Stephen King’s ‘banned’ book and what it means for you


(Originally posted 4th July 2012)

I read an article today about Stephen King’s Rage not being available to buy in bookshops as a result of it having influenced several teenagers to execute copycat crimes and murder innocent teachers and classmates. King himself asked for the book to be removed from print, and is apparently happy that he did so.

The article is here for anybody that would like to have a read.

It raises some pertinent questions for authors, and especially self-published authors. Self-publishing for Kindle brings with it varying degrees of responsibility. Age-old criticisms about quality of self-published author’s work, and newer criticisms of formatting for Kindle (et al) heap pressure on self-published authors, many of whom must find time not only to write, but to market their work (which in itself could be a full-time occupation) plus raise families, run homes and, in my case, work a regular job.

We do not all have editors to tell us, ‘Oh no, you can’t possibly have him do that’ or ‘This character could influence others to do unspeakable acts’.

So is it our consciences or our perception of bad taste that should make us regulate the subjects or acts about which we write?

I have no problem with writing about someone being hacked up and butchered by something not of this world, but I’m pretty sure I would never write a novel about having a sexual relationship with someone who was underage. Although, Vladimir Nabokov didn’t seem to do too badly out of it. I think it is in poor taste, but I had to study it at one of the top universities in the country when I did my English literature degree.

What kind of checks do Amazon do on self-published titles? Presumably they don’t actually read any of the content? They’d need an army of trained chimps to read even a small sample of each title published. It’s not worth their money.

So what happens when someone does an unspeakable act and blames it on a book they bought for their Kindle? Am I supposed to, as an indie author, regulate my writing to prevent impressionable people being influenced by something like murders in my work?

I don’t see why I should, and I don’t see why King thinks he should either. Nabokov didn’t worry about the possibility of influencing grown men to drug and manipulate underage girls. In an age when school shootings have, sadly, become not uncommon, to what extent should King, Picoult, or anyone else who writes about school shootings (here is a list of those two plus another twenty-eight works), or subjects that *could* influence criminal and even barbaric acts feel responsible?

Shouldn’t I just be able to write fiction and have it seen as just that – fiction?

Should I be consulting my moral compass every five minutes before my character spits on the ground, drops a piece of litter, or uses the F word?

Ought I to describe my character attaching knee protection, elbow protection and donning a helmet before he cycles to the store for milk?

Where do we draw the line? Can I have a crab fisherman (or woman!) on a boat in the Bering Sea who can’t get into a survival suit in under a minute?

I think this is a really interesting subject, and would love to hear people’s thoughts.

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Posted in David McGowan
31 comments on “Stephen King’s ‘banned’ book and what it means for you
  1. kyle jacobs says:

    I think that people need to take responsibility for their actions. Blaming a book for committing a crime is just an attempt to shirk the criminals responsibility for his actions. Sadly, our culture is being formed around this thinking of blaming others for things that you choose. Blame your parents for you acting out. Blame the rich for you being poor. Blame your wife for you having an affair. Its despicable. I say, write what you want according to your conscience. Freedom of speech is a God given right and these people will try to blame it for there own actions that only they can control

  2. M.S. Fowle says:

    I grew up on free speech. If King WANTS to pull his own work, then I won’t fault him for it. It’s his work, it should be his decision. But as writers, we write freely – we almost have no control over what comes out. Writer’s shouldn’t be blamed for ignorant people that are unable make common sense decisions, like choosing NOT to kill people. I’m sure they weren’t frolicking along through their lives all happy and perfect, read King’s book, and suddenly went nuts. Behavior like that is developed over time, years.
    Of course there’s a line, or at least there should be. But we’re still gonna write what we write. I think of my “future readers” and what age group they’d be in. I go with what I would feel is appropriate for them. I do it that way because its MY book. Other writers do what’s best for them and their book.
    So just write, David. 😛

  3. M.S. Fowle says:

    Reblogged this on M.S. Fowle and commented:
    Ante up

  4. paulaacton says:

    Hmm I guess this is something we each as individuals need to question i have some quite disturbing scenes in my WIP that I did question. My problem is that as it is set in a medieval setting I want to be historically if not accurate then at least in keeping with the way of life but a few scenes I did alter to make more acceptable to readers. I do not believe we can be held responsible for anothers actions though if we did we would only write happy stories about kittens and flowers. Could I stab someone with a stake claiming I believed they were a vampire and blame Bram Stoker? Or beat someone with a frying pan and blame Tom & Jerry, We are each responsible for our own actions those who copycat crimes from books are going to commit crimes anyway they just lack the imagination to create their own methods, it is only the plot they copy the intent is inside them no matter what

  5. Not sure I have a solid opinion on it but after reading this my brain is ticking. I’ll get back to you.

  6. davidmcgowan says:

    Thanks for your comments everyone. I agree that we write what we want and it is up to people as individuals to regulate their behaviour. I love reading your comments…interesting that no-one mentioned the Nabokov angle. As for violence and death in fiction, I wouldn’t be able to write without it!

