This week a blanket restriction was placed on Into the River, after an application to the Film and Literature Board of Review by Family First.
It's not the first publication to be banned in New Zealand. The Peaceful Pill Handbook (an instruction manual for euthanasia) was banned in 2007, before being reedited and sold (in a sealed package) with an indication of censorship displayed on its cover.
In 2006, an issue of the Critic, (the official magazine of the Otago University Students' Association) was banned for promoting sexual violence and criminal activity. It placed an instructional drug-?rape article beside a positive profile of a man who made his living filming extreme degradation and humiliation of women for sexual arousal.
But Into the River is a book of fiction.
What this ban highlights, is that far from being the 'poor sister' to fact, fiction can be seen by some, to be just as dangerous. And there is a long line of banned books that suggests that this view is nothing new.
In 1931 Alice in Wonderland was banned in China for the crime of portraying animals acting with human complexity and characteristics. George Orwell's Animal Farm was banned in USSR and other communist countries (for its antisocialist sentiment), and in 2002 from schools in United Arab Emirates for containing texts or images against Islamic values (a talking pig). The Diary of Anne Frank was banned in Lebanon for '...portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism favourably,' and these are joined by a long line of books such as Mein Kampf, Fifty Shades of Grey, Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ulysses, The Da Vinci Code. The list goes on.
Is all this banning of books a case of overreaction? Or does fiction have the power to change attitudes and beliefs in a detrimental way, as Family First suggests? In other words, should we be more worried by the book? Or the ban?
Fiction, it is argued, is a powerful vehicle to shape values and beliefs. Research by Professor Jack Gierzynski from the University of Vermont, suggests that far from being merely entertainment, political and social values are absorbed from fiction. In Harry Potter and the Millennials, Gierzynski argues that when Harry Potter confronts Lord Voldemort, it's not purely entertainment. This epic battle between good and evil helped shaped the views of teenagers worldwide. According to Gierzynski, readers of the Harry Potter series are more tolerant of others than non Harry Potter fans, they are less likely to discriminate against those not like them, and this holds true after correcting for other social and environmental factors.
In shaping attitudes through fiction, J K Rowling followed in the footsteps of other writers, who are credited with changing our world view. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped change attitudes towards slavery, in the same way that To Kill A Mockingbird, altered views towards race relations.
Following this view it is right to take fiction seriously, but why should we be afraid of this? Fiction is a powerful vehicle for teaching and exploring new ideas, but that does not mean we should ban all those publications that do not portray a scripted sanitised view of the world.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, states; "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." This view is echoed in the New Zealand Bill of Rights. But these rights are not without limits.
In NZ, the Films, Video, and Publications Classification Act 1993 allows for the banning of books, films and video games that are offensive. Criteria that will lead to a publication being banned will be material that promotes or supports the sexual exploitation of children or sexual violence or coercion. The law requires the Classification Office to give "particular weight' to the 'extent, degree, and manner' in which the publication deals with (among other matters) the 'sexual conduct involving children or young people, or which exploits the nudity of children or young people."
And this is where Into the River will be tested.
Does depiction of scenes of nudity and sexual encounter between teacher and school pupil support or promote sexual exploitation, or does it merely prompt the reader to think about the experience, thereby enlarging their perspectives, and see the world in a different way by virtue of the dynamic played out in the scene.
Dana Wensley Ph.D, is the NZ spokesperson for PEN International - which promotes literature and freedom of expression in all countries.