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The Many Faces of Literary Censorship
Censoriousness on the left increasingly joins moral panic on the right.
Banned books have always had a certain special allure, combining the joy of reading with the keener, more subversive pleasure of doing something naughty, even revolutionary. The phrase "banned books" evokes the secret, the illicit, the delicious: contraband pamphlets being passed through underground channels under penalty of imprisonment or death; the original edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover being distributed in secret to a private society of just two thousand people; students snatching the works of Einstein, Freud, and Hemingway from a Nazi pyre; an unauthorized copy of Lolita hidden under an Iranian woman's chador.
The freedom to read has long been a liberal cause celebre, even to the point of cliché. A pivotal scene in the 1989 film Field of Dreams features a middle-aged hippie deriding a would-be book banner as “a Nazi cow.” Baby boomers, who came of age fighting for their right to protest the Vietnam War, were natural champions for free expression against the incursions of the Moral Majority.
Meanwhile, the O.G. book ban, in which someone tries to have a book removed from a library or classroom curriculum, was traditionally (and remains) a predominantly right-wing pursuit. Consider some of this year's most high-profile cases: the removal of the graphic Holocaust novel Maus from an eighth grade reading list in Tennessee; a school superintendent pulling Nic Stone's Dear Martin from the curriculum after one parent complained; a mayor in Mississippi withholding funding from the local library over its "displays" of "sexual content."
This reflects a longstanding anxiety amongst conservative parents over the specter of licentious liberals indoctrinating their children into the ideology du jour. 1990s conservatives fretted over the homosexual agenda and the satanic church, while their contemporaries are inflamed by anti-cop narratives, gender ideology, and critical race theory. In some states, the panic has escalated to the point of actual legislation attempting to ban controversial books, including one shocking case in Wyoming where prosecutors considered bringing charges against library employees who kept contested titles on shelves.
That restricting the dissemination of controversial books is the preferred (and, it seems, only) tactic of conservatives is somewhat mystifying, considering that it invariably backfires every single time, and in exactly the same way. Right-wing book bans receive massive amounts of outraged media coverage, and the titles they seek to suppress frequently become instant bestsellers thanks to liberal backlash-buying. In many cases, activists on the left will specifically mobilize to put copies of the forbidden book in the hands of every affected student.
And although the chilling effects of legislation banning critical race theory from classrooms and libraries remain a cause for concern, old-school censorship tactics have been rendered increasingly toothless by the power of the market, the ubiquity of digital content, and the protections of the First Amendment. Nobody risks imprisonment by reading or distributing banned books in 2022, and the books themselves are widely available in stores, libraries, and classrooms—not to mention celebrated annually across the country during Banned Books Week. While conservatives wring their hands over what their kids are reading, liberals embrace their identity as child-corrupting suppliers of literary contraband: one high school library currently displays copies of Maus, Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer, and other titles alongside a titillating placard: Stuff Some Adults Don't Want You to Read.
But where the quest to suppress objectionable reading material in America used to be more or less the exclusive purview of political conservatives and the religious right, today's censorship flaps are more diverse in both origin and execution. Those freedom-to-read liberals are also, increasingly, enthusiastic censors themselves—ones whose cultural influence is both greater and more insidious than their right-wing counterparts. Conservatives continue to flail about, trying to pull individual books from individual reading lists; but the left has increasingly captured the culture, the means of production, even the creative process.
This shift has been observable over the past two decades, as objections to controversial books began to creep into the discourse from the left. The American Library Association's yearly list of high-profile book challenges paints a picture of a culture in flux.
In the early 2000s, the litany of complaints was familiar: too dark, too violent, too gay, too sexy, all readily recognizable as offensive to conservative literary sensibilities. But as progressives became increasingly focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts—and on the potential harm wrought by books that didn't do enough to champion the proper values—they started issuing challenges of their own. By 2020, the ALA's list included almost as many complaints about racist language, white savior narratives, or alleged sexual misconduct by an author as it did ones about bad language or LGBT themes.
But by focusing on books that have already been published, the ALA list also misses the nuances of literary censorship as it exists today, and particularly on the left, where the calls to suppress "harmful" ideas are often coming earlier—and from inside the house.
This new wrinkle on the old culture wars has its origins in young adult (YA) publishing, where it was easier to demand content restrictions for the sake of young, vulnerable, impressionable readers, and where fierce social pressure from within the community was often enough to persuade authors to censor themselves. What began in 2014 as a well-intentioned movement to improve diversity in white-dominated YA morphed over the next several years into a culture of callouts, shaming, and cancellation campaigns that often served as a trojan horse for professional jealousy or personal grudges.
Eventually, targeted authors began canceling their own books rather than face the wrath of the community, while others embraced intrusive editorial mores in an attempt to ward off accusations of being problematic—and of course, an unknowable number simply decided that writing wasn't worth the risk, period. And today, adult publishing has begun to embrace many of the same measures and attitudes that first incubated within YA: sensitivity reads, morality clauses, a stay-in-your-lane ethos that forbids writers from imagining the interior lives of characters who don't share their identity markers.
Unlike traditional book banning, which targets already-published work, this is a literary McCarthyism that flies largely under the radar; for every author who writes candidly about the deleterious effect of identitarian politics on their work, there are dozens who bristle at the interference but stay silent for the sake of their livelihoods. Ultimately, it's more chilling than anything the right could cook up. Left-wing censorship stifles creativity at the source, intimidates writers with the threat of social and professional death if they refuse to toe the line, and, crucially, obviates the entire notion of suppressing books post-publishing. After all, one need not bother banning what never existed in the first place.
It's also a feature of these practices that those who engage in them will categorically deny that what they're doing is censorship. When they say a book shouldn't exist, that's just criticism; when a terrified author capitulates to their demands, she just did the right thing. We are often reminded in these conversations that a book deal is a privilege, not a right—and that these problematic authors are taking up space that might have gone to someone more deserving.
The subtext is a profound shift in the idea of what it means to "deserve" a career as a writer, as if book deals are a reward for good moral character rather than compensation for quality work. When Penguin Random House declined to publish a new collection of works by Norman Mailer in January, the predominant sentiment was frustration—not that the renowned writer's ideas were suddenly too provocative for print, but that he hadn't been canceled ages ago for stabbing his wife. It is this sensibility that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie captured in a series of essays in 2021, writing, "What matters is not goodness but the appearance of goodness. We are no longer human beings. We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another. God help us. It is obscene."
Indeed, it's easy to take a cynical view of all this. The right and left appear to be engaged in a frantic race to the bottom when it comes to freedom of expression, slouching toward a bleak future awash in sanitized, upstanding, ultra-woke literature that nobody wants to read (that is, until or unless some uptight conservative finds it provocative enough to ban from a high school curriculum, at which point it will be immediately celebrated as the Most Important Book Ever Written.)
But there's also reason to be optimistic: the fiercer the pressure to conform, the more powerful the creative eruption when artists finally decide to break free. Suppression breeds rebellion. Censorship breeds transgression. Puritanism gives way, inevitably, to punk—and the vibe shift is coming. Gird your loins.
Kat Rosenfield is a pop culture and political writer, novelist, and podcaster.