One of the most significant milestones in the history of free speech occurred in 1960, when a jury in the U.K. declared that D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not guilty of contravening the British Obscene Publications Act, enacted in 1959 “to provide for the protection of literature and to strengthen the law concerning pornography.” The stakes were high: the publisher of a book which had “a tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences,” if convicted, faced incarceration. As Geoffrey Robertson writes:
Literary standards were set at what was deemed acceptable reading for fourteen-year-old schoolgirls – whether or not they could, or would want to, read it. Merit was no defence: in 1928 The Well of Loneliness was destroyed by a magistrate who realized to his horror that one line in the novel (“and that night they were not divided”) meant that two female characters had been to bed together. He said this would “induce thoughts of a most impure character and would glorify the horrible tendency to lesbianism.” Censorship of sexual references in literature was pervasive in England in the 1930s (there was a brief respite for James Joyce’s Ulysses, however, when a sumptuously bound copy was found among the papers of a deceased Lord Chancellor), while, in the 1950s, police seized copies of the Kinsey Report and prosecuted four major publishers for works of modern fiction – three were convicted. During this period, books by Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Cyril Connolly and others were available only to those English readers who could afford to travel to Paris to purchase them.
Although the content of Lawrence’s novel appears tame by today’s standards (compare it with certain scenes in American Psycho, for example), the book, and the surrounding trial, was a cause célèbre in its day. The verdict was handed down in November 1960, and by the end of the year, two million copies of the book had been sold. Penguin printed a special companion edition, The Trial of Lady Chatterley, which appeared in 1961; both Lawrence’s novel and the book about the trial were banned in Australia.
I can think of no better way to close Freedom to Read Week 2011 than by quoting the Publisher’s Dedication from the 1960 edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
For having published this book, Penguin Books were prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, at the Old Bailey in London from 20 October to 2 November 1960. This edition is therefore dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty,” and thus made D.H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.
From Lady Chatterley’s Lover:
In this short summer night she learnt so much. She would have thought a woman would have died of shame. Instead of which, the shame died. Shame, which is fear: the deep organic shame, the old, old physical fear which crouches in the bodily roots of us, and can only be chased away by the sensual fire, at last it was roused up and routed by the phallic hunt of the man, and she came to the very heart of the jungle of herself. She felt, now, she had come to the real bed-rock of her nature, and was essentially shameless. She was her sensual self, naked and unashamed. She felt a triumph, almost a vainglory. So! That was how it was! That was life! That was how oneself really was! There was nothing left to disguise or be ashamed of. She shared her ultimate nakedness with a man, another being.
In 2008, the Toronto District School Board removed Barbara Coloroso’s book Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide from its list of recommended readings for Grade 11 history students. The TDSB’s action resulted from complaints on the part of Turkish Canadians, who objected to Coloroso’s characterization of the Armenian massacre of 1915–1918 as genocide. (This is the same “crime” that got Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk charged with “insulting Turkishness” in 2005: the charges were later dropped.) For its part, the TDSB stated that the decision to drop the book was made because of a determination that it “was a far from a scrupulous text and should not be on a History course although it might be included in a course on the social psychology of genocide because of [the author’s] posited thesis that genocide is merely the extreme extension of bullying.” Responding to the TDSB’s decision, Susan Swan wrote an open letter on behalf of The Writers’ Union of Canada condemning the action. Swan’s letter read in part:
You claim your reason for banning the book is that Ms. Coloroso is not a professional historian. This feels like a thinly disguised attempt to hide the truth that you have been pressured into banning her book by a politically motivated interest group. Ms. Coloroso is a highly respected and well-established professional writer and public speaker on social justice and child raising; her books are published around the world. Her book on genocide is meticulously researched and extremely appropriate for a course such as yours on the Holocaust.
It is completely unacceptable for those responsible for educating the citizens of tomorrow to remove valuable titles every time an interest group brings forth a complaint. If so, your library shelves would be bare indeed.
The TDSB eventually reversed its decision and restored the book to its recommended reading list. This reversal, however, resulted in Turkish Canadians protesting to the provincial government and the Ontario Ministry of Education.
From Extraordinary Evil:
In a 1999 research project conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, subjects were asked to view a seventy-five-second video titled Gorilla in Our Midst: Sustained Inattentional Blindness for Dynamic Events. On the video, two teams – one dressed in white, one dressed in black – passed two basketballs around. The subjects were to count the number of passes between players wearing the same color. About forty-five seconds into the video a woman wearing a gorilla suit walks through the group of players, stops briefly to pound her chest, and then continues walking out of the video frame – spending a total of nine seconds on the screen. Subjects who were counting the passes were then asked if they had seen the gorilla. Only 36 percent reported that they had. The other 64 percent experienced what is known as “inattentional blindness,” the inability to detect unexpected objects to which we aren’t paying attention.
