highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (purple)
There wasn't much point in listing reasons why The Handmaid's Tale might be banned, and there's REALLY no point listing reasons for the banning of The Color Purple. We start with rape and incest, and move on to forced marriage and marital rape, lesbian desire, masturbation, lesbian sex, casting doubt on the bible and the masculinity of god, anti-colonialism, casting whitefolks in a bad light, more sex, implying that god likes sex (including lesbian sex)... you get the idea. If you're looking for something to ban, you can probably find something here to object to.

Thoughts on narrative style and poly dynamics )
highlyeccentric: (Beliefs and Ideas)
You may remember that I undertook to read ten frequently banned books this year. Progress has been slow, partly because I've had limited library access and partly because I keep forgetting what books I'm after. Book number three has been impressively hard to get hold of: no bookshop carries it, there are few copies in public libraries, and even Usyd has only one copy in the general stack, and it's frequently on loan. I don't understand why this is: I thought The Handmaid's Tale was Atwood's most famous book, but perhaps not. Oryx and Crake seems to get much more self space, and The Robber Bride is apparently popular, but not The Handmaid's Tale.

Let's start with why this book interested me: because I wasn't allowed to study it at school. It's on the NSW syllabus - at the time, it was part of a unit called Speculative Fictions, for Extension 1 English. The unit included The Fellowship of the Ring, movie, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, book. So you see why I wanted to study it? Atwood I'd never heard of, but someone in my class had read it, and her description sounded interesting (a dystopic future, where women are breeding slaves).

We studied Crime Fiction instead. Reasons for this definitely included a) the teacher hated sci-fi fantasy (thought it was "trash", don't ask me how that compares to cheap vampire novels, which she loved) b) the teacher thought I and a couple of others needed to be broken out of our diet of consistent fantasy reading. In hindsight, of course, there's absolutely no way she could've served up even Harry Potter on the syllabus at my school, let alone The Handmaid's Tale. Even LOTR could be suspect - one of my classmates that year burnt his whole collection of LOTR memorabilia because an evangelist inspired him to cast out its evil. (Yet, strangely, Dracula caused no one any ripples. What is it that people have against sci-fi fantasy in particular?)

I've been looking for this book, in public libraries and second-hand shops, for years, with no luck. Granted, this search wasn't particularly systematic, since the copy I have beside me is from the USyd library, borrowed on my shiny new graduate card. Suffice it to say, it's not the easiest book to get hold of. I don't know if that's because it's old, or because it's a dystopic futuristic novel which doesn't shoehorn into sci-fi tropes and is soundly depressing, or if it's because it's deeply anti-religious, and has a lot to do with sex.

It has a lot to do with sex. But it doesn't have much sex in it. Two or three scenes, none of them particularly detailed, and with one exception, quite impersonal. But this is a book largely about sex: about what sex means, about how we're afraid of sex, about all the other facets of our culture and our personhood which tie somehow into sex. It's a book about power, and power in sex. It's about men having power over women, but it's also about how that power can be negotiated, and how it can backfire. It's about a society in which women have no independence of any sort, and have been reduced to sexual vessels: and so their power lies in sex. It's about the ways in which women have power over other women, shoehorning them into conformist behaviours and sexual roles. It's about what we miss when sex is taken away; and what we are left with when all we have is sex.

The power dynamics in this book are not simple either. It is not merely a case of "men oppress women", because Atwood shows us women working with and without men to build up Offred's world. There's an ambivalent attitude to classic 70s feminism and the idea of a "women's society" - I'm not sure if we're supposed to come out thinking that such a thing would be good, and nothing like the warped female society of Gilead, or if we're supposed to think that such a thing would be completely fragile and doomed to collapse under outside attack, or if we're supposed to think that Offred's mother's dream of female solidarity was a stupid one, that the only way to safeguard anything of value is to protect it co-operatively across the whole of society. Maybe Atwood's not trying to deliver an opinion but pose a question. I don't know. But I could probably make an argument if you gave me 5000 words and some articles.

So there's one interesting thing about this book. Now, the other interesting thing about it is: I'm deeply disappointed in it.

This is not a dystopia which scares me. Just so we're on the same page, dystopic writing to me is not about the future: it's about the present. It's about highlighting the bad, worrying, frightening, dangerous parts of present society by blowing them up, by creating societies in which those aspects have run riot. They don't have to be believable, but they have to be logical - you have to be able to see how we got from America in the 1980s to Offred's Gilead.

