What do protests about Harry Potter books teach us?


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What justifies keeping some books out of the hands of young readers?
Sodanie Chea, CC BY

Trisha Tucker, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

On Monday, June 26, 2017, Harry James Potter – the world’s most famous wizard – will celebrate his 20th birthday. His many fans will likely mark the occasion by rereading a favorite Harry Potter novel or rewatching one of the blockbuster films. Some may even raise a butterbeer toast in Harry’s honor at one of three Harry Potter-themed amusement parks.

But not everyone will be celebrating Harry’s big day. In fact, a vocal group of Christians – usually identified as “Bible-believing” or fundamentalist Christians – has been resistant to Harry’s charms from the start. Members of this community, who believe the Bible to be literal truth, campaigned vigorously to keep J.K. Rowling’s best-selling novels out of classrooms and libraries. They even staged public book burnings across the country, at which children and parents were invited to cast Rowling’s books into the flames. These fiery spectacles garnered widespread media coverage, sparking reactions ranging from bemusement to outrage.

Harry Potter turns 20 on June 26.
Lesley Choa, CC BY-NC-ND

What could justify the use of such drastic measures to keep these books out of the hands of young readers?

The different views on Harry Potter

Book burnings may be relatively rare in modern America, but efforts to protect young readers from “dangerous” texts are not. Such texts, and the efforts to limit their readership, are the subject of a class I teach at the University of Southern California.

In this class, students survey a collection of books that have been challenged on moral, political and religious grounds. These include classics such as “1984” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as newer texts like “Persepolis” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The point is not to determine which challenges are “good” and which are “bad.” Instead, we seek to understand how differing beliefs about reading and subjectivity make certain texts seem dangerous and others seem safe to particular populations of readers.

Harry Potter is one of the first books we discuss.

Most readers of Rowling’s novel – including many Christian readers – interpret the characters’ tutelage in spells and potions as harmless fantasy, or as metaphors for the development of wisdom and knowledge. Similarly, they read incidents in which Harry and his friends disobey adults or make questionable choices as opportunities for characters and readers alike to learn important lessons and begin to develop their own moral and ethical codes.

What makes some literary texts appear ‘dangerous?’
kayepants, CC BY-NC-SA

For some fundamentalist Christians, however, Harry’s magical exploits pose an active danger. According to them, Hogwarts teaches the kinds of witchcraft explicitly condemned as punishable by death and damnation in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Exodus. They believe the books must be banned – even burned – because their positive portrayal of magic is likely to attract unsuspecting children to real-world witchcraft.

Similarly, they think that when Harry disobeys his cruel Muggle guardians or flouts Dumbledore’s rules to save his friends, he actively encourages child readers to engage in lying and disobedience, which are explicitly forbidden by the Bible. As Evangelical writer Richard Abanes puts it,

“The morals and ethics in Rowling’s fantasy tales are at best unclear, and at worst, patently unbiblical.”

Making assumptions

Why don’t Bible-believing Christians trust young readers to discern the difference between fantasy and reality? And why don’t they think children can learn positive lessons from Harry’s adventures – like the importance of standing up to injustice?

According to scholar Christine Jenkins, people who try to censor texts often hold a set of false assumptions about how reading works.

One of those assumptions is that particular literary content (like positive portrayals of witchcraft) will invariably produce particular effects (more witches in real life). Another is that reactions to a particular text are likely to be consistent across readers. In other words, if one reader finds a passage scary, funny or offensive, the assumption is that other readers invariably will do so as well.

As Jenkins points out, however, research has shown that readers’ responses are highly variable and contextual. In fact, psychologists Amie Senland and Elizabeth Vozzola have demonstrated this about readers of Harry Potter.

Readers’ responses can vary widely.
Seamus McCauley, CC BY

In their study comparing the perceptions of fundamentalist and liberal Christian readers of Harry Potter, Senland and Vozzola reveal that different reading responses are possible in even relatively homogeneous groups. On the one hand, despite adults’ fears to the contrary, few children in either group believed that the magic practiced in Harry Potter could be replicated in real life. On the other, the children disagreed about a number of things, including whether or not Dumbledore’s bending of the rules for Harry made Dumbledore harder to respect.

Senland and Vozzola’s study joins a body of scholarship that indicates that children perform complex negotiations as they read. Children’s reading experiences are informed by both their unique personal histories and their cultural contexts.

In other words, there’s no “normal” way to read Harry Potter – or any other book, for that matter.

Distrusting child readers

Fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only group who have trouble trusting the capabilities of child readers.

Take the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For decades, parents have argued that Harper Lee’s novel poses a danger to young readers, and have sought to remove it from classrooms for this reason. Some parents worry that the novel’s vulgar language and sexual content will corrupt children’s morals, while others fear that the novel’s marginalization of black characters will damage the self-image of black readers.

