Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, January 04, 2011


A couple weeks ago, Julie Bellon wrote on this blog about how James Dashner's book, The Scorch Trials, was not being carried in Deseret Book due to some content issues. This led to a long and, at times, heated argument in the comment section. Some claimed that this was censorship, while others claimed it was just a business protecting its target market.

I haven't read The Scorch Trials yet (though I plan to) so I can't really comment on the decision to take it off of Deseret Book's shelves. I absolutely agree that Deseret Book has every right to remove any book it deems a bad fit to its overall brand. What I want to talk about, instead, is this target market that Deseret Book is trying so desperately to please. (So, yes: instead of criticizing a single business, I'm going to criticize a large group of people. Sorry.)

When I was president of the Whitney Awards, I'd often get emails from people--sometimes even a judge or two--asking why the Whitney Awards (an awards program for novels by LDS authors) didn't have rules that excluded books based on content that didn't live up to LDS standards. My answer was always the same: there is no moral yardstick that could possibly be applied to all books that would determine whether or not they live up to LDS standards. Some people will adamantly insist that the slightest swear word is inappropriate. Others will claim that any amount of violence is inappropriate. (Generally, these people will couch everything in the term "gratuitous": no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sensuality. "Gratuitous" is in the eye of the beholder, and about as ambiguous a measuring stick as anything I can think of.) Consequently, the books nominated for the Whitney Awards never had to pass through any kind of Appropriateness Filter. The judges had to individually answer the question: "Which book is most deserving of the Whitney Award?" and if a judge thought LDS standards were in question, they had a right to personally vote their conscience. But there was no censorship board, no content review panel. Why? Because it simply wouldn't work. You would never be able to please every person's individual belief about what is "appropriate."

CASE IN FREAKING POINT (and the reason I'm writing about this today):

Publishers Weekly is reporting that a publisher, NewSouth Books, is re-releasing Huckleberry Finn sans the infamous 'n' word. Also missing is the word "injun".

Says the publisher: "...there was a market for a book in which the n-word was switched out for something less hurtful, less controversial. We recognized that some people would say that this was censorship of a kind, but our feeling is that there are plenty of other books out there—all of them, in fact—that faithfully replicate the text, and that this was simply an option for those who were increasingly uncomfortable, as he put it, insisting students read a text which was so incredibly hurtful."

This horrifies me. Both as a lover of literature and a student of history, this kind of attitude toward Huckleberry Finn--one of the most powerful indictments of slavery in world history--is offensive. They want a "less controversial" book about slavery? It is a whitewashing of our past; it is changing a painful, "incredibly hurtful" truth into a more comfortable lie.

While I don't mean to put The Scorch Trials on the same level as Huckleberry Finn (sorry, James), I think the exact same kind of attitude is present in both these audiences: that X is bad, therefore I must hide from it (and hide it from others).

If the people who complained about the Whitney Awards had their way--applying their standards of appropriateness with broad black-and-white strokes--then we would wipe out so much of what is good and important in literature. When we say "I won't read anything that has a swear word in it", then how many of the classics of literature would be left? The same can be said of any "appropriateness" measuring stick.

I'm not saying that we should consume all media--all books, movies, music and magazines--and that we should give them all to our kids. What I am saying is this:
  • There is no moral standard (in LDS theology, anyway) that suggests we are to hide from the world.

  • There is a moral standard that says that we should seek after "anything virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy". I think that non-edited Huckleberry Finn (and a lot of other great literature) fits into that category.

  • My former stake president used to have a quote hanging in his office: "When we deal with generalities, we will never succeed. When we deal with specifics, we will rarely have a failure. --Thomas S. Monson". It's fine to make value judgments about what media we consume, but judging that media from afar with universal, flawed measuring sticks is bound to produce some pretty stupid results.


At 1/04/2011 1:44 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

*Disclaimer: I am no longer the president of the Whitney Awards, and anything I've said about the awards is only my past experiences, not official policy. You can learn more about the Whitney Awards at its website.

At 1/04/2011 2:56 PM, Anonymous Emily M. said...

