20 January 2022
Ban Shaw Sheet
By Robert Kilconner
I should, I think, start by declaring an interest because I am descended from the Spottiswood family after a member of which Spotsylvania, a county in Virginia, is named. I have never been there but, family loyalty being what it is, I expect it’s a jolly good place. Anyway, it is clearly no backwater but on the dynamic front line of the culture wars because today’s The Times contained the following statement:
“In November the Spotsylvania county school board in Virginia ordered staff to remove ‘sexually explicit’ books from libraries after a parent raised concerns about their LGBTQ themes.”
Well, so they did, but the Spotsylvania phenomenon is only the tip of the iceberg. Up and down the US, Republican controlled school districts are calling for books to be removed from libraries because they support critical race theory or white guilt; America being America, there are presumably Democrat school boards applying cancel culture in the other direction. There would be, wouldn’t there? The calls for banning extend to classics such as The Handmaid’s Tale, presumably because of its attack on misogyny, to children’s books, presumably on ground of unacceptable stereotyping or perhaps because they have intellectual undercurrents.
The odd thing about the story is not that people want to limit the circulation of books which do not chime with their political beliefs, we would all love to do that, but that they think it will be effective. When I was at school the soft porn novel Fanny Hill would certainly not have had a place in the school library. No, battered copies were passed from hand to hand and lent and resold until the covers came off. Yet if any book was universally read it was Fanny Hill. The very fact that it was not approved off made it fascinating. Is The Handmaid’s Tale being read surreptitiously in an adopted dust jacket inscribed with the name Hamlet? I must say I hope so. It is the function of youth to give their elders a good kicking when they get pompous and stupid.
But there is a wider commercial context which is relevant to the Shaw Sheet. If banning books from libraries makes them more attractive to young readers, what about magazines? If the Shaw Sheet could only be read by accessing a site in Russia which was intermittently closed by the authorities, if hard copies of our articles could only be obtained by going to seedy booksellers who kept them on the top shelf, if Priti Patel or the Archbishop of Canterbury or even Vanessa Redgrave could be induced to say that we were a danger to public morality, why, then our circulation would go through the roof?
It seems worth a try, but meanwhile I have some advice for the banners, whether they come from the left of from the right. Pull your fingers out of the dyke and let youth read what it likes however offensive you may find it. The reality is that they will read it anyway if it is any good and, if it isn’t, there really is nothing to worry about, is there?