Despite their different ideological orientations, I believe that both of these groups of protesters – like the fundamentalists who attempt to censor Harry Potter – are driven by surprisingly similar misapprehensions about reading.

In all of these cases, the protesters presume that being exposed to a phenomenon in literature (whether witchcraft, foul language or racism) naturally leads to a reproduction of that phenomenon in life. They also believe that their individual experience of a text is correct and applicable to disparate readers.

The ConversationThese cases of attempted censorship show a profound distrust of child readers and their imaginations. And they ignore evidence that child readers are far more sophisticated than adults tend to credit them for.

Trisha Tucker, Assistant Professor of Writing, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cultural appropriation and the whiteness of book publishing



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(Flickr/Tommy Ellis), CC BY-NC

Clayton Childress, University of Toronto

Last month, cultural appropriation became a big issue in the Canadian publishing and media world after the trade association magazine, Write published a special issue featuring work by Indigenous authors. The editor of the magazine, Hal Niedzviecki, wrote a glib editorial in defence of cultural appropriation.

Niedzviecki resigned after Canadian media executives irreverently pledged donations toward a “Cultural Appropriation Prize” on late-night Twitter in support of his editorial. The main thrust of the offending Twitter conversation seemed to be that white media elites and writers felt they were under threat of being censored.

White media elites felt they were under threat of being censored

The argument was framed in the high-minded rhetoric of freedom and creative license, but underneath that thin veneer, it relied on a belief in white victimization that you’d expect from fringe white nationalists rather than the top one per cent of Canadian mainstream media.

As a scholar of the book publishing industry, I can say with empirical authority that the notion of white people being under threat in publishing crumbles in the face of evidence. As I show in my new book, Under the Cover: The Creation, Production and Reception of a Novel, book publishing is the same as it ever was: it is white-dominated and it’s easier for white people to gain entry to it. Although my research on book publishing is based in the United States, as the sociologist Sarah M. Corse has shown, the U.S. and Canadian book publishing industries are deeply intertwined, and more often than not are actually the same industry.

If you want to throw an all-white party, invite book publishers

To understand the real barriers to book publishing, the most important places to look are the points of entry themselves. In publishing, those access points are guarded by literary agents and acquisition editors. They are the gatekeepers, and across the U.S., the gatekeepers of publishing are 95 per cent white. If those gatekeepers had their own state, it would be the whitest state in the U.S. If they had their own country, it would be the whitest country in the world. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you wanted to throw a party with only white people in attendance, you’d invite veterinarians, farmers, mining machine operators and book publishers.

While it is hypothetically possible that those white gatekeepers could privilege racialized authors over white ones, the reverse is actually true. Regardless of their race, about 38 per cent of the 1,200 literary agents in the United States I’ve studied show an equal interest in representing “general” fiction. But when that fiction covers topics of ethnic and multicultural diversity, white agents run for the hills, with only 15 per cent willing to even take a look.

Racialized authors work harder and submit more widely

Simply put, racialized authors — who are overwhelmingly the ones writing ethnic or multicultural fiction – are the authors who face longer odds of getting published. And like people of colour across different occupations, research shows these authors respond by working harder and submitting more widely, putting more effort and sweat equity into their searches than their white counterparts. This is done in an effort to balance out the discrimination they know they will face.

Yet even in my interviews with racialized authors who could secure publishing contracts, they described a process in which their novels were ping-ponged back and forth between being “too racialized” at first, and then not racialized enough.

Racialized authors are often asked to dumb down their stories

As a Black, southern literary writer explained to me, he had to “dumb down” his manuscript populated by Black southern characters because his editor didn’t believe “people talk that way” – the cultural specificity and accuracy of his novel was whitewashed out.

In the marketing and promotion stage, however, even after having their novels culturally denuded, racialized authors found themselves ghettoized and pigeon-holed again. One African-American novelist told me the painful story of her fears that her work of literary fiction would be pushed back into the “African American interests” section of bookstores rather than being shelved with the rest of the literary fiction.

A widely celebrated Chinese American literary novelist sardonically told a racially diverse room of her fans about a conversation with her publisher: “I told them: ‘Just promise me you won’t put any lanterns or fireworks on the cover because these are stories about people. Yes, they happen to be Chinese, but they’re stories about people.’ So as you’d expect, it has goldfish on it. The only thing I left them.”

Don’t forget these are the success stories. These are the racialized authors who make it.

The ConversationRegardless of the statistically and experientially indefensible claims made by Cultural Appropriation Prize supporters, the real “race problem” in book publishing is the same as it is all over the world: white people are blessed with large and small advantages that they may not even understand. Racialized people are penalized with large and small disadvantages that they have no choice but to understand. If you don’t know where to stand on the cultural appropriation debate, just look at the numbers.

Clayton Childress, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Toronto

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.