We live in unprecedented times. We read and hear that slogan incessantly. It is often wrong—but with respect to the implications in general and the active threats of today’s book banning campaigns, it is chillingly correct for publishers, authors, readers, young people, free speech, democracy, and humanity. We urgently need to connect the major threads of today’s assaults, which threaten not only constitutional rights and children’s opportunities but also democracy, humanity, and the future of our polity and civilization themselves.
Viewed historically and comparatively, today’s banners are unique. Never before in the past millennia or more have the forces of censorship and claims for minority, extralegal power—rooted in fear—systematically fought to ban texts that they have not read or perhaps can’t read, which I call the new illiteracy. (See my previous Soapbox, “The History of Book Banning,” from the Dec. 31, 2021, issue of Publishers Weekly, and “Book Banning Past and Present,” in the May–June 2022 issue of Against the Current). Never before have children and young readers been so deliberately targeted. In all previous campaigns, adult readers have been the focus of the censors’ efforts. In all previous episodes, central targets have been white male authors, from Martin Luther to Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, J.R.R. Tolkien, Phillip Roth, and J.D. Salinger, with books by the occasional woman like Harper Lee or by people of color like Alice Walker or Toni Morrison also drawing scrutiny. In contrast to today’s “anti–affirmative action,” this was equal-opportunity banning.
Now, not only do banners focus almost exclusively on the young but—with great implications for publishers, booksellers, and authors—they go after nonwhite and nonheterosexual authors and leading characters. The rare white male author under attack has a protagonist of color who is differently gendered. A white male author’s much more obscene, profane, and offensive text is not censured. Research by the American Library Association, Freedom to Read Foundation, and BookRiot confirms the almost complete racist, sexist, transphobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and ageist obsession of the new banners.
This is not accidental. The banners—and the nationally organized dark-money-funded websites and social media campaigns that mislead uninformed, fearful right-leaning (sometimes) parents—never show awareness of this. Nor do they grasp that their unconstitutional efforts are fundamentally in opposition to everything we know about child development; children’s desire to read, be challenged, learn, grow, and mature as a result of reading and teaching; humanity; and democracy. Multiple surveys found that at least 80% of those polled support so-called divisive and uncomfortable reading and learning. Not at all surprising but critical is the fact that book banners strive to ban countless other well-established legal rights of “free society.”
For publishers, booksellers, and authors, the challenges and the stakes of the book banners’ approach are huge, if insufficiently discussed. Some authors and their publishers benefit from the public attention and sales stimulated in the short-term by being banned. This is true, for example, of award-winning and bestselling Art Spiegelman (Maus); Toni Morrison (various titles); my friend, colleague, and coauthor Ashley Hope Perez (Out of Darkness); Nikole Hannah-Jones (The 1619 Project); Isabel Quintero (Gabi: A Girl in Pieces); Nic Stone (Dear Martin); and Jerry Craft (New Kid). Some benefit from creative services like Banned Books Box, which sends two banned books with associated materials to its subscribers each month.
But a temporary boost in sales doesn’t occur for every banned author. Classroom adoptions and sales are sensitive to political pressures. Unconstitutional laws are proposed in Republican-dominated states, and even if these laws turnout to be unenforceable, authors and agents, publishers and publicists, distributors and sellers are all influenced, to one degree or another, by these assaults. This can prompt those under attack to search for security and self-protection, which can cause ripples through the entire supply chain. Library and bookstore orders can lag. Decisions about reprints and new editions, sensitive to cultural, political, and economic forces, can be deferred or delayed indefinitely.
Right-wing assaults indiscriminately target almost all links in the publication process, from authors’ pens or keyboards to editors’ desks, production, distribution, books on shelves, and approved and adopted curricula and course syllabi. Readers’, writers’, publishers’, and children’s rights are difficult to maintain in the best of times, and each of those critical links in a diverse, educated, inclusive, and democratic society is currently threatened.
Harvey J. Graff is a professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio eminent scholar at the Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history, including the forthcoming Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies.