The writer’s path, like that of any other occupation, has always been littered with obstacles. Writer’s block, procrastination, stress, inability to land an agent or book deal, etc. Censorship was historically a large thorn in writers’ sides with either religious authorities or government bodies monitoring or stopping our work from being circulated. In our day and age, one would think we could safely erase censorship from our “First World Writer’s Worries” list, particularly in the US where our constitution guarantees us freedom of speech.
But I am not so sure we are rid of this insidious foe. It appears it might have been reincarnated in much subtler manifestations — political correctness and self-censorship.
Over the past couple of years, I have watched the debate over trigger warnings and book ratings intensify. People increasingly want to be forewarned if they or their adolescent children might read about anything unpleasant or that encourages them to rethink their world view. Books have been challenged and even removed from curriculum in schools across America due to over-protective parents, skittish educators, and young adults who cannot seem to cope with reality. Concerns of cultural appropriation have a lot of writers scratching their heads, wondering if it is even acceptable to craft characters outside their own race, gender, culture, or religion. I’m sure it’s encouraging quite a few of us to approach writing something unique the same way you would approach a grease fire: with a metal lid, extreme caution and a good dose of fear. Some might just run out the nearest door and abandon ship entirely.
As our society grows increasingly (and perhaps unhealthily) sensitive, it’s no longer certain what is acceptable and what may be deemed offensive. And the creators of materials others find insensitive (whether or not they truly are offensive) are not just rule-breakers, but outright horrible people. And they deserve punishment–whether that is through plain old -fashioned character assassination or the suppression/revision of their work.
Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the recent Blood Heir controversy in which a young immigrant writer’s dream was grounded by social justice zealots taking offense at something that was never meant to be offensive or even represent what they believed it did. After assorted tirades from the Twitter-verse, this author issued an apology for something she was not guilty of, cancelled her book deal and presumably gave back the unusually large advance she is rumored to have received. The YA reading world is now (at least for the time being) deprived of what publishers assumed would be a hit all due to misunderstandings and the power of the narcissistic social media mob whose calls for figurative blood drowned out reason.
While there’s plenty here for writers and bibliophiles to be disturbed by, what I find particularly worrisome is that this was not the typical government over-reach we associate with censorship troubles; it was the scathing condemnation of readers and other writers that convinced this writer to engage in self-censorship. This was not the handiwork of an enemy at the gate, just a petty, inside hatchet job done by the very people who should be the guardians of freedom of expression.
Granted, it was ultimately the author’s choice to do as she did. In the final analysis, we are all responsible for our actions. But we all know that writers are usually sensitive souls. We feel deeply and most of us do not like to think we are causing others pain. When you are being booed and mistakenly hailed as a bigot throughout cyberspace, it’s hard to stand up straight. But it begs the question: what do we do when the biggest threats to the writer’s imaginations aren’t restrictive laws, but self-righteous denunciations? Not fines or prison time but an irreparable reputation and a career in shreds?
Everyone should be concerned about occurrences such as these. These issues are currently confined mostly to the YA fiction community at the moment, but it’s not hard to imagine this nastiness spilling over into the adult fiction community. Book publishers will remember this ridiculous firestorm and perhaps refuse to publish works with potentially troubling content in the future. And knowing this, writers might just hide their visions away from the overly-critical public — depriving us all of much needed entertainment and tools to build empathy.
We need to ask ourselves what sort of world we are creating when uninformed people who believe their feelings should trump artistic freedoms shame and bully new talent into submission — and feel perfectly justified in doing so. When it’s not the government you need to fear, but the opinions of a public groomed to perceive offense every which way they turn? Humans have been getting offended for as long as civilization has existed. Writers have rights to write books, and readers have rights not to read their books if they dislike them. Life can be equally beautiful and ugly and it’s the writer’s job to portray these facets of reality faithfully.
I grew up believing the sky was the limit as far as my imagination was concerned. How many writing articles did I read exhorting me to get down and dirty with details, with reality, to write honestly? Too many to remember. Now it seems to be shifting; approach that same reality at your own risk if you must. My book has some difficult material in it, as many adult books do. I wonder if I will be taken to task for it in the not-too-distant-future…but if so, I promise you I will not kill my creation.