Between the coronavirus pandemic, restrictions on normal life, and headlines on potential war in Taiwan and Ukraine, the 2020s already arguably resemble a dystopian novel only two years in. Literary censorship is the latest development in a trend several of last decade’s YA novels anticipated. It might be a good idea to go out and buy one – assuming they remain available.
Often thought to be the purview of totalitarian dictatorships, book bans have made headlines on both sides of the pond in the USA and UK in recent years. As “culture war” issues have more and more become the main political controversies, those on both sides of important debates have increasingly demanded book censorship in the name of protecting vulnerable groups, including racial minorities, LGBTQ people, children, and preventing the victimisation of women.
Among some on the left, there are calls to condemn authors and publishers they see as supporters of transphobia and white supremacy, while conservatives have stoked concerns over “politicised” and on occasion sexually explicit children’s books.
In the meantime, right-wing political leaders have capitalised on anxieties over social change by attacking renowned black authors alongside new titles such as “Woke Baby”.
Both sides commonly veer into attacks on “modern classic” authors including J. K. Rowling and Toni Morrison. Just ten years ago, Rowling’s Harry Potter series were attacked only by the ultra-religious fringe, but last year viral videos of teens on TikTok burning the books they once listed as iconic made headlines.
In the meantime, right-wing political leaders have capitalised on anxieties over social change by attacking renowned black authors alongside new titles such as “Woke Baby”. Similarly, a children’s adaption of the Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, a revisionist account of U.S. history has been attacked. The book was released as publishers have sought to diversify their catalogs since the graphic murder of unarmed black George Floyd by police sparked a global social movement in 2020.
In the United States, school board members, parent groups, and conservative politicians have intervened in school libraries to protect children from alleged radicalism and sexually explicit materials under the framework of “parents’ rights” to determine their children’s education.
In Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a relatively well-off, moderate area, some officials have targeted “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Beyond Magenta”, titles directed at middle-and high-school audiences that depict pedophilia and nudity. Two titles that were removed to the cheers of right-wing groups are “This Is My America” by Kim Johnson, and “American Street” by Ibi Zoboi, a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Young Adult Literature. The two YA books discuss black immigration to the USA and police violence against minorities.
Cyril Mychalejko, a progressive columnist in two Pennsylvania newspapers and also a Substack contributor, emphasised the rise of far-right ideology among U.S. Republicans in recent years, which he says is motivated in part by racial animus, as the motivation behind recent book ban proposals.
A book by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley on the threat posed by social media conglomerates got dropped by publisher Simon and Schuster last January as a reaction against the Republican hardliner’s decision not to ratify all votes in the 2021 presidential election
“The goal is to turn schools into indoctrination centers that instill a very narrow, reactionary, and nationalistic view of the world”, he warned. “We’ve also seen parents here call out works by Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Amy Tan, and Amanda Gorman….this is going to have a chilling effect on teachers and we are already seeing many leave the profession.”
The American right has also been a victim in censorship skirmishes. A book by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley on the threat posed by social media conglomerates got dropped by publisher Simon and Schuster last January as a reaction against the Republican hardliner’s decision not to ratify all votes in the 2020 presidential election.
Activist groups describe the two authors as TERFS and their texts as transphobic, a charge they have both repeatedly denied in interviews
In the UK, a disproportionate amount of literary controversies in recent years have concentrated on books that discuss transgender issues. Booksellers such as Waterstones have been accused of hiding titles by gender-critical feminist authors such as Kathleen Stock and Amazon banned the sale of Abigail Shrier’s “Irreversible Damage”. Stock has described “gender identity theory” as a “terrible pseudo-philosophy“, and Shrier has described what she terms “gender ideology” among young women as a “social contagion”. Activist groups describe the two authors as TERFS and their texts as transphobic, a charge they have both repeatedly denied in interviews.
Sophie Watson, an MA student studying at the University of Warwick who is aiming to start a movement to defend free speech on campus, said book banning “has always been done in the name of protecting someone or something from the harm that “dangerous” ideas can cause.”
“I think what’s changed is the thing that censoriousness is now claiming to protect. It used to claim to protect society – decency, family and national values, stability and security – whereas now it’s supposedly all about protecting marginalised groups and progressive ideologies.” Watson said she’s aware of the efforts to ban or block books by gender critical authors. “I’ve never experienced it personally, though neither have I ever actually seen a book by Julie Bindel, Kathleen Stock, or Helen Joyce in a shop”, she added.
“The structure of book-bannings is very simple, however much the details might have changed over the decades: a book challenges the dominant ideology, and someone with the power to suppress it does so or attempts to do so. I think the topics of suppressed books have changed because the dominant ideology has, too.”