Give Me Two Shots of Realism, Straight Up

Expletive DeletedUncage MeTom Sawyer and Huckleberry FinnFour Classic American Novels: To Kill a MockingbirdThe World within: Writers Talk Ambition, Aesthetics, Bones, Books, Beautiful Bodies, Censorship, Cheats, Comics, Darkness, Democracy, Death, Exile, ... Men, Old Boys' Network, Oprah, Outcasts...From the DeadFull Dark, No Stars

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.

Expletive DeletedUncage MeTom Sawyer and Huckleberry FinnFour Classic American Novels: To Kill a MockingbirdThe World within: Writers Talk Ambition, Aesthetics, Bones, Books, Beautiful Bodies, Censorship, Cheats, Comics, Darkness, Democracy, Death, Exile, ... Men, Old Boys' Network, Oprah, Outcasts...From the DeadFull Dark, No Stars

The Australian Literature Review
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6 Responses to Give Me Two Shots of Realism, Straight Up

  1. Sally Odgers says:

    Rather than bowdlerise or sanitise, maybe we should let books fall into the past. One thing though; if children read a book published NOW but set THEN we have to make sure they KNOW it’s set “Then”. My teenaged daughter read the book “Deadly Unna” years ago and was shocked at the treatment of some of the characters. I asked her when she thought it was set and she said, “Now!” I asked her if anyone used a mobile phone or a computer and what she thought board shorts were… Once she understood the action took place in the 1970s she “got” the story. And, lest you think my daughter thick, I’d better point out that I thought “A Little Bush Maid” was “Now” when I first read it as a child. I knew farms weren’t like Billabong where *I* lived… but this all took place in Victoria! Things were different there…

  2. Sam Stephens says:

    Great point Sally! That’s interesting what you said about your daughter reading Deadly Unna – it’s something I’ll have to keep in mind as my boy gets older!

    I think all books eventually fall out of popularity, at least for child and teenage use. I can’t imagine Edgar Allan Poe ever being read by kids. I think the only people that could now appreciate his work, are adults who are specifically interested in that kind of writing.

    Maybe in 50 or 100 years only serious literary scholars will know the name “Mark Twain”?

    I hope you enjoyed my first column on AusLit!

    cheers
    Sam

  3. Andrew Farrell says:

    I’m almost with you on ‘the idea almost makes sense’, although I actually feel the idea itself does make sense but in this instance was poorly executed and even more poorly marketed.

    Along with many other articles I’ve read on this topic, you ask ‘Why study social history when you’re only seeing part of the picture?’ and ‘if you’re studying Mark Twain, shouldn’t you be studying ALL of Mark Twain?’, but at the same time acknowledge that ‘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.’ – the point being that these schools are currently not studying Huckleberry Finn in ANY form, as part of either their Mark Twain or their social history studies. This edition would at least have given those schools the opportunity to study an edition of the work, and also have given the more progressive teachers a chance to discuss the wider implications of the ‘censoring’ of the edition they were using (and of course the original edition IS still available for the rest of the schools who were already studying it).

    Simply replacing ‘nigger’ with ‘slave’ however was perhaps an overly simplistic approach and actually makes nonsense of the text in many instances, apart from the basic incorrectness of the substitution. It was also interesting to note that in the vast majority of articles they referred to the editing as ‘removing the “N-Word”‘, which I must admit seemed a little ironic…

    I’m still trying to understand the level of outrage this has generated – in a society which doesn’t think twice about ‘Good News’ and other modernised versions of the bible, idiomatic versions of Shakespeare, and commonplace radio-sanitised versions of songs containing the “F-word” (obviously just as unacceptable to our community ears as the “N-word” is to our eyes?), all created in order to take their message to a wider audience… isn’t that the purpose of this edition of Huckleberry Finn also? Or is it that ‘great’ literature is sacrosanct?

    Enjoyed the article, time to tuck into some rabbit stew!

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  4. Michael says:

    Good column, Sam.

    Altering Twain’s text was always going to be contentious, and rightly so. I’m with you, words are simply words. By pandering to the politically correct crowd what the censors are doing is further empowering the current negative context of the word. I had something similar recently when singing The Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree song with my 9 year old nephew. We got to ‘gay’ and he starts giggling and refused to say it. After a little chat about what the word meant back when the song was written he was much more comfortable with using it.

    Nigger, obviously, is different, but this is a chance to educate children. A chance lost, I think.

    I have read opinions on the contrary, that anything that would get books into the hands of kids is a good thing. But having been a young boy once I can say that give me a choice between a santised version of the book and one with a rude word in, I know which I would have chosen each time.

  5. Sam Stephens says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Excellent points – I really enjoyed your response!

    It makes me wonder, if a school won’t stock a book because of a certain word that they find unsuitable, should a sanitized version be made available or should the school simply choose alternatives?

    By banning these books in schools, the statement is being made “We’ll just choose alternatives.”

    Write or wrong? I really don’t know.

    But removing racial slurs from a book that, in it’s heart, is about anti-racism? It just seems counter-productive, and to miss the whole point of the book.

    And I think as writers, we shouldn’t be afraid to show the world as it is, even the ugly bits.

    Lastly, you said: is ‘great’ literature sacrosanct? Related to this, I know that I for one was horrified when a dance remix of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck was released 😉

    Again, I enjoyed your response!

    cheers
    Sam

  6. Sam Stephens says:

    Glad you enjoyed it, Michael!

    I agree that if kids are reading words which have a different context these days, they do need to be educated on why things are now different. Without that education, it’s almost like burying the embaressing past.

    I think what really got me about this story, though, was the man who first recommended it was a Professor who specalised in Twain literature. This seems to indicate to me that his class would be college or uni students. So 17 or 18 year olds, plus.

    So basically adults. And if adults can’t have an adult discussion about literature, then why do those literary classes even exist?

    cheers
    Sam

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