Thursday, July 22, 2010


So it appears that Massachusetts has passed one of those silly "child protection" laws that involve trying to control the internet. Naturally it's generated a lawsuit and naturally it will be struck down. I expected better of Massachusetts. Don't we all know by now that this trick never works? Such laws are unenforceable at best and undesirable at worst, and I could go on for ages about it, but I have a query to write today and mustn't let myself get distracted saying things that any sensible person can figure out for herself. And this isn't a political or news blog.

So I'll limit myself to talking about self-censorship. According to John Weinstein, speaking for the Massachusetts ACLU, the law's "inevitable effect, if permitted to stand, is that Internet content providers will limit the range of their speech. " This assumes that the law is both permitted to stand and aggressively and effectively enforced, which it wouldn't be. It couldn't. Only those internet content providers who know about the Massachusetts law and expect to be caught would limit themselves; which is bad enough. When talking about breasts is outlawed, only outlaws will talk about breasts, and suddenly there's impossible cup sizes where ever you look but you can't find out how to prevent breast cancer or make a full bust adjustment to a blouse.

But the elephant in the living room is that we do this anyway. I know I do. I write for children and young people in America, after all. There are certain hills I don't consider worth dying on.

Take "bad language." Characters swear in my books, sure - but the audience can't hear them. In Switching Well, when Amber is mad at the orphanage teacher and is alone in the classroom, she writes "every bad word she knew, in English and Spanish" on the blackboard to relieve her feelings. I've even taken out usages that didn't raise my own personal "bad language" signals. Margaret K. McElderry never wanted to hack off parents who consider saying things like "God only knows" to be taking the lord's name in vain, and phrases like that are easy enough to rewrite.

This is a conscious, active policy. I've seen reports of too many book challenges supposedly based on "bad language," where a single instance of the word "damn" is cited as a cover reason and the real one is obviously something like "Eu, ick, this book admits that parents have sexual feelings" or "gross, this book has a gay character" or even "this book is about people different from me;" but the challenging parent knows the fight will get a lot harder and she'll be called a bigot if she's honest. Maybe she's even successfully lying to herself that it's the "damn" that bothers her, really. "Bad language" shifts the attention from the substantial issue to a factor about which most of us are a little uncomfortable - swearing in front of the kids. It's a distraction.

It's a distraction that functions at the reader level, too. When my sophomore English class read Catcher in the Rye, one of my classmates protested that it was "nothing but dirty words." She couldn't see the plot or the themes or the characterization through Holden's language choices; and the fact that the languages choices were authentic didn't matter to her. She might have matured past that by now - I certainly hope so, especially if her children ever brought home books like Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist - but a lot of people don't and hey, we're writing for young people, we can't predict the level of maturity they'll exhibit.

Yeah, it's nitpicky and it's silly and unrealistic - but if somebody's going to challenge Switching Well I want them to have to get right up and admit the real reason they're challenging it. I have anecdotal evidence that it has been pulled from at least one school library shelf because of Ada's narrow escape from a child molester on her first day in the future. This is an absurd reason and had the school librarian and the school board done their job and insisted on due process it wouldn't have happened; but I can't control how well other people do their jobs. All I can do is make their job easier.

There is a point at which this sort of thing becomes cowardice, and a writer has to make new judgments in every instance in every book. One thing I'm not looking forward to in the lesbian western is dealing with normal everyday dialog in a society in which racism is treated as a civic duty. Reading primary sources, I'm struck by how embarrassed people are at the prospect of people thinking they're not racist enough; the haste with which Texas Unionists disavowed abolitionism; the offensive assumptions even abolitionists made about blacks, Mexicans, and Indians; the mutual brutality and incomprehension of Indian relations; the torturous complexity of attitudes toward "Mexicans," some of whom were "white."

Len and Di have to be sympathetic to the audience - and to me - but they also have to be believable products of their time and place. Yet, if I let somebody, even a villain, use the "N" word, the whole book could be a perfect modeling of how not to be racist in a racist society, and well-meaning earnest people would still try to keep it off the shelves. And I'd really rather not give the evil gay-bashers who are this book's natural enemies a screen of anti-racism to hide behind.

Besides, my gut reaction to the "N" word is much, much worse than to any ordinary swearing. When I was nine I gave up trying to read Uncle Remus (it was in the original dialect and I shouldn't have been trying on that edition anyway, but it never occurred to me back then that a book might be straight-up too hard for me) when I saw the N-word in a quote in a footnote explaining what a "pateroller" was. It made me feel icky to hold a book that had that word in it. So I stopped reading and put the book into the return stack. I censored my own reading.

I did that the first time I tried to read the Bible, too. There's some racy stuff in the Old Testament and I realized I was too young for it. I didn't try again till I was in my 20s, which made me realize that I'm an agnostic, which would have been way too much drama earlier in my life.

I think kids do that more often than we think they do. I think they should get credit for it, and I think authors should bear it in mind. It doesn't bother me if a kid has to put down Switching Well for a few years until he's mature enough to get past the child molester. That incident is there to highlight how unsuitable Ada's upbringing has been for her new environment, how vulnerable she is in it. I think one reason Violet is everybody's favorite character (even mine) is that once she takes Ada under her wing we know she's safe from her own ignorance. One teacher who read the book to her class said that the point at which Ada meets George was the point at which it caught with the kids - they sat up, wide-eyed, shocked that she didn't know about stranger danger, and from then on they were into the book. So, brief as it is, the scene is vital; but not every reader is mature enough to handle it and I'm fine with that.

But I'm not going to let a kid who is ready for my content get tripped up on inessentials. The girl who couldn't see past Holden Caulfield's vocabulary read bodice-rippers for fun. She could have handled some good unromantic YA-appropriate realistic sex in her books. She could have benefited from some. But if that treatment of sex were only available to her in books with "dirty words," she'd never have read it.

So it's this constant mental balancing act - what's good for the story, what's good for the audience, which battles am I willing to fight if it comes to it? All writers have to do this, whether they're writing books or blogs.

Governments have no business making it harder. It protects nobody. It harms everybody.

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