Conservatives Can’t Handle The Reading Rainbow, “Lesbian Orgy” Books Taken Off NJ Summer Reading List

Norwegian Wood is a 1987 novel by prizewinning and renowned author Haruki Murakami, who has been called one of the “greatest living novelists” by The Guardian. It deals with the complicated romantic and emotional entanglements of a Japanese university student in the late 1960s, as well as themes of mental illness and political unrest. It has one scene in which a 13-year-old girl seduces an older woman, and for that reason Fox News and others are concerned that “a New Jersey school district has… [required] high school students to read books that include graphic depictions of lesbian sex and a homosexual orgy.”

It’s not that concern over the content of this book isn’t at all understandable; a 13-year-old having sex with anyone is a clear instance of (fictional) statutory rape. But there’s no mention of age or consent anywhere in Fox News’ article — instead, there’s a lot of incensed debate over “words and language” that even a school superintendent was successfully quoted as calling “inappropriate.” Specifically inappropriate is the “graphic depiction of a lesbian sex scene between a 31-year-old woman and a 13-year old girl,” although it would be hard to say whether they think that’s better or worse than the “homosexual orgy” depicted in Tweak: Growing up on Methamphetamines. 

“Just out of curiosity, is there anything other than a homosexual orgy? If more than 2 people are having sex, there are at least 2 people of the same sex. I guess just saying “orgy” in the headline wouldn’t quite have the same SEO-power.” — Intern Laura

There is, of course, no way to prove or disprove anyone’s intentions as far as protecting children versus silencing any discussion on gay relationships or even worse, gay sexual relationships. Never mind that Nabokov’s Lolita is frequently assigned high school reading, featuring a much less consensual relationship, or that in 2009 Murakami was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, which is “a biennial literary award given to writers whose work has dealt with themes of human freedom, society, politics, and government.” Chuck Earling, the superintendent of Monroe Township Schools in Williamstown, NJ, says that Norwegian Wood and Tweak have now been pulled from the summer reading list.

But putting all that aside, what’s maybe most interesting (and most important) in this whole embarrassing catastrophe of a situation is the viewpoint of Robin Myers, the parent who was quoted in more than one article on the subject as saying “I don’t think that’s relevant for any teenager… I was just kind of in shock.” Robin’s choice of words there is really interesting, as its “relevance” seems like it’s exactly what got Norwegian Wood (and, without making any generalized assumptions about the population of New Jersey, most likely Tweak as well) put on the list in the first place. Earling sort of weakly alludes to this when he says that “despite the controversy over this year’s book list, it is still important to switch it up on occasion… ‘You want to spur interest in kids reading that fits their needs, not that of people in the 1930s.’ ”

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Someone who recently put things more clearly and pointedly is Sherman Alexie, another award-winning author whose June essay in the Wall Street Journal reminds us of why fighting “inappropriate” books for teens is actually pretty inappropriate in itself. His YA novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, deals with substance abuse, violence, racism, and teen sex because surprise, so was Alexie when he was a teenager! His essay is an incredibly powerful reminder of why not only is it not a problem if writing for teens is dark or brings up normally taboo topics, it’s a problem if it isn’t. Because for a lot of teens, those things are happening in the real world already, and books might be the only place they can make sense of them.

Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell? …Of course, all during my childhood, would-be saviors tried to rescue my fellow tribal members. They wanted to rescue me. But, even then, I could only laugh at their platitudes. In those days, the cultural conservatives thought that KISS and Black Sabbath were going to impede my moral development. They wanted to protect me from sex when I had already been raped. They wanted to protect me from evil though a future serial killer had already abused me. They wanted me to profess my love for God without considering that I was the child and grandchild of men and women who’d been sexually and physically abused by generations of clergy.

Social conservatives’ fear and rejection of books like Norwegian Wood and Tweak are about needing to protect their own sense of reality. It’s about their desire to believe that in the real world, the one they live in, drugs aren’t a problem and all families are happy and “normal,” and of course no one ever ever has any sex that they wouldn’t want to have themselves. Anything that suggests otherwise belongs to some subnormal counterculture reality, which will go away eventually if we stop encouraging it. But unfortunately, that’s not the case; the world we live in has a lot of problems and complexities, even when we would rather pretend otherwise. A lot of teens, a lot of people everywhere, don’t get the choice to opt out of that. So taking away their choice to at least read books that are set in a world they actually live in — well, that seems pretty inappropriate, to be honest.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1130 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. To acknowledge that these “sort” of books are appropriate for teens is to acknowledge that these “sort” of activities and lessons are APPLICABLE to teens, which is something that most parents today are not willing to do.

    Even when she knew I was dealing with depression, had a brother with mental health issues, and was heading towards lesbianism, my mother tried to censor my reading lists because I “didn’t need that sort of thing” — though I obviously did.

    Sigh.

  2. I just have a hard time wrapping this around my brain. I hate to be that person, but “this day and age” this shouldn’t even be an issue. I understand parental concern, but censoring what a person can read is not going solve any problems, if anything it may fuel the “devil” fire that parents are convinced pulse through teenager,s bodies. It just makes ne wonder what’s next…book burning?

  3. I had never in my life heard of Norwegian Wood before… until last week, when I was at a new workmate’s apartment during our lunch breakand saw the book on his coffee table. Now I’ve come across it for the second time within a week. Spooky. o_O

    Conservatives in society always seem to have this bizarre idea that banning any mention of nasty things will somehow stop these nasty things from occurring, and that fiction is the main reason that anyone does such nasty things. See every damn scare about new media for the last century; comic books, rock and roll, psychedelia, horror movies, horror movies on home video, video games, teh interwebz… and never once have they provided a single shred of evidence to back up this position. *Facepalm*

  4. Maybe all these douchecanoes have forced themselves to misremember the hellhole that high school is/can be but to say that we (high school students) are not grappling with these issues is a boldfaced lie. It feels to me that grappling with these huge, life-altering issues as best we can is half of what high school is about. Ignoring the fact that we, your children, are doing things like having sex or taking drugs or watching our friends die/suffer needlessly for a variety of reasons is not going to help us deal with it. Instead of preparing us or trying to help us because sometimes we do need help, they’re ignoring these things completely in the hopes that maybe they’ll go away. Newsflash: they won’t. Kids will still die/fuck/get fucked up/do everything else under the sun.

  5. I am so glad that my parents and the other adults around me let me read Whatever The Hell I Wanted when I was growing up. I lived a pretty sheltered kind of life, to be honest, but even so it was good to be able to read books that explored issues that I was thinking about. (And I’m pretty sure it was my mother who handed me Even Cowgirls Get the Blues – one of the first books that made me consider my sexuality!)

  6. Wait, the policy in question is whether these books should be Required, right? That’s very different from allowed, or even suggested. Of course kids should be allowed to read them, or even steered strongly towards them, but forcing kids to read rape scenes seems like a bad policy to me.

  7. I gotta say this, as someone reccently out of high school all I did was read books. Even when I was messing around with pills and stuff other than weed I would read. If anything it was reading books like Ellen Hopkins Crank series and Tweak that made me stop messing around with speed and any pill I could get my hands on. It was reading these stories that were relatable that made me see how I could totally fuck up and despite being beyond smart I could end up in some real issues. I actually had so many friends who never read enjoy borrowing my books because they were “cool and real.” You want kids to read, give them something worthy (or what’s worthy in our teenage minds). I say a books like Crank and Tweak should be read as a class..

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