  7. amschultzcom says:

    When a writer — a real, masterful writer — sits down and creates art with words, even the most depraved, debauched and taboo subjects are free game.

    That said, I’ll bite on the Nabokov angle.

    Women used to marry young. A thirteen year old girl today is not a thirteen year old girl a thousand years ago. A ten year old boy was once well on his way to becoming a man. We have profaned the sexual exploits between adults and non-adults, just as we have murder, theft, and animal cruelty. What was once normal is now carnal, primal, barbaric. Either way, it is still part of the story of humanity. Should we, as civilized, evolved humans seek relationships with young men and women? No. Should the subject be completely untouchable? No, because once there is censorship of one, it paves the way for the censorship of many.

    Where is the line drawn, then? We promote television shows that glorify drunken promiscuity and unmitigated douchebaggery, with other stations devoted entirely to shows on crime and murder. Yet, in that same breath, reading a book — any book — can be blamed for copycatting?

    I think Kyle nailed this one when he cited “the blame game.” If we can pass the brunt of the buck off on someone else or something else, we will. Perhaps this issue is less a matter of censorship and more a commentary of the decline of accountability?


  8. I’ve only just heard about this through a couple of blogs so I haven’t had a chance to really think about it In depth, but from what you’ve said I totally agree. Where do you draw the line?

    Personally I can’t write about certain subjects, would never even consider it, nor would I choose to read something that, IMO was violent or concerning abuse, but, there is a huge market out there for really graphic stuff. If people want to read it, they’ll find it, whether it be in book form or online.

    It makes me wonder if Kings decision isn’t actually just a marketing ploy. Think of all the fans that will now be desperately trying to get hold of that book? 😦


    • davidmcgowan says:

      To be fair Vikki, I’m not sure King needs to resort to things such as that to aid sales 😉 I think he was genuinely disturbed by the possibility that his work could cause copycat crimes! I don’t know if it was the various school shootings, or King’s novel, Rage, that spawned the other 27 similar novels though! 😉

  9. C.M.Hardin says:

    I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I feel, almost intuitively, that censorship is less important than self control/self regulation. On the other hand, I feel fiction can bring things into the world that never existed before (ex. sci-fi and its impact on technological progress). Fiction that glorifies morally repugnant acts should be shunned, but fiction written with the purpose of exploring the evil for the purpose of repudiating it, I think is within the realm of acceptability. That would be my deciding factor: does it glorify or attack the evil once presented? If King is willing to self-censor, maybe there’s a good reason for it?

  10. Reblogged this on jbcultureshock and commented:
    I love this blog post and think it brings up some great points. My personal feeling on this is, if you are going to commit such a horrible act because you saw it on TV or read about it in a book, you obviously have much more serious issues that need to be dealt with. In the article he links to, it states that the kid in question had mental issues and had been bullied.

    How far are we going to go with this? Will we stop letting people read anything other than children’s books preaching morals to make sure no one could get bad ideas or, worse yet, stop putting books out at all? The actions of these kids are horrible and are far more complicated than this and I think that sometimes, we’re just trying to take the easy way out. What do you guys think? Comment below and let’s chat about it…

  11. Brandon says:


    While I think this novel is educational (excluding the sex in it), because it does show the harsh reality of this world, the grim world of what high school is exactly about, I would not praise this novel either. The protagonist kills his teachers, hold his classmates hostage, and then has a cult following with his fellow classmates, who go into dark and confessing psychological sessions. The non-participant, who is unlikable, gets bullied nearly to death, psychologically and physically, by his entire classmates, for whatever reason, and to top that off, not only does he have his own troubles, his classmates induce that, leading him to go to a mental asylum, and as if that is not enough, we see that the non-participant is likely going to die, while the protagonist is recovering. I feel sympathy for both characters, and though I am a fan of Stephen King, this novel is seriously demented, and though I do own a copy of it, I think King was in the right of banning it. Interestingly, I read an article about the top five books that Hollywood will never adapt films, and by no surprise, this was the first pick, and mine, coincidence perhaps, but definitely one with reason.

