Twenty-two years ago, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting hit bookshop shelves. A tale centred on a group of Edinburgh heroin addicts, it was acclaimed for its abrasiveness and unflinching authenticity. Others, however, saw it as shocking and outrageous. It was banned for a while in Russia, but there was never any serious talk of restrictions on its sale in Britain or elsewhere. Indeed, it soon gained classic status. If only, a generation on, the same could be said for Into The River, the novel by Ted Dawe that is now subject to an interim ban in this country.
The parallels with Trainspotting are readily apparent. Mr Dawe's novel about a Maori boy who faces bullying and racism was widely praised for its frank examination of issues of significance to young adults. Equally, it was strongly criticised by people who believed it "normalised" sex and drug-taking at that age. And while Trainspotting was long-listed for the Booker Prize, Into The River won the 2013 NZ Post Children's Book Award.
While Mr Dawe admits that, as an author, he does not "mince words", the censor saw no great problem with his book. Initially, it was classified M (unrestricted), with "contains sex scenes, offensive language and drug use". There, the matter should have rested. This was a book with the potential to appeal to teenagers, especially from deprived backgrounds, and help them understand and address their own experiences.
Instead, matters have descended into the sort of farce that can only signify the law is awry. First, the Film and Literature Board of Review partly upheld an appeal by conservative Christian group Family First and imposed an R14 restriction. Then, after the Deputy Chief Censor reclassified the book as totally unrestricted following a request from Auckland Libraries, the board's president, Dr Don Mathieson, QC, placed an interim ban on its sale or distribution.
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That will stand until the full board decides on a permanent classification next month. The severity of this state of affairs is evidenced by it being the first banning order issued for a book under the 1993 Films, Video and and Publications Classification Act. Dr Mathieson, an active Christian, has described it as a semi-precedent that "will exert a significant influence upon other decisions". Family First, for its part, suggests the Censor is out of touch with what parents want their children to be reading.
That, surely, is a matter for individual parents to decide. And this is an area where they can be guided by the clear-sighted expertise of the Censor. The office routinely bans or restricts books, film and video games that deal with the likes of sexual violence and paedophilia. Its conclusions are more reliable than those of a board struggling with the hazy notion of representing a cross-section of society. The Into the River interim ban reflects a fear that youngsters are shaped greatly by messages within popular culture. That is the stuff of academic debate. It should not be the basis for an arbitrary undermining of the right to freedom of expression.
This country is not in the business of banning books without good reason. In this case, any restriction would suggest people intent on censorship know more about literary merit than those who decide awards. If Into the River was inappropriate, it would hardly have won a major prize. The ban or, indeed, any restriction has no substance.