I had the opportunity to meet with Daniel Handler at the ALA Annual Conference in Las Vegas last month to ask him a few questions about Intellectual Freedom and some other stuff.
Do you have a favorite banned and/or challenged book? What is it?
Well, Lolita is one of my favorite books in the world, so that would be my favorite in terms of the literary quality of the work being challenged. But the fact that there are forces keeping Lolita out of the hands of young people doesn’t sound like the most dire battle I’ve ever heard in my life. In my neighborhood in San Francisco, the closest library to me is the Castro branch which has a wide assortment of books for queer youth, both fiction and non-fiction. They always have a little flyer about how many times this has been challenged or where it’s been challenged and if you work at a table at the library, as I do, you see the number of people who check those books out, young people and their parents, and that’s what I think of when I thing of banned books; Books that are really crucial to someone who is trying to find their bearings, so that seems like a more poignant fight than Lolita. But if you ask me what my favorite banned book is, it’s not one of those.
What inspired the creation of “The Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity”?
I guess noble librarians faced with adversity and the fact that the success of the Snicket books has been driven by librarians all across our great country. The plight of librarians has been on my mind all the time. I visit countless libraries and the number of libraries that say “Everything is great, no one is giving us any problems” is pretty few and the number of libraries that say “We’re actually having a problem or two” is large. It literally feels to me that librarians put money into my hands, so to not put money into their hands seems rather silly. I’ve been a donor to libraries all over the place, but I felt like this prize was a fun way to single somebody out and certainly our first winner is a pretty amazing story. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of amazing stories.
Librarians do face adversity every day and they have been known to try to protect themselves by guessing what their community is going to get upset about, by not buying a controversial title or tearing out pages. I just heard a story today about a school librarian who tore out page 36 of a particular book because she didn’t want kids to see what was on that page. What words of wisdom would you have for librarians who are tempted to censor in this way?
Words of wisdom? Gosh, now they have to be wise words! I have utter sympathy for librarians who are working diligently and sensitively with their community. I don’t have the temperament to be a librarian who would be challenged a lot on those sorts of issues. I would become short tempered and stubborn. I always like to hear the stories of librarians who are solving those problems through whatever means they can. I wouldn’t tear out page 36 of a book particularly if it sounds like the page isn’t worth tearing out, I don’t know what page would be worth tearing out, but I’m often not the best poster boy when banned book week comes along. When I was in middle school, if someone had asked me what I would like to see in the library, it would have been a lot of dirty magazines that would have been great. The fact that those aren’t widely available in the school libraries, I don’t find to be shameful censorship and so I think librarians have to make a lot of tough calls.
I attended the Guys Read event at ALA in 2012 where you read aloud the sex scene from The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. Could you tell ALSC Blog readers about why you chose to do this?
My mother was going through bookshelves at my childhood home and she gave me this stack of books and said, “These were really your books and here they are.” They were kind of my favorite novels from age seventeen to twenty and I re-read them. One of them was The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love and I found to my amusement and surprise that all of the books that were my favorite books were filthy. And the thing is they were all high works of literature, not cheap trash at all. I was a serious reader by then. What I remember was, I really liked Robert Coover’s novel Gerald’s Party, but what I didn’t remember was there is a ton of sex in it. That was interesting to me. I was called on to be on this panel and talk about what guys want to read and I thought if you say one book that I think guys want to read would be The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love you might say “Why particularly that”, but if I read that scene you would think “Oh my god, that’s the truth”. I thought it would be fun to read it and to read it with no introduction whatsoever so people would think, “Oh my goodness what is this person saying.” Then I would say “HA! It’s from a Pulitzer prize winning book.” That was interesting to me.
Out in the audience, I observed that some librarians were extremely uncomfortable and some reacted quite emotionally to your reading. Did you hear from librarians after the event?
No, I certainly didn’t hear any complaints. Sexuality in literature is something that is interesting to me and I think that one of the things that we are concerned with is boys falling off the wagon of reading at a certain age and we know that this is a large slice of what they are interested in. And this is exactly the kind of book that gets pulled off the shelf, that’s interesting to me.
As an author, do you approach a book differently if it has a potentially controversial theme? Meaning, do you consider the censor as you write or re-write?
No. I don’t have much of a sense of what offends people, is what I’ve found out. So I don’t think I can second guess people at all. By far the most controversial thing that we’ve gotten letters about in A Series of Unfortunate Events is that there is a building demarcated in The Unauthorized Autobiography as “The Church of the Alleged Virgin”, which I just thought was funny. And they said, “How dare you say that Mary might not be a virgin?” and I say, “But alleged means you think it happened, right?” So the answer is: I don’t know what would offend people.