As Samantha Power notes, acts of war, and even just the rhetoric of war, can have the effect of masking genocide. In this sense, the “eliminationist campaigns” are the unexpected objects, the “gorilla in our midst” to which “outsiders” aren’t paying attention.
Those who instigate and perpetrate the eliminationist campaigns actually use war as a tool of genocide. Wartime conditions heighten the threat level and create a polarized world view in which the “enemy” is objectified and dehumanized; those targeted for extermination are thus easily subsumed into the category of enemy and measures are allowed that would not be tolerated in peacetime. As well, the perpetrators are provided with the necessary cover to carry out their ugly deeds. Genocide is not the cause or the consequence of war.
Despite receiving the Giller Prize (twice), the Governor General’s Award (three times), the Man Booker International Prize, the Trillium Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN/Malmud Award, the O. Henry Award, the Marian Engle Award, and countless others, Alice Munro has been the victim of censorship in her native country, most frequently for her 1971 classic, Lives of Girls and Women. In 1979, the Huron County school board demanded that Munro’s book be removed from the reading lists for Grade 12 and 13 students. In their book Interpreting Censorship in Canada, Allan C. Hutchinson and Klaus Petersen write, “The Catholic Women’s League in the town of Knightsbridge, Huron County, was concerned about ‘gutter talk and blasphemy'” in the book. In 1982, parents in Toronto petitioned to have the collection stricken from the high school curriculum for its “language and philosophy.” Lives of Girls and Women has faced similar attacks across the country since its publication.
It’s not difficult to understand why. Munro is a feminist writer, but her feminism is subversive, and makes many readers uncomfortable in the way it questions the established social order, particularly where matters of sexuality are concerned. In her essay “Reading Female Sexual Desire in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women,” Sue Thomas writes:
To adapt Del’s realization of a mature aesthetic, “People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, and unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum,” there are discordant cracks in the “linoleum” of Del’s account of her sexual desire for Garnet French. The “linoleum” of Del’s representations of self and others is, on one level, the familiar pattern of intelligibility that domesticates the “deep caves” … of personality and character, facilitating a durable sense of identity and structuring interaction with others. The cracks in the linoleum of Del’s representations of her sexual desire – signaled by Munro through allusion, metaphor, and the surfacing of the uncanny – expose “deep caves” of ambiguity and complexity in Del’s sexuality and her relationship with her mother.
Female sexuality – especially when tinged with “ambiguity and complexity” – makes many readers uncomfortable. The persistent challenges to this suite of stories testify to Munro’s determination to confront this ambiguity and complexity in a direct and unsentimental way.
From “Princess Ida”:
The older brother sometimes brought her candy, from Town. He shaved at the kitchen table, a mirror propped against the lamp. He was vain, she thought, he had a moustache, and he got letters from girls which he never answered, but left lying around where anybody could read them. My mother appeared to hold this against him. “I have no illusions about him,” she said, “though I guess he was no different from most.” He lived in New Westminster now, and worked on a ferryboat. The other brother lived in the States. At Christmas they sent cards, and she sent cards to them. They never wrote letters, nor did she.
It was the younger brother she hated. What did he do? Her answers were not wholly satisfactory. He was evil, bloated, cruel. A cruel fat boy. He fed firecrackers to cats. He tied up a toad and chopped it to pieces. He drowned my mother’s kitten, named Misty, in the cow trough, though he afterwards denied it. Also he caught my mother and tied her up in the barn and tormented her. Tormented her? He tortured her.
What with? But my mother would never go beyond that word, tortured, which she spat out like blood. So I was left to imagine her tied up in the barn, as at a stake, while her brother a fat Indian yelped and pranced about her. But she had escaped, after all, unscalped, unburnt. Nothing really accounted for her darkened face at this point in the story, for her way of saying tortured. I had not yet learned to recognize the gloom that overcame her in the vicinity of sex.
The first people to censor Bret Easton Ellis’s notorious 1991 novel American Psycho – one of the most controversial books published in the last 20 years – were its originating publishers, Simon & Schuster. Ellis had been signed to a substantial advance for the book, but when word started seeping out about the content, which was variously described as superficial, moronic, pointless, and pornographic, Simon & Schuster pulled the plug. Within days Sonny Mehta had signed the book at Random House/Knopf, where it was published under the Vintage imprint in March 1991. It has been a lightning rod for controversy ever since. The U.S. National Organization for Women castigated the novel, saying that it “legitimizes inhuman and savage violence masquerading as sexuality.” Naomi Woolf said that it was “a violation not of obscenity standards, but of women’s civil rights, insofar as it results in conditioning male sexual response to female suffering or degradation.” Canada Customs briefly disallowed shipments of the book across the border and the Defence Department removed copies from a Halifax navy library. One of the most infamous – and patently stupid – claims against the book was that sex killer Paul Bernardo kept a copy of it in his personal library.
