Unsettling Literature

Sometimes a beginning is the hardest.  In this instance I feel rather like this subject of banned books is one that can only begin in the middle.  This isn’t regarding the righteous this time, but in the utter disturbance that comes to the foreground when you realize there is a certain theme that is similar amongst books that have been challenged/banned.

While it is true we have the first amendment in this country this in no way means it isn’t being fought for on a daily basis through print, through reading selections, and through conversations that criticize the powers that be.  It is one thing to encounter the flagrantly political pieces on a banned/challenged list, this I would expect, but to find books that speak against herd mentality, who warn against it while demonstrating the power of the individual, is far more chilling.  It is an insidious lie that is being told to all of us and, as adults, we have the possibility of taking it or leaving it even while dealing with the external pressure that can, and often does, result.  Children, on the other hand, need to feel special; their uniqueness encouraged.  And this is the crux of my worry about the banned books that are supposed to be geared toward children.

Take The Chocolate War for instance.  The whole story follows around one freshman who does what he’s told.  At first what he’s told is against the norm, but when he continues to do so DESPITE being told to do otherwise he gets beaten, harassed.  In the end we are shown that people are unwilling to accept other people’s decisions, different from their own, with aplomb.  The active choice to exercise the individual right to do something else is reason to persecute and belittle.  Not only does the story address the hypocritical advice dispensed, “be different, stand up; so long as you never do it to me“, but it shows the danger that happens when creating a strong “us”; the necessary “them” is in place and ready for vilification, another way of working together to put an end to that “them”.

The Giver is another work wherein the great conformity was comfortable.  There was one child who was different, however, and selected to remain so and receive memories of a world that existed before he did.  It was a world where there was pain, love, joy, and uncertainty.  He did not know any of these things on his own, merely the satisfaction of following a life by rote.  It is in this education he learns the permanence of decisions made by certain members of the society regarding those who simply can not manage to fit.  I can not tell you what happened to the hero of this story, but I will state that it shows the danger of going with the flow simply because “that’s the way it’s done” as well as what can happen when the goal of a society is to keep the status quo; nothing more nor less.

Although I freely admit that the excuse of banning the next titles is often against magic and presumably by those who are afraid the stories communicate anti-Christian notions, but I remain doubtful.  Harry Potter and A Wrinkle in Time are both stories that show the different children, the exceptional ones, as those who do extraordinary things.  In Rowling’s works we have a boy who is different, both with magical abilities and in the very legend that was his early life, and how he’s resented by the Durdsley’s.  Now, not only do we have this exceptional child who is set up to do great things (in case you haven’t read the series I am NOT going to tell you what they are) but a whole school and world full of exceptional people that do wonderful things.  It’s normal to be different.

Rowling’s work is noticeably similar to this well known piece of literature by L’Engle  [If you’ve read them both then all I can say is this:  the great evil in A Wrinkle in Time (written in 1962) and dementors in Harry Potter and, no, the similarities do NOT end there.]  A Wrinkle in Time showed the exceptional children not only as outcasts in their own world, but in another world that had succeeded in terrible endeavors their world hadn’t yet:  Conformity.  You act as you’re told, you do it the way you’re told, you give up your individuality, and you will be saved.  You will be ACCEPTED.   All you have to do is give up your individual choice.

The last two are far more optimistic; the views espoused meant to encourage acceptance and individuality while showing the danger and unappealing nature of submitting to “everyone else” and acting in the expected and proscribed manner.  The Chocolate War, unfortunately, paints it much truer to form.  To be “different” is a risk.  Keep in mind that “different” can only be assessed upon a sense of “normal” and “normal” can not be used at all without having averaged a bunch of people and lumped them together as a statistic; the measurement being used to assess and fit the person into the proper category [nevermind that many bullies are those who either feel strongly about how they conform best “king of the hill” OR are also insecure in their “outsider” feelings of self].  The myth that is sold is this:  If I conform I will be accepted.  True acceptance doesn’t require that sacrifice.  It just is.  To waylay this problem acceptance of the individual is paramount; defense of each PERSON, not category of person, needs to be propagated.

These books demonstrate the persecution of the outliers for no other reason than being; their existence enough to crucify.  When we continue on this bent of vilifying what’s “different” is making a person, in many instances a child, a victim.  You see, even if one conforms they’re a victim; their self now rests upon external expectations of conformity.  Look at the education system in the US and, from what I understand, in Britain.  Standardized tests are the rule of thumb, we teach to them, we require children to memorize the vital information so they will perform in the range of what is considered “normal”; answer questions through a uniform interpretation with proscribed correct answers.  Teaching is the same way; you have to learn the same way as everyone else in order to get certain grades that are deemed good.  Learning how to think is a more individual process, exercising it encourages and enforces this individuation.