Offred's story doesn't scare me. It tells us that religion, in an extreme conservative form, wants to dominate both its adherents and those outside of it. Religion has the potential to dominate what you dare say, what you dare think. Religion has the potential to dictate what you read, what you wear. Religion has the potential to reduce women to a biological function, while branding sex evil. Religious sects can and will discriminate against anyone and everyone who isn't the "right" kind of believer.

I knew that. Have you got your permission slip to borrow Harry Potter? Wear longer sleeves, girls, shoulders are such a turn on to young men. Oh, the Uniting Church, you're not really Christians, you have gay ministers. Sign this chastity pledge, why don't you listen to any Christian music, Catholics aren't Christians, we have to teach you Evolution, but of course you know it isn't true. Don't be frightened by the fact that your friend just fell down convulsing and babbling - one day God might speak to you too.

I knew that. I know how religion works. I know very, very well, how Christianity works. I know how Christian fundamentalism works, and I know what I do in response to it. I also know that's not the only possible way for religions to operate. You can't scare me by telling me that religious groups might try to oppress me. You can't even make me angry, not with a dystopic extrapolation. I've been spending my anger on religious bigotry and stupidity since I was seven or eight, I don't have any to spare for extrapolated futures.

Offred's story doesn't scare me. It doesn't even move me particularly. But here, in Atwood's 'verse, there's a story which could've pressed every one of my buttons, broke my heart and pulled all my fears out on display. It's not Offred's story. It's Serena Joy's. Serena Joy, once a beautiful religious singer, once a campaigner for the society she's now living in. She fought for a society in which women were home creatures, mothers, protected physically from violence and emotionally from betrayal.1 She must have really believed in the society she was creating, must have really believed in its God... and we can see that it's betrayed her. She is barren, she's lost the love of her husband, if she ever had it. She's trapped in her house, defined by a role she can't fulfil. Gilead is as hard on those who adhere strongly to its tenets as those who do not: Offred and Serena Joy are living in the same society. One of them is afraid, numb, lost, robbed of her identity. The other must be afraid, lost, identity-less, and disillusioned. I would rather hear about the collapse of a flawed Utopia from within, than a Dystopia imposed from without.

The Handmaid's Tale is a smugly atheist novel, although Offred is not necessarily an athiest herself. She seems to believe in God, either because she did before or because she needs too, now. But, all up, it's a book about religion as an outside threat, something which other people are plotting while you're busy going about your business, something which will come out of nowhere and take away everything you value, take away your value in society.
But, and this is important, you will get to keep your identity. They can't make you forget your name; you might lose the clarity of your memories but you will still have them. You'll still be able to think irreverent or rebellious thoughts about those who are oppressing you. You'll still be able to plan your own death, even if you never do it, and so you'll always have that escape there. And most of all, as the novel is told first-person, Atwood reassures you: you'll still retain your mind, your ability to analyse and recognise the ways in which you're being manipulated and repressed. You'll get to go along with the motions, fearing the True believers, and religion will remain an outside oppressor, something faceless above and apart from you.
And society will, apparently, recover. There will be an academic establishment in the future devoted to dissecting this society and making daggy little jokes about the life-and-death struggle. There will be no sign of religion in that epilogue.

Offred's story is not the story I wanted to hear. Give me Serena Joy instead: give me the story of a True Believer, and show me the failure of a society through its strongest advocates.


1. For those who've seen Milk lately, I have the strong feeling Serena Joy was based on Anita Bryant.
highlyeccentric: Arthur (BBC Merlin) - text: "SRSLY" (SRSLY)
This is a book about sex. No two ways about that. It's a book about sex. Two teenagers meet, go on dates, make out, engage in manual sex, engage in some disappointing penetrative sex and then some satisfactory penetrative sex, and then break up. It is certainly educational. Rumour has it that you can learn everything you need to know about being a girl from Judy Blume, but, on the basis of this one book, I think that's taking it a bit too far.

Part of me wishes that I'd read this book as a teenager. I read a lot of books with sex in them, but very few books with plain garden variety teenage fumbling about. Fireworks and mystical connections, weird draconic orgies, yes, but not garden-variety teenage fumbling about. Not thinking about sex and learning to talk about it, not figuring out what goes where or when. From memory, John Marsden was about the best I had in that department. I had a pretty decent book called Every Girl, which covered basic facts of puberty and sex, and in my late teens I discovered Caitlain's Corner, a sane, matter-of-fact and impressively detailed website for teens.