Through it all, the critics missed out on the fact that the book is not pornography, but satire. One reason why people are made so uncomfortable may have to do with how closely Ellis mirrors our rabidly consumerist, media saturated, celebrity addicted, narcissistic culture. Patrick Bateman, c’est nous tous.
From American Psycho:
… where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, or receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliché, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire – meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface was all that anyone found meaning in … this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged …
Vladimir Nabokov’s scandalous 1955 novel Lolita is one of the most frequently banned books in the Western canon. It was placed on the Canada Customs list of banned books in 1958, although shipments from the U.S. were eventually allowed into the country. It has also been banned as obscene in countries as diverse as France, England, South Africa, Argentina, and New Zealand. Told from the perspective of Humbert Humbert, unrepentant pedophile and murderer, it is one of the most distinctly uncomfortable novels ever written. It is also a stylistic masterpiece, and a showcase for Nabokov’s mordant humour. In his short essay “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” Nabokov directly addresses the charges of lewdness and immorality that sprang up almost instantly upon the novel’s publication:
I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books.
There are not many such books. Lolita is undoubtedly one of them.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
In 1995, the school board in Lanark County, Ontario, denied approval of Stephen King’s collection of four novellas, Different Seasons, on the basis of the book’s sexual content and language. The book had been recommended by teachers for use with senior students at Carleton Place High School. One of the board members who was involved in making the decision admitted not having read the book. In Stephen King from A to Z: An Encyclopedia of His Life and Work, George W. Beahm quotes the author’s response to the suppression of his book by the Lanark County School Board: “I know the attitude and the mindset. These people love to be despots in their own little territory … Book banning is never about what’s pornographic or what’s not. It’s always about who’s got the power to … try and impose their view of the way the world should be on the minds of the young ones in their charge.”
From “Apt Pupil” by Stephen King:
“Do you suppose, I ask myself, that the very atrocities in which Dussander took part formed the basis of some attraction between them? That’s an unholy idea, I tell myself. The things that happened in those camps still have power enough to make the stomach flutter with nausea. I feel that way myself, although the only close relative I ever had in the camps was my grandfather, and he died when I was three. But maybe there is something about what the Germans did that exercises a deadly fascination over us – something that opens the catacombs of the imagination. Maybe part of our dread and horror comes from a secret knowledge that under the right – or wrong – set of circumstances, we ourselves would be willing to build such places and staff them. Black serendipity. Maybe we know that under the right set of circumstances the things that live in the catacombs would be glad to crawl out. And what do you think they would look like? Like mad Fuehrers with forelocks and shoe-polish moustaches, heil-ing all over the place? Like red devils, or demons, or the dragon that floats on its stinking reptile wings?”
“I don’t know,” Richler said.
“I think most of them would look like ordinary accountants,” Weiskopf said. “Little mind-men with graphs and flow-charts and electronic calculators, all ready to start maximizing the kill ratios so that next time they could perhaps kill twenty or thirty million instead of only six. And some of them might look like Todd Bowden.”
“You’re damn near as creepy as he is,” Richler said.
Weiskopf nodded. “It’s a creepy subject. Finding those dead men and animals in Dussander’s cellar … that was creepy, nu? Have you ever thought that maybe this boy began with a simple interest in the camps? An interest not much different from the interests of boys who collect coins or stamps or who like to read about Wild West desperados? And that he went to Dussander to get his information straight from the horse’s head?”
“Mouth,” Richler said automatically. “Man, at this point I could believe anything.”
“Maybe,” Weiskopf muttered. It was almost lost in the roar of another ten-wheeler passing them. BUDWEISER was printed on the side in letters six feet tall. What an amazing country, Weiskopf thought, and lit a fresh cigarette. They don’t understand how we can live surrounded by half-mad Arabs, but if I lived here for two years I would have a nervous breakdown. “Maybe. And maybe it isn’t possible to stand close to murder piled on murder and not be touched by it.”
February 20–26 is Freedom to Read Week in Canada, an annual event put on by the Book and Periodical Council to raise awareness about issues of censorship across the country. Comprising book and magazine publishers, librarians, writers, and others, the Freedom to Read Week committee sponsors a website and a week-long campaign that involves anti-censorship events across the country. The website also includes a list of challenged books and a series of case studies on censorship in Canada. In its position statement, the Freedom to Read committee states that they “oppose the detention, seizure, destruction, or banning of books and periodicals – indeed, any effort to deny, repress, or sanitize. Censorship does not protect society; it smothers creativity and precludes open debate of controversial issues.”
