‘It’s a culture war that’s totally out of control’: the authors whose books are being banned in US schools | Books

When the owners of a Tennessee comics shop learned that a local school board had voted to remove Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust classic Maus from its curriculum, they sprang into action with an appeal calling for donations to fund free copies for schoolchildren. Within hours, money started pouring in from all over the world. “We had donations from Israel, the UK and Canada as well as from the US,” says Richard Davis, co-owner of Nirvana Comics.

Ten days later, they closed the appeal, after raising $110,000 (£84,000) from 3,500 donors. “We bought up all the copies the publisher had in its warehouse and we’re now in the process of shipping 3,000 copies of Maus to students all over the country, along with a study guide written by a local schoolteacher,” says Davis, who has relied on volunteers to help with the distribution.

For Spiegelman, it has meant an exponential sales boost for a 30-year-old book – the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer prize, in 1992 – and a flurry of speaking engagements across the country. “It just shows,” he says, “you can’t ban books unless you’re willing to burn them and you can’t burn them all unless you’re willing to burn the writers and the readers too.”

That’s just as well, adds the 74-year-old cartoonist, “because this is the most Orwellian version of society I’ve ever lived in. It’s not as simple as left v right. It’s a culture war that’s totally out of control. As a first-amendment fundamentalist, I believe in the right of anyone to read anything, provided they are properly supported. If a kid wants to read Mein Kampf, it’s better to do it in a library or school environment than to discover it on Daddy’s shelves and be traumatised.”

Unfortunately, there is an unprecedented rise in attempts to remove books from the US’s libraries and schools. The American Library Association (ALA) told the Guardian that in the period from 1 September to 30 November, more than 330 unique cases were reported – more than double the number for the whole of 2020, and nearing the total for the previous (pre-pandemic) year.

Art Spiegelman in 2015.
Art Spiegelman in 2015. Photograph: Mark Sagliocco/Getty Images

“It’s definitely getting worse,” says Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of the free-speech organisation PEN America, which has led the resistance against book banning for more than a decade. “We used to hear about a book challenge or ban a few times a year. Now it’s every week or every day. We also see proposed legislative bans, as opposed to just school districts taking action. It is part of a concerted effort to try to hold back the consequences of demographic and social change by controlling the narratives available to young people.”

Predominantly, the ALA reported, the challenges were targeted at “the voices of the marginalised … books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of colour”. Or, as Spiegelman says, of his own experience: “If I was a transgender Black great-grandchild of slaves, I’d be more likely to be banned. This feels like a drive-by shooting.”

Maus was removed on the basis of eight swearwords – mainly “God damn” – and nudity: a bare-breasted, suicidal mouse representing Spiegelman’s mother, who killed herself when he was 20 years old. The ironic thing about it, says the cartoonist, is that he never intended the book for children, but wrote it to work out his own feelings about the parental legacy of the Holocaust. “I was a bit offended at first when I learned that it was being used in schools, but, after speaking to young people who had read the books [it was originally published in two volumes], I just had to drop my prejudice and accept they were fine with it.”

Many of the challenges centre on a moral hysteria about the protection of children. “They’re playing woke snowflakery back: ‘This might upset people’,” says Margaret Atwood in an email to me. A graphic novel version of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was one of the books removed from classroom libraries in a Texas school district in December, along with two other dystopian graphic novel classics: an adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta.

Margaret Atwood: ‘They’re playing woke snowflakery back.’
Margaret Atwood: ‘They’re playing woke snowflakery back.’ Photograph: Nick Zonna/IPA/REX/Shutterstock

Texas sensitivities about The Handmaid’s Tale are not new for Atwood, who directs me to an open letter she wrote in 2006 to a school authority after learning that it had decided to remove the novel because of sexual explicitness and offence to Christians (a decision that was overturned after impassioned representations from students). “First,” she wrote, “the remark: ‘Offensive to Christians’ amazes me. Nowhere in the book is the regime identified as Christian. As for sexual explicitness, The Handmaid’s Tale is a lot less interested in sex than is much of the Bible.”

