Censors and Boycotts: A Twitter Thread

Posting here for archive purposes.

In an email, I was asked, given the rise of book bans in schools/libraries, if it made sense for me/other authors to ask publishers to stop sending our books to affected states until they pulled their heads out – a boycott, basically. So here’s why I think that’s not a good idea.

First, as a strictly practical matter, it wouldn’t work. Anyone can order anything online these days and have it arrive at their home. The people this sort of action would hurt would be small local indie booksellers and libraries, who are, to be clear, not the enemy in this case.

Second, while boycotts are often indiscriminate tools in terms of who they affect, in this case a boycott would work to the short-term advantage of the censors by punishing innocent local booksellers/libraries, ie, the entities the censors want to punish anyway…

… and while inconveniencing readers in these states to motivate them to act against censors is a legit tactic, remember, these readers can get books shipped to their homes, so they're often not *that* inconvenienced. Another tactic to encourage them would be better.

Third, what often does make sense in the case of censorship is to flood the zone: Make the censored material so ubiquitous and available that the censoring is futile, and the censorious look like what they are, ie, shitty tiny-minded bigots. More books are needed, not fewer.

I have never had a book removed from a library or school, but if I did, my inclination would not be to pull all my work from that state, it would be to work with people in the state to get the book into the hands of those to whom is meant to be forbidden. Because fuck censorship.

Fourth, what about boycotts in terms of personal events/appearances? Those might make more sense because in-person events can’t be bought online. But as writer events are usually with local bookstore/libraries, again the question is, who is being punished with this action?

In some cases a creator boycott of states makes sense. In the *specific* case of book bannings/removals, it often makes at least as much sense to show up and make the case for books and reading in the places where they are trying to be removed and discouraged.

In my case, if a book of mine was banned somewhere, I might go out of my way to show up in that place on my next tour, with a couple of boxes of my and other banned books, you know, for the kids (NB: Do not try to get my books banned as a way to get me to visit. That's weird).

Final note: School and library boards who censor do so because they believe “think of the children” is a sufficient shield for whatever bigotry they’re trying to implement. They’re using children as shields, all right, but what they’re revealing is something else entirely…

… namely, that they're aware their ideology *can't compete* with other, better concepts/ideas about society. You don't fight this purge of ideas with another, voluntary purge of ideas that leaves a vacuum the censors will happily fill with crap in the absence of competition.

So, no, I'll not be boycotting in these instances of censorship. I don't think it's the most effective way to protest, or to support local allies on the ground. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

And now, as is tradition, I end this thread with a cat picture. Enjoy.


Sugar, offering a blep in these trying times.

Originally tweeted by John Scalzi (@scalzi) on January 29, 2022.

32 Comments on “Censors and Boycotts: A Twitter Thread”

  1. Amen. While more better ideas is not a particularly effective response to the dissemination of bad ideas, fewer good ideas is definitely also an ineffective response.

  2. Thank you for this. Boycotts accomplish so little. They may give the participants the warm and fuzzies for a bit, but in the end, Full of Sound and Fury, signifying nothing.

    I’ve made a list of the books that some of the “concerned school boards and parents” are planning to ban from the libraries, and have taken to Half Price Books here in the North Texas area to buy same. I won’t hand them out, but will stock the little neighborhood library pop-ups with them, and encourage my neighbors to do the same.
    Quite a few of the older people in this suburb of Dallas are moving into senior centers, or, just dying due to old age, which has made for a younger demographic of Hispanic/Latinx families moving in, and they, for the most part, have school-age children. If I can make the language barrier part, I hope to show them that this is just the dying rattle of old, frightened white people.
    That, and if I can convince them to go out and vote in the March primary for state and local elections, well, that will be a plus.

  3. Exactly. I agree with every word, and I blasted each of the school board members of that podunk, moron-infested county in Tennessee earlier today.

    They may think statements like “inappropriate for children” give them adequate cover, but they still reek of prejudice and privilege – the mere fact they don’t believe the Holocaust is worth cussing over condemns them.

  4. “Inappropriate for children” usually means “we don’t care about the children we serve who contend with these issues firsthand, and we don’t want other people to care about them either”.

  5. Quite simply, the purpose of censorship is to use whatever power the censors have to limit access to words and ideas.

    Boycotts also limit access to words and ideas.

