18 December 2004

The Spin Cycle

After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I realized that the real problem with Rachel Donadio's self-serving twisted little diatribe is… that it exists solely to get people to read the article. Toward the beginning, she says:

[Judy] Blume's speech perfectly captured the mood in certain literary circles these days, where air once thick with now banned cigarette smoke instead hangs heavy with talk of the C-word. But the kind of censorship Blume has faced concerns individual libraries choosing not to lend her books, or placing restrictions on who can borrow them. It isn't about government harassment, even though that's what Blume seemed to be implying. The definition of censorship has loosened so much that the word has become nearly devoid of meaning. Long gone are the days when the government banned racy books like D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer or James Joyce's Ulysses. When it comes to the written word, censorship debates are no longer about taste and decency—although those issues are much in the news concerning the visual arts, television and radio. Instead, the debate over books tends to center on geopolitics, national security and foreign policy.

"Is There Censorship?," NYTBR (18 Dec 04) (typography corrected and fake paragraphing removed for clarity).

To begin with, she obviously has no idea whatsoever about what "censorship" means, or about how it operates. It has never meant only "government restrictions." There has always been a "censorship of the marketplace," and many religious groups have long had the power to act as virtual censors (consider the Index Maleficus and Amy Semple McPherson). Whether censorship in schools is properly considered "government" censorship is equally dubious—of the last eleven censorship-in-the-schools battles I've fought, nine of them have come from "citizen" attacks on both library and curricular books. To top things off, the rest of her article concerns an area of censorship with as long and ugly a history as "taste and decency." I have to question whether she even thought anything through before spouting off; there's no excuse for this much ignorance, much less this variety of it, from a "writer and editor at the Book Review."

Later in the article, she makes a supercilious snide remark about how "the marketing department of any given publishing house probably has far more power over free expression in America than any government office." My supercilious snide rejoinder is "Look at the headline of your 'essay' and remember that the title is the principle marketing device of any book." In other words, the misleading headline on the 'essay' is exactly that: a marketing device to get people to read the whole essay, despite its dubious content. Then I might ask how the NYTBR's increasingly restricted horizon of works "worthy" of review fits into that snide attack on marketing departments; but I wouldn't expect an answer.

I suppose that it's been labelled an "essay" because it expressly violates journalistic standards. Whether one accepts a rigid or loose definition of the so-called "inverted pyramid structure," one concept that is pretty universal in journalism—and, for that matter, in good writing—is that the beginning of one's piece should relate directly to the middle and the end. This piece of garbage begins with an attempt to undermine Judy Blume's legitimate concerns about censorship of her works—and believe me, it hasn't always been on the basis of sex; sometimes, particularly in less-urban communities, there's considerable concern about depictions of race relations, even if it's difficult to extract those concerns from the smarmy rhetoric—and then, with no real warning, gives us this gem:

And ultimately, grandstanding and self-righteousness obscure the fact that some cases do approach government censorship.

Well, duuuuuuuh. Only now—well over a third of the way into the essay—do we find out the real subject of the essay: restrictions on importation of pro-human-rights works on the ground that they might benefit an "enemy" regime. Leaving aside timeliness as an issue—this particular story broke over two months ago, and some of us who've been paying attention have been working on the issue for years—Donadio's overextended introductory paragraphs actually undermine her evidence and ultimately her point.

The only grandstanding and self-righteousness that I see is this essay itself.