Though the current censorship drive in the US is predominantly in Republican states, it has become a tit-for-tat controversy, with conservative commentators quick to point out that the left has its own form in censoring classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn for their perceived racist content. “The only ones banning books are critical race theorists,” wrote the Jewish News Syndicate columnist Daniel Greenfield. “Erstwhile liberals, who had once vocally championed Huck and Mockingbird and shouted down any effort to keep them out of the classroom, now just as vocally want them out and replaced with … Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X Kendi.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his teenage son, was among more than 800 books about social justice identified for removal from Texas schools by a state legislator last year, on the basis that they were “liable to make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex”. Kendi’s profile, as director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University and the author of three influential books on the history of racism in the US (as well as a children’s book), has made him a lightning rod in the row over critical race theory, which – according to the Brookings Institute thinktank – has become “a new bogeyman for people unwilling to acknowledge our country’s racist history and how it impacts the present”.

The relationship between book challenges and attempts to control public debate is particularly obvious in this arena, with Brookings reporting in November that nine states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and North Dakota) had already passed legislation against the teaching of critical race theory, with a further 20 either in the process of doing so, or planning to.

Ibram X Kendi, a lightning rod in the row over critical race theory.
Ibram X Kendi, a lightning rod in the row over critical race theory. Photograph: Jeff Watts/AP

“We do see increased resort to censoriousness on both the left and the right,” says Nossel. “On the left, it targets books that some people regard as racially offensive, sometimes because they originate from a different time period, when slurs were used more widely than is acceptable now. But it is the right that has invoked the machinery of government – including legislative proposals in dozens of states – to enforce these bans and prohibitions. In the hierarchy of infringements of free speech that must be recognised as more severe and alarming.”

She adds: “There must be room for communities to debate what books and curriculum should be made available to students at various levels of education, and parents deserve a say. But ideologically driven crusades to ban particular narratives and viewpoints infringe upon open discourse in the classroom.”

It is not only in Tennessee that an alarmed progressive public has responded by pouring money into the pushback. In February, Markus Dohle, the CEO of the publisher Penguin Random House, said he would personally donate at least $500,000 to PEN America to kickstart a new fund to fight book banning, while PRH itself pledged a further $100,000.

Such high stakes might seem unthinkable in the UK, where censorship technically ended with the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s role as theatre censor in 1968. “Banning for swearwords – as in the Maus case – is a peculiarly US thing, as is banning books for sex, like Judy Blume’s Forever was from some US state libraries for a long time,” says Julia Eccleshare, the director of the Hay children’s festival. “There are two reasons for that. One, the US still has a very active children’s library service, so a collective of easy-to-rouse gatekeepers. Two, the religious right remains very powerful, so fundamentalist Bible teaching is still brought into arguments.”

More recently, says Eccleshare, the US has been very much on the “front foot in attacking anything that can be interpreted as cultural appropriation or cultural insensitivity. Most tragically, I think, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has fallen from being a national treasure to being shunned, because of the Native Americans being described as frightening.”

In the UK, she adds, “there are rarely these public ‘bans’, with the exception perhaps of the Little Black Sambo books, which were quite publicly removed from library shelves”. Back in 2003, the author Anne Fine tried to use her influence as children’s laureate to get Melvin Burgess’s young-adult novel Doing It junked by its publisher, on the grounds of obscenity, but only succeeded in increasing its sales.

“Plenty of books go out of print because they are no longer politically acceptable, and we do quietly remove books,” says Eccleshare. “It’s usually to do with racism, because we have changed such a lot in how we think. Enid Blyton’s original Noddy stories vanished years ago, on account of their obvious racism. Similarly, Tintin in the Congo is only available now from very shady booksellers on the web.”

