Jane Smiley on What It’s Like to Have Your Book Banned
In Conversation with Tai Caputo From Iowa City’s City High School Student Paper
Earlier this month, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres was banned from the Iowa City Schools. Smiley is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 17 novels, two collections of short fiction, five nonfiction books, and eight books for young adults. She spoke to The Little Hawk, the student newspaper of City High School in Iowa City. The interview is reprinted below with permission.
Tai Caputo: As you may have heard, your Pulitzer Prizewinning novel, A Thousand Acres, has been banned from Iowa City Public Schools by the ICCSD because it contains “descriptions or depictions of sex acts.” This means that the book is not allowed to be in ICCSD classrooms or libraries. As the book’s author, what is your opinion of this decision?
Jane Smiley: As I remember—and it’s been a long time since I wrote it—I didn’t actually depict any sex acts. I referred to one. And so, what can I say? I don’t think banning A Thousand Acres is a very good idea, since the novel talks about a lot of other issues, and they’re all from the female perspective. And those kinds of issues that are in the book—not just sex—such as domination, how to get around what your dad wants to do that you don’t think is fair—those things are educational for students.
I think that if a mother or a father doesn’t want their child to read a particular book, it’s up to the mother or father to say, ‘No, honey, you can’t read this right now, maybe later.’ It’s not up to the state to decide who gets to read what.
I also wonder if it’s being banned in Iowa because it’s set in northern Iowa and it’s also a critique of farming as it was changing in northern Iowa. So it occurs to me that maybe that’s part of the reason for banning it.
TC: A Thousand Acres is set on an Iowa farm, but the story is based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. We read King Lear in AP Literature this year. In your opinion, what are the most adult themes and scenes in King Lear, and do you think your book contains more mature content than the Shakespeare play?
JS: The big question in King Lear is: why are Goneril and Regan at such odds with their dad when Cordelia isn’t? And in that conflict, we’re supposed to sympathize with Lear. But when I was growing up and reading King Lear and then when I decided to write the book, what I wanted was for Goneril and Regan to get to express their ideas, opinions, and feelings. There’s a lot of soliloquies by Lear in the play, so he talks all the time.
But whatever Goneril and Regan did, I wanted to know why they did it and what they thought about it. So that was the point I was making when I was writing A Thousand Acres: that the women, the daughters, had their own point of view, and that their point of view was equally important as the father’s point of view. The other thing is that there had to be a reason that Goneril, and especially Regan, were so hostile toward their dad.It’s not up to the state to decide who gets to read what.
Shakespeare rewrote a lot of previous material, so when I was looking up the previous material that he used to write King Lear, there was some suggestion that the king had violated his daughters, which was not uncommon in those days. And so I thought that would be an interesting and believable motive for the way that Ginny and Rose feel about their father.
JC: Well, I moved to Iowa in September of 1972 and I was at the University of Iowa until I got my degree—I went to Iceland for a year too—so I came back, and kept studying there, and then I got a job at Iowa State, I think, in 1980. And then I was at Iowa State until ‘97. So I lived in Iowa for 25 years. I’d grown up in Missouri, in St. Louis, but I’d never been to Iowa before, and I found it really fascinating for a lot of reasons. I also thought Iowa City was much different from Ames, and I thought that was interesting.
So I enjoyed living there and I enjoyed the issues that were there. But politically, in those days, Iowa was a more liberal state than it is now. As I remember, there would be one Democratic senator and one Republican senator, and there was a sense that people had their opinions, but they got along. I do not know much about what’s going on in Iowa now, but from the distance that I am, I understand that it’s moved very much to the right, and that not only surprises me, it surprises my older daughter, who loved Iowa and thought Iowa was kind of a politically perfect spot. So we were both surprised that it shifted like that.
TC: You are also a parent of four children, some of whom were raised in Iowa. As a parent, do you think most high school students can handle the material in A Thousand Acres?
JS: I think that’s an interesting question. I think seniors and juniors can handle it. I don’t know about younger students, but that depends on the sort of books that the kids already read, both in school and on their own. I remember we had to read a Charles Dickens book when I was in 7th grade, and I a) didn’t understand it, and b) couldn’t understand how cruel people were in the book. But it opened my eyes to the era that Dickens was writing in. And we had to read another one in 8th grade, and then in 9th grade we read David Copperfield.
I got used to Dickens and his writing style, so when I read David Copperfield, I really embraced it. I loved it, I thought it was inspiring, and it taught me that not everybody in the world and in history has had the good luck that I had when I was a child in St. Louis and when I lived in Iowa. And I think that’s really important for kids. I think that kids need to find their way out into the world, and one way to find it is by reading novels and other books.
If you don’t allow kids to open themselves up, then they won’t understand things when they grow up, or even when they’re, say, in college or in their late teens. They won’t understand what’s going on, or the reasons behind what their friends are doing. They won’t understand how families differ, and it’s really important that they read all kinds of books, so that they can get into the minds of all kinds of different people.
When I was growing up, I came from an extremely happy and agreeable family. But one of the things I loved, starting when I was in junior high, was Agatha Christie mysteries. I had never known anybody who’d been murdered or attacked, or anything like that, but I loved reading those mysteries. I probably read four or five of them a year. I learned a lot from them.