    The best means of anti-censorship are to enlarge access to the words and ideas trying to be censored.

    For example, Nirvana Comics in Knoxville is fundraising to give a free MAUS to any student requesting one.


    THAT is the right idea.

  6. I walked this green earth for fifty years not knowing that “we must protect the children” was a literal fascist dog whistle

  7. Maus is available to read on archive.org. I’m not going to put the links up, because it’s probably piracy, but it is there.

    I decided to re-read Maus today, and wow, it’s even more powerful now. It’s not only a chronicle of what it was like to live through that, but it’s also a story of how the trauma filtered down through generations.

    Amazing book, and it should be taught to every kid.

  8. Well-written piece on what’s wrong with “But the Children!” censorship and why you don’t consider boycotting school districts or states that ban your books effective.

    One thing that occurred to me about boycotts is that they only work when the people you’re boycotting want what you withholding. So boycotting some place because they censor your books is doing their dirty work FOR them – just like people who “protest” bad candidate choice by refusing to vote!

    As you say and Jay concurs with, bringing copies of books and leaving them where the kids censors are supposedly “protecting” can find them (like pop-up libraries or “Take a Book/Leave a Book” shelves) is striking a far more powerful blow against censorship than a boycott ever could. It also means you interest readers in your work early on…!

  9. I’m going to offer an expansion of the suggestion Wil Wheaton offered on his FB page.

    Whenever a book gets banned, search for an independent book store (or comic store, as appropriate) in that county. Call them up. Ask them if you can order a few copies of the banned book for them to keep in the store to give away to whoever asks for one.

    The store gets to participate an fighting book bans, and the custom they get looking for the banned book might also buy other things.

  10. Why not, instead, find some product, service, or local attraction that’s of significant financial importance to the entity or locale that’s censoring…and boycott that? (And encourage others to do the same.)

    My late grandmother was an extremely successful novelist between the wars in Germany…sort of “the Danielle Steele of the Weimar Republic” (although in my humble opinion a better writer). She was very proud that her books were burned by the Nazis…after which she promptly assigned the rights to a Dutch publisher which sold even more of them, both in German and worldwide in translation.

  11. Gotta love when conservabots scream about the constitutional right to call someone the N word while stomping all over books that scare and offend them.

  12. A terrible idea. We are supposed to get more information out to people – NOT less! Besides the indie book sellers, those that potentially could suffer are those readers living in those states who want to be exposed to different information – and who may prefer to buy locally. (Which I would do if there were a place local enough to me to do so!) Whether I like or dislike intensely a particular speech content has no bearing on what people should have access to.

  13. Jay, Boycotts work. If they didn’t then we wouldn’t have the word “boycott” or a free Irish state. Literally.

  14. waves hand in the air

    University librarian tech here!

    Completely agree. These people are micro-cephalic maroons. They have their positions of “power” and influence simply because people can’t be arsed to run for school boards: you’d be surprised at how few votes it takes to get on a school board or how easy it is to get on a library board. Flooding school boards with more liberal people that are more representative of the general population would not be difficult.

    Fortunately, universities normally don’t have such boards. In my almost three years at my current job, I haven’t heard of a single complaint as to our content, this is really a public/school issue, and I’m glad I don’t work in those.

    The closest I came to such a problem was a woman coming in before closing (pre-Covid) asking if we had any books about Trump, I told her know, fearing the encounter could get heated. She asked why, I told her that he is current events and that our library is mostly geared towards supporting the university’s curriculum and that the local public library would be more likely to have such materials.

    She accepted that and left without incident, for which I was very thankful.

    And by the way, John, I added Red Shirts and Old Man’s War to an order to update our science fiction collection, along with some Mur and a few other Hugo nominees and winners. I’ll post a pic on Twitter when we get them in and processed!

    We have three racks of fiction as part of our 40,000 item collection (small branch campus site). No reason why some of it can’t be Hugos in addition to the Twilight “Saga”!

  15. I’ll agree with Crypticmirror – boycotts can be an effective tool in the right circumstances, as Capt. Charles Boycott could probably attest to if he were still alive.

    With regards to the dangerous nonsense occurring in today’s RWNJ school boards, I don’t think book boycotts are the right tool. Unfortunately, the “2×4 up side the head” tool is also the wrong method for fixing this.