The reasons for book banning have fluctuated over history, but fall roughly into three categories: religion, obscenity and political control. In 213BC, the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang buried 460 scholars alive and burned all the books in his kingdom so he could control how history would remember his reign (his distant successor Xi Jinping blocked the name Winnie-the-Pooh from social media sites after being compared to the tubby bear). The first list of books forbidden in Christianity was issued by the pope in the fifth century. And, in 1749, more than a century before the Obscene Publications Act was introduced in the UK, the writer John Cleland was charged with obscenity for Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, a pornographic moneyspinner he wrote while languishing in a debtor’s prison.

DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been available in France and Italy for more than 30 years before it was published in the UK in 1960, whereupon its publisher, Penguin, was prosecuted. After a six-day trial at the Old Bailey, during which the book’s defenders included the novelist EM Forster and the critic Raymond Williams, the jury found Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be not obscene. On the first day it was available, a month later, all 200,000 copies sold.

The Lady Chatterley case also demonstrates the international reach of censorship, with separate obscenity trials in Japan, Australia, Canada, India and the US (​​where it was exonerated along with Fanny Hill and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer). But, it is in the political arena that book banning is now most toxic globally, with writers themselves under threat, in some parts of their world, along with their books.

Hamid Ismailov.
Hamid Ismailov. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

The UK is the refuge for two novelists banned from their homelands, who still write in their languages of origin. Hamid Ismailov won the EBRD literature prize in 2019 with The Devil’s Dance, the first Uzbek novel to be translated into English. Ismailov fled Uzbekistan in 1992 because of what the authoritarian state described as his “unacceptable democratic tendencies” and worked for the BBC for 25 years. The Devil’s Dance was smuggled into the country. “I’m the most widely published Uzbek, yet nobody can mention any of my books. Nobody can mention my name in any article, review [or] historic piece. It’s a total ban of my name, of activity, of books, of existence. It’s as if I’m nonexistent,” he has said.

His most recent novel, Manaschi, offers a unique perspective on the colonisation by stealth of former parts of the Soviet empire by China – and also of the complex geopolitical legacy that has led to conflicts such as that playing out in Ukraine. “It’s a part of post-Soviet history that is unravelling. In the initial aftermath of the USSR breakup, many were surprised by how peacefully it happened – let’s say in comparison with the breakup of Yugoslavia,” he says. “But the Soviet Union left lots of knots, like the border issues, diasporas, ethnic minorities, mixed populations that are quite explosive in the framework of ethnic states, which inherited that legacy.”

The writer Ma Jian has been in exile from mainland China since 1987, when he published a collection of short stories based on his travels in Tibet, which was immediately banned. Until 2008, he says, his novels were published in Hong Kong, but since then they have only been available in Taiwan. By the time he finished his most recent novel, 2018’s China Dream, even the underground bookshops in Hong Kong that had quietly imported his work had been shut down. “Every Hong Kong publisher I approached turned China Dream down. They said if they did publish it, they’d lose their jobs, and, anyway, there were no bookshops left in Hong Kong that would dare sell it.”

Such international examples offer an ominous clue as to where the censorship surge in the US could lead, says Nossel. “In the 20th century, the South African apartheid state banned 12,000 books, at one point commandeering a steel factory furnace in order to burn reviled texts. And, in the 1930s, the Nazi party railed against ‘un-German books’, staging book burnings of Jewish, Marxist, pacifist and sexually explicit literature.”

Legislation adopted in Hungary last year banned from schools all books referencing homosexuality, in the name of the “protection of children”. In 2014, Russia passed a law adding Nazi propaganda to the subjects it bans and restricts – “LGBT content, offences to traditional values, and criticisms of the state are among others,” says Nossel. “Booksellers were so fearful of running afoul of the broad law that they removed Spiegelman’s Maus from stores because of the swastika on the book’s cover, despite its potent anti-fascist message.”

“This is a book about memory,” said Spiegelman at the time. “We don’t want cultures to erase memory, because then they just keep doing the same thing again and again.”

The symmetry between Russia and the US is striking. As Oscar Wilde once wrote: “The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”






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