    This novel does seem to be a likely candidate for influencing high school violence, but high school violence has been around for so many reasons. It might have influenced various horrible school acts, but it all depends on the reader. Does he/she induce in the material they read about, or do they have enough intelligence not to, it varies per reader.

  12. Life consists of good and evil…and so I don’t see any reason why book and films shouldn’t either.

    • davidmcgowan says:

      That’s a good point! Without evil we wouldn’t understand or appreciate good! That is very much the message that comes out of my debut novel, The Hunter Inside!

  13. marta says:

    This brings to mind the nightmare events in Aurora, and the long debate of do films make people violent? Well, images have a different influence than words, but I don’t think Christopher Nolan should pull his film from theaters. And I don’t think writers should censor themselves out of fear of what-if. Like someone else said, people who copy books or films already have issues. You can’t predict what will trigger them. You also can’t tell how many books with certain acts actually convinced someone to do something good, to make the right choice–as those acts don’t make the news.

    But even if we decide that certain things shouldn’t be written about, who makes that list? Who decides? Someone is going to say that writing a love scene between a same sex couple to going to convince young people to be gay. I think that is ridiculous. But once you start making that list, those arguments begin.

    I studied Lolita in college too and wrote a paper about it. I liked the novel and never thought Nabokov was advocating pedophilia. Granted, as someone wrote above, marrying young girls used to be the norm, but the world Lolita is set in is a world where this is not the case and HH, the predator, clearly knows he’s doing something wrong. The novel, I think, explores how people who do so much damage justify their acts in their own mind.

    But anyway. Truly great books, books with powerful stories that people return to, that people cherish, go into the complexities of whatever choices, issues, the characters are face with. There have always been exploitive stories that are meant to thrill and titillate, but those books disappear after a while, and even though thousands of people read them, very few people go out and do something from the books.

    I write–and have my first novel coming out in December. There is a brothel in my book, and I really wanted to make sure the story wasn’t advocating prostitution as a good life choice. I didn’t want to romanticize that life nor did I want to be too graphic. All we can do is teach/ask people to be responsible for what they put out into the world. Really, just by letting people live free we hope for that every day. But we can’t control for everything. What kind of country would we have if we tried?

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, and for such well thought out statements. What happened in Aurora is a tragedy and a travesty, but I agree – artists should not self-censor for fear of someone copying their fiction and making it abhorrent reality.

      Best of luck with your December release!

  14. Chriztina says:

    This is exactly whtat buggs me in the back of my mind whenever i’m writing, this worries me. But, then i remind myself that musical artists are under the same pressure. Rapper Eminem has wrote a few songs based off this, quote, “they say that music talks to you, but can it load a gun and cock it for ya to?”
    I think we all should have the Freedom to Write, really its not just books that can influence ina teens life, theres other influences, too.

  15. moominmamma says:

    Children’s writers deal with this question every day. In picture books, can you show a child on a bike without a bike helmet? Can you show them walking dangerously along a wall? In books for older children, can you you show smoking, drinking, sex, reckless behaviour? (Not if you want to sell in the USA, generally.) These are not even criminal acts. We can’t show a knife, and often picture books about knights can’t show swords!

    I wonder if all the children who have been over-protected in their reading as youngsters will grow up to commit copy-cat crimes because they are not used to seeing undesirable behaviour modelled or described, and so not able to discern between behaviour to follow and behaviour to shun?

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Thanks for your response. Yes, I imagine it is very difficult for authors of children’s works. Literature for young people is a lot about educating, but we increasingly are told to shelter youths from the big bad truth of the world out there, yet the numbers of young children committing serious crimes seem to rise, and children show a lack of respect for adults every day – is it because we’re too ‘soft’?

      • moominmamma says:

        Too soft in terms of punishment/indulgence? Perhaps. But previous generations had films and books in which children were depicted doing bad or dangerous things and dealing with the consequences. Today, they rarely see the acts and never see consequences, so we have not shown them what can happen.

