Use Your Freedom of Choice*

banned-books-week-2016In a recent post about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, I mentioned that it could be thought of as a crime novel. Certainly there’s an argument that it has several of the elements we often see in crime fiction, especially in noir stories. Whether you agree that it’s a crime novel or not, I think it’s safe to say that the book has earned its place as a classic of literature.

So, we could argue, has Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. In one sense, it’s a coming-of-age story as Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch learns about friendship and about the consequences of judging people and events by appearances. She also learns important lessons about ethics and about justice from her father, attorney Atticus Finch. This could also be seen as a crime novel. After all, a main plot thread concerns Tom Robinson, a black man who’s been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Robinson claims he’s innocent, and Atticus Finch defends his case. Because of the time and place that form the book’s setting, the proverbial dice are very much loaded against Robinson. The case, the trial and its outcome have become iconic, and you could certainly classify the novel on that score as crime fiction.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood counts as crime fiction as well. This novel is the fictional account of the 1959 murders of Kansas farmer Herb Clutter, his wife, Bonnie Mae, and his children, Nancy Mae and Kenyon. Richard Hickok and Perry Smith were arrested, tried and convicted of the crime, and it turns out that their motive was money. The killers had heard during an earlier prison stint that Clutter had a lot of money buried on his farm. That wasn’t true, but Hickok and Smith believed that it was, and that was enough to seal the Clutters’ fate. This story explores the histories of the two killers, their relationships, and the impact on a small Kansas community of the Clutter murders. This novel has become iconic among what I think of as ‘untrue crime’ – fictional retellings of real murder stories.

There’s no debating whether John Grisham’s A Time to Kill is crime fiction. In this novel (Grisham’s debut), Clanton, Mississippi attorney Jake Brigance gets an extremely important and difficult case. Carl Lee Hailey has been arrested for shooting Billy Ray Cobb and James Louis ‘Pete’ Willard, as well as for wounding a police officer. There’s no doubt about whether he did the shooting; there were witnesses. And it doesn’t help his case that he’s black and the victims are white. But the case is not at all simple. Cobb and Wilson had recently attacked, beaten, and raped Hailey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tonya. There’s a great deal of sympathy for Hailey, and many people say privately that they’d have done the same. At the same time, vigilantism can’t be condoned. Hailey knows Brigance, and asks for him specifically when he is arrested. Brigance likes Hailey, and certainly understands why he did what he did. And Brigance knows that this case will generate a lot of media attention – the kind that propels attorneys into very well-paying positions. So he agrees to defend Hailey. This novel proved to be the beginning of an extremely highly-regarded writing career for Grisham. And the story itself has gotten all sorts of praise.

So has David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. That novel’s focus is the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a Puget Sound fisher. He’s alleged to have murdered another fisher, Carl Heine, Jr. Alvin Hooks prosecutes the case; Miyamoto is defended by Nels Gudmundsson. As the trial proceeds, we learn that the histories of the two families involved goes back to the time before World War II. Miyamoto’s father had made a deal with Heine’s father to, in essence, protect his family’s land, since Japanese immigrants weren’t allowed to own land. The idea was that the Heine family would ‘officially’ own the land, but would return it to Kabuo Miyamoto (who was born in the US, and is therefore a citizen) when he turned 20, and could take possession of it. Things haven’t turned out that way, and there’s a great deal of anger, resentment, and prejudice involved in this case. This novel has won prizes and been adapted both for film and for stage.

All of these novels are well-regarded as literature, and as crime novels, too. But they have something else in common. They’ve all been banned or challenged. There’ve been different reasons for banning/challenging in each case, but the end result has been an attempt to keep those books from being circulated in libraries and in classrooms.

These are just a few of the many, many novels that have faced banning/challenging. Sometimes the challenge comes from individuals or local/regional groups. Sometimes it comes from governments. Here’s the thing about banning, though. It doesn’t just restrict access to a particular book, author, or topic. It’s an attempt to restrict thinking and critical reasoning. What’s more, it can prevent people from reading truly fine novels.

