By: Kate Lechtenberg
I’ve always been uncomfortable with Banned Books Week. Even though I work with the Office for Intellectual Freedom, teach pre-service librarians and teachers about intellectual freedom, and do research related to intellectual freedom, I’ve never taken a mug shot of myself with a banned or challenged book or posted pictures of my banned books displays on social media.
Elliott Kuecker, faculty librarian and doctoral student at the University of Georgia, recently published an article in Library Philosophy and Practice called “Questioning the Dogma of Banned Books Week,” and many of his arguments resonated with my long-standing discomfort with the performative aspects of Banned Books Week. Kuecker uses Foucault’s notions of discourse to critique Banned Books Week, and I think it’s important for intellectual freedom supporters to turn a critical eye toward our own work and traditions.
Critiques to Consider
I think Kuecker makes several points that merit consideration, and I hope that reflecting on these critiques can help librarians and intellectual freedom supporters move toward a more thoughtful approach to anti-censorship work.
- Critiques the focus on performing identities during Banned Books Week: Kuecker argues that Banned Books Week “functions to promote progressive identities of the individuals who take part in the ritual” (p. 2), and publicly proclaiming one’s support of banned books is mostly about asserting oneself as an “evolved” librarian, educator, or citizen.
- Argues that Banned Books Week is short on action: Kuecker says, “The liberator does not have to take action; they only have to talk constantly about it and shame the censor” (p. 6). While many people do take action during BBW, I think we would do well do recommit ourselves to action, and not just talk.
- Critiques the oppositional terms of censor vs. anticensor and war metaphors: Kuecker notes, “The censor and anticensor are described to set up the battle and the friend-enemy relationship” (p. 3). He’s right — we have too much polarizing rhetoric and tribal echo chambers in today’s discourse, and we shouldn’t contribute to this divisiveness.
- Calls out language that demonizes censors: I agree with Kuecker that it is important to call out rhetoric that unfairly demonizes censors, comparing them to terrorists (p. 7), cave dwellers (p. 10), murderers (p. 12). This sort of hyperbole contributes unnecessarily to hostility between book challengers and those opposing censorship.
- Asserts that banned books lists don’t support truly radical books: Kuecker raises the important point that banned books lists often feature relatively uncontroversial books like Harry Potter and The Giver. He says, “Given that some people still complain about books that have mild content, like boys kissing boys, truly advocating for more extreme controversial content would require more of a burden than BBW would want” (p. 14). This point is particularly apt, and I would love to see Banned Books Week feature a more nuanced discussion about how and why adults respond to the portrayal of sex in young adult literature.
- Reminds us that those who challenge books have that right: Kuecker reminds us that challenging a book “should also be understood as participatory democracy, even if we do not agree with their particular politics” (p. 4).
In short, I appreciate Kuecker’s reminders that supporting Banned Books Week can’t be all talk, and it should not contribute to hostile, polarizing discourse.
Critiquing Kuecker’s argument
However, I also take issue with some of his arguments, as well as some of his own rhetorical choices. And importantly, there are many places where Kuecker’s arguments could have been strengthened or revised had he consulted OIF staff and included the statics on banned and challenged books within his argument.
- Minimizes the impact of banned books: Kuecker repeatedly asserts that “the books featured in the lists of BBW are not actually banned” (p. 2) but he provides no evidence to support this.
- In fact, his article does not examine any statistics related to attempts to ban or challenge books. True, many of the books on the OIF’s annual Top 10 Banned and Challenged Books lists have been challenged but retained, but I think he would do well to seriously consider the number of challenges and bans reported — and the large number of potentially unreported cases as well.
- Views banned books lists as manipulating rather than representing instances of censorship: Kuecker notes calls the book challenges and bans that comprise a list “random instances” that are compiled in the list: “Bibliographies have a piling-on effect, especially when arranged chronologically. Ultimately, they do not tell history, they create history.”
- While certainly, any list is a construction and must be critically analyzed, Kuecker seems to disregard the reality of the individual instances that make up banned and challenged books lists. Each week the Intellectual Freedom News includes media coverage of such challenges, and these real-life individual challenges eventually lead to the Top 10 Banned and Challenged books lists cited above.
- Fails to consider self-censorship: Kuecker says that those who challenge books “have little ability to actually censor media,” again, without evidence (p. 2). Yes, the number of people who seek to challenge or ban books may be small relative to the population at large, but there is ample evidence to suggest that all attempts to ban books contributes to a larger culture of fear and self-censorship that restricts access to information.
- Indeed, later, Kuecker gives an example of a librarian and library branch manager who did not order a book with gay characters because they feared a challenge (p. 14-15), and this is clear evidence that he needs to consider self-censorship when he minimizes the power of would-be censors. OIF bloggers often write about self-censorship, and Kuecker would do well to consider these oft-forgotten consequences.
- Argues without evidence suggests a financially motivated conspiracy: Kuecker suggests that someone (he doesn’t say who) is “partnering with corporations to promote specific books” and that these partners do “no productive work other than creating identities” (p. 16). Kuecker also claims that “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” (p. 2-3).
- To make this argument, Kuecker draws on Kidd’s (2009) argument in “Not Censorship But Selection: Censorship and/as Prizing” that Banned Books Week has functioned to create an “uncritical canon” of banned books, giving valuable cultural and commercial capital to books publicized as “banned” and to the ALA itself. I’m all for critiquing Banned Books Week and the ALA on economic terms — I think it’s important to consider the commodification of intellectual freedom activism; however, I think Kuecker goes too far and has over-extended Kidd’s argument, which does not suggest such corporate partnerships or formulas related to banned or challenged books.
As members of the intellectual freedom community, I hope we can learn from critiques like Kuecker’s, and continue engaging in robust discussions about how our actions reflect or contradict our philosophies. I hope that both supporters and critics of Banned Books Week and other ALA-sponsored anti-censorship efforts will reach out and continue the conversation, beginning in the comments below.
Kate Lechtenberg is a doctoral candidate in Language, Literacy, and Culture in the University of Iowa’s College of Education. After working in public schools for fourteen years as a high school English teacher and school librarian, her doctoral research now focuses on text selection, multicultural literature, educational standards, and equity initiatives. Kate teaches a young adult literature course in the College of Education and a school librarian course on print and digital collection management in the School of Library and Information Science. She was also a member of the AASL Standards Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.