It may be difficult to believe but many of the most celebrated and well-known pieces of literature have been challenged or banned at one time or another due to controversial subject matter…or language…or both. A challenge is an attempt by one person or a group to restrict materials; a banning is the removal of these materials. Therefore, neither is merely an objection to a writer’s differing point of view, it is an attempt to restrict or deny access to that point of view. To raise awareness of censorship and promote these freedoms, PEN Center USA held “Forbidden Fruit: Readings from Banned Works of Literature” on May 5, 2013.
Co-hosted by Peter Blake, writer/producer of The Practice and House, MD; Laura Bickford, producer of Traffic and Arbitrage and Darren Star, creator of Melrose Place, Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sex and the City and sponsored by Red Bull, Tito’s Vodka and Greenberg Glusker, the event featured six readings by members of the Hollywood and literary communities: Attorney and Novelist Natashia Deón reading from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Actor Julian Sands reading from Lady Chatterley's Lover, NCIS: Los Angeles star Renee Felice Smith reading from To Kill a Mockingbird, Los Angeles Review of Books Founder & Editor-in-Chief Tom Lutz reading from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Actress Illeana Douglas reading from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Producer/Director/Actor John Landis reading from Catch 22 and Grey's Anatomy star Kevin McKidd reading from 1984.
During the introduction to each reading, it was explained why the books were (or in some cases, still are) considered to be materials in need of being challenged or banned regardless of their places among the most revered and celebrated pieces of literature in the world. Despite being considered by many to be an incredibly influential American memoire, Maya Angelou’s story of a young woman’s transition from the victim of racism to a civil rights leader as depicted in her autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been continually challenged since it was published in 1969. Written by D.H. Lawrence and first published in 1928, Lady Chatterley’s Lover tells the story of an adulterous love affair and has been repeatedly challenged for its sexual content and language, even denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1930.
Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel has been a best seller since its publication in 1960. Considered by many to be one of the greatest works of literature of all time and a staple on high school and college reading lists all over the country, many may be surprised to know that To Kill a Mockingbird has also been a staple on nearly every list of challenged and banned books. Before the reading by Tom Lutz, director Tracey Leigh pointed to the irony that, “Ernest Hemingway claimed that all American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn,” yet this iconic piece of literature has also been repeatedly banned for being “too political” and for being “socially offensive.” Similarly, in her introduction to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, director Hattie Winston Wheeler, noted that the novel has been charged with “glorifying criminal activity” and “possessing a tendency to corrupt juveniles” but that the novel also became one of our greatest films.
Joseph Heller introduced the term “Catch 22” into the American vocabulary when his novel of the same name was published in 1961, considered by many to be one of the most significant novels of the 20th century, Catch 22 is also frequently denounced as dangerous. However, the power of Heller’s work was undeniable when John Landis was overcome with emotion as he read the final words of chapter 41 in which Heller describes the death of Snowden.
Introducing George Orwell’s 1984, Tracey Leigh noted that “George Orwell’s 1949 dystopian novel of the future has been challenged numerous times and for numerous reasons.” Leigh then went on to explain that, in the U.S., the book was considered to have pro-Communist themes while, in Russia, the book was criticized for its anti-Soviet sentiments. Ironically, this piece of literature that has been so often censored, speaks directly to our continual struggle with censorship.
At the conclusion of the program, Matt Galsor of Greenberg Glusker said, “Those who have the right to speak freely have an obligation to speak up when writers are imprisoned for writing, when books are banned [and] when freedom of expression is assaulted anywhere in the world.” He continued by noting, “It’s especially imperative for those of us in the entertainment community to speak up loudly when writers are silenced.” Thanking PEN for defending freedom of expression around the world, Galsor added, “Freedom of expression is the foundation of all our freedoms.” By raising awareness that the freedoms we so often take for granted are not necessarily enjoyed by everyone, PEN Center USA protects writers who suffer censorship, political prosecution and persecution for no other reason than expressing themselves in writing.
Information about PEN Center USA and its ongoing programs and events can be found on the organization's website. Plans are underway for a second Fordidden Fruit event in September, 2013.