But banning doesn’t really stop people getting ideas. It doesn’t prevent curiosity, reflection on the human condition, or interest in certain topics. So banning doesn’t work in terms of keeping people from thinking.  It can, though, prevent open discussion and debate about what’s in a book. And that in turn keeps us from dealing with issues we need to face.

This week (25 September – 1 October) is Banned Books Week in the US. It’s intended to call attention to efforts to ban books, and to remind us to preserve our freedom to read what we wish, and our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward. Yes, writers are responsible for what they write, with all of its consequences. But they should not be prevented from telling their stories. And readers should not be prevented from experiencing them.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Devo’s Freedom of Choice.


Filed under David Guterson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, John Grisham, Truman Capote

36 responses to “Use Your Freedom of Choice*

  1. Great post, Margot. My favorite Dickens novel, Bleak House, has a legitimate whodunit right in the middle of that sprawling book! One could argue that Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is one of the first, if not the first, inverted crime novels, even though it’s about so much more than Raskolnikov’s crime. And I always tell my drama students that the first great play, Oedipus Rex, is in reality a murder mystery. Not only that, it’s got one of the great twists of any murder mystery in that the detective turns out to be the killer! SO much great literature centers around crime!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Brad. And you’re absolutely right about the number classic novels (like Bleak House, Crime and Punishment, etc.) are also arguably crime novels. That crime element adds a real layer of interest and tension to a plot, so it’s really little wonder that we see it so often. You’ve got a good point about Oedipus Rex, too!

  2. I have read the first two in this post, and have John Grisham’s A Time to Kill and Snow Falling on Cedars on my TBR pile. The many different reasons for banning books just astonish me.

    • They astonish me, too, Tracy. I don’t think banning books will stop people getting their hands on them, or having ideas, or thinking. And yet, some people still think that’s the right thing to do.

  3. Col

    I never knew that Grisham and Guterson had been banned – I’m intrigued. I did enjoy Snow Falling on Cedars when I read it.

    • I didn’t know at first, either, Col. It’s amazing to me how many books have gotten on banned/challenged lists. And I agree: Snow Falling on Cedars is a good ‘un.

  4. Tim

    Anyone who supports banning books should be banned from positions in education, libraries, publishing, bookstores, or anywhere! Am I being too harsh? Well, back to the crime novel ancestry. Consider God’s sleuthing in the aftermath of Abel’s murder. Of course, He cheated. He was omniscient.

    • Yes, that’s a very powerful early example of a murder, Tim. And about banning books? I understand completely how you feel. To me, there is no role for book banning in our society.

  5. Pingback: Use Your Freedom of Choice* | e. michael helms

  6. Margot, my humble view is simple and straightforward: Let’s ban banning!

  7. I wasn’t aware that any of Grisham’s book were on the ban list. I always learn something new when I read your articles. I’ve never understood the book banning frenzy. I understand that school libraries have their hands tied, but we aren’t talking erotica here. These books all serve a genuine literary purpose and don’t we want to teach our young to become independent thinkers.

    I agree that banning books does little else but arouse the curiosity of eager and hungry minds. Most people who want to learn are no different than the rest of the world and no one likes being told that they cannot read a certain book. It only fuels their desire to find the book, elsewhere, read it, and discover what about the book or it’s content or theme theme was so bad to warrant a book ban. Curiosity often wins and they read the book despite, or in spite of the ban. You said it perfectly, restricting access to a book does’t prevent people from getting their hands on the book. The government or the public school system will never succeed in stifling a person’s natural, human desire to explore topics of certain books.When curiosity is piqued, we are going to read the book.

    We cannot ban critical thinking, human curiosity and our need to find out on our own what the hoopla is all about. Sadly, as you pointed out, it does often restrict /prevent an open discussion about the book. Interaction and discussion is an imperative part of learning and it helps when students can openly discuss a book’s topic, theme, outcome and the impact it had on others. It may hinder critical reasoning for younger minds, but banning books will never prevent people from reading banned books that offer literary value.

