Questioning the Dogma of Banned Books Week.

Author:Kuecker, Elliott

Not much critical scholarship exists on the topic of the United States' Banned Books Week (BBW), but a few informal and academic articles reveal a sense of skepticism about BBW. Many note that the books on the lists are not actually banned in a legal sense. Lee (2001) wrote: "The irony of Banned Books Week is that it celebrates books, like the Harry Potter books, that are not really 'banned' in any real sense. Every library and every bookstore in the country has multiple copies of these books ... even Walmart and several local supermarkets sell copies" (p. 16). Further, others have noted that those who do the "banning," are powerless: "There's something odd about a national organization [The American Library Association (ALA)] with $54 million budget and 67,000 members reacting so zealously against a few unorganized, law-abiding parents, whose efforts, by any sensible standard, are hopelessly ineffective. The ALA's members have immeasurably more power." (Muncy, 2009, p. 2). If the books featured in the lists of BBW are not actually banned, and if those who try to challenge them have little ability to actually censor media, then BBW must not exist to liberate books and celebrate the freedom to read, as BBW rhetoric would have us believe.

Scholar Kenneth Kidd has provided some explanation for this, arguing that BBW operates as a system for prizing books and canon-making--if a book shows up on a BBW list, it will most certainly become a bestseller and receive enormous amounts of media attention: "anticensorship efforts more generally tend toward uncritical canon-making, attributing value to books simply because they've been censored or (more typically) challenged" (2009, p. 19). The controversy created by people complaining about a book's language or content inspires an interest in the book rather than a denouncement of it, creating the dialectic of prizing. Authors and publishers know the formula for how to make a book the right amount of controversial in order to make it on BBW, which helps position a book to become part of the new canon. Kidd's argument makes sense, given that corporate publishers would work toward their interest of selling more books, not emancipating controversial thought.

Additionally, I would like to explore the cultural capital that the ritual and discourse of BBW creates for librarians, teachers, and the institutions they work for. In all cases, I argue that BBW does not exist to celebrate democracy and the "freedom to read" while fighting censorship, but rather, functions to promote progressive identities of the individuals who take part in the ritual. The fact that actual banning is not even the problem we are fighting suggests that we have constructed a battle that positions those who speak against it as activists for democracy, but there isn't even much anyone has to do toward these ends in the ritual of BBW. This article focuses on (1) how such a battle is constructed through discourse, (2) what narratives of historical progress make such a discourse possible, (3) and the stakes of creating such battles. This topic is worth considering because it means that one of the biggest and most established anti-censorship movements in the United States is ultimately a distraction from actual instances of censorshi--a distraction that helps sell books, write homogenous canons, and supports the performance of activism and progressive identity, in which the only outcome is to be the victor.

Discursive Formations and the Speakers Benefit

Foucault argued, "'Discourse is, with respect to the relation of forces, not merely a surface of inscription, but something that brings about effects.' Thus we should study discourse 'as ways of conquering, of producing events, of producing decisions, of producing battles, of producing victories' (1974, p. 539)" (cited by Marshall, 1999, p. 309). This explanation of discourse fits a BBW conversation easily. A major part of this construction involves how the censor and anticensor are described to set up the battle and the friend-enemy relationship. Victories were constructed by producing policies such as the ALA's Freedom to Read documents, by teachers electing to teach contested texts, and by libraries and schools circulating the "banned" texts. More statements by various professional organizations, schools, libraries, and county governments produce decisions, building the corpus of this discourse. Further, this discourse this layered with citations toward a vague notion of "democracy" and vague ideas about under what ideology the United States was colonized, and how this founding is bound up in the freedom to read.

Texts from libraries and educators construct the censor as the worried mom in Texas, the overbearing minister in Kansas, and others whose politics seem backward to the goals of democracy. Kidd (2009) called them "sinner censors," to describe the way censors are shamed by self-righteous anticensors (p. 207). He wrote, "The censor is constructed as a moron also through mock rhetorics of distinction" (p. 206). Further, these censors take on a sense of terrorism, as their complaints about a book are constructed as treason against American ideals. Muncy (2009) wrote, "The ALA repeatedly emphasizes that public and school libraries are 'government bodies.' Is Banned Books Week a celebration of free speech, or it is it a way for government employees to bully ordinary citizens by stigmatizing those who complain ..." (para 11). In reality a parent may complain about a reading assignment because they want some agency over what their child read, but through the BBW construction, this parent becomes the censor who we must shame. While it is often true that the person who complains about a text their child is reading has never even read the text themselves, it is very troubling that we make an enemy out of the person who is merely contesting public school curriculum when they challenge an assigned reading, an act that should also be understood as participatory democracy, even if we do not agree with their particular politics. In other words, we are asking for them to passively accept what teachers and librarians decide are good texts, but in a context where a conservative value is taught in school, we would most likely celebrate those who challenge such curriculum, revealing that our interest is not in freedom to read, but the maintenance of our own identites.

In most cases, when the censor is described, the anticensor is described alongside, in opposition. For example, Laine (2017), the author wrote:

In communities throughout the country, challenges are often made by well-meaning administrators, religious groups, politicians, and parents. They argue for the removal of books they find offensive and believe may be potentially harmful to children or to society. On the other side of the issue are teachers, librarians, concerned citizens, and students who seek to protect the right to read freely. (p. 40) This quote speaks to the development of friend-enemy politics in BBW. The librarians and teachers are "on the other side of the issue." Or similarly, in True Stories of Censorship Battles in American Librarians, (2012): "Librarians are the gatekeepers of information for the communities they serve. The First Amendment, the Freedom to Read Statement, and the American Library Association's Bill of Rights are documents that encourage librarians to swing the gates wide open and allow information to flow freely" (p. 1). This instance cites administrative documents that help codify "decisions" in discourse, which is a signal back to Foucault's notions of discourse that causes effects; this statement also defines the entire profession of librarians as those in opposition to the censor. The ALA Freedom to Read Statement even keeps company with the nation's First Amendment, providing a powerful image of the role of the ALA as some type of second...

To continue reading