        In some US states, books for teens can’t talk about contraception (or sex) because that might encourage teens to have sex. If teens are going to have sex, they will do it – they don’t look in a book and think ‘Oh, I could do that!’ But if we haven’t told them about contraception, we can’t be that surprised if they then get pregnant. Books should reflect life as it is lived. I think then nutter who kills people in a way copied from a book would have killed people anyway, just differently. It’s not as though most of us would watch Psycho and then think ‘ah, I could start a motel and murder guests’, after all.

  16. Jams N. Roses says:

    Top post, David.
    In my opinion, write about what you want and in the way that you feel the story needs to be written.
    If you want to talk about people being encouraged by books to do bad things, then surely the first place to start would be the different versions of the bibles? These books are filled with all sorts of nastiness and have been the reason for many dispicable deaths throughout the ages, and continue to be to this very day… I don’t imagine they will be pulled from the library shelves or the hotel room drawers any time soon.
    Typically, my books with a big crime emphasis aren’t left with a ‘the bad guy wins’ ending, but I wouldn’t say it will never happen – It would be a true reflection of life, to have evil win from time to time, would it not?
    If you write what you want or not, people will do bad things, almost as if they are predisposed to do them. And in the aftermath, other people will blame the books that person has read or the films they’ve watched or the computer game they’ve played, or maybe even just the voices in their head. There’s an unlimited number of things to blame.
    To finish, and I know it is a completely distasteful and non-PC thing to say but, that’s how I am… imagine the publicity of a book caught up in that sort of storm…

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Great response, and thank you!

      I totally agree with everything you say too. They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, and the very fact of the controversy draws readers to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. Books like the ones I mentioned in the article, and others like the Fifty Shades series (which sold, if my memory serves, 70 million copies last year), or Catcher in the Rye to name another example, can propel their authors to worldwide acknowledgement and fame and riches, and enable them to pursue the career they have always dreamed of pursuing.

      I’m like you – I write what I have to write. I can’t write anything else. If my story tells me that a little girl gets caught in the crossfire between police and a bad guy, and gets her head blown to splinters, then it must go in. The story dictates, and if I write something so abhorrent that it upsets people then that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because literature should evoke emotion. All of my characters are make believe, and no little girls are ever harmed in the making of my novels. But if the person reading the novel cries when that little girl is killed, then haven’t I done my job?

      • Jams N. Roses says:

        “if the person reading the novel cries when that little girl is killed, then haven’t I done my job?” – I’d say you’d have done a bloody good job.
        Fifty Shades did 70 million copies… I’m gonna have to crowbar an extra dosing of filthy sex into my current project then! Shouldn’t be too difficult!

      • davidmcgowan says:

        Haha, if you include the crowbar as part of the sex, you might be onto something (C) David McGowan 😉

        Plenty of people have told me the ending of The Hunter Inside left them in tears, and guess what? It did the same to me when I wrote it! There are no little girls involved though!

      • Jams N. Roses says:

        Crowbar sex? That’s not just a scene, that’s a title!

  17. Book Hollow says:

    I have read Rage and I found it to be entertaining and original (for its time). All books and movies have the potential to influence, but their ultimate purpose is to solely entertain. I think sometimes these forms of entertainment are used as an escape goat. No person of sound mind reads a book or watches a movie and decides to shoot up a school, murder his/her spouse etc… If the potential is there for a person to do harm they will find a way. In our day and age it’s easier to pass the blame than take responsibility for our own actions.

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Thanks, and well said. Yes, members of society should be held responsible and accountable for their actions. But all too often we hear various other avenues of blame for people’s actions that aren’t fair on the millions of people who watch the same movies or play the same games without becoming psychotic and murdering a whole bunch of people!

  18. LeAnne Nash says:

    I have been reading King’s books since he came out with Carrie. I have read Rage when it first came out years ago. Don’t remember the whole story. I am a devoted King fan and actually became interested in the horror genre when I started reading his books. NO ONE, I MEAN NO ONE should be responsible for someone else’s psychological problem if an author or writer writes about violence in their stories EXCEPT FOR THE PERSON WHO COMMITED THE CRIME THEMSELVES!

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Thanks LeAnne, I agree completely. It’s like blaming the doctor who delivered the criminal as a baby, or the parents for the way they raised the child. Every individual is responsible for their own actions, and blaming crimes on video games or books or movies is ridiculous IMO.

  19. […] for a reader’s reaction to his work. You can read that piece, and the many comments and opinions HERE. That was a question of censorship – self-censorship of sorts by King – and the overwhelming […]

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