Dare We Buy Informally “Banned” Books?

The other day, I went to a used bookstore. For once I was very well-organized: I was looking for books  for my science fiction project, and I was determined to buy only books on my checklist.  But alas, I found nothing:  they did not have Liu Cixin’s award-winning novel, The Three-Body Problem, nor could I find Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, nor Vonda N.  McIntyre’s The Exile Waiting.

I had ridden my bicycle, and it was so hot outside that the asphalt glittered and a steamy haze rose off the cars.  I couldn’t face leaving immediately, so I browsed in the literature section. There was nada–we already have tons of Jane Austen, Trollope, and T.C. Boyle–but finally I noticed a copy of Sherman Alexie’s memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.

Some years ago, my husband and I were very amused by Alexie at a reading in Iowa City:  he is as witty as a stand-up comedian.  But the minute I took the book off the shelf, I began to sweat.  Perhaps I was dehydrated, but it was also nervous sweat.  And then I remembered that Alexie is under a cloud due to sexual harassment allegations. As I recall, they were of the “he-kissed-me-in-a-bar-without-consent” category, and one was actually “he-didn’t-help-me-publish-my-poetry.” I don’t consider those serious accusations,  but I decided not to buy Alexie’s  book,  because I was afraid the surly young clerk would humiliate me or call me out.

I usually don’t give a damn what anyone thinks.  But then I remembered the cause of this Alexie-rooted fear. A month or two ago a Millennial blogger (sorry, no idea who it was) expressed indignation because one of Alexie’s short stories appeared in an anthology. Good God! Forget talent, and forget “innocent until proven guilty.”  If it’s posted on Twitter or Facebook, it must be true, right?

The award-winning Alexie is a witty, brilliant chronicler of Native American life.  He grew up poor on a reservation, and writes about it. Whether or not he is a perfect man,  he has not, as I understand it, committed a crime.

If great writers had to be role models, we wouldn’t have any of either sex. Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay–all pretty much assholes.

I bought nothing at the store that day.

6 thoughts on “Dare We Buy Informally “Banned” Books?

  1. Oh, difficult one. There are loads of badly behaved writers out there, and I’m not sure we should be prevented from reading them, either because you can separate the writing from the person (difficult I agree) or because it’s important to know why people act awfully and maybe there’s a clue in their writing. I have one of his books on my TBR and will be reading it, will watch out to see if I get any pushback when I review it. Hm.


  2. It’s so tricky. None of the classic writers I read are particularly nice people – it seems to go hand in hand with being a genius. And I get a bit cross about the morality police telling us what to think and do nowadays and not crediting us with enough intelligence to make up our own minds. Having said that, I wouldn’t read Mein Kampf…


  3. Time that is intolerant
    Of the brave and the innocent,
    And indifferent in a week
    To a beautiful physique,

    Worships language and forgives
    Everyone by whom it lives;
    Pardons cowardice, conceit,
    Lays its honours at their feet.

    Time that with this strange excuse
    Pardoned Kipling and his views,
    And will pardon Paul Claudel,
    Pardons him for writing well.


  4. A stunning, witty poem by Auden. And, yes, appropriate: we do (often) forgive those mad men who write well (though I’m shaky on who Paul Claudel is). But in our current age, it seems that those who write well will not be forgiven!


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