When was censorship at its worst (or best if you are a censor)? In 1840s Russia there were allegedly more censors than there were books published. The Spanish inquisition might be an answer, referencing Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But the correct answer may actually be today. Apparently there are 2 million censors at work in China controlling Internet information. Edward Snowden has familiarized us with the idea that our own ideas are potentially subject to censorship. We all thought, didn’t we that the Internet was the dawn of an era of unprecedented information availability? Sounds like we were a bit off, as this chilling piece from The Atlantic tells us.
Rude books used to be censored everywhere — quite a contrast with today’s Internet porno overflow. “We” used to be confident that “we” knew what was bad for others less educated than ourselves, and “we” took steps to ensure “they” shouldn’t be corrupted by seeing such frankness. What broke it all up in America was the case of Ulysses. This Mental Floss piece tells the fascinating story of the smuggling in 1933 of a copy (cunningly supplemented with laudatory critical reviews) on the Aquitania. Bennett Cerf, of Random House, wanted this copy to be confiscated by customs agents, because the only evidence you could bring to court was the actual confiscated copy of the book in question. By filling it with positive criticism, they were able to get that material into court too.
In Britain the breakdown came later, in 1960 with the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, undeniably priapic and far from D. H. Lawrence’s best. Even this didn’t completely clear the floor. It wasn’t till 1967 in the case of Last Exit to Brooklyn that the law finally moved far enough that all official censorship of obscenity was removed. It was only then for instance that the archaic system of all play scripts having to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain ended. It was fairly well into my working life that our printing works could first be persuaded to typeset the “f” word — not that this was a demand we, as academic publishers, would place on them with any frequency!
Now, whether the unleashing of obscenity was a good thing or not can of course still be debated. Personally I am content to be have the bedroom door firmly closed against me in the novels that I read, and to some extent I think this impulse is part of the explanation for the popularity these days of YA (Young Adult) fiction among an adult readership. Still, whether I dislike it or not, I’d like to think I’d fight to a considerable length (probably not death) for the author’s right to write like that. It is however an unfortunate consequence of these changes that many a young author is nowadays encouraged by editors to sex up his/her book in order supposedly to ease its path into the bestseller lists. On the other hand, protecting readers (or students) from material “we” believe may be bad for them can’t ever be a good idea. People just have to go out and think about stuff for themselves. Observer—Innovation has a piece on this.
Slightly worse than suppression is the modern fashion of shooting people who’s opinions you disagree with. Tom Stoppard speaks out about this at Nashoba Publishing. While the coincidence of views on restricting access to many books, and the right to bear arms is not prefect, they are both views which tend to be held by the extreme right, by those who ultimately crave the feeling of safety brought by a strong father figure. Banned Books Week represents a small shout of protest.
Infographic from the Simply Novel Teachers Blog via GalleyCat