    This was a wonderful, informative post.

    Melissa Sugar
    Twitter @Msugar13

    • Thanks, Melissa, for the kind words. You make a very strong point in saying that banning a book isn’t going to stop people wanting to read it. In fact, as you point out, people may read a book because it’s banned – because there must be something in it that someone doesn’t want them to know/consider. And that only fuels curiosity, and makes it all the more likely that a person will want to read the book. What’s more, we are, by nature, curious. We want to know. We want to work things out and make sense of them. Banning books will not stop that.

      That said, books often comment on the human condition, or call attention to issues we face, or raise important questions. We need to address those questions and have a conversation. And that means we need to have those ideas ‘out there’ to discuss. That’s imperative if we’re going to move on as a society. We do that much better if we can have an open discussion, even if it’s sometimes painful and difficult. Books help make those discussions possible.

  8. I hadn’t realised ‘In Cold Blood’ was ‘untrue crime’ – I’d always thought it was true crime. I feel a bit better now about including it in my list of classics to read – I was dubious about putting it in there because I didn’t think it counted as fiction. I definitely agree ‘Mockingbird’ is a crime novel. I remember someone once commenting on a review I had written, in which I said something that implied a book was ‘literary’ rather than ‘sci-fi’, to say that he got really peeved when people assumed that literary writing excluded books from being included in ‘genre’ fiction, and that a book should be able to be literary AND sci-fi. I had to agree, and I think the same thing often applies to crime fiction…

    • Oh, I think so, too, FictionFan. I think that’s the problem with too much classification and too many categories; they are limiting. There’s no reason that we can’t consider a book/series both literary and sci-fi/crime/etc.. After all, Pride and Prejudice is both literary and, in my opinion, a romance. No reason that …Mockingbird can’t be crime fiction as well as literary. And I really do think In Cold Blood counts as fiction as well as an exploration of actual events. Feel free to feel better about that…

  9. We would miss out on so much if these books were banned. It’s sad the thing of books being banned at all. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks very much, Mason. And I couldn’t agree with you more. We really do miss out on so many fine ideas, characters, discussions, issues, and lots more if books are banned. It’s part of the reason I take this issue so seriously.

  10. Who are these people who have no faith in others? You should surely believe that readers can make their own decisions, and have their own standards.

    • You’re absolutely right, Moira. I don’t understand the mindset of those who believe that readers aren’t capable of deciding for themselves what they wish to read, what offends them, what they enjoy, and so on.

  11. Margot: The close personal connections between Harper Lee and Truman Capote have led some to believe that one or both were more than assisting with the other’s book.

    My personal challenge is defining what is a legal mystery. I have found no straightforward definition. For now and, I expect, the future on my blog it will be a legal mystery because a lawyer is involved and I say it is a legal mystery.

    • And I think that’s just as good a definition as any, Bill. I’d actually heard that about Capote and Lee. In fact, I was once presenting at a conference, and had a participant tell me her family had known Lee’s, and she knew for a fact that Lee wrote a lot of In Cold Blood. I don’t know if that’s true at all, but there’s certainly been speculation about both books.

  12. Margot, I wish no one had to ever observe Banned Books Week. It’s such a shame, really. It says a lot about the failings of democracies, civil societies and free speech.

    • It does, indeed, Prashant. It is unfortunate whenever people move to ban books; still, thy do. And that’s why I think it’s important to keep up awareness about it.

