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Comfortable language

October 14, 2017

Monroeville courthouse

Photo: Andrea Wright (CC)

The courthouse in Monroeville, hometown to Harper Lee,
author of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

One of my all-time favorite books continues to provoke modern audiences. Harper Lee’s masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been removed from Biloxi Junior High School’s reading list as of last week.

District vice president Kenny Holloway says, “There is some language in the book that makes people uncomfortable, and we can teach the same lesson with other books.”

That’s a shame. While I get that books often use words we might avoid in casual conversation so as not to unnecessarily hurt others, they inspire discussion about who we are and what we could be. Context makes a big difference: Does the author intend to illuminate the human condition, or merely poke blindly at people’s sensitivities?

It’s a purely subjective exercise. One district’s standards might not represent every parent in the area. Certainly not when it comes to evaluating literature and language and decency.

Students from that school won first place at the National Beta Club Junior Convention in June in Orlando in the Book Battle. The competition involves an hourlong written test on 12 books, including Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” and Markus Zusak’s “The Book Thief.”

I should note that both of those books have also faced upset parents and removal from curricula around the country.

While some students thrive when presented with challenging literature, others will never the know the joy of Lee’s insightful writing, the pain of a community ripped apart by fear and hatred.

We as writers must choose our words very carefully. Not so much as to avoid censure or offense, but to connect with our audience, even in unsettling ways. That is the human condition.

Our language must ring true, even if the ideas presented make for an uncomfortable audience.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 19, 2017 4:13 pm

    Hey Wade!
    Love what you said here! Always love your work.

    To me, writing is about communicating a thought, concept, idea, or just information. But we do THAT because we want to have a result. We want someone or some organization to do something, decide something, change their opinion, whatever.

    Writing, to me, is that bridge. Consider the audience? Of course! But, often, I think people forget the purpose, the goal, the results they seek.

    If I’m writing to parents to get them to consider something for their school, using swear words might be “impactful” – but they would not only reduce my effectiveness with the intended audience (Parents of Children) but wouldn’t represent my goal, Something to be Considered at a school.

    However, if I’m writing to a bunch of bikers about getting a new tattoo at this cool new place, talking like I just dropped out of a romance novel would have zero effect.

    And at the end of the day, that’s what we’re trying to do, as writers.


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