This post is part of the regular column Sam Stephens: On Reading and Writing Fiction.
I have a three year old son, and many times I’ve read him the story of Peter Rabbit. He loves it. But all this time I didn’t realise I was reading a sanitised version until the day we stumbled onto the full story. In my boy’s cut-down version, Peter Rabbit’s dad is never caught, and never cooked into a pie. In fact the single-parent status of Peter Rabbit’s family is never raised.
Ask no questions, tell no lies. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.
And fair enough. Paternal slaughter and the consequent baking between tasty pie-crust probably isn’t something I’d like my little boy to consider. I don’t want to wake up one day with a piece of puff pastry draped over my head, and him rubbing sticks together underneath my bed.
But as adults, different rules apply. It isn’t about withholding content that our minds can’t handle; the idea behind most censorship is withholding content that could offend or disturb. So where do we draw the line between minimising offensiveness and the sanitisation of what can often be historical fact? And as writers, is self-censorship the ultimate literary crime?
My first column wasn’t going to be a soapbox spectacle, but with the recent news of a censored version of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn being announced, how could I resist?
For those who haven’t yet heard, a “non-offensive” version of Huckleberry Finn will be published where the words “nigger” will be replaced with “slave”, and “injun” with “Indian”. Two offensive words are being replaced with two non-offensive words.
It’s also interesting to note, Huckleberry Finn (as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, and other classics) haven’t been stocked in a number of schools for awhile, simply because of the offensive racial slurs contained within. Dr Alan Griven, a Twain scholar approached the publisher of this project with the idea to remove the racial slurs, due to the increasingly uncomfortable readings of Huck’s shenanigans in class.
This is what gets me: the idea almost makes sense. Almost. Then I think, if you’re studying Mark Twain, shouldn’t you be studying ALL of Mark Twain? Shouldn’t early literature be studied in its entire form, both for its beauty and for its darkness?
Words aren’t just words. They’re a reflection of the person speaking and of current social attitudes. Sanitising the words of Huckleberry Finn, a boy growing up in the early 1800’s, boils down to sanitizing historical social attitudes. And if you look at it that way, wouldn’t hiding the attitudes people had towards certain races in the early 1800’s be more offensive than simply admitting it happened? Is the act of removing offensive words an offensive act in itself?
The publisher said this edition is not designed to replace the original text, but instead be an option made available so that the story can reach a wider audience. But isn’t that like buying a knife with the sharp edges taken off? Why study social history when you’re only seeing part of the picture?
And what about other kinds of offensive language? In one or two hundred years from now, will people sanitize our work to make it more acceptable in the world of 2211?
I recently bought a copy of Expletive Deleted online. It’s a book that doesn’t necessarily celebrate bad language, but one which accepts that there are bad people in the world, and the reality is that bad people use bad language. It’s Anti-Censorship, in book form.
Will I be offended by some of the contents? I have no idea. But what I do know is that I don’t want to rely on other people to bind my world in bubble-wrap. I want to read about reality, even if the story itself is fictional. The world isn’t full of fluffy bunnies and rainbows. And yes, sometimes in the real world Peter Rabbit’s dad is caught, killed, and turned into baked goods, leaving his wife to care for their three children under the roots of a big fir tree.
Uncomfortable? Yes. But it’s real.
— Sam Stephens www.samstephens.com
Sam Stephens is the winner of a number of short story awards, including James Patterson’s Airborne project, and two AusLit short story awards. You can read a number of his short stories for free on his website, and follow him on Twitter.
The Australian Literature Review