Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Forbidden fruit

Just as all American publishers hope that if they are good and lead upright lives, their books will be banned in Boston, so do all English publishers pray that theirs will be denounced from the pulpit by a bishop. Full statistics are not to hand, but it is estimated by competent judges that a good bishop, denouncing from the pulpit with the right organ note in his voice, can add between ten and fifteen thousand to the sales.
P.G. Wodehouse, Cocktail Time

Satire works when it strikes close to home, and there is more than a grain of truth in P.G. Wodehouse's comments about the power of bishops to boost the sale of books they denounce from their pulpits. Controversy about a book spurs us to want to read that book, just as controversy about a movie makes us want to see it. We want to judge for ourselves, even if after we read the book or watch the movie we conclude no one else should do so.

This compulsion, as old as the lure of the forbidden fruit, makes fools of many people in a variety of ways.

1. Censorship backfires. Telling people they can't do something or shouldn't do something will always make them want to do that something. Yet those eager to protest and picket and denounce are slow to learn this. The attention they bring to whatever it is they find objectionable only encourages more interest. There are plenty of books, movies, works of art, etc., that, had they just been ignored, would have quickly disappeared from the public scene. Instead they are remembered for decades afterward.

2. Those who yield to the temptation to see what all the fuss is about may be just as foolish.Controversy leads people to spend their money on things that leave them disappointed. How many people read James Joyce's Ulysses after the novel was seized by New York postal authorities in 1922 only to find it incomprehensible and not nearly sexy enough to be worth the trouble of reading it? How many people flocked to certain foreign films back in the 1950s and '60s just to see what all the commotion was about, only to be bored for two hours?

3. Controversy can impair artistic judgment. Ulysses regularly gets ranked as the best or nearly the best novel ever in the English language. Yet how can a book that so few people can read and understand be among the very best? Does its high standing have anything to do with the fact that it was once so controversial? Meanwhile, there are those who think Lady Chatterly's Lover's artistic merit may be overlooked because it is still regarded as a dirty book. In his book Hollywood vs. America, movie critic Michael Medved tells of watching the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ with several other critics. They compared notes after the viewing, he says, and all agreed it was a terrible movie. Yet except for Medved, most of the critics gave it a glowing review. One reviewer who praised the film later told Medved, "If I slammed the picture too hard, then people would associate me with (Jerry) Falwell -- and there's no way I'm ready for that." Such critics are as much fools as anyone else.

4. I think supporters of Banned Books Week are fools, as well. It has been many years in America since any books have been banned or censored by the government. Most of the books listed as banned are just books that parents have objected to on school reading lists or that school board members or educators have removed from or school libraries or curriculum for one reason or another. But isn't it the job of parents to oversee what their children read and of educators and school board members to make judgments about what should and should not be taught in their schools? Should Penthouse by in every school library? Most reasonable people would say no. Is that censorship or simply sound judgment?

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