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my hero, Mr. Kessel

John Kessel's wonderful 2002 James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award-winning novella "Stories for Men," has become a source of controversy in Seaside, Oregon. You can read a story about it at the Seaside Signal's website (scroll to second story), and, frankly, this media outlet should be commended for providing the closest thing to balanced coverage of a local censorship story I've ever seen.

Here's the set-up:

The right to intellectual freedom came under fire recently when a science-fiction short story was removed from an English class at Seaside High School. SHS English teacher Jan Priddy has taught her science-fiction course as an elective for several years. In the class, Priddy gives her students a choice between the short story "Stories for Men" by John Kessel, or a short story by Mark Twain. Because each student was able to choose which work they wished to read, the arrangement worked out well for everyone.

This year, however, one of her students upset by the content of "Stories for Men," shared the story with her mother, Kathy Wilson, who was similarly upset over the sexual content of the short story. Wilson contacted Seaside High School Principal Don Wickersham to discuss her concerns over the short story’s content. Initially, Wickersham was not familiar the work, but, after reading the passages in question, found them to be "inappropriate." Wickersham next met with Priddy who "saw where it could be deemed inappropriate and chose to remove it from her class," Wickersham said.

And here's what my hero John Kessel had to say in the same piece:

Upon hearing of the situation here in Seaside, the work’s author, John Kessel, has offered to talk with parents, teachers and administrators, "should they wish to understand what I think this story is about and how I hope that it would cause young people to think about their attitudes toward men and women in society."

"It is unfortunate when students are prevented from reading and discussing work in the classroom," Kessel continued. "The English classroom is one of the last places in our society where young people who are going to be the citizens of the future are challenged to think, to develop their values, to test their understanding of people and society against what thoughtful people have written in times before them and in our own."

He goes on to say that, "A good story—especially a good science fiction story—should make you question and think about things that you might otherwise take for granted."

The Tiptree Award press release described "Stories for Men" thusly:

"Stories for Men" is a story about masculinity, about how individuals define themselves in the context of kinship and community, and about how we construct gender roles by telling ourselves stories. The story begins with a female-centered society that mirrors some of our assumptions about social power relations between men and women, and then explicitly refers to our own society's assumptions (in the main character's encounter with a twentieth-century fiction anthology) in a way that makes those assumptions seem new and strange. It reexamines those tales of outcasts and lone heroes and manly individualism within the context of a story of community. It raises questions about the links between connectedness and exclusion, consensus and stifling conformity, patriarchal protectiveness and sociopathy. "Stories for Men" is a short work, one that's more subtle than it first appears.

John is one of the best people I've ever had the pleasure to know and not only that, his work is amazing and I highly suggest you seek it out. He has several stories available online (including "Stories for Men") and I seriously can't recommend his novel Corrupting Dr. Nice highly enough. It's on my list of favorite novels and if you're a fan of The Lady Eve (and who isn't?) you must read it.

And, as the article points out, this all happened during Banned Books Week. Go forth and read freely.


  • At 1:24 PM , Blogger Jason Erik Lundberg said...

    Wow. I am just flabbergasted that one of John's stories could get banned in this day and age. But you're right, Gwenda, the story is fairly balanced on both sides, which is a nice change of pace.

  • At 12:56 AM , Blogger Ted said...

    I went to the Seaside Signal's website, but couldn't find the article. I'm guessing it was posted in the previous issue, but I can't find an archive on the website.

    I did find the following letter to the editor in the "Editorial" section:

    To the Editor:
    I am writing in response to the front page article regarding John Kessel who calls himself an "author." I am appalled by the fact that he feels that is OK along with Mrs. Priddy to distribute pornographic matter to underage students! There is no way around that fact. Anyone in their right frame of thinking would know that the material handed out was NOT APPROPRIATE for those students.
    I am a grown adult and the matter in that article by Mr. Kessel was repulsive! I am accountable to raise my daughter in a safe, clean environment, and as a parent I felt as though by sending her to school there were some things she would be safe from, but obviously not! I never thought that in a science fiction class there would be handed to my 14-year-old daughter pornographic material. As a tax payer, it also makes me sick that our tax money goes to pay for material like that. I don't claim to live in a glass bubble, however, as a parent it is my responsibility to keep things from my child that are harmful to her. Also, I am very fortunate that my daughter did feel comfortable with our relationship to bring that material to me. Most teenagers would not take that to their parents, and that is too bad.
    In response to Mr. Kessel’s statement of "reacting to superficial elements of works rather than engaging with the complete story." I did read "the whole story" and wished to this day that I had not. "Stories for Men" is just that—for men. It has nothing to do with "Science Fiction!!!" I am not sorry that I brought it to the attention of the school and would do it again, and may very well have to. I will screen all reading material my daughter gets, and if it comes to this type of trash again, I will do the same thing. It angers me that our children today can be given pornographic material in the classroom and the teacher feels she did nothing wrong. If my child were in college or a grown adult, I would still not be happy if they chose to read this kind of material, however with them being an ADULT, it would be their choice.
    I hope that through this, more parents will ask the question of their children and teachers, "What is my child reading?"
    Kathy Wilson

  • At 11:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Stupid letter. I hate that "right thinking frame of mind" thing. Gahhhh!

    Gwenda, _Corrupting Dr. Nice_ is one of my all-time favorites, too!!



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