Sunday, February 6, 2011

SPEAK and Free Speech

I usually steer clear of controversy on this blog. I don't like making people mad (and I hope I won't make anyone mad today!). But this is something I've been thinking about for a long time.

Last week I finally read SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson. I've had it on my list ever since all the hubbub last fall. For any of you who missed it, this should give you the gist of what went down.

I know I'm super late to this discussion, but I wanted to say a few things now that I've read the book.

First, I thought SPEAK was excellent. A must read. The subject matter (recovering after rape) was painful, but so important. I felt like both of the scenes dealing with rape were done well. They were not gratuitous at all, but still showed the violence and horror of the act. I agree one hundred percent that the Missouri professor was WAY off base calling it soft porn.

It is absolutely a book I want my kids to read when they get older.

All of that said, I want to address one of the issues I had with the uproar last fall. While Laurie Halse Anderson and all the bloggers and writers who rushed to her defense had the right to speak up and defend something they believed in, so did the guy in Missouri. And though I don't agree with what he said, I do believe he had the right to say it.

In the U.S. free speech is a right for everyone, not just writers and artists. Not just people with whom we agree. EVERYONE. Whether a person is conservative, liberal, communist, or just plain crazy they have a right to say what they believe. Sometimes I think we forget this.

Here's an example:

About a year ago, I was on Twitter when a published author tweeted about reading a Goodreads review of her book. She was livid. The reviewer found some of the things in the book offensive and rated it low.

So, the author went to the Goodreads review and left a scathing comment about how the reviewer was an idiot, and the review was tantamount to censorship. AND THEN the author posted a link to her reply on Twitter and encouraged her followers to leave more mean comments on this poor person's Goodread's review. Goodreads! This was not some national reviewer. This was just a reader who picked up a book and didn't like it.

I thought the whole thing was very TACKY. And wrong. The author had the right to write her book. She had the right to include any content she wanted to include. But the reviewer also had a right to voice her opinions. Having the author and twenty of her twitter followers jump down the the reviewer's throat, and attack her personally, for sharing her thoughts was more than a little hypocritical.

Needless to say, I deleted the author from my twitter feed.

I think the issue I had with both this situation, and to an extent the SPEAK uproar, was that people did not simply defend the books in question, they also attacked the person voicing their opinion. It is one thing to say, "I totally disagree with you. I believe this book was good and important for XYZ reasons," it's quite another to say, "Because you made this comment you are a pervert/homophobe/idiot/insert- overblown-insult-here."

I think we need to accept that not everyone will like what we write. We may offend people. Our books may even get banned. And while we have the right to defend ourselves against criticisms we find unjust, we should try to do it in a civilized manner. It's importatnt to respect other people's right to speak freely, even if we strongly disagree with their opinions.



David said...

You're a thousand percent correct. Of course the right of free speech means I have the right to denigrate people for exercizing their own free speech rights, but if I do so I deserve to be mocked myself. Gratuitious nastiness is, well, gratuitously nasty.

Riv Re said...

You have a point, I suppose.
I was having a conversation with my father last week about the book self-published on Amazon about pedophilia. People were ranting and screaming, swearing up and down never to buy from Amazon again for allowing the book to go through. I don't get it. The man was doing nothing illegal and had the rights to free speech. He's a nutcase, but that shouldn't mean he's not allowed to voice his opinion.
This led to a whole discussion on whether the book was legal or not, as it may provoke pedophilia, and how is it different than writing a book about, say, Jew-hating, which could provoke people to go out and massacre Jews.

But back to Speak. The prof had every right to voice his opinion, just like that Goodreads member. I think what riled everyone up (was that correct grammar?) was the topic. They felt like there was something wrong with a person who can say that.

It all comes down to the extent of the free speech. Remember, a person can say what they please, but they can't yell "fire" in a crowded theater.

Natalie said...

David- yes, the nastiness is what got to me. People have the right to be nasty, but that doesn't mean they should be. I think we can defend our beliefs without attacking other people.

Riv Re-Great points. Yes, you are right, there are limits to free speech, and I think the professor was within those limits. I believe he was wrong, but I don't think all the vitriol directed toward him (not his words) was justified.

Wen Baragrey said...

I thought similarly to you, Natalie. I would defend Speak to the ends of the earth, but I believe that man (as much as I disagree with him) had the right to say what he did, also.

The thing is, if we demand a right to free speech then we have to be willing to defend those who say what we disagree with as well. That is the whole point. Free speech doesn't mean only the people who say what is popular have a right to say it. If it did, you couldn't call it free speech, could you?

Indigo said...

I agree. As writer's we need to accept the fact not everyone is going to appreciate our words. They might even on some level disagree with a book and an authors take on how certain situations are handled.

As human beings we're not all wired to respond the same way. We need to expand our minds enough to understand, someone else may have a very different view of life, and respect their choices. (Hugs)Indigo

Stephanie Thornton said...

"I do not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death for your right to say it." -Voltaire

I'm definitely against censorship and banning books, but I do believe people have the right to object to books. They just can't object to allowing other people to read them.

Adam Heine said...

Totally agree. I think part of the reason that prof got the anger he got was because he was calling for the book to be banned. That always riles people up one way or the other.

Much as all this controversy sucks, part of me would love to have my book banned. Do you know how many people have read SPEAK now, who would not otherwise have heard of it?

Joanne Fritz said...

You make a valid point, Natalie. I'm all for free speech. But wasn't that Missouri professor trying to get the book banned on the grounds that it was "soft porn"? And you have to wonder about someone who considers rape sexually exciting. It's a crime of violence.

Did you know that apparently the same professor tried to ban Slaughterhouse Five for also being "soft porn" (his words, not mine)?

