In discussing "Banned Books Week," David Ulin asks:
The basic message here is one of astonishment: Why would anyone ban books when literature is such a positive and ennobling force? Yet while I agree with that, I also believe that some books truly are dangerous, and to ignore that is simply disingenuous.
Yet it's foolish, self-defeating even, to pretend that books are innocuous, that we don't need to concern ourselves with what they say. If that's the case, then it doesn't really matter if we ban them, because we have already stripped them of their power.
Throughout his essay, but especially in these quoted passages, Ulin betrays the sort of sloppy thinking and confusion about the nature of literature so prevalent among the practicioners of "literary journalism" in the mainstream print media. His ultimate point--that even obnoxious books ought to be tolerated--is cogent enough, if something of a bromide. But his enlistment of "literature" in the cause of defending "dangerous" books is hardly credible.
The most immediate flaw in Ulin's thinking is in his casual conflation of "literature" and "books." He invokes "literature" and its "positive and ennobling" associations, only to base his analysis on "books" understood as those works advancing an argument, that make a claim on us through "what they say." Ulin's analysis works only if he first evokes the literary as "ennobling" and then contrasts it with particular (in some cases repellent) books that no one would categorize as "literary" in the first place. It's a move that depends on the reader accepting the blithe but shoddy equation, books = literature, on which Ulin balances his argument.
But works of literature are not identical with "books." A literary work is a verbal composition that exists independently of its medium of transmission. It can be presented on paper, through bytes in cyberpace, or can be stored in a word processing file. (It could also, of course, be recited orally.) It is an act of linguistic imagination that does not coincide with any of these methods of publication (as in "making public") and can exist simultaneously in all of them. A book is a commodified object, an artifact of the printing press, the culturally-sanctioned form of communication assigned to journalists like Ulin for their "coverage." No matter how much they try to smuggle in references to literature in describing their subject, such journalists are always going to prefer books to literature because the former are presumed to have something to "say," provide the reviewer with the opportunity, as Ulin also puts it, "to confront someone else's ideas." Books are what prompt the editor of the New York Times Book Review to convert that publication into a forum for dreary "cultural criticism" and the pedestrian discussion of media-filtered "ideas." Literature is not to be found in its pages, except through the fortuitous conjunction of fiction and news, or an accident of publication date.
I would agree with Ulin that both good books and works of literature ought to "make us uncomfortable," but where the former do this by challenging established ideas about the subject at hand, the latter make us uncomfortable with our own reading practices, with our unsustainable assumptions about the very nature of the "literary." Literature is inherently neither "positive" nor "ennobling," and the "danger" it poses is not to be found in the printed embodiments of "someone else's ideas" but in the reading experience itself, the complacency of which is threatened by works of literature that seek to reconfigure perceptions of the literary. A preoccupation with "ideas" only reinforces such complacency, reducing the more expansive power of literature to the ordinary charge provided by "books."