In support of this year’s Freedom to Read Week campaign, and as an acknowledgment that censorship remains a prevalent and dangerous force in our society, each day between now and February 26, TSR will highlight one book that has been challenged or banned in Canada over the years. Lest anyone should think that censorship and its insidious cousin, political correctness, are things of the past, the first such book should put the lie to that notion right away.
One of the most frequently challenged books in high school systems across the continent, Mark Twain’s 1884 novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still subject to challenge and censure. Last month, news broke that an American scholar was releasing a sanitized version of Twain’s novel, with 219 instances of the word “nigger” removed and replaced with the word “slave.” The new edition’s editor, Alan Gribben of Auburn University at Montgomery, argues that the racial epithet is so untenable to readers in 2011 that it is necessary to excise it in order to ensure that the text be palatable to young and sensitive readers. Although the book is in the public domain, and therefore open to the kind of revision Professor Gribben promotes, there is no doubt that the changes denude the text of much of its force. It is also ironic that Professor Gribben should choose as his target a book by an author who was a noted racial progressive.
In a blistering editorial on January 5, 2011, The New York Times laid out the opposing position:
We are horrified, and we think most readers, textual purists or not, will be horrified too. The trouble isn’t merely adulterating Twain’s text. It’s also adulterating social, economic, and linguistic history. Substituting the word “slave” makes it sound as though all the offense lies in the “n-word” and has nothing to do with the institution of slavery. Worse, it suggests that understanding the truth of the past corrupts modern readers, when, in fact, this new edition is busy corrupting the past.
When Huckleberry Finn was published, Mark Twain appended a note on his effort to reproduce “painstakingly” the dialects in the book, including several backwoods dialects and “the Missouri negro dialect.” What makes Huckleberry Finn so important in American literature isn’t just the story, it’s the richness, the detail, the unprecedented accuracy of its spoken language. There is no way to “clean up” Twain without doing irreparable harm to the truth of his work.
Whitewashing history as a means of coddling readers’ sensitivities is one of the more insidious forms of censorship around; that this can occur in 2011, with the advocacy of a noted scholar, no less, underscores the importance of initiatives such as Freedom to Read Week.
From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain:
I got down there all out of breath but loaded up with joy, and sung out:
“Set her loose, Jim; we’re all right now!”
But there warn’t no answer, and nobody come out of the wigwam. Jim was gone! I set up a shout – and then another – and then another one; and run this way and that in the woods, whooping and screeching; but it warn’t no use – old Jim was gone. Then I set down and cried; I couldn’t help it. But I couldn’t set still long. Pretty soon I went out on the road, trying to think what I better do, and I run across a boy walking, and asked him if he’d seen a strange nigger dressed so and so, and he says:
“Whereabouts?” says I.
“Down to Silas Phelps’s place, two mile below here. He’s a runaway nigger and they’ve got him. Was you looking for him?”
“You bet I ain’t! I run across him in the woods about an hour or two ago, and he said if I hollered he’d cut my livers out – and told me to lay down and stay where I was; and I done it. Been there ever since; afeard to come out.”
“Well,” he says, “you needn’t be afeard no more, becuz they’ve got him. He run off f’m down South, som’ers.”
“It’s a good job they got him.”
“Well, I reckon! There’s two hundred dollars’ reward on him. It’s like picking up money out’n the road.”
“Yes, it is – and I could ‘a’ had it if I’d been big enough; I see him first. Who nailed him?”
“It was an old feller – a stranger – and he sold out his chance in him for forty dollars, becuz he’s got to go up the river and can’t wait. Think o’ that, now! You bet I’d wait, if it was seven year.”
“That’s me, every time,” says I. “But maybe his chance ain’t worth no more than that, if he’ll sell it so cheap. Maybe there’s something ain’t straight about it.”
“But it is, though – straight as a string. I see the handbill myself. It tells all about him, to a dot – paints him like a picture, and tells the plantation he’s frum, below Newrleans. No-sirree-bob, they ain’t no trouble ’bout that speculation, you bet you. Say, gimme a chaw tobacker, won’t ye?”
I didn’t have none, so he left. I went to the raft, and set down in the wigwam to think. But I couldn’t come to nothing. I thought till I wore my head sore, but I couldn’t see no way out of the trouble. After all this long journey and after all we’d done for them scoundrels, here it was all come to nothing, everything all busted up and ruined, because they could have the heart to serve Jim such a trick as that and make him a slave again all his life, and amongst strangers, too, for forty dirty dollars.