    On a positive note, this sort of crowd madness does tend to overreach – there’s even a Simpson’s episode demonstrating the process – and recede, so that some of the most important people in the US can get back to doing their work of educating and providing reading reading material for the next generation. (Note: My mother is a retired teacher). Also, there is nothing like banning a book to stir up interest in it.

  16. Foiled! Grumpily scraps “weird but cunning” plan to try get Scalzi books banned as a way to get the author to visit Sweden….

  17. Ban This Book by Alan Gratz. It’s a YA book and covers this subject. I’ve re-read it a couple of times as it’s an enjoyable read.
    And from the wishful thinking department, what is needed is a nice rich person to provide funding for a censored author to sue a censoring school board for whatever they can think of: – loss of income, defamation, … If the media pick up on it, also great free advertising.
    How many school boards have the money to hire lawyers and defend such a law suit. They’ll buckle and put the book back on the shelf. But this won’t help dead authors whose book is out of copyright.

  18. Open Letter to Tennessee Book Censors:

    would you please add my book titles to your nazi-inspired censorship list?

    I could use a boost in sales


    Struggling Author

  19. ooops… forgot to promote this…

    PARENTS: if you looking for source of free e-books from which to select for your children to read… “Project Gutenberg is a library of over 60,000 free eBooks”


  20. I’m quite pleased that the recent censorship of Art Spiegelman’s book is leading a lot of younger people to discover this masterpiece. That’s a bonus, to my mind.

  21. I would suggest to CRYPTIC MIRROR that the 20th century war had more to do with the creation of Republic of Ireland than the isolation of a 19th century Land Agent. Boycotts cause publicity but also, as in the case of the original, lead to back lashes.

  22. I concur boycotts rarely work and do more damage than good. And with everything online (legal or not) bans don’t work anyway.

    School districts and libraries aren’t obligated to carry any authors work if they choose not to. That’s not a ban just a choice.

  23. Boycotts are very misunderstood, which is why they tend to be ineffective. They need to be broad-based in participants but very, very narrowly targeted in terms of subject and desired action. Something like “We the boycotters representing x amount of business for company y will cease our business until y changes this specific z thing we want.”
    Obviously easier to do with smaller and more independent businesses, sadly harder to do for conglomerates and entire states. Requires a lot of organization and patience. I don’t blame people for wearing out and for feeling cynical about them.

    On an individual level no one really boycotts do much as privately changes their consumption habits with marginal effect, then call those “boycotts.” Those marginal effects can cause systematic change over time, but really they are more about the individuals’ preferences. The “dollar vote” theory only goes do far, especially in global conglomerated economies.

    When a few Arizona school boards banned Latino literature, Latino authors set up kiosks with their books just off public school campuses. I feel like similar initiatives could be done more broadly, a tent with a sign that says, “Your school board doesn’t want you to read this: find out why.”

  24. I first encountered Maus, at a mall bookstore during Banned Book Week. A true work of art! I don’t understand people who think children are protected by concealing information from them. Sooner or later, they will encounter that information, and many will realize that their parents only ‘protected’ them from things that could not have harmed them.

  25. Tennessee, huh? I would ask whether they have banned from their schools the stage play “Inherit The Wind,” to “protect the children” from knowing history.

  26. Your twitter feed, then Breaking Cat News commentariat, then my sister, cumulatively led me to order Maus. I think buying the banned book is a reasonable response, but I also liked the suggestion of kiosks with “Here’s what your schoolboard doesn’t want you to read” right outside schools.
    Your argument against boycotts was excellently thought-provoking.

  27. Great piece on boycotts, and how to spread “banned” books into areas trying to stifle truth in reading and writing.

    Thanks John, good job as usual!

  28. “ Make the censored material so ubiquitous and available that the censoring is futile, and the censorious look like what they are, ie, shitty tiny-minded bigots. More books are needed, not fewer.”
    Exactly right.
    Yes, indeed. Good luck with your efforts.
    Indeed so. How about some liberals running for the school board? Local government is where an awful lot of vital thing (like voter registration) happen.

    @all the USians here
    You are registered to vote in 2022, aren’t you? Have you checked your status and made sure you’re good to go?

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