The Third Taboo: Self-Censorship

The Arts

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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 As ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is withdrawn from libraries and ‘Huckleberry Finn’ gets adulterated for sensitivity, a new generation of authors, mindful of the ways in which the internet is requiring us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.

12 comments on “The Third Taboo: Self-Censorship”

  1. Brooke says:

    You’re back in good ranting form! Lots of broad generalizations; much to argue about.

    Your agent’s perspective is not American; rather NY-centric. As I suspected, this agent is out of touch with readers. It’s a circularity– agents, publishers and book sellers give us trash for fiction, which the reading public rejects and the cry is “No one is reading books anymore.” Nonsense– we adjust our reading habits. E.g. I read more science, travel and history books now; some damned good current writing in these areas.

    Wishing you all the best.

  2. admin says:

    Indeed, Brooke, my agent is very NYC, but some of what he said about ‘only debuts and time-servers’ interesting publishers rang alarm bells. My brain is synaptically inert at the moment due to meds and lack of visual acuity, so I’m keeping the posts short and simple, sadly.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Short and simple will do for us, Chris, while you rest and heal. We are perfectly capable of expanding the discussion. Generalisations about the disappearance of readers will always provoke response from people with books in hand and To Be Read piles that dwarf the furniture. People are writing, books are being published, and we are moving into the depths of the reading season. It’s another question when you are trying to earn a living in the field and we have authors, illustrators, and probably some book sellers on this site, all of whom need enough people interested in their own publications to return an acceptable income to the creators. It has always been a chancy business but it seems to be even riskier these days.
    Do authors live retroactively? Do you build up debts and such while a piece of work bubbles and then pay it off when the payment comes in or do you not invest your life unless a publisher is willing to pay an advance?

  4. Debra Matheney says:

    Bookstores are allegedly doing better this side of the pond as real books, not electronic ones, seems to be back in fashion. I know that I read about 100 books a year, which I know is unusual. I have authors like you who I follow and read everything they write. I enjoy finding new novelists, rereading old favorites, British mysteries old and new, and, like Brooke, read more non-fiction (almost anything about the 18th century, Jane Austen except the latest one portraying her as a rebel, and biographies.)
    There is so much out there to compete for our leisure time that it isn’t surprising that we don’t read as much. I have long queues on Netflix and Amazon as well as attending movies when they come out. Plus seeing friends for meals, catching up on Trump’s daily antics and taking care of a house and a husband and pets, it’s a wonder there is any time at all to read.
    Please take care and give your body time to recover. You are well loved by so many readers.

  5. Peter Tromans says:

    A professional writer with the highest principles self-censors to remain politically correct according to the attitudes of his time. Strangely, the rich, powerful, celebrity can write evil, unprincipled rubbish without reproach.

    I grew up on Biggles, read just about every adventure I could find. As a cigarette smoking, war mongering imperialist, who lived in a male dominated world, Biggles is no longer PC and unsuitable for the young of today. Have we sacrificed, or at least confused, attitudes for principles? We ban imperialism, but turn a blind eye to the most cruel hegemony – something that Biggles would have risked all to combat.

    And, talking of blind eyes, do follow the medical advice, keep your head in the correct position for the necessary duration, resist blogging and writing!

  6. Peter Tromans says:

    If the public are no longer buying books and reading, I’ll blame our governments for failing to educate and to promote education. Do they really want a poorly educated, ill-informed electorate?

  7. Brooke says:

    Of course our governments want poorly educated, ill informed electorate! How else will “they” keep their jobs, pensions and free, kick-butt, cadillac-level healthcare?!

  8. Denise Treadwell says:

    I enjoyed the Susan books . Eg Susan Rushes in. They would be considered racist today. I didn’t see anything like that in them then . I only saw the comedy, and the crime solving.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Retroactive censorship is cultural vandalism. Stories are of their time and build a complete picture, removing parts is like Stalin airbrushing people he disagreed with (or had killed) out of photographs.The fact that the past was racist, brutal and indifferent to cruelty and suffering doesn’t mean it should be whitewashed over and softened for modern cultural attitudes. Which picture tells the true story; a retouched photo of a run-down 1960’s street with a sign saying ‘Vacancies’ or the same photo, un-retouched, with the sign reading ‘Vacancies, No Irish, No Blacks’?

  10. Helen Martin says:

    I agree with Peter Dixon. We don’t want children reading books which portray (name your group) as universally evil, ignorant or vicious so we do need to watch what children read but you don’t take the images out of the eras because then history makes no sense. How do you explain the anti-Asian riots in Vancouver if you wash away the anti-Asian attitudes of the early 1900s? Everywhere has similar examples.

  11. Brit Ray says:

    Reading Debra Matheny’s post is like hearing what I so often say to myself and out loud. And it always results in the awed question- how do they do it!!? The “they” being prolific writers like you and so many of my other favorites. Presumably no one does your exercise for you. Like the rest of us you have to spend time cooking and eating and cleaning and shopping and traveling and looking out for family and friends and pets and grabbing what time you can for the fun things like thinking and art and writing and reading and movies and puzzles and TV and movies and, and, and, and. Not to mention sleeping. (What a great world for those of us privileged enough to enjoy it. ) But the question is – how do you bend Time and so quickly arrange multitudes of ideas into eternal existence- perfect abstractions that will exist as long as there are minds to interpret them. Michel Innes, published about 20 peerless mysteries plus stories and non-fiction in addition to being an Oxford don. Margery Allingham wrote about the same number of novels in her delightful Campion series. Terry Pratchett gave us 38 Disc World marvels. Martha Grimes must be up to about 42 amazing novels and still counting, while also teaching. And there are the rare others who, like you, create the kind of complex wild and whacky worlds I love to visit. From afar, of course. Books in which every sentence is one I would love to have written. It seems that you have very special brains that support very special minds from which genius spews. Obvious, I guess. But I can’t stop marveling. Now I’m going to get back to my comic fantasy writing lest my own sands of time surprise me by finally running out. I think I should get a new egg timer. Or maybe an old one. One with a very narrow middle. And hook it up to an electrical device that automatically flips it over before reaching the end. Reminds me of a Josephine Tey title. But even more of TP’s old friend, DEATH. Um. What I mean to say is Happy New Year!

  12. Brit Ray says:

    Ha ha. Looking at the above I think I should have practiced some self censorship and not run on so. Sorry! Just meant to ask how you accomplish so much great writing. Maybe you can address this in your latest post.

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