Selection I can handle, but self-censorship really bugs me. It's one thing to pass a book up because it's unlikely to find an audience in your area. It's completely another to pass a perfectly good book because you're not willing to deal with potential controversy.
Here's a personal example of what I consider selection, rather than censorship:
I work at an independent children's book shop in a tolerably conservative neck of the woods. This summer, I ordered a middle grade novel called The Manny Files
, by Christian Burch after reading about 2/3 of the ARC. It's about a kid whose family hires a male nanny (get it -- a manny?). The story is funny, contemporary, and realistic -- three things we're rather short of lately. The characters are really charming, particularly the boy protagonist and the manny, who is best described as a caring goofball. It's chock-full of silly antics and creative escapades, and has nicely presented themes of dealing with bullying and being yourself. As the story moves along, grown-up readers will notice that the manny and the main character's uncle are developing a relationship in the background. It's sweet and fairly subtle, and I was appreciative of the author including gay characters without drawing attention to the relationship or turning it into an issue. It seemed to me that Keats, the protagonist, might very well grow up to be gay himself, and I liked knowing that he'd have great role models and an accepting family.
In the final scene, which takes place at Thanksgiving dinner, the kid's uncle says he's thankful that Matthew (the manny) has come into his life. This is all still fine and dandy as far as I'm concerned. Even choked me up a little. But then, on the last page --the very last line, mind you -- the manny and the uncle kiss.
I can't tell you how disappointed I was. I'd had such a great time with this story, and to have it end this way frankly irritated me. The reader's attention completely shifts from the protagonist to what's going on between Uncle Max and the manny. Their relationship, which had been so nicely incorporated into the background of the story, suddenly overtakes the reader's final impression of the book. As one Amazon reviewer said, "What could have been an extremely important and vital book -- about growing up, about self-discovery, about remaining true to one's impulses -- becomes clouded in what appears to be a shallow and self-indulgent intent." I couldn't agree more.
As a bookseller, I found myself in an awkward position, and I resented being put there. On the one hand, I'm a liberal person, and I'm all in favor of gay characters appearing in children's literature. But on the other, we're a full-disclosure kind of shop. Our customers have come to expect us to be knowledgable and honest about our books' content, so I would feel compelled to tell a prospective buyer about the kiss at the end. And in my neighborhood, I can almost guarantee that information would kill the sale. As another reviewer on Amazon noted, "I was, however, suprised that there is no mention of the manny being homosexual until you are well into the book. I wasnt prepared to explain that to my young children." I think that's a perfectly reasonable complaint, and it's precisely what turned me off in the end. It strikes me as just plain unfair to spring something like that at the very last minute.
So, I'm sad to report that The Manny Files is slated to be sent back to Simon & Schuster with this season's overstock returns. I'd gladly special order it for anyone open to this sort of story, but in a store as small as ours, it's just not worth the shelf space. And that's the key difference between selection and censorship for me -- even though I don't stock The Manny Files, I'm still willing and able to provide access to anyone who'd like to read the book.