How much did you think about and or/discuss with your editor the use of the word “damn” in The Reptile Room?
There have been a few little challenges. There is a small sex joke in one of the other volumes. Challenges to Snicket have been small. It’s the other reason why I’m not a good poster boy for banned books. People assume that my books have been banned all over the place, but in fact it’s kind of here and there, very small. For instance, the use of the word damn in The Reptile Room comes with this long explanation about whether you should say the word damn or not and it concludes that you should not. It really couldn’t be a stronger object lesson on not using that language. There are many books I would challenge in terms of say, gender roles. I don’t know that I would challenge them as in take them off the shelves, but I would not push them towards my son.
Has an editor ever asked you to tone down a potentially controversial scene?
No, not my book editor. A couple of magazines have asked for Lemony Snicket pieces and then not been comfortable with them. It wasn’t because of outright sexuality; they weren’t comfortable with them at all. The Lump of Coal was originally commissioned for a magazine and they ended up kind of running it, but they didn’t like it at all and they couldn’t put their finger on what they didn’t like about it.
Tell me about the first time you heard that one of your books had been challenged.
Well the first time I heard about it was on a very early book tour and I was in Decatur, Georgia. I arrived at a school to do a school visit and I was met out front by a principal and the principal said, “We’ve canceled the school visit, because of the incest.” That was the first I’d heard of it, it’s a very jarring feeling to literally not be let in a building. I don’t mean to make it more dramatic than it was, but as a Jewish person, it kind of gets my dander up. It feels almost instinctual to me. It felt really awful, but I went to lunch with the people who were running the bookstore there at the time and they were full of stories about all the work that they have to do when books are challenged or banned for one reason or another. I was so new to children’s literature then that I didn’t really think about it being part of the job, but it’s a huge part of the job if you open a bookstore in Decatur, Georgia to be sensitive to what that community is going to be prickly about. I always thought, just have a bunch of books in your store and then you’re all done
Do you feel that the presence of censors has impacted the quality of writing for children?
What I actually think has impacted the quality of writing for children, maybe quality isn’t the right word, but what has impacted children’s writing in recent years is the influx of attention. I think that children’s writing for a long time was in kind of a ghetto in terms of public attention. The practitioners who came to it felt like they could do whatever they wanted to do because no one was paying attention. Now a lot of attention is being paid. Other writers I know have said that and I think that. The notion that you could sell a YA book on a pitch and get $500,000 had way more effect on what kind of YA is being written than any kind of censorship. The best writers who are tackling controversial topics are all doing fine. I haven’t heard anything about them giving up or hiding or anything like that. But I think the notion that this is something from which you could make a nice living has probably had more of an effect.
One problem that librarians are facing right now are the leveled reading programs currently used by many schools, which require children to read only titles at a particular reading level. I’ve seen books kids ripped out of kids’ hands “You can’t read that yet, it’s not on your level.” What are your thoughts on this?
I’m against it. I find it hard enough to see children’s literature and adult literature kept in different areas. For instance The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love which could find a wide readership for adolescents. Despite a very moving speech at a recent ALA, I don’t think it is being offered to teenagers. I have enough trouble with that. I think the reading level thing is pretty silly.
They put A Series of Unfortunate Events at 6th and 7th grade and kids are reading it much earlier than that.
It’s not noticeable, but we had a big push to put an age range on A Series of Unfortunate Events when it was first being published. My editor was against it. I didn’t know about children’s publishing at all so I said “Whatever they need to do on the back of the book, what do I care?” So what it says there is “10 up”, but it looks weird, it doesn’t say “ages recommended” or anything, so you might not know what that means. In one way I’m sympathetic because I think there are a lot of middle-schoolers [who want to read] A Series of Unfortunate Events and you don’t want to say “That’s a 4th grade book” to a 7th grader who wants to read it. So it works that way too. In general the categories seem pretty silly to me.
I heard there is a drink called the “Lemony Snicket”, what is in it?
There are many drinks called the “Lemony Snicket”. The original “Lemony Snicket” was made [because] my friends had an overactive lemon tree and this was before I was writing books as Lemony Snicket, it was just kind of a name that was bumming around with me and my friends. We had a bottle of white rum and we just did like a mash of lemons in the bottom of it and we would just put in rum and soda. There are all kinds of “Lemony Snickets” now and rum is no longer my go-to hard liquor so I don’t like to spread the original “Lemony Snicket” around.
So what’s your favorite “Lemony Snicket”?
I like a “Lemony Snicket” that has a little brandy, bitters and lemon. That’s what I like.
Anything else you want to tell the ALSC Blog readers?
Beware of open manholes.
Heather Acerro, Chair of the ALSC Intellectual Freedom Committee