in my life. This summer I read a young adult novel by British writer Tabitha Suzuma called Forbidden. This book tells the story of two teenage siblings, Maya and Lochan, who fall in love. Cheesy and unoriginal title aside, Forbidden was an enjoyable read. It certainly won’t be remembered as a literary classic, but it is a solidly crafted novel. Additionally, in a genre like YA lit, which is overflowing with tired cliches and oversimplified themes, a work that explores a topic like consensual incest is a bold endeavour. But, again, this is a book about incest. This raises the question: should young people be allowed to read about such risque topics?
To approach this question, I would like to look at another young adult novel, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Speak, published in 1999, is one of my favorite books. The way Anderson emulates the adolescent voice is masterful. However, Speak deals with the very dark subject of rape, and unsurprisingly, it has been an easy target for censorship. In response to censorship of her novel, Anderson spoke out, delivering one of my favorite quotes: “Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” I think this quote is chock-full of validity. Censorship is not motivated by logic, it is motivated by blind fear. And what does it lead to? Nothing but ignorance. If we are scared of books about rape, if we try to ignore rape, how can we, as a society, address the issue of rape?
Things like incest and rape exist. Pretending they don’t exist is foolish, and contributes to an environment in which children are ignorant of the way the world actually works. Censorship is, in my view, inherently dangerous. If censorship is the “child of fear,” what is it that we’re afraid of? We cannot censor the world, so why should we try to censor literature? The fact is, most of my favorite books have been targets of censorship, and I am so glad that I had the chance to read them. Opposing censorship at every turn is the only responsible choice we can make as lovers of literature.