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“Not Censorship but Selection”: Censorship and/as Prizing

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This essay calls for a fresh critical approach to the topic of censorship, suggesting that anticensorship efforts, while important and necessary, function much like literary prizing. The analysis draws especially on James English’s recent study The Economy of Prestige. There are two central arguments: first, that the librarian ethic of “selection”––introduced by Lester Asheim in 1953 as a counterpoint to censorship––has contributed to the unfortunate construction of the censor as a “moron”; and second, that anticensorship efforts more generally tend toward uncritical canon-making, attributing value to books simply because they’ve been censored or (more typically) challenged.

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  1. Thanks to this “logic,” notes English, “each new prize that fills a gap or a void in the system of awards defines at the same time a lack that will justify and indeed produce another prize” (p. 67).

  2. On censorship and the question of “harm” to minors, see Heins (1998), Not in Front of the Children, and Heins (2001), Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy.

  3. In Cultural Capital, Guillory argues that we’ve come to see literature as necessarily representative of sociocultural identity; we expect literature to represent us and even to rectify ills that we cannot effectively address otherwise in the social or political sphere. The identity politics of representation are clearly at issue in both prizing and censorship, and there may well be subcultures of banned or challenged books that mirror the diversification of contemporary prizing along lines of identity/politics.

  4. The increase in censorship cases after 1950 has been linked with a curricular shift toward more contemporary texts and materials, an increase in the number and complexity of school libraries, an increase in the overall school population, and an upsurge of book sales, to name just a few factors often cited by censorship scholars.

  5. The general idea in the psychoanalytic literature is that we read and write “through” rather than in spite of censorship, and that some of our most creative moments (think the dream-work) come about through censorship.

  6. The idea that censorship or anti-censorship activity should be awarded, however, doesn’t always sit well, especially when awards take clearly commercial form. For an interesting critique along these lines, see Giordano (2008, March 26) in Narco News Bulletin.


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Thanks to Anne Phillips, for pointing me toward Chris Crutcher’s anticensorship activities.

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Correspondence to Kenneth Kidd.

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Kenneth Kidd is Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator of English at the University of Florida, where he teaches courses in children’s literature and culture. He is the author of Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (U Minnesota P, 2004) and coeditor of Wild Things: Children’s Culture and Ecocriticism (Wayne State UP, 2004).

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Kidd, K. “Not Censorship but Selection”: Censorship and/as Prizing. Child Lit Educ 40, 197–216 (2009).

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