Forever is nowhere near as informative as Caitlan's Corner in the what-goes-where and how department, but it far outstrips Every Girl, which excellent book is more concerned with Growing Up than what kind of positions might get the female partner off during sex. Forever actually has a good description of what is apparently formally known as the Coital Alignment Technique, although you can find better on the intarwub these days. It also covers manual sex, frotting, embarrassingly short penetrative experiences, and the frustrating effects thereof. It doesn't cover oral, or any of the other interesting things you can learn about on the internet in this day and afe. But it was written in 1975, and it's pretty short, and not porn, so you can't expect it to do everything.

What Forever does, that guidebooks or educational websites don't do, is put both mechanical details and abstract concepts like 'communication' into a narrative framework. I don't know about you, but if you give me a website telling me that unless my partner and I communicate about sex, we shouldn't have any, that's all well and good, but I don't really have any idea what that might entail until I have some narrative examples of people working these things out. If I have narrative examples- preferably with characters I actually care about, rather than cheesy textbook blurbs- of  people getting these things right, getting them wrong, and sort of fudging their way along the best they can, that, for me, is like a low-intensity substitute for a bank of good, bad and mediocre experiences of my own.

Having said that, Forever is a dreadful book. Educational, yes. But its characters are two-dimensional, its situations are bland, the subplots are token asides to the Main Plot of Sex, the motivations of secondary characters are never properly explored (why do Katherine's parents think she should spend a summer away from Michael?), Katherine has little to no emotional investment in anyone outside Michael, and quite frankly, little to no emotional investment in Michael either. They're in luurve, but I can't see why. I can't figure out what attracts her to him, or he to her. They have no emotional arc aside from Shall We Have Sex and Why Don't Our Parents Understand. And Katherine bores the pants off me. She has no character, no hobbies or interests aside from tennis, which is a plot device to get her a job away from Michael, and she's just... dull.

Since the narrative serves only as a framework for the Educational Sex Bits, I have some problems with it which I might not have if the characters were properly fleshed out and their interactions didn't read so much like a demonstration script. Firstly, Michael pressures Katherine into sex she's not entirely comfortable with. She consents, and enjoys it, but, particularly at the early fumbling about stages, he's pressuring her. There's no sign that the author is aware of this (as opposed to, say Meg Cabot's Princess Diaries books, in which a similar relationship arc happens: Michael pressures Mia; Mia puts her foot down; they have to negotiate. WHOO. The negotiation in question is hilarious- I think the terms of the agreement are that Michael gets to talk about sex every three months, or something loopy like that. But it's there).

Secondly, although Michael makes his desire clear to Katherine, and thus to the reader, Katherine's desire is left entirely out of the question right up until we find that she's frustrated after disappointingly short sex. At one point, they're engaging in mutual masturbation, and the only indication that she's enjoying it is 'until he came. And then I came too'. Anyone who's read John Marsden's Tomorrow series, or Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small series, or even the Princess Diaries knows that desire and sexual response can be indicated or described with appropriate detail for the audience. I can still flip straight to the two-page-long makeout descriptions in Tomorrow When the War Began; Kel in Squire gets all carried away once with Cleon, and then has Sensible Thoughts about Sex; even no-definitely-not-having-sex Mia, when locked in a cupboard with Michael gets all funny about the smell of his neck and 'wanted to jump on him'. It can be done. It should certainly be done before anyone gets off. If you don't describe your female character's sexual response, while leaving us in no doubt of the male's, that ends up feeling pretty unbalanced to me.

Thirdly, Michael and Katherine refer to Michael's penis as 'Ralph'. W. T. F.
highlyeccentric: Sign on Little Queen St - One Way both directions (purple)
You may or may not remember that around the time of Banned Books Week I got the list of books most frequently banned in the US, 1990-1999 (the links for later data being broken at the time), and determined that I had only read six of them (actually it's seven, somehow I missed Brave New World). Accordingly I selected ten books from the list to read by the end of the year. Well, it's not going to happen before the end of the year, but I will get the ten read before Banned Books Week next year. And I shall post about them, because that is what I do.

Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson

This book is adorable. I'm not sure why I didn't read it as a kid. No one gave it to me, I guess. Which is a pity, because it is adorable, but, while being adorable, it never talks down to children or infantalises the ten year old characters. Basically, Jesse Aarons is a kid with too many responsibilities, a love for art and music which he can only indulge in secret, and a determination to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. Except that Leslie Burke moves into the house next to his and - while doing defiant things like wearing cuttoff shorts and a tomboy haircut, and not owning a television - she decides she'd rather run races with the boys than play hopskotch with the girls, and turns out to beat them all.

