Yesterday, author Saladin Ahmed tweeted this: “Censorship in America is less about making books illegal and more about a status quo that ensures certain stories never get a wide audience.”
As an avid reader, a good story is better than chocolate for me. I WANT TO READ EVERYTHING YUMMY. So this statement gets under my skin because it means I might be missing out on perfectly good stories because I never hear of them; or worse, they’re never even published.
A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview on the Sword and Laser podcast with author Cherie Priest, a Chattanooga native who’s published many popular steampunk novels, like Boneshaker. She mentioned how her agent had approached Scholastic with a middle-grade novel she’d recently written featuring a girl space pirate. Everybody likes space pirates, right? Especially 10-14 year olds? But Scholastic turned Priest down, along with several other publishers, saying that there was no audience for such a book—girls don’t read sci-fi, and boys don’t read books with girl protagonists. And this is in 2015. If publishers turn down authors like Priest, with many publications and awards, then what about all the other novels I’m missing out on? I like space pirates!
I’ve heard other horror stories- a woman author rejected by agents multiple times until she pretended to be a man; how The New York Times Book Review reviews almost exclusively white male writers; the difficulties of publishing while black. This isn’t to say only women and people of color have trouble publishing; I’m sure examples exist of white male writers being censored before an excellent story can land in the hands of readers, but it does seem like the industry’s weighted against them. What also seems evident is that there are plenty of examples of how readers’ choices are being censored without us even being aware of it.
Certainly Banned Book Week should honor the many classics that are frequently banned by schools and libraries—like 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Ulysses—but these books, despite being banned in some places, are readily available for reading in the US. What worries me more, as an avid reader, is that my choices are being censured before I even know there are choices. And what can we, as readers, do about it? There are nifty book challenges, like this one from Book Riot, that challenge readers to find books and authors outside their comfort zones. Readers can also be more aware of the authors they’re reading—while I read about 50-50 male and female writers, I read too few books by people of color. Being aware of this prejudice, even if it’s subconscious, means I’m more likely to pick up an awesome sounding story by a person of color. And maybe if we buy more of these books, reviewed them, recommend them to our friends, then the publishing industry will start listening. This should be our market. Let’s tell the publishers that we want good stories no matter who writes them.
Margaret Kingsbury’s short stories and poems have appeared and/or are forthcoming in The Devilfish Review, Pulp Literature, NonBinary Review, and Expanded Horizons. She lives in Nashville, TN where she teaches at Lipscomb University and, of course, works at the Nashville Mckay’s. You can follow her on Twitter @MargaretKWrites