The Third Taboo: Self-Censorship
This is one for which writers themselves (me included) are culpable. Writers have often been outsiders, and have had a tendency to write without boundaries. The great censorship battles of the past are well documented, from ‘The Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Main Kampf’ to ‘Fahrenheit 451’ (oh, the irony). Naturally many banned books have sexual content, like the salacious satires of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Lolita’. ‘Fanny Hill’ is a very peculiar work indeed, obsessed with male member size, written from a female viewpoint. The sexual bouts involve fairly complex engineering problems, requiring leverage and management of bulk. The acts themselves are explicit and expressed in awestruck delight. It’s generally thought that the measurement-obsessed author John Cleland was gay. There followed endless bans and a bishop accusing the novel of causing earthquakes.
Many novels are now being retroactively censored for inappropriate language, but ‘Tom Sawyer’ raised questions of racial inequality, and Twain needed to use the language of inequality to do so. Censors are not smarter than writers. Do they honestly think we haven’t thought all of this through?
As censorship ended we all thought the barriers had fallen for good. How wrong we were. What’s happened now is that the authors and editors themselves are fencing their writing in with new self-decided guidelines. As ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is withdrawn from libraries and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ gets adulterated for sensitivity, a new generation of authors, mindful of the ways in which the internet is requiring us to prejudge, have started editing their work before it gets to publication.
It’s why so-called ‘edge fiction’ and the category once known as horror have been bowdlerised and recategorised for the YA market. Why SF has been reduced in status to a merchandising sideline. Why even procedural crime is running scared of anything too transgressive. The arts are currently living through deeply conservative times, but the situation is being made worse by authors pre-censoring their own material.
It’s partly economic. The reason why the inexplicably well-received new Star Wars film is so prosaic and dumb is to broaden its appeal to the very young and capture future consumer interest. When even audiences discuss franchises and profitability you know something has gone very wrong.
Last week I had a meeting with my agent in New York. His message was not full of hope; basically, books are dying, reading is ending, it’s all over. His perspective is American but when they develop the virus we also catch it. When profit and product replace the arts, and the arts themselves, noodling away to a tiny coterie of critics, are sidelined to ever-shrinking audience figures, maybe we writers will start to recognise our own obsolescence and get on with something more productive instead.
Perhaps it’s a phase. When Carl Sagan turned Voyager’s camera around to photograph our universe it served no scientific purpose, but was a purely artistic gesture. The essence of art, you could say. Right now, the arts are something that must be seen to pay for themselves. You cannot put a value on quality of life, but it doesn’t stop the politicians from trying.