Somehow, through the process of Jesse Being Basically A Nice Kid combined with Narrative Imperative, they become fast friends and resolve to build themselves a private kingdom, 'just for us'. They establish themselves as King and Queen of Terabithia, a realm accessible only by swinging over the dry creek-bed on a rope. There they have their castle, and their chapel is the pine grove in the woods behind. Terabithia becomes more than a playhouse: as the plot moves on, Terabithia and their sovreignty there becomes a staging-place fortheir real life adventures, particularly as they take on the indomitable seventh-grade bully Janice Avery.

Bridge to Terabithia is delightfully meta (er. is that even an adjective?): Leslie introduces the concept of their secret kingdom with reference to Narnia, and, as they spend more and more time there, she, the better-educated of the two, retells stories for Jess' entertainment: Moby Dick and Hamlet are the two references which stick in my mind. A big part of Leslie's influence upon Jess comes under the heading of Expanding His Horizons, as she introduces him to literature, gives him a real paint set for Christmas, and introdcues him to her academic father. (Side note: Leslie calls her parents Judy and Bill, and they eat strange food. I don't know whether or not they wear special underpants, but they're an entertaining counterpoint to Harold and Alberta, IMHO.) There's Miss Edmunds the music teacher, Bill's record collection, and an art gallery involved at some point, too. Basically, it is a book wot looks kindly upon a bit of culcha in a kid's life.

The exchange isn't all one-way, however: Jess defends Leslie against bullies, earns Bill and Leslie's respect with his handyman skills while helping them renovate, and takes Leslie to church with his family. The book's low-level theological discussion starts up here, as Leslie, who 'doesn't have to believe it', finds Easter to be a fascinating story, while Jess and his family are bored or scared by the easter story. A short discussion between Leslie, Jess, and Jess' little sister May Belle raises the question of hell, and who if anyone God will send there.

It's not a romance - Paterson, with the aforementioned knack of not talking down to children, doesn't try to go there. But it is a love story. Two kids, best friends and soulmates... yeah. Somehow Peterson manages to express all the depth of the relationship without being corny at all. The King and Queen thing helps a bit, I think.

Two things about the book bugged me slightly: Jess' family seem too much like a caricature: until Leslie's death we never see anything but complaints from his momma, his elder sisters are uniformly greedy and distasteful... you get the idea. It works, because in a way you get the feeling that's just the way Jess percieves them, and we do see a bit of a shift in the family relationships, mostly after Leslie's death. The second thing which bugged me is that Leslie herself has no faults. She helps Jess to overcome his fears, but aside from that one time when she didn't want to help the distressed Janice Avery, we don't see Leslie grow or develop at all. Her father says to Jess 'she loved you, you know', which is true, but I would have liked to see more change in her, as she changes Jess.

To conclude: I'm not sure why anyone would want this book banned. I think K's right, it must be because of the character death. I wonder if it's because Leslie dies in possession of a loose sort of spirituality but no Organised Faith? I wonder if it's because of the theological discussion threaded through the last half: what happens when you die? Does God send people to Hell? That little discussion resolves itself with Jesse's father's input, declaring that 'God don't send no little girls to hell'. I wonder if that conclusion bothered some straight-laced hellfire and brimstone type?
highlyeccentric: Steamed broccoli - an image of an angry broccoli floret (steamed)
You know that '100 most unread books' meme? I've got a better idea. Who cares about reading books other people find boring: let's read books other people find offenseive! In the name of intellectual freedom, etc etc. Also in the name of Banned Books Week, 27th Sept- 4th October.

Now, I tried to find a list of books most often challenged in Australia, but no one seems to keep records as the ALA do in America. The ALA's link for 2000-2007 is down, so we're going with 1990-1999, for now. Feel free to find your own list of degenerate literature.

Refer to Forbidden Library for reasons certain books were challenged. (Including The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, because it depicts "graphic violence, mysticism, and gore." WHEE FOR COMMON SENSE.) I've actually read a LOT more of the books on Forbidden Library's list than the ALA (Thomas Malory, challenged for being 'junk'. BWAHAHAH), but what's the point of a list which tailors to your taste?

Bold= read
Italic= unfinished
Underline= other comment
Here Be List )

Total Banned Books Read: Six. Very poor showing, I feel.
Pick ten banned books to read by the end of the year (or other suitable deadline):
1. Any of the Judy Blume books listed.
2. Any of the Toni Morrison books.
3. Bridge to Terabythia.
4. The Handmaid's Tale
5. A Wrinkle in Time
6. Go Ask Alice
7. The House of Spirits. Hey, I like Isabel Allende.
8. The Giver. I liked Lois Lowry, too.
9. The Colo[u]r Purple.
10. Flowers for Algernon.
Above list subject to change depending on availability in my small town library at home :)


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