Well said.

At 1/04/2011 3:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow Rob. That was terrific. It may even be your best, ever, post. Even better than the 24th of July parade FLOAT-Making post which, at our house, is still hanging on the fridge. Sort of.

I have these gut reactions to naughtiness in books so I'm prone to say, off with their heads, or at least off the shelf so we don't have to be exposed to it. And I'll be the first to admit that I really like the fact that DB screens stuff for me. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that I wouldn't have had the smarts to tell all those complainers NO when they offered to form a Whitney Award Book Burning panel. I would have thought it was a pretty good idea.

Burn them! All of them!

Your post expresses very well that paying attention to the specifics is a good place from which to make personal judgements about right and wrong, good and evil, proper and improper. And to let the rest of the book-reading public do the same.

Thanks a bunch.

At 1/04/2011 3:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

But not better than any of your interview posts. Those were classics. Real classics. Except for the interview where you swore three times and used the "n" word once.

At 1/04/2011 3:17 PM, Blogger Krista said...

This post needs a wider audience. Well done.

At 1/04/2011 3:44 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

Great thoughts, Rob. I very much agree!

At 1/04/2011 4:11 PM, Blogger L.T. Elliot said...

Holy AMEN, Batman!

"It is a whitewashing of our past; it is changing a painful, 'incredibly hurtful' truth into a more comfortable lie."

I couldn't agree with you more. It's like that saying from George Santayana, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Huckleberry Finn, to me, was one huge example of a person trying their best to avoid repeating the errors of mankind by acting differently. If we alter that, if we refuse to see ugly history for what it was, how will we remember to act differently?

At 1/04/2011 4:15 PM, Blogger Shanda said...

Hear hear!

Well said, Rob. Thank you.

At 1/04/2011 4:17 PM, Blogger Shanda said...

Maybe it's supposed to be "Here, here!"

Hm. Oh, well.

At 1/04/2011 4:28 PM, Blogger JaredNGarrett said...

I agree with what you said here, Rob, but there's something else about this kind of thing that eats at my guts like a giant piranha parasite.

These people are essentially saying, "This work of art is mostly okay, but the parts I don't like or approve of can be changed and then the people who come after won't have to disapprove of it the way I did."

1. Who are they to change a work of art done by someone else? As an artist, this bugs me to no end! I don't want some goober coming along and changing the way I say something.

Extreme example: Winged Victory, the sculpture on the main floor stairwell in the Louvre is stupendous. It is also headless. It is headless because the head broke off and people respect the artist enough to not try to add some kind of facsimile and present it as the real original thing.

2. These people are Satan. This idea that we need to protect other thinking people from some aspect of a piece of art is essentially a distrust issue and has its roots in taking away agency.

3. It's robbery. We rob people of the chance to experience the original art in its original form, and they also lose the chance to have an unfettered and unmanipulated reaction to the original art and thereby to explore their own reactions and even learn something about themselves.

At 1/04/2011 4:42 PM, Blogger Beth said...

This well-written treatise on censorship just made me want to subscribe to your blog. Bravo!

At 1/04/2011 4:44 PM, Blogger Rachelle said...

Excellent points here--makes me want to go and reread Huck Finn. I read it back when I was in High School and loved it and didn't understand what all the fuss was about. Those people didn't read THE book, they read one word and passed judgment.

At 1/04/2011 5:15 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

Rob, I too felt sick at deleting the n word from Huck Finn. Without it, the meaning of the scene is lost and the audience is judged too stupid to get the anti-racial discrimination point the author was making. At the same time, I object to objectionable words being used merely for shock effect. I used the n word in one of my books simply because the bigoted idiot speaking wouldn't have said something nicer. Covenant left it in and I never received one complaint.
I don't want to read crude or blasphemous words, but I don't want to read silly euphemisms for those words either. If the word is essential to the point being made as it was in Twain's case, use it, but I'm sick of books where crude language is used simply because the author isn't bright enough to produce something more meaningful.

At 1/04/2011 5:17 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

**standing ovation**

At 1/04/2011 5:18 PM, Blogger Graham Bradley said...

