When I was a young teacher, my district went on strike. I panicked. I couldn't afford NOT to go to work. I couldn't afford to lose the day's pay or my untenured position. And I certainly couldn't afford for my students to be at the mercy of a no-lesson-plan substitute for an undisclosed number of days.
I didn't believe in strikes. I didn't believe in blatantly public resolutions to problems. I didn't believe in going hungry.
I was afraid to cross that picket line.
I'm in the middle of Anna Campbell's Claiming the Courtesan. I haven't read any reviews, but I've heard the novel evokes strong and diverse emotions among readers. Honestly, although I purchased the book to support my friend's debut novel, I wound up enamored of an exquisite new writer.
But, I wonder where all the controversy about Anna's book comes from? Do readers have immutable expectations from their writers or genres? Are there really lines we cannot cross? And damn, doesn't that sound a lot like category writing, which has been accused of being notoriously inflexible?
Or like censorship?
As an English teacher of high school students, I always felt that I held an almost sacred obligation not to expose adolescents to works of a controversial nature that might violate their personal or family standards.
But aren't controversial works the very ones we learn and grow from?
One year at Parents Night, a mean-mouthed and sedately plain mother cornered me at my podium. I'd arranged the core works on the student desks and talked about the pieces that I teach sophomores: The Catcher in the Rye, The Merchant of Venice, All Quiet on the Western Front, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Guess which one she jabbed at with an accusatory finger, saying, "Now that you're the Department Chair, maybe we'll get rid of that one"?
She assumed because I was fairly religious, that I'd eschew Catcher for the use of that little "eff" word and the scenes with the young prostitute Sunny. She was completely unable to see beyond the facade of the book to the core morality of Holden Caufield.
Sad, sorry little woman!
I hadn't the temerity to tell her that I didn't believe in censorship of any kind. I only believed in guiding young minds to the finest works that I know of.
Funny, in all my decades of teaching, no one ever decried Shakespeare, even with teenage suicide, even with the beast with two backs, even with the old black ram tupping the white ewe in Othello, and with Macbeth's slaughter of Macduff's entire household.
I guess if you've been dead nearly five hundred years no one dares call you on the censorship carpet. No one says, "Hey there! You! Don't you dare cross that line!"
A final example: When Ryan's Daughter hit the cinema sometime during the 1970's, I literally begged my husband to take me to see this amazing tale of betrayal and love. Being a man, he fought me every inch of the way. Being a woman, I prevailed.
It was a very, very long movie.
A large man who overflowed his seat -- in so many ways -- sat to my right. My husband had the aisle seat. During the intermission, we left. The "R" rated movie was too graphic for us.
I would never walk out of that movie today.
Have I become more decadent, more accepting of looser values? Less centered in my moral parameters? No longer, like Donne's metaphor, the fixed foot of the drawing compass?
I like to think that decades of reading the most powerful literature the world has to offer has made me more open to life's complexities.
So I wonder, as writers, what lines will you cross? Or not cross? Do you draw invisible, immovable lines in the sand? What about as readers? Does that line change as you change? Why? Why not?