Viewpoint: The beauty of prohibition

In the USA there are people who would like to see Little Red Riding Hood removed from library shelves because she carries a bottle of wine in her basket. There are others who feel the same about Uncle Tom’s Cabinwhich they consider racist.

A Norwegian pastor from Nesodden asks on a web site, “When did it become acceptable for our children to read books full of coarse swear-words, occult practices and the teaching of black magic and rituals to call up demons and the powers of darkness? A whole generation of children are now burying their heads in books about Harry Potter and his occult world.”

One answer from a 14-year old girl points out that Harry Potter is free fantasy and that the books are very good. Another, however, from a mother claims that “Magic, witchcraft and the occult are things we should not meddle with. They are not of God, even when intended merely as entertainment. Starting in little ways, they take us down dangerous paths. One thing leads to another and even though their effect may be small, they still take up room in our souls.”

I myself, as a writer, have a small bundle of letters and e-mails of which I am rather proud.Without exception, they are from mothers.My books contain very little magic, but sometimes there may be cruel teachers, naughty children, kids who say rude things, perhaps some violence and, yes, it does happen now and again that morals fail to meet the highest standard. On behalf of their children, the mothers express their disapproval of my books.

Sometimes when I give a talk at a school, children come up to me afterwards to tell me about the kind of books they are forbidden to read at home. In some cases magic is considered dangerous, in others it can be outspoken social-realism which scares their parents.With some pride these children nevertheless tell me that they borrow these books in the school library and read them during school breaks, at friends’ houses or late in the evening with a torch under the bedclothes.What is more exciting than forbidden fruit?

Probably it’s too late for me now. If I had belonged to an earlier generation, I might have been able to write a provocative, scandalous book for children or young people, a book sure to be banned. This would of course have been synonymous with enormous success, giant headlines, debates, translations and the status of a classic. As things are now, my bundle of letters from concerned mothers is far too flimsy and there have been no telephone calls from enraged parents, threatening to kick me where it hurts most.

What do I have to write to ensure that a collective body of literary critics will implore young people not to read my book? What must I do to make every librarian in the land refuse to have my book on the shelf? A humorous look at child abuse? Perhaps a magic thriller full of profanity, murders and ponies? Both have probably already been written without arousing any reaction, except of course from the letter-writing mothers.

I don’t regard myself as a particularly provocative author. I have tried with a humorous book about bullying and another politically-incorrect novel about a boy of Pakistani origin who stabs his Norwegian companion. I have also written about a teacher who is probably stricter than all members of the Norwegian teaching profession put together. These are but poor attempts. The children laugh in the right places. So do most of the grown-ups. Some even cry, but that is over passages that are meant to be sad. There are those who have been angry but nobody has gone berserk or sworn at me or promised that I would burn in hell.

Maybe I don’t know how to be more offensive. On the other hand the fault may lie with those who present literature to the public. After all, more taboos are precisely what we need. Books that have to be hidden under the counter. Dedicated Internet web sites telling us how to lay our hands on subversive and dangerous books. What if reading literature became an initiation rite for young people? Books so provocative and sensational that nobody would dare to leave them unread.

Reading is not that popular among Norwegian children and young people. Books are not cool. Literature gives no street ‘cred’. Books lose out to films, computer games, sport and more extreme activities.We need the offended librarians, the fuddy-duddy know-alls who are convinced that young people are helpless individuals who must be protected against the evils of the world.We need lists of banned books.We need bonfires to burn them. We need librarians who remove books with swearing and fighting and bullying and sex and immoral thoughts. Only then will reading become popular again. In this way we can produce new phenomena like Harry Potter-books which children and young people simply must read, if they are to have any hope of taking part in discussions with their friends at school.

Please make sure, however, that not all the same books are removed from library shelves. Prohibition always works best, if the banned articles are easily available. And please feel free to give us some tips.We writers need to know what controversial subjects and bad language are necessary in order to ensure that our books end up on a tempting, irresistible list of banned literature.

Translated by Eric Deverill
Illustration: Mette Plesner

Arne Svingen (37) is a writer, born, bred and resident in Oslo.