This is not against socialization, but rather an observation that current means of socialization that are lauded as necessary come with the underpinnings of conformity being tantamount to survival.  Acting, choosing, thinking differently are things that only occur when the premise is “this is the acceptable/correct/normal way of doing things”.  Remove the premise and you have a whole bunch of people being treated as the people they are.  The works I’ve read lately see the pressure to conform and, more over, demonstrate what happens when those individuals who have invested in the world’s definition of what is right are faced with someone who does something different.  Do these people, those that are part of the herd, look to the individual and have inspiration?  No.  Do they treat these individuals as outsiders?  Something malevolent and disgusting; something to beat into submission?  Yes.

A self needs help to develop and to do so healthily and to know that so many people abhor books that speak on behalf of the individuals who dare to stay true to themselves despite the pain and persecution dealt is incredibly wounding.  Without individuals, people who dared to think differently, and who aspired to do nothing more than stay in tune with it this world would be far less than it is.  All around us there is art and the genius of inventions; works by individuals demonstrating their individual capabilities.  The individual who wanted to invent is not known because they did what everyone else did, but because they did that which everyone else didn’t.  There is no greater atrocity committed to the human spirit than that they are born wrong simply for being; that “wrong” is something based upon the false averages of people forced into the square mold when, in truth, they are ovals, rectangles, circles, and stars.

Honorable mentions for adult literature with some of these components:  Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Animal Farm, Brave New World.


9 responses to “Unsettling Literature

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  • litlove

    I don’t think we realise how much pressure there is to conform. My childhood was a bit blighted by the fact I was academically smart, over-sensitive, vulnerable, and liked to be quiet. I was surrounded by outgoing, confident, sporty children and it was ground into me that I was not normal.

    I think these books only show up a truth that is out there – prices have to be paid for not conforming to whatever image of identity is most valid culturally. But, literature does offer a compensation: to be different, and to go against the flow is often to produce or effect something spectacular, unique, valuable. All literary saviours are outcasts first. They need the marginal perspective that not belonging gives to them. The question is whether we can temper that equation – encourage more difference all round, for just good results, not spectacular ones.

  • laurelrainsnow

    I agree with what you’re saying…about conformity at the expense of uniqueness, about fitting in vs. being an outcast….All of these are part of our cultural conditioning, and sadly, I don’t see any signs that this is changing.

    When I came here today, I noticed that you’ve changed your “blog look.” I like it, especially that wintry header. Gorgeous….

  • Jan

    If anyone can define normal in terms that can include more than one person, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.

  • Carol Kilgore

    I think there’s a fine line between being individuals and wanting to be like everyone else. Now that I’ve been around a few years, I think it’s a growing process. Most parents encourage their children to be individuals. But most children want to be like Dick and Jane. Especially when they’re teenagers. We have to grow through that to find our individuality again and be happy with it. My two cents.

  • Carol Kilgore

    I forgot.

    I did say MOST in the above because there are obviously exceptions. Mostly they make the news, either in wonderful or tragic ways.

  • Arlee Bird

    I think you make some valid points here. However, if I am to understand that you think that books are on “banned” lists because the subject matter is people who are unwilling to conform, I would disagree to some extent. I think all literature is about people who don’t conform in some way or are willing to step outside the boundaries that have been drawn for them. If this were not the case I don’t think there would be any story.
    Likewise, history deals with people or movements that stepped away from conformiity to instigate change, thereby redirecting the course of history.

    I think the banning or derision of certain schools of thought has more to do with the content of what the rebellion against generally accepts trends are. We can take for example Christopher Colombus, who was once thought of as a hero who defied the commonly accepted thoughts of his day and now is looked at as more of a villain to many.

    Society tends to worship non-conformists as long as the nature of their non-conformity conforms to what is most acceptable to the majority or the trend-setters at that time.

    Tossing It Out

  • Hart

    It’s so true–there is definitely a fear of people thinking and judging for themselves underlying these bans. There is a vested interest in certain bodies that they not be questioned, and in order to not question, they require the masses to be a bunch of robots. Great post, Kimberly.

  • Jillian

    There is no greater atrocity committed to the human spirit than that they are born wrong simply for being; that “wrong” is something based upon the false averages of people forced into the square mold when, in truth, they are ovals, rectangles, circles, and stars.

    What a beautiful sentence! (From one writer to another.) 😉

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