The Censorship Games: How a "Ban" can be a Blessing

Okay. Maaaybe I should have written this column back in October during Banned Book Week 2014. Maaaaaybe I should have planned ahead and really dug in and researched sales figures for banned books, both before and after banning (and also before and after Banned Book Week 2014).

But my brain doesn't work that way. 

Instead, it sees something, mulls it over for a while, and then decides to talk about it when it's the least topical and opportune thing I could discuss.

Welcome to my world.

Here's what's going on inside it these past few months...

A lot of you know I live in South Carolina. Though my home is in a suburb of Charleston, a baby blue hotspot in an otherwise blood-red state, I am certainly among the regional minority for my personal and political beliefs. Though gay marriage has finally been legalized here, it's probably safe to say my city saw the only celebrating in the entire state.

Banning a book in any way, shape, or form brings attention to that book.

(Okay, to be fair, perhaps some of the college towns celebrated, too...but still. Do you get the picture? VERY red state down here in the south. VERY conservative. We'll apparently vote into Congress a man who left his post as Governor to sneak down to South America for a romantic tryst with a woman who was not his wife, rather than anyone sporting that dubious label of "Democrat.")

This year, as a writer for a local paper, I wound up super-tuned into a local scandal that eventually made its way into national news cycles. The story was this: our state legislature voted to pull funding from the College of Charleston due to its usage of the Alison Bechdel graphic novel, Fun Home, as part of its inbound freshman summer reading program. 

The money in question was a mere (!!) $52,000.00 — a drop in the bucket of a major college's annual budget — but it was a blatant attempt at censorship, or at least a slap on the wrists of the school for not promoting a more conservative agenda.


Well, for starters, author/artist Bechdel! Ohmigosh, I know, right? Isn't that...neither shocking nor upsetting nor any reasonable cause for censorship? But I digress....

For seconds, so's her dad, and for thirds, the book centers on their relationship as he tries and ultimately fails to come to terms with his sexuality.

Citing pornographic content, a Christian organization pushed the South Carolina state legislature to move in the direction of the funding cut. Money was also stripped from another state school for its use of Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio, a book about the state's first LGBT radio program.

And those of us in this state with common sense and a knee-jerk reaction against ANY kind of censorship pretty much went nuts.

Op-eds in local papers abounded. Campaigns of support for Bechdel popped up all over Facebook and Twitter. I took to my own blog to fuss at those in charge, those who were supporting this funding cut, and anyone else who wanted to argue with me. 

As did many, many others.

When a school board pulls a book from a middle- or high school curriculum, stories abound regarding publishers stepping in and providing free copies of that book to interested students...

It was weird, being on the front lines of such a blatant attempt at homophobic censorship this summer. It was weird seeing the reactions around me, from friends and family to troll-like commenters all over the internet. The support Bechdel received from our fair city was intense. There were demonstrations; lengthy articles; a musical version of Fun Home came down to the College of Charleston's theater and performed to packed houses. 

Bechdel was all over the news (in name, at least...I found only one actual statement by her regarding the situation, and her representatives declined to have her comment on this piece as well), and the results of it were interesting.

For one small example...I bought a book I might otherwise not have. Yep, I bought Fun Home. It's sitting on my shelf. Not being a huge graphic novel reader, I haven't read it yet, but it's on my list of what I plan to read in 2015. 

I told other people to buy the book. I also urged them to buy Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio

I know many people listened. Many people bought these books. 

An attempt at censorship, therefore, ultimately backfired.

It makes sense, though, really. No press is bad press, right? Isn't that a truth in all things celebrity?

Theoretically, at least, it's a truth in the banned books world as well. Banning a book in any way, shape, or form brings attention to that book. Here in South Carolina, those funding cuts got us talking about Bechdel and Rainbow Radio. I had heard of neither before. (I know, I know, I should have at least have heard of Bechdel. My mistake. It's been rectified, I promise.)

Often, when a school board pulls a book from a middle- or high school curriculum, stories abound regarding publishers stepping in and providing free copies of that book to interested students within that school district. The book winds up in as many — if not more — hands than it would have had people not attempted to censor it.

On the Next Big Sound blog, writer Liv Buli wrote about spikes in Goodreads adds for books during Banned Book Week. For the most part, all the books talked about as "banned" or "challenged" in various school districts throughout the country saw an uptick in adds. This is no surprise, of course. Anecdotal evidence has supported the "no press is bad press" theory for pretty much forever.

So it would seem that, for the most part, a challenge or ban of an author's book can actually become a boon for that author. Minus the headache of knowing you've pissed off a bunch of conservatives, it seems like we should all hope to have our books banned, right?

But back to South Carolina, the College of Charleston, and Fun Home.

Eventually, after protests at the college and in the media and involving the ACLU and other national organizations that support free speech, the South Carolina legislature voted to restore the $52,000.00 in funding. That said, the funding was subsequently earmarked for study of the United States Constitution instead of the summer reading program. One could probably call that outcome something of a draw. The college got its money, and somehow the government still didn't have to support Fun Home and its (completely non-) "pornographic content."

As for Bechdel herself, it was a mere two or three months later that it was announced that she was awarded a 2014 MacArthur Genius Award, a substantial honor (and a substantial sum of money). Though it would likely be remiss to suggest that her nomination was due even in part to the national spotlight thanks to the Fun Home drama, it's hard not to wonder....was it?

No press is bad press, that much is for sure. And I'm not going to lie — after all the drama here in South Carolina, I was thrilled to see her honored. I was thrilled that, as usual, an attempt at censorship did nothing but help bring a worthy writer the attention she deserves.

Leah Rhyne

Column by Leah Rhyne

Leah Rhyne is a Jersey girl who's lived in the South so long she's lost her accent...but never her attitude. After spending most of her childhood watching movies like Star Wars, Aliens, and A Nightmare On Elm Street, and reading books like Stephen King's The Shining or It, Leah now writes horror and science-fiction. She lives with her husband, daughter, and a small menagerie of pets.

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L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami December 11, 2014 - 4:42pm

Usually the reasons people ban books weirds me about that person banning them than the book itself. Are they so afraid of decapitation subtly referenced in their children's literature, that they think the one reading it might become a British headsman for halloween?

That's why trying to ban books from "problematic" authors also gives me the creeps about the one banning them. You do know your really you are only attracting the attention to Ubermensch right?

Just to be clear, I'm not saying she's is problematic. I'm saying the whole book ban culture is just weird to me.

Chacron's picture
Chacron from England, South Coast is reading Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb December 13, 2014 - 2:20am

It's pretty hard to get a book banned in the UK nowadays, but sometimes I live in hope.