  13. kathy d

    Book banning — ridiculous, but especially in an “open” society made up of people from all over the world, many nationalities, cultures, religions, beliefs. Considering that we can’t all travel everywhere and meet people with different view and lives, how else can we learn except by reading or perhaps movies.
    Reading expands one’s mind, teaches one compassion and empathy. It makes one think if the books are good!
    Sometimes parents don’t want certain books taught in schools or stocked in local libraries and the reasons are usually pretty awful. This I know from reading the website about banned books. But why don’t parents read along with their children and discuss the books? Or make sure they’re well-discussed in school? What harm is there to broader thinking?
    It’s like some people want to hold onto a not-so-good past and not change, not develop nor let their children do so.
    I remember when I was 15 that one parent didn’t want me to read a trashy novel my friends were reading. We read good books in our house. What did I do? I borrowed the book from a friend and read it anyway. My conclusion: It was about hopeless, aimless, unhappy people and not well-written, and so I wouldn’t read books like that again. But I had to figure it out, and since I’d read well-written, socially conscious books, even good mysteries, I had high standards. I knew what was good and what wasn’t.
    But children have to learn that themselves, especially teenagers, in the course of developing themselves and their ideas, and learn to make good reading choices.
    I remember as a teenager being shocked at racism and anti-Semitism in some books, and then I made the decisions how to react and whether or not I’d read those authors again. But it’s part of learning and growing.
    And of the books I see in your post, I’ve read several, all to be accessible to everyone and discussed widely.
    And, Snow Falling on Cedars is a beautifully written book in addition to what others have said. And how could reading it do anything but teach the reader quite a bit? I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like that book.

    • You make some powerful arguments, Kathy. Sometimes people have a fear of new ideas, and different ways of thinking; they feel threatened. Other times, it may be, as you say, that they want to return to the past. But as your own story shows, banning won’t stop people thinking, getting ideas, being curious, and so on. And in a lot of cases, it doesn’t even stop people reading a book that’s been forbidden. This is one of the many, many reasons for which banning and challenging books doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work. And, as you say, in a diverse society, we need new ideas – even ideas that go against our own – in order to move forward. That’s how we make progress.

  14. I adored A Time to Kill and agree with you about Capote’s “untrue crime” category. As far as banned books, I was so surprised that Grisham and Rowling made the list. I wonder if they wear it like a badge of honor.

  15. kathy d

    What’s on the banned book list is shocking: books by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, John Steinbeck, etc., lots of non-crime fiction, but excellent fiction that expands one’s thinking. That list has some of my favorite books on it and I can’t imagine not having had access to them if I were a young person when they were published and then banned.
    And one book I remember being banned in some bookstores and school libraries was written for women by the Boston Women’s Health Collective, “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” a staple of all women’s bookshelves in the 1970s and on. In fact, that book helped to save the life of a woman I knew: She read symptoms in the book and went right to a hospital, and just in the nick of time.
    Ignorance knows no end

    • You have a well-taken point, Kathy. Banning restricts access to excellent literature. It can also restrict access to vital information. As if there weren’t enough reasons to oppose book banning, those are two compelling ones.

  16. Keishon

    Well, you just sold me on the Guterson book. I loved this post because I am always searching for books that are labeled as literature but do have crime elements as well. That’s my new focus actually. Thanks for writing this. If you have more books, please share them!

    • I think a lot of books that we think of as literature have elements of the crime novel in them, Keishon. And I think it’s great that you’re exploring that sort of novel in your reading right now. I’ll be looking forward to your reviews if you post them. As to the Guterson, I really think it’s a beautifully-written book.

  17. Such an interesting post with so many of my favorite books in it. Like Keishon above, I also love to read literary novels with a crime in it (Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing and Camus’ The Stranger) and particularly those novels focused on domestic crime.
    I was surprised to hear that all of the books you mentioned had been banned and that there was a banned book week in the US.I so agree with this statement you made, that needs repeating: “…our freedom to write what we wish. I, for one, cherish this right. That’s how ideas are created, shared, debated, and refined. And that’s what moves us forward.”
    Thanks for this inspiring post, Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol. I agree with you that there are some truly excellent literary novels that have crimes in them. In fact, I think that including a crime of some kind in a novel can be a really effective way of moving the plot forward. You’re right, too: we need the freedom of ideas that you find in books to move us forward. Banning limits that.

      • That’s such an interesting insight, Margot, how including some kind of crime can move the plot forward. I guess the thing about crime, the reader is always (or should be, if it’s well plotted) interested in solving it.

        • That’s exactly it, Carol! It’s that curiosity – that desire to find out the truth and solve the crime – that can keep readers interested.

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