What Ray Bradbury Taught Me about Censorship and Freedom

My guest blog for All Things Writing, thanks to Mary Ann Loesch. (also, the link is here.)

The master is gone. I’ve been thinking about Ray Bradbury all week and I’m sure you have been too. Is there a writer or a reader anywhere who does not respond to Fahrenheit 451?

In Bradbury’s novel, not only are books burned but newspapers disappear due to public indifference. People are instead entranced with their “parlor walls,” the flat screen TV’s that Bradbury imagined back in 1953 that can now represent the internet and Wii and all the virtual worlds that have usurped the role of books. But to me, the “walls” carried me back to the immigration detention center where I was a volunteer interpreter for people held for months, even years, awaiting their hearings. Books and magazines were prohibited while TV sets blared at full volume all day.

And I thought about a friend who was convicted at age 16 for a stupid youthful incident in which no human being or any living creature was injured in any way. After being sentenced 35-years-to-life, he spent a year in solitary, supposedly for his own protection–and inmates in solitary were not allowed to have books. A wonderful person on the outside Xeroxed entire novels and put three double-sided pages in the mail every day, in envelopes thin enough that they would not be confiscated. Reading novels in 6-page installments was what kept my friend sane.

I have other true stories like this and it has always been a struggle to get any of it into print. (Talk about censorship: the media is barred from California prisons and detention centers.)

But Ray Bradbury was able to offer a scathing critique of our society and see it not only published but a bestseller. David Ulin, Los Angeles Times book critic, suggested perhaps writing genre fiction–in Bradbury’s case, science fiction–gave an author more freedom.

Yes! I thought of my late friend, Ted Gottfried (aka Ted Mark), who wrote dirty books from the Sixties up until around (coincidence?) 1984. Ted believed teenage boys were gonna learn about sex from porn and he wanted them to learn healthy attitudes, especially respect for women. In the Man from O.R.G.Y. series, Steve Victor travels the world solving sexual problems, always taking the advice of his feminist girlfriend, Stephanie Greenwillow. Along the way, Ted’s books addressed every controversial issue of the day. As long as there was arousal material on every page, the publisher didn’t care if Ted expressed his opinions.

Ted’s porn career came to an end when smut went visual: dirty movies and then the internet. As Bradbury understood, you don’t have to burn books to make them disappear. I wish Ted could have still been writing books during the era of AIDS. He could have saved lives by making safe sex very sexy.

I think Ted would have enjoyed my new novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, which Edgar Award winner Domenic Stansberry described as “A sexy, funny, tender-hearted puzzler about a young woman sifting the ashes of America’s endless class warfare.” And I realized my NYC noir–my genre novel–says more about race and class and says it more overtly than anything else I’ve had published.

Is genre the only way to write uncensored fiction? Maybe it’s just that you can’t write a genre novel without telling a good story. And when you tell a good story you have freedom.

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