If you have grand plans of lying back on the beach and relaxing with a copy of The Great Big Narcotics Cookbook this summer, bad news: You won’t be finding it at your local library or bookshop.
It’s one of the nearly 1300 books that are either banned or restricted by New Zealand’s Office of Film and Literature Classification.
On the list you’ll find a fair stack of books along the lines of Virgins in the Hayloft, Spanking Illustrated volume two (but interestingly not volume one), or the very subtly-named Doing It. Many bannings are vestiges of the 1960s and 70s when books were held to different moral standards.
These days books are rarely blacklisted, except if they’re considered to promote either extreme violence or certain sexual acts involving coercion, exploitation of children, bestiality, necrophilia, use of urine, or use of excrement.
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Some newer books and writings on the list are the Secrets Of Methamphetamine Manufacture 8th Edition and the Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto, which New Zealand’s chief censor David Shanks described as a “quite disturbing and destructive piece of writing”.
These are books which Shanks and his team of 20 at the Office of Film and Literature Classification believe can cause harm to society.
“What we do can be likened to an asbestos removal crew,” Shanks said.
“We’re dealing with inherently harmful and toxic material, and we have to take that seriously and take all due precautions.
“The reality is that with some of this material once you’re exposed to some of it, you’re never going to forget it and it will have an impact.”
Shanks has the power to classify any publication. That means anything containing text, images, audio, video – analogue or digital.
It’s an incredibly broad brush that has allowed predecessors to censor everything from soda cans to camper vans.
Among the publications banned in 2019 was a video game which put the player in the role of the Christchurch terrorist.
While banning books might seem antiquated to some, Shanks believes it has a place in New Zealand.
“When we look at a book we’re not just thinking about the classification of that book, we’re thinking about what it represents as a category and what it represents as a potential harm and in some cases a potential benefit and looking to balance that,” Shanks says.
Yet just because books end up on the list, doesn’t mean they’re there forever. After three years, a book can be re-submitted for review. Some pass the test, others don’t.
Books that have been removed from the list or reclassified include Jackie Collins’ best-seller The World is Full of Married Men. The ban here and in Australia even helped boost sales in the United States and the United Kingdom back in the late 1960s.
Into the abyss
New Zealand author Ted Dawe felt the power of censorship when in 2013, his book Into the River was hit with an R-14 rating by the New Zealand Film and Literature Board of Review.
Dawe said he wasn’t too worried as Fifty Shades of Grey had made it past the censor without any redactions, and “the only places which ban books are banana republics”.
But the book – a coming of age story about a young boy who goes to boarding school and encounters intimacy, sex, drugs, racism and death – ended up being restricted to those 14 and over.
Because of that it was pulled from the shelves of libraries across the country, which Dawe said meant the book “effectively vanished”.
Prior to that it had won both the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year prize and the top gong in the Young Adult category at New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and was selling well.
“It wasn’t fair, because any kid who wanted to borrow it had to bring proof of age to the library, and [the book] would be brought up from the stacks or from under the counter – presumably in a brown envelope – and that didn’t do much for the book,” Dawe said.
“It basically went from a very popular, very well-borrowed and well-sold book, to a book that was going nowhere.”
But the censorship didn’t sit well with librarians. Auckland Libraries appealed the decision and – after a public outcry – the age restriction was overturned.
During the proceedings the book was completely prohibited for six weeks while the panel came to a decision.
That meant it was a crime to supply, display, or distribute the book in any way.
Individuals and organisations who knowingly supplied the book were liable to fines of up to $3000 and $10,000 respectively.
“The censorship law worked very well up to the point they convened the appeal board. Any little board of five people, if it’s got strong-minded people with a barrow to push, the decisions may be skewed.
“The censor [who made the initial decision to leave the book unrestricted] was a very well-read woman and was able to put it into context of other books in the genre and other banned books.
“But these amateurs who were drafted in to be a panel of five fair-minded people seemed as though it would be a good idea, but I don’t think it worked too well.”
Delivered to your door
Surprisingly also reclassified – albeit with heavy restrictions – was 1993’s literary classic Bazooka: How to build your own.
The book is banned for all those who don’t hold a firearms or dealers licence, but it’s still easily purchased from Amazon where the description reads: “If you get a bang out of the flash and thud of an explosion and are intrigued by soft munitions, propellants and weapons, why not build your own bazooka?
“Anthony Lewis takes you through the process, from constructing the cartridge, barrel, grip and sights to mixing the propellant and igniter to assembling, loading and test-firing.”
Not to worry though, at the bottom it reassures us it’s “for information purposes only”.
It’s this internet loophole that has really thrown a spanner in the works for Shanks and his counterparts around the world.
Anyone can log on to a book delivery website located in a country where a book isn’t banned, order the offending tome, and have it delivered to their doorstep.
When Shanks’ powers were enshrined in the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993, the internet was in its infancy, not the sprawling content machine it is today.
“When you live in a world where about 500 hours of content is going up on YouTube every minute you instantly realise having a traditional classification approach of having someone sit and digest that fire hose of content is never remotely going to work,” Shanks said.
“You need to think about new ways, new models to adapt to this digital reality.”
In Sweden, the Media Council has developed modules for school children to help them identify propaganda and misinformation.
And with the internet too big to be reined in, Shanks believes education is the best way forward.
“The way I look at it, we’ve got an opportunity,” he said.
“We’ve got some deep insights into where the boundaries could and should be. And we’ve got an opportunity to engage with industry, the public and increasingly young people to conduct research.
“We’re trying to figure out where the harms are and how to mitigate them in ways other than simply banning or restriction.”
The court of public opinion
Shanks isn’t the only one with power – there are plenty of people who are making their thoughts on certain authors clear.
In the case of Wellington bookshop Good Books, owners Catherine Robertson and Jane Arthur have chosen not to stock certain books whose authors’ views don’t align with their values.
An author in her own right, Robertson made the decision to leave books by the likes of J K Rowling – who has controversial views on transgender women – off the shelves at her store.
She said while it might cost her money in sales, it was worth it to create an inclusive space for patrons.
“As a small business one of the first things you have to do, I believe, is to figure out what your values are: how you’re going to treat your employees and your customers,” she said.
“I think the line for us is very clear. The line is where people are using their public platforms to promulgate misinformation, bigotry or hate speech.”
Robertson said, so far, they have had far more positive feedback than negative.
While admired by some, it’s an approach that worries author Paula Morris. She said that while she “greatly respects” Robertson as an author, censoring books is a slippery slope.
“I think it’s quite bizarre,” Morris said. “I am not a fan, I have to tell you, because I think so many writers and their personal lives cannot bear much scrutiny – so many writers have done objectionable things.
She gave the example of Charles Dickens, who was notably awful to his wife – at one point trying to get her committed to an insane asylum, so he could be with a younger woman.
Excluding authors from bookshops is the small-scale version of what’s happening online, where cancel-culture has become a form of censorship, Morris said.
“It’s not really the way the world can work to just say this person is despicable for whatever reason and to be tried in the court of public opinion.”