For as long as humans have traded in information, the suppression of information has been big business. From Socrates in 399BCE to Roald Dahl in ALDI supermarkets, moral and political censorship has long been applied to works that we now love or consider vital to our culture.
The Athenians made Socrates drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of their city, the Qin Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of all philosophical and historical texts (and the live burial of all scholars who disapproved) in 213 BCE; history is replete with examples of state and religious censorship. Perhaps the best known are the burning of Nalanda University by the Islamic conquerors of India in 1193 (the fires were said to burn for months, so great was the collection), and the book burnings committed by the Nazis in the 1930’s.
In Australia, ALDI supermarkets recently pulled all copies of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes from the shelves because of one word – slut. The poem in question is a retelling of the Cinderella story, and when the Prince comes to test the step-sisters’ feet in slippers, he promptly chops off their heads and then,
In the kitchen, peeling spuds, Cinderella heard the thudsOf bouncing heads upon the floor,
And poked her own head round the door.
‘What’s all the racket?’ Cindy cried.
‘Mind your own bizz,’ the Prince replied.
Poor Cindy’s heart was torn to shreds.
My Prince! she thought. He chops off heads!
How could I marry anyone
Who does that sort of thing for fun?
The Prince cried, ‘Who’s this dirty slut?
‘Off with her nut! Off with her nut!’
When Revolting Rhymes was written in 1982, the word ‘slut’ probably meant what it means today. But originally, it meant dirty or unclean – and the woman in the poem certainly is dirty and unclean. I’d say Roald Dahl not only knew what the word meant in 1982, but also what it meant in 1952, and intended for the adults reading aloud to know too. It’s an adult joke, in a children’s book. You could be offended, and show your own ignorance as to the word’s meaning. Or you could do what I did – be quietly shocked, and quickly change the word to ‘butt’ for your children’s enjoyment when reading it aloud together. They’ll find it funnier than an archaic word that just means dirty, and they won’t repeat it at school. Problem solved – even though it presumably wasn’t a problem for generations of parents who have read Revolting Rhymes to their children.
Another recent Dahl-related controversy has developed regarding the ‘adult’ cover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This outrage follows a similar theme: anger about adult ideas presented in children’s fiction. I found the cover image more sinister than ‘sexy’, as some commentators have suggested. Those who decry the new cover’s perversion of the story’s innocence; have they read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? The story focuses on a naïve little boy who lives in desperate poverty. The other children in the story are caricatures, of greed and cruelty, selfishness and deceit, who are systematically eliminated from the Chocolate Factory. The cover of the new Penguin Modern Classics edition encapsulates the story’s narrative darkness.
Although we consider ourselves to live in a more ‘enlightened’ age, moralists and politicians still seek to supress books, and they are still being banned or challenged in Australia and, in particular, the United States. The Australian ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover famously lasted from its publication in the 1920s until the 1960s. A book describing the trial for obscenity that the publisher faced, The Trial of Lady Chatterley, was also banned from sale at all Australia Post locations in 2009.
Brett Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is technically illegal in Queensland, and Australia-wide is supposed to be sold in sealed, opaque packaging, although a quick trip to any bookstore will show how seriously that ban is taken. In December last year, Amazon jumped into the fray by banning an entire genre – bestiality/romance novels – although public backlash forced the e-retailer to rescind the ban, and Christie Sims’ dinosaur erotica books can (thankfully) still be found online. Amazon actually succeeds in banning a large number of books, mostly those that feature or promote incest, bestiality, and paedophilia.
But it’s not only works that rely on the words ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’, or use inter-class adultery to excite society (all of which feature in Lady Chatterley’s Lover) that face the wrath of moralists and official censors. Nor is it works with explicit sex scenes (whether incestual or with mythical or extinct creatures); most books that end up on the banned books lists or facing parental fury in the United States don’t deal with those deliberately vague adult themes.
The books that have received the most complaints this century are JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Because witchcraft. Other commonly challenged books include Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; Slaughterhouse-Five; Fahrenheit 45, The Handmaid’s Tale; To Kill a Mockingbird. A theme emerges: These books all focus on social justice. Inevitably, they tend to be classics. Well-known titles are more obvious prey for those seeking to ban undesirable books. What better target for censorship, than a novel that criticises religion and patriarchy (The Handmaid’s Tale) or challenges ignorance and racism (To Kill a Mockingbird)?
Plenty of titles on the banned books list (in Australia, at least) are there for good reason – they are dangerous. However, it’s a slippery slope between books that promote dangerous activities, like The Anarchist Cookbook or How to Make Your Own Silencer, and books that promote supposedly dangerous ideas, like those most challenged in America. Oddly, neither The Anarchist Cookbook nor How to Make Your Own Silencer made the Top 100 list of most challenged books in the US.
Even aside from Harry Potter, children’s books are frequent targets for censorship. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy have been condemned for promoting atheism. Though thematically similar, CS Lewis’ Narnia series are protected by their allegorical Christianity (Or so I’ve been told. I thought it was about a bunch of kids and a talking lion). Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen has been banned, too, because it shows an illustrated penis – even though half of us have one, and surely little boys would’ve noticed their own before reading Sendak’s picture book.
Literary censorship is rarely justified. Too often, the ideals of the few are imposed on the many. It can also be turned to more sinister purposes, when a government condemns a book for promoting ‘dangerous ideas’, whether they are the opinions of a philosopher, the teachings of a foreign religion, or the ‘decadence and moral corruption’ of the Jewish people (Joseph Goebbels’ words as he burnt the works of Heinrich Mann and Erich Kästner). Although many would agree with the banning of certain books, there is a huge risk in allowing a committee to determine what is and is not acceptable for everyone else. Yes, The Anarchist Cookbook is full of very dangerous recipes, and yes, it is in the public interest to stop people from building pipe-bombs or their own silencers. But it is the flip side of this same coin that results in the banning of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and makes it technically illegal to buy a copy of American Psycho in Brisbane. Given the dramatic swing to the right in recent Australian politics, just how far could literary censorship in Australia progress?
That’s the truly scary question.
Main image credit: Geoffrey Fairchild.