(Warning: There are four-letter words in this post, as well as other words of varying lengths and opinions readers might find offensive. Read at your own risk.)
This weekend my friend Katy went to the Tate Modern gallery in London, which was having a major retrospective of the English artists Gilbert & George. Gilbert & George are most famous for huge, aggressively colored photomontages, usually featuring pictures of themselves among other iconography; to go straight to the most notorious and extreme example of their work, in the mid-1990s they completed a series called "the Naked Shit pictures," featuring both themselves naked and pictures of feces and urine. (Both links are safe for work and explain a little more of the artists' metier.) Katy didn't see the Tate exhibition itself, but she said to me after her visit to the museum, "I'd rather have one of their pictures on my wall than a Thomas Kinkade."
"Really?" I said.
"Definitely," she said firmly. "Wouldn't you?"
And here it was, the extremes of these two choices forming a wonderfully devilish artistic "Would You Rather": "Which would you rather have on your living-room wall: A six-foot-high, purposely confrontational photomontage of two naked men pointing their anuses and genitalia at the viewer? Or an overly idealized, artistically simple-minded, corporately marketed, sickeningly sentimental painting of a lighthouse at sunset? Painters of shit (literally) or painter of shit (aesthetically)? Art as meaning, or as decoration?"
And what did I answer? I didn't. I cannot in good conscience say I'd prefer living with a Gilbert & George, particularly the one cited in the conundrum; I come home to rest and think and be, and I don't need a challenge literally hanging over my head 24/7. But Thomas Kinkade is the antithesis of everything I think art should be -- light without dark, generalization without individuation, beauty without truth, which makes it only a pretty lie. I think I would go with Gilbert & George in the end, solely to maintain my intellectual self-respect. But I'm not 100% sure about that choice, nor that I'd be happy with it.
All of which is leading me to, of course, the current debate over The Higher Power of Lucky. For those readers not involved in children's books, this year's Newbery winner by Susan Patron uses the word "scrotum" on page one, where the main character (Lucky) hears a man say his dog was bitten on that body part by a rattlesnake. Lucky does not know what the word means, and her attempts to find out apparently form a minor and in the end meaningful motif throughout the book (which I have not yet read; this opinion taken from Linnea Hendrickson's post on child_lit). Many librarians know that their patrons will object to the mere appearance of this word and thus have announced they will not stock the book. (See the New York Times article here for a (poorly-written) summation of the debate.) The discussion that followed on ccbc-net, child_lit, and various blogs has tend to run along these lines:
- It's an anatomically correct term for a body part. Are we not going to tell children about their bodies? Isn't it best to give them the correct information from the beginning?
- Yes, but parents have the right to determine when their children learn information about their bodies.
- Do they really? Aren't librarians supposed to provide information to whoever is looking for it -- particularly when other people (like parents) don't want them to have it?
- But the libraries are financially supported by the community. Shouldn't they follow the standards of the community?
- And librarians have such small budgets and so much to do, and frequently no support from their higher-ups when challenges come in . . . Isn't it easiest and perhaps best to avoid the issue altogether?
- Those stupid, uneducated Southerners and Midwesterners -- I'm sick of them taking over the country and trying to make the rest of us conform to their Puritan moralism. Down with George W. Bush!
- This is all irrelevant as the book has no child appeal anyway. Can't the Newbery committee pick a book kids would actually want to read for once? I miss Holes.
Now, this isn't quite as in-your-face as Gilbert & George vs. Thomas Kinkade. But it strikes me as the same thing in the end, complicated by the public-funding debate and all the questions always implicit in adults making and purchasing art for children: How much truth do we want to have? And here, How much truth do we want children to have? And, What if I disagree with your answers? And finally, of course, Who gets to determine truth anyway?
And again, I'm in the mushy middle here. Not on the principles of the thing -- I think we should always use correct, precise language, and libraries shouldn't decide not to purchase the book based solely on that word -- but on its practicalities: the poor librarians having to deal with challenges, which distracts them from their larger mission of serving their communities as a whole; and parents, who, it seems to me, do deserve to determine how much information their children have about sex and the body parts involved in it until the children reach a certain age (though the children will likely beat them to the information long before). For some people, seeing the word "scrotum" is like being forced to live with the Gilbert & George: It's something they don't want to look at, for whatever reason, and we have to respect their right to that. But neither should they be able to deny us the right to look at it, to keep ourselves from living in a Thomas Kinkade world. I wish the repressive communities would change, become more open-minded and thoughtful, but until that happens, I guess I sympathize with everyone but the book-banners.
Which, I freely admit, makes me pretty much useless.
The one thing I am absolutely sure about here is where the author and editor fit in to the truth debate. When these issues come up for me as an editor -- and they have -- the question is simple: What's best for the artistic integrity of the book? Does this word or plot development in question feel integral to the character's journey, the voice, the themes, and the overall story? If it does fit, it belongs there; if it doesn't, it should come out anyway. With Lucky it sounds very much as if the word is used intelligently and sensitively, in a manner consistent with the overall storytelling, so it seems perfectly appropriate. (And Richard Jackson is an editorial genius who has seen this all before -- he edited Judy Blume in the 1970s -- so I doubt it was ever a question.) It was part of Susan Patron's vision of Lucky's truth, and as the author, she gets to determine that; readers and communities fight out whether they agree with it with their purchasing power.
(Though I have to say I'm frustrated with The Higher Power of Lucky getting all this press because of one little word, when I edited an absolutely brilliant book where God disappears and Jesus is seen as friendly but useless -- and no one has challenged it yet! This follows the general trend among book-banners where they're so obsessed with the overt content of a book that they miss the larger and much more dangerous point . . . people who go after Harry Potter before His Dark Materials, for example. I know I would fight to the point of physical violence for libraries to have the right to purchase His Dark Materials; maybe I'll feel the same way about Lucky after I read it. In the meantime, book-banners, my book is called The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer, it was published last year, it's funny and beautiful and joyous and wise -- bring the challenges on! And bring your media circus with you!)
So. If you feel strongly about your school or local library having the right or responsibility to purchase The Higher Power of Lucky, or any other banned book, make your opinion known to the librarian in writing. That was s/he can point to your letter as an example of community support for the book should it be challenged -- or you might simply get it bought in the first place. All of us should try not to be self-righteous, please. Keep on writing your truths. And may the Higher Power bless us, every one.