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The Newsletter of
The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic

Volume 1, Number 1 (Fall 1995)
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The Growing Censorship of the Fantastic

by Don D'Ammassa
Copyright © 1995, Don D'Ammassa

Outright government censorship in the U.S. has been rare in recent years, though there are indications this situation may not last. During the 1960's certain books were banned by law in some states, although genre fiction was generally not targeted. Passage of the Communications Decency Act seems likely to create a degree of federally imposed censorship greater than anything ever before attempted in this country's history, and genre fiction is being challenged by private groups in an accelerating program of repression. Disturbing though these developments may be, there are indications that even more draconian, though subtler, repression of free expression has already become a part of this nation's character.

The most obvious, overt actions are the attempts to ban or remove specific works from public libraries, school libraries, art museums, and other institutions. Children's access is the spoken excuse, but make no mistake about it, adult literature is not far behind. Already there have been proposals to create a rating system similar to that imposed on movies and pending for music. With most of the major publishing houses in the hands of major corporations, some not even U.S.-based, there's little hope for a concerted stand against such a campaign.

Many of the challenges to books seem so ludicrous that there is an unfortunate tendency to dismiss them as rare oddities. Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis are often characterized as anti-Christian even though their work is in fact Christian allegory. George Orwell's 1984 has been banned for being pro-Communist even though it is in fact anti-Communist. Bruce Coville's touching, whimsical fantasy for children, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, was temporarily removed from a school library because of "excessive" references to the colors silver and green, which are "associated with satanism." Witches, by Roald Dahl, was attacked because mention of witchcraft in a school library book "violates the principle of separation of church and state." A teacher in Pennsylvania lost his grant because he taught Brave New World in class.

As absurd as the foregoing cases sound, they are typical, frequent, and ongoing. The National Coalition Against Censorship, while lamenting the fact that challenges have increased dramatically in recent years, boasts that in two thirds of these cases, pro-censorship forces fail. Where they see that as a kind of victory, I interpret it as an admission of defeat. The broad-based, organized attack on literature is no longer limited to the works of a few controversial writers, but is being applied to genre fiction as well, particularly fantasy. Judy Blume may currently be the most frequently banned writer in America, but Jane Yolen isn't far behind.

A far more insidious threat is covert, usually in the form of self-censorship. Publishers fearful of possible objections to controversial material will change or delete it in advance. On rare occasions, the public becomes aware of what is happening, but in the vast majority, decisions are made without outside scrutiny. Damon Knight, for example, reports that on more than one occasion editors have refused to reprint one of his stories unless he first changes the word "queer," as in a "queer situation," to some synonym. Bruce Coville lost a reprint of a story in which a woman is magically changed into a cow because he refused to change it to a monkey. The publisher felt that feminists "might" object to the former but not the latter. A panel of editors specializing in horror fiction for young adults indicated that among the forbidden elements were Satanism as a religion, Satan as a person opposed to Christ, and anything that might be critical of any aspect of Christian dogma. Bookstores, we were told, particularly in the Midwest, would not carry the books if these rules were violated. White Wolf Books recently reported picking up a major new writer because his former publisher would not include certain sexual content or favorable depiction of gay characters since these elements "might offend Mid-America."

For a while, it seemed the small press might provide the solution. Less concerned with financial considerations, small-press publishers can print what they like, right? The truth is, maybe not. Take, for example, the case of a Florida writer and artist who wrote a graphic story of cannibalism and illustrated it. Although he made copies for a couple of friends, he made no effort to distribute it. Unfortunately, he did misplace a copy, which in due course fell into the hands of the authorities. His criminal conviction carried the following stipulations: He cannot be alone in the presence of minors at any time. He must cease self-publication. He must submit to psychotherapy. He must agree not to draw...anything. Given that scenario, it's easy to extrapolate what might have happened had his efforts been more commercial.

The future is uncertain, but it is perhaps indicative that an ever-increasing percentage of published SF is media-related -- Star Trek, Seaquest, novelizations of computer and role-playing games, movie tie-ins. Safe and predictable, they offer publishers a perfect out. They contain nothing controversial, nothing risky, little of inherent interest. Ace Books has recently spun off an entire separate imprint, Boulevard, to market media-related SF, and the publicity information frequently avoids even mentioning authors' names. This sanitization of the field is at least indirectly an elaborate dance-step to avoid confrontations with would-be censors and media critics. As a teenager, I had a hidden store of illegal books concealed in my closet. As an adult, I anticipate the cycle to repeat, and this time I don't expect SF to be exempt.


The Council for the Literature of the Fantastic is based at the Department of English of the University of Rhode Island. We thank the University and the Department for their support.

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