Chilling Expression: Knox County Public Library Uninvites Author From Festival

Julia Watts was chosen as a featured author for the upcoming LitUp Festival: Arts and Innovation for the Next Generation, an event sponsored by Knox County Public Library. It’s an event for teens with writing workshops, career information, author talks, and other activities. Watts has several published, celebrated works aimed at a teen audience, such as Finding H.F., and Quiver.

Watts, who has participated in Knox County Library programs in the past, was surprised and saddened when the library suddenly uninvited her from the event. The reason? According to the library’s assistant director for marketing Mary Pom Claiborne, the organizing committee discovered that “Some of her work is described as erotica and is inappropriate for teens”. (Knox News, 2019)

So again, Ms. Watts has several lauded YA titles, which was what made her an author choice for the festival, but the fact that she had written risqué material in the past prompted her removal from a library event.

While it wasn’t explicitly expressed in her dis-invitation, Watts questioned if LGBTQ+ themes in her work were a spark for the action taken against her:

They say if it were erotic content of any type that they would have had the same concerns. As somebody who has been uninvited because someone goes, ‘Yikes, that’s gay content,’ that was certainly my first thought.

Julie Watts (WBIR, 2019)

The implication of this cancellation should send a chill down the spine of any writer. Those who write should not have to be boxed into one genre, age group, or format for fear that their body of work will impede their professional progress.

The library did not expect Watts to read from or reference the adult material, but it didn’t want to be perceived as promoting her entire body of work at a festival for young teens, Claiborne said.

Kristi Nelson, Knox News, 2019

The fact that Watts has written erotica (which, she mentions to Knox News, is a subjective term) should not be an issue for the festival, because that wasn’t the focus of her attending the event- her YA books were the focus.

Some of my writings⁠—not my work for YA readers—contain erotic content. Not just erotica, but lesbian erotica…kids might Google me and find out I’d written erotica, and that freaked [the committee] out. If they’d Googled me and found that I’d written Harlequin romances, I don’t think there would have been this same kind of pushback.

Julie Watts (Publisher’s Weekly, 2019)

The committee effectively shunned this author after previously inviting her simply because a teen could hypothetically google her name and find out that she has written books for adults- books with S-E-X-, oh no!

Are libraries the newly appointed Decency Police Force? Does writing erotica make you suddenly unmentionable or a bad role model? No, and no! Libraries are supposed to be places where information flows freely and people are supported, not judged.

Honorably, Knoxville’s poet laureate, Marilyn Kallet, withdrew from the festival in solidarity with Watts.

As writers we need to stand up for one another, and to require being treated with dignity and trust.

Marilyn Kallet (Knox News)

This decision by Knox County Library to cancel Watts’ invitation was a huge misstep. Libraries are not places of censorship, and those who write should not have to hide their works in the shadows or self-censor for fear of being outcast from public events and civil discourse in the library. Authors are multifaceted, complex people who wear many hats and should not be shamed for writing for a variety of audiences.

One thing I’ve learned from this: I shouldn’t take my freedom of expression for granted.

Julia Watts (Publisher’s Weekly)

I hope that this mistake can be learned from so that it does not set a dangerous precedent. Ms. Watts has accepted an apology from the library, and perhaps the dialogue sparked by this occurrence will prompt other libraries to examine their own biases and reaffirm their commitments to intellectual freedom.

References

Kirch, C. (n.d.). Author Julia Watts Disinvited from Teen Lit Festival. Retrieved from https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/81097-author-julia-watts-disinvited-from-teen-lit-festival.html

Nelson, K. L. (2019, September 5). Young adult author pulled from Knox library’s teen festival because she also writes ‘erotica’. Retrieved from https://www.knoxnews.com/story/news/education/2019/09/04/julia-watts-author-pulled-knox-county-public-library-teen-festival-because-writes-erotica/2215193001/

WBIR Staff. (2019, September 6). Knoxville author uninvited from local teen reading festival for publishing ‘erotic content’ in the past. Retrieved from https://www.wbir.com/article/life/books/knoxville-author-uninvited-from-local-teen-reading-festival/51-cb005c4a-71d1-44e7-a74c-a624e1a2ab0f