I’ve been an active member of Goodreads for several years now. I find it helpful for tracking books and finding more books and talking books and meeting book reading book lovers. Recently as I indulged my love of book reviews (both there and on Amazon), I have begun to sense a trend which I hope gets swallowed up in some other better trend. Not a worse trend, oh dear heavens, we don’t need anymore of those! It’s as if these days some sort of Bulk Discount Bin of Worse Trends had been upended over the continental United States!
The scenario is this: a new book comes out, or people rediscover an older book. The author may be heavily involved promoting it. Readers are enjoying discussing it. Then someone asks, quite innocently, “Is the book clean?” The author herself, and several other people who suddenly revert to their Mr. Edward Hyde personas, jump all over the very idea. They make fun of the questioner’s ‘purity’, calling such questions sheer vanity, useless, censorship, outdated, outrageous, not worthy of a response, that entire family deserves horrible Medieval ends, and much, much worse.
What is the word for the overreaction of a system to an otherwise perfectly normal and harmless irritant? An allergy attack? Antihistamine overdrive? Anaphylactic shock? Aren’t we trying to cure that sort of thing?
Because the question, while vague, has its purposes. There are growing numbers of people who acknowledge that much of our mainstream culture is slithering happily into the sewers of the world, and they don’t want to go with it. They may want to shield children. They may have sensitive history that makes them want to avoid sexual assault scenes in their reading. They may want to read about real problem solving and hopeful perspectives rather than gratuitous violence and nihilism. And why not? If a history museum fan wants to read about history, why not? I could even argue, with a bad taste in my mouth, that if a reader of gore and mayhem wants that, they need to be able to make their choice. But I ask this: if the history fan starts talking history, that’s not nearly the issue of a gore fan wanting to talk gore. And believe me, they often do. It works into every conversation. Ever have someone who wouldn’t shut up about the ‘Saw’ movies while at a picnic? Yeah. So why interfere with someone who is looking for ‘clean reads’? What’s this about choice? What did you just say about tolerance? Ok then.
The term ‘clean reads’ is vague, yes. It means various levels of clean to various people. It might mean absolutely no reference to sexual scenes, or it may mean a fade-to-black kind of approach to sex scenes. It may allow for a few of the milder swear words, or it may not. It may want to avoid the everything-is-the-same-so-nothing-really-matters philosophy that infuses so much literature with a kind of pre-soviet psychological grooming that leads to State control of culture and thought. But is it so hard to just ask: “What do you mean by ‘clean’?”
Can we suspend rash judgement anymore? Can we ask for clarification? Can we discuss?
The defensive maneuvers of those who cry- or shriek- censorship reminds me of Shakespeare: “Methinks he doth protest too much”. Censorship? Where were the cries of censorship when the publishers demanded changes? Where were the cries of outdated when the book refers to older literature forms? Why this pretense at moral superiority while trying to skewer the morality of another? Hypocrite much?
Thankfully, when I see these attacks, I am also seeing more and more responses of other bystanders who step forward and defend the simple question. Most simply see clean choices as that- choices. We all must discriminate or we would be required by circumstances to read all books in the world. Really! Just think about it: you have no choice. You can not pick one book over another. You must read them ALL.
Or: you must read the ones we demand you read. You are especially not allowed to read those ones over there.
Both are pretty ridiculous. One has been attempted at various times throughout the history of the world. (Hint: it’s the second one)
Why does this mean anything to me? because I have my own set of standards (LIKE EVERY OTHER READER) and mine happen to lean towards ‘clean’. How I define it can shift as I change as a person, because no one is still reading the books they read in first grade, or college, and only those. We all change. Nevertheless, my tendency towards ‘clean’ has stayed roughly about the same. Why do I choose that? Here’s why:
- I’m so tired of the sex scenes. They feel like this: the author is getting off on their own writing, and making me a voyeur; the spread of pornography with its attendant addiction, abuse, and cultural decline means we should be preventing it, not spreading it like verbal plague; and after avearge sex scenes become inadequate for an author, their readers, or their publishers, just how far are we going to go into the mire for that next fleeting jaded arousal? Or is that just a repeat of the addiction argument?
- I’m tired of the gore. So much of it feels, well, canned. Like extra juicy spam. You open it, it slops out, and you say, “Oh, cool! Gimme more!” Like movies that have jettisoned story for CGI gimmicks, many books have lost story for the sake of look-at-my-anatomy-research. It falls in a camp very close to just plain look-at-my-anatomy.
- The despair and intensity have become comical. Intense story telling that grabs you with the first paragraph and then demands your attention is an insecure kind of verbal assault. Not only does it get far too manipulative, but it’s like the guy who grabs your shirt as you try to end a conversation and he gets so in your face that you feel his spit on your cheek. He’s like “You see?? You know what I mean? Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot!!” And you just want to go have a life with not-this-man in it. Or at least, let-him-keep-some-distance.
- I think we’ve lost something when we lose the setting and descriptive abilities of past generations of writers. Plot heavy is more an aesthetic taste, but it often comes entangled in gore and explicit scenes of all types because so many of our generation have grown up with TV…or less than TV…I’m looking at you, video games. What if I find your ability to describe a woman’s anatomy a misplaced description when I have vague ideas of your setting?
Admittedly, that last point is not so much a moral point but it is affected by the others. So while I avoid certain kinds of books, I know everyone else avoid other kinds. I know there are books I think everyone should read, but I’m not going to get their cooperation with social pressure that involves humiliation, threats, and grotesqueries of verbal outrage. That’s not how I operate, anyway.
When people yell “JUST READ THE %^&$ BOOK!!” I wonder if they would also scream at me to “Just eat the cowpie we pried up out of this farmyard tire rut!” Because not all reading is the same, not all books have the same value, and actually, yes, what I read really needs to be as clean as the food that goes into my body. It needs to be good and clean, as wholesome as possible, and something my mind can use to build good thinking skills, healthy mind sets, and a hopefully long life of happiness and appreciation of beauty.
That doesn’t mean we never use our writing skills to address dark issues within our human experience, no, of course not. We can write about anything and still retain our humanity. Otherwise we risk descending to the level of predators or pushers who demand government support for their attempts to groom others into their hideous world. No thanks.
Not all books are the same. I repeat that. We’re not talking binary data streams here, we are talking the thoughts that influence actions which shape the character that builds or destroys civilizations. Yeah, many of those thoughts come from books. Read a book and just try not to think about it. I dare ya!