So I guess the question is, if you don’t want your children to learn about bad things that happen around the world, are you going to not let them read the books that were written by one of the most popular authors in modern history? Are you going to stop them from reading, you know, murder mysteries, which is a popular genre? Are you going to stop them from going to movies where bad things happen? I think that’s a bad idea. They have to learn.
TC: Your publisher, Penguin Random House, has filed a lawsuit against the State of Iowa to block the ban on all books from Iowa’s K-12 schools that contain descriptions or depictions of sex acts and to have that portion of the law declared unconstitutional for violating the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. What is your opinion of Penguin Random House’s decision to file this lawsuit?
JS: Well, I didn’t know they had filed a lawsuit. I think it should be the sort of thing that is worked out in courts. There should be these lawsuits. But there should also be attention to these lawsuits in newspapers, so that people can talk about them and have their opinions about them.
If there’s anything we have in the U.S. that I think is really good, it is constant conversation about what is right, what is wrong, what should be allowed, what shouldn’t be allowed. Now, one of the things we know about banned books is that for many banned books that improves the sales of the book. And the reason is that as soon as you tell someone, especially someone who is young, that they aren’t allowed to know a particular thing, then that person wants to know what it is. That person is curious and wants to know why he or she can’t know about that particular thing.
Let’s use a different example. Let’s say that I lived near a polluted river. And my city did not allow any information about what was in the polluted river to be in the papers, to be in the news, to be on the internet. And yet, people in my city were getting ill and dying at a much higher rate than people who lived away from the river. Is my city going to justify those deaths by refusing to let anybody know how the river is being polluted? I think that’s a similar issue.
TC: Some of us at City High are struggling to find reading material at school these days. Recently, ICCSD Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, Carmen Gwenigale-Ogoli, communicated a policy to ICCSD teachers that K-12 students are not allowed to read any books brought from home for their English classes.
The school library’s budget was not designed to cover such a wider range of reading material. What should we do? Do you have any reading advice for other Iowa public high school students?
JS: Order used books online. They’re cheap, and you can have whatever you want. Talk about them amongst yourselves. You don’t have to restrict reading to your English class. If you have a group of friends, you can form your own little book club and read them yourselves.
TC: I registered for a contemporary literature class this spring assuming I’d be allowed to bring books from home, and have just learned I am only allowed to read books from the school library. I had been planning to continue my personal research from a class last year in which I’d read 10 novels including The Haunting of Hill House, Beloved, and Wuthering Heights.
I brought a lot of my books for that project from home. The school library doesn’t have The Haunting of Hill House or Wuthering Heights. I am interested in reading more books for this project in English and in French, but I won’t be able to continue. What would you advise?
JS: They don’t have Wuthering Heights? How could they possibly not have Wuthering Heights?
Part of the reason we do any project is so that we can understand what we’re talking about. So if I were you, I would finish the project, and I would ask some of your friends to read it, and I would maybe even ask your teacher to have a look at it, just to see what they think, because a lot of teachers don’t agree with these rules.
But I think your project sounds really interesting, and I think you should continue with it, because every project you do, whether it’s writing nonfiction or an essay or fiction, is a way of understanding something. So I think you should continue with it and understand it, and then maybe in college or something you can turn it in. But I wouldn’t stop it.
Protecting students from books containing sexual acts does not protect them from performing sexual acts.
Here’s what I always say as a writer: the first person you write for is yourself. And the reason you write for yourself is because you’re learning things from what you’re writing. When I was writing A Thousand Acres, the main thing I was learning about was not just family life, but agriculture. The history of agriculture and the way things changed, what it was like in the late 80s and early 90s, and what it meant.
That was fascinating to me, and I also thought it was really important, because basically the poisons going into the wells in northern Iowa were very dangerous, and so I learned a lot, from writing A Thousand Acres, about agriculture; and then when I wrote The Last Hundred Years trilogy I explored those issues over a longer time scale because that trilogy started in 1920 and ended in 2020. Those are issues, agricultural issues are ones that should be very much observed by people who happen to be eating food. And that was one of the reasons I wrote both of those, A Thousand Acres and The Last Hundred Years trilogy. So you learn about something, and you tell what you learned to somebody else, and that’s the point. So even if they won’t allow you to write that piece that you want to write, I would go ahead and write it. You’ll learn from it, and you can show it to other people, and they can learn from it, too. I wouldn’t stop.
TC: Do you think high school students should be protected from books containing descriptions of sexual acts?
JS: [Laughs] You can say that my response was to laugh out loud. Protecting students from books containing sexual acts does not protect them from performing sexual acts. And reading books about them teaches them how to connect, how to do it respectfully. What can I say?
Eventually, all kids, high school and college, have to learn about what it means to fall in love, to have sex, to have a partner, to get married, all that stuff. If you prevent them from learning about that, then they won’t know how to do it, or they won’t know how to go about it properly, in an honorable and respectful and affectionate way. They’re going to learn about it anyway, so you just have to let them learn.