Today marks the launch of Banned Books Week: a nationwide campaign celebrating the freedom to read and challenging censorship. Throughout the week, a series of events will be taking place in bookshops, libraries, schools and venues such as the British Library and Royal Court, led by a coalition of literary and freedom of expression organisations in the UK. It also sees the culmination of the Censored Summer Reads campaign, in which people across the country were asked to vote on their favourite banned book.
The event has been running since 1982, but Jodie Ginsberg (below), c.e.o. of Index on Censorship and a partner of the event, believes it is more relevant than ever. We sat down with her to ask why this sort of public campaign for literary freedom is essential if the book trade is to have a bright future.
Why do you think Banned Books Week is so important?
JG: Many book events focus on a particular genre. Banned Books Week aims to draw attention to the stories that aren't being told and why. It also offers a historical and international perspective - I think we can learn a lot by seeing what ideas and topics people considered unacceptable even 20 years ago and what subjects are taboo elsewhere today. That helps us to see the value of reading outside our own comfort zones, and in making sure we champion different voices.
How are you going to engage an audience beyond the obvious liberal middle-class bibliophiles?
Libraries Connected is a member of the Banned Books Week coalition and we're asking libraries to promote the week. Thanks to support from Hachette UK we're promoting the week in schools, while Islington Libraries, who have been a key driver in getting Banned Books Week up and running in the UK, work directly with schools in their local area. There are also resource packs on the website and thanks to the Booksellers Association we are working closely with a host of independent bookshops from the tip of Scotland to the south of England, from east to west.
What’s the biggest threat to freedom of speech in the book industry right now?
That depends where you are. In the UK there are two main challenges. One is diversity of voices - encouraging mainstream publishers in particular to publish a wider variety of authors from different backgrounds. The second is the threat from the 'offence mob' whereby groups whip up outrage about a particular book and encourage readers not to buy it. Take the furore around YA novel The Black Witch for example - a book about a girl raised in a caste-like society who grows up to question the bigoted beliefs she grew up with - that was slammed online for being racist.
Has the internet has a positive or negative effect on literary freedom of speech?
I think the internet has had an overall positive effect on literary freedom of speech in that it enables far more people to access far more literature than ever before. That's not to say that this doesn't also have downsides - authors often feel they need to use social media to promote their work, for instance, but then face the downside of potentially quite personal attacks. And obviously the internet presents continual challenges in ensuring authors and publishers are properly recognised and financially rewarded for their work.
Are there any recent innovations or startups that have been particularly helpful in surfacing silenced voices?
Publishers like Saqi and Comma do a fantastic job in giving voice to those who are deliberately silenced in their own countries. There are also a lot of other small publishers who are much more willing to take risks than bigger ones - like Galley Beggar - and surfacing some fantastic new voices as a result (for full transparency here: Preti Taneja, who just won the Desmond Elliot prize, is an old friend of mine - I'm so pleased Galley Beggar recognised her talent and the book is getting the recognition it deserves). And initiatives like The Jhalak Prize could also play a role in this. We're really pleased that Media Diversified, who helped to start the prize, is part of the Banned Books Week coalition and that there's going to be a Jhalak Prize event as part of events taking place during the week.