Being a former employee of a Deseret Book store, I can tell you it doesn't take much to get a book banned from Deseret anyway (I know, this isn't the Huck Finn issue, just a tidbit of something else you touched on.)

I've read the first two books in the Maze Runner trilogy. I don't feel like book 2 was all that different from book 1 in terms of the level of content being violent or horrific or what have you, but all it would take is a handful of people feeling different than I did, who would call in or write an email and the book would be placed on "special-o" status.

It's pretty arbitrary. Books like Aprilynne Pike's "Wings" and Bree Despain's "The Dark Divine" are still stocked on the shelves (last I checked) and both of those books drop an S-bomb. Those haven't been moved to spec-o status, but books like The Hunger Games and now Scorch Trials have.

This is indicative of a large (and separate) problem in our society, in that it only takes a few people to ruin things for all of us, and that includes the first batch of morons that decided a great writer like Mark Twain should be censored.

At 1/04/2011 8:05 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

And Now For a Differing Opinion

Oh and I suppose you have a problem with strategically placing a fig leaf on Michaelangelo's David or correlating the Sunday School manuals. ;)

I actually agree with you, for the art's sake, but disagree with you on a general level. Personally, I hate listening to edited songs - although I tend to avoid the genres where you'd need to edit them. (Pink Floyd's Money, anyone?)

Consider the particular N-word here. By taking it out, you can then have children read it and not worry about it. It seems that taking something out that has predominantly negative connotations (and hurtful and anger-inducing emotions) seems like a step towards greater harmony. It doesn't matter that, for reasons which are lost on me, black people can call each other by this word, but no one else can.

In the end, this is just another edition of the book. It's not like they're redacting the word from every copy on the planet. It's all about getting your work to the right audience. If you published an LDS book and then were asked to edit it for a mainstream Christian audience (removing LDS-specific themes), would you be willing to do that?

At 1/04/2011 8:28 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

At the risk of angering almost everybody here, let me offer a dissenting viewpoint. I appreciate the emotional response to censorship, and I agree with it in a lot of respects, but let's face the facts: Huckleberry Finn is one of the most banned books of all time, because it's vocabulary makes it's staunch anti-racism morals look, to modern eyes, like racism. There are vast groups of people who will never read this book or allow others to read it, and they are in many cases the people who would most benefit from reading it. Changing the controversial vocabulary will, very realistically, result in many, many more people reading the book than ever have before. That is, in many ways, the opposite of censorship. The book will be more widely available, with it's quality and themes and lessons virtually untouched--no, it won't say n***** anymore, but frankly the word n***** is not what makes the book great, and I find your moral outrage on that point a little misplaced. The book will still be printed in its original form by other publishers; think of this as the TV edit, designed for a particular audience with a particular purpose. Or do you also find it horrifying that the word n***** gets removed from movies on TV and in airplanes?

Am I comfortable with the wholesale alteration of our cultural history? No, but I honestly don't think that's what's happening here. If even one kid can read this book and change his views on racism, in a situation where his parents or librarian would not have allowed him to read it before, then huzzah.

At 1/06/2011 1:56 AM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

Don't hate me Rob, because I am going to agree with Dan here. I own a Clearplay because I love to watch movies. I love to watch all movies, but some movies I would never ever ever see if I didn't own my clearplay, because I don't want certain words or images floating around in my head long after the movie is over.

I loved Huck Finn exactly as it was written. i read it in seventh grade and learned so much. that education was important to me, and I am grateful I read the book. But the fact remains that many refuse to read it because of a few words. Those words aren't pivotal to the plot or to the point of the book. Readers will understand and appreciate the lesson of the story even without those words. And as Dan said, if even one kid changes his/her views on racism because they were FINALLY allowed to read this book, then huzzah indeed.

I'm not for book burning or censorship, but I don't think this is about book burning or censorship. It's about giving people a choice they didn't have before. I am ALWAYS for choices.

At 1/06/2011 4:48 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

Julie, I knew there was a reason you're my favorite.


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