Recently there was a controversy in my neck of the woods when our local library banned Fifty Shades of Grey for its sexual content. After a huge uproar, mostly by those who hadn't read it, the library capitulated and put it back on the shelves. I thought they made the right decision, but maybe they could restrict check-out of the book to thirteen and older. A kid that age doesn't need to obtain sexual knowledge from anything as primitive as a book nowadays, anyway. They have a whole Internet filled with porn to enlighten or frighten them, depending on the site they choose.
It was much simpler when I first experienced the horrors of puberty. My friends and I would spend hours in the library flipping through Ian Fleming novels looking for the sex scenes. The Bond movies didn't do justice to the libido like the novels did.
But banning popular books in the library is nothing new. I always thought it odd they would ban Lady Chatterley's Lover and yet have National Geographics with naked natives on the cover lying around the magazine racks. Many classics have been banned by libraries over the years, including The Great Gatsby and Ulysses. Also included in the most frequently requested books to be banned and challenged is the perennial favorite, Gone with the Wind. (See the ALA list)
The most common challenge to GWTW is of course the use of the N word, which Margaret Mitchell managed to use in almost every other paragraph as either a noun or adjective. I would think the prudish had an argument for its subject matter about abortion and sex also. At least it would have been risque in 1937 when the novel was published. Rhett wanted the baby and Scarlett wanted to keep her figure. Both had a valid argument.
But even in the 30s and 40s one could argue that both GWTW with its glorification of the Klu Klux Klan and Herbert Warren Penn's, All the King's Men with its condemnation of African Americans, were racist in tone. It wasn't just the times or the era but also the authors' personal prejudices showing through and a good editor would pick up on that and tell them to tone it down a bit. Still, GWTW sold over thirty million copies so I guess not too many readers let it bother them.
Of course none of the classics should be banned. Hell, there's more sex and violence in the bible than there is in A Clockwork Orange. How far do you go before it leans toward fascism?
Now, back to my original subject, GWTW, at 1037 pages would have a hard time getting by a literary agent and an editor in these times of punch-a-book-out-a-week mentality. A lot of the crap Margaret Mitchell had in the novel could have been edited down to a readable and comprehensive 500 pages and still have kept its Southern charm and compelling love story. She should have let David Selznick edit it. He did a great job of taking a 41 hour novel and compressing it into a four-hour movie. Selznick didn't even include Will Benteen and Archie in the movie. Taking them out of the novel would have saved 200 pages and they weren't needed anyway to move the story along.
Anyway, let's say Margaret Mitchell just finished GWTW and sent a query letter to a literary agent. Like us poor and unpublished she would get her share of heartless and insensitive rejection letters but let's see what one from one of those high-falutin' Yankee literary agents in New York would look like:
Dear Ms. Mitchell,
I normally send no reply when rejecting queries, but I felt I had to give you some advice that might help you find a publisher for Gone with the Wind. I must first say you write very well, with a polished style of prose, but if you ever wish to publish, I suggest you remove the eight hundred or so references to African Americans as the N word. One or two would suffice.
Also, I suggest you edit your novel to 400 or 500 pages while still stressing the O'Hara-Butler love-hate relationship. Three hundred pages of reflection in the mind of your protagonist is absolutely unnecessary. On that point, another suggestion, SHOW don't TELL!!!!! A great, no, the largest portion of your novel is telling, sometimes from the character's POV and sometimes from an omniscient narrator. NO NARRATORS!!!. I can't stress that enough. You are not Charles Dickens and this is not the 19th century.
Perhaps you should put the GWTW manuscript away and work on something a bit more contemporary with a better chance to sell, say a paranormal romance with werewolf teenagers set in post-civil war Atlanta.
Just a suggestion though and remember Ms. Mitchell, there's always tomorrow.
Cruella De Ville
De Ville Literary, Inc.
New York, NY 10013