I can’t stop thinking about the terrifying story of the Maryland teacher/novelist who’s being weirdly punished because he once wrote a novel that includes a school shooting. No one knows the full story yet… Maybe there will turn out to be more going on here? As is, though, it sure looks like an author’s Constitutional rights are being violated simply because of his fiction. Because he wrote about a taboo subject, a subject that’s so scary we as a culture dare not discuss it even in fictional terms.
School shootings are absolutely chilling, evil, nightmarish. So are police states. And in a healthy society, we should be free to engage with those subjects in fiction without fear of a “Soviet-style punishment.”
Last month at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, my co-author and I pitched a sci-fi adventure screenplay which met with enthusiastic response… until we mentioned that our heroine time-travels to prevent a school shooting. Producers gently broke it to us that school shootings–even theoretical, thwarted ones–were totally taboo in Hollywood. Even bringing up the subject of domestic terrorism was right out. One producer even gifted us with a hot tip: just change it from a school shooting to something cool, safe, and timely–Ebola. (Brilliant! I’ll just go do a “find” “replace” right now.)
That’s when it occurred to this novelist-turned-novice-screenwriter that Hollywood’s fearful hangups could stymie a screenwriter in a way that no one really can do to a novelist anymore. Even if a Big 5 press doesn’t buy your book, you can self-publish it. Thanks to freedom of speech, as a novelist in America you can choose to write about difficult subjects without fear of being censored, blacklisted, etc. The worst that could happen is readers could collectively shrug and dollar-vote you down to obscurity. (In other words, what happens to most of us anyway.)
As of today I’m no longer sure that’s true.