I don't agree with censorship at all. Where do you draw the line? If the book makes him uncomfortable, he doesn't have to read it or teach it to his students, but that doesn't give him the right to go around telling everyone else they shouldn't read it either.

Laurie said on her blog that she has spoken to thousands of high school students and after every appearance, at least one tearful girl came up to her to thank her for writing Speak. And in the back matter of the newer editions of the books, she describes her astonishment at talking to many high school boys who wonder what all the fuss is about. Maybe along with teaching our children about free speech, we should be sure to teach our boys exactly why rape is WRONG.

Tess said...

Interesting because I posted on a somewhat similar thread today...about how, as authors, we need to really THINK about how we present ourselves we speak about others. I do agree that my opinion is just a valid as another persons but I'm not sure I have the same right to speak it under a professional setting, you know? These are good things to discuss and consider...

Tess said...

Should have clarified...I was not referring to the issues in SPEAK. When a person writes a work, they have the right to stand on that platform and SPEAK deals with important issues. I was referring more to the twitter/author blow up you referred to.

okay...enough rambling...

Natalie said...

I pretty much agree with everything that's been said.

Wen- YES. You said in 2 sentences exactly what I tried to say in a whole post.

Indigo- Well said. I think it all comes down to kindness and respect.

Stephanie- I agree. We do have a right to object to books, and to voice those opinions.

Adam- yes! This has been great publicity for SPEAK and I think that's great. It is a book that should be read and now so many more people are reading it. I don't know if I ever would have picked it up otherwise.

Joanne- I agree with you too. I don't believe in banning books in any public setting. My main issue was with the personal attacks against the man for speaking his mind. There were many ugly things said about the man and I don't think that was fair or kind. He had a right to speak, without being censored, just as much as Laurie Halse Anderson had that right. And yes, I think we need to teach our children about the consequences rape and Speak did that brilliantly.

Tess- Yeah, I think we do have to be careful about what we say. Being kind is key.

Joanne Fritz said...

Wow, Natalie! I didn't realize there were personal attacks against the man himself. Sheesh! That's just wrong too. It's as wrong as Alice Hoffman posting the name and phone number on Twitter of the reviewer who panned her book and encouraging people to send him nasty messages. So ridiculous!

And I'm sure by now you've heard about the controversy over the Top 100 YA List for Feminists (you can Google that if you didn't). That got out of hand REALLY fast, on both sides of the argument. That's one dangerous thing about the internet -- its speed and viral nature. We all need to remember to THINK before we hit that "post comment" button!

Thanks for an interesting discussion, Natalie.

Mary Campbell said...

Yes - totally agree with you. Thank you for SPEAKing up and being reasonable about it.

Jolene Perry said...

I laughed when it was called soft porn.
He obviously hasn't read half the reads on my YA reading list...

LOVED it and I'm totally with you on the free speech issue. It seems like everyone wants free speech unless the one speaking is someone they don't agree with ;)

Thomas Taylor said...

The whole 'soft porn' comment undermined his arguement anyway. It was such a stupid thing to say about book that dealt with rape.

The author you mentioned at the end of your post behaved incredibly unprofessionaly too. I've had bad reviews of my pictures books and yes, it's pretty horrible, but you NEVER shout back!

You just smash things up in the proivacy of your own home:)

Thomas Taylor said...


Please don't review my last comment!

Anita Saxena said...

I totally agree with you Natalie. Healthy debate and voicing of opinions is good. It takes a lot of guts to state your opinion, and we don't need people placing negative labels on those who wish to speak their mind.

Lisa Aldin said...

Great post, Natalie! When it's our writing being criticized, it's easy to become so passionate we forget ourselves and start slinging out names. It's important to take a moment and breathe!

DL Hammons said...

Practicing free speech is not easy. Standing by listening to someone say things that make your blood boil can be excrutiating, and the knee-jerk reaction is to make them stop because we are so afraid someone will actually be swayed by it.

Lindsay N. Currie said...

This is a very rational post and I like the way you've handled the shark infested waters:) I came into the fold about the SPEAK controversy late and was shocked. . . no appauled at the comments I saw swirling around. As you said, everyone is entitled to an opinion - let's hope that in the future everyone keeps a degree of respect attached to it:)

Jean Ann Williams said...

I've got to say I'm very selective of what I read. I'm a conservative Christian. I did not take offense to SPEAK. I think Laurie was brave and talented to write about rape in a way that we understood what happened without the gore.

The man had a right to his voice, as much anyone.

It is important to behave with dignity or you won't be taken seriously.

Thank you, Laurie!

And thank you, Natalie.

erica m. chapman said...

Well said. I have it on my list as well, but with my work schedule I haven't had a chance to read it. I'm never in agreement with censorship. And what that author did was in poor taste. but I guess we have to take the good with the bad, eh?

Great post!

Susan R. Mills said...

Well said!

Jill Kemerer said...

Natalie, this is exactly how I feel too. You said it so eloquently. Not everyone has to agree about everything--but we don't have to get ugly about it!

Terri Tiffany said...

Wow--that really happened with the author doing that?? Ok--that's wrong. We do have free speech but it must be done appropriately for everyone. Totally agree with you!!! Good post!

Roxane B. Salonen said...

Natalie, I'm all about taking the High Road. It's just a better way to live. It's one thing to get all riled up, and another to act on that in a similarly disrespectful way. We need to be the mature adults we're supposed to be in such instances. I missed the controversy earlier, but agree with what you've said here.

Regina said...

I have not been able to read the book yet but plan to this year. It is on my TBR list and I have been excited to read it.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with SPEAK bashers, but they have a right to their beliefs.

I'm getting increasingly annoyed by tacky, online author behavior. I've unfriended, unfollowed, or simply won't buy a book after I've seen an author's true colors.