I just read Ella Minnow Pea, a novel set on a fictional island where the High Council has begun to ban the use of different letters.
Along with its humor, there are two main reasons I like the novel:
Its Anti-Censorship Theme
One of the strengths of Mark Dunn’s novel is how it portrays the psychological costs of censorship. The mental tiptoeing around the language, the fact that letters have become minefields, the way neighbors begin to inform on each other for verbal slip-ups. One of the island’s residents, a teacher, says the following:
In the sanctuary of my thoughts, I am a fearless renegade. Yet in the company of the children I cringe and cower in a most depreciating way.
When the letter ‘D’ falls prey to the power-hungry and zealous Council, how do you teach kids grammar? (Never take the word “and” for granted.)
Semicolons are simply not an option. These youngsters are only seven! Young people of such age can’t fathom semicolons! Nor can I employ an “or” when I want the other one – the one that brings together, not separates.
The Way It Inspires Writing Creativity
Unlike the island’s residents, you don’t have any penalties hanging over your head for illegal letter usage. So you can use this novel as a creative writing exercise. Try writing a piece of flash fiction without the letter ‘V.’ Or a haiku without ‘O.’
The island’s residents have to scramble for synonyms and to find new terms for things. “Sun-to-suns” (as a substitute for “days”), and “learny-house” instead of “school.”
How well would you do during a letter purge?
If you’re reading this and thinking, “I don’t confuse criticism with censorship,” that’s great. This post is for people who do, or for people who aren’t sure what I’m talking about and would like some elaboration.
I’ve participated in many discussions over the years where someone reacts to a criticism by saying, “I have a right to my opinion,” even though no one questioned their right to have an opinion. Because there’s a difference between criticizing the content of a statement/opinion/argument and denying your right to express it.
Maybe this reaction is heightened in an environment where people are subject to various forms of censorship. Not just censorship from the government, but the threat of being fired, unpublished, or attacked for expressing a dissenting opinion on a subject. No matter how thoughtful or courteous you are, there may be people who look at any dissent as “harmful” and use it as an excuse to try to ruin you.
But it’s still important to distinguish between criticism and censorship. For example, it’s especially weird seeing so-called “free speech warriors” rail against criticism in the name of free speech, even though criticism itself is a form of speech. But maybe not so weird when you consider that the “confusion” can be deliberate – a useful strategy for staving off criticism and making your opponents seem unreasonable.
I’ve also seen the flip side of this – people calling for censorship while pretending their call for censorship is mere criticism. For example, people may ask for a book to be banned or unpublished and claim that this request is merely a form of criticism. But it isn’t. There’s a difference between thoughtfully writing a negative review of a book and asking for that book to be banned (or burned).