Friday, 28 August 2009

Bookish Bits & Bobs: Censorship and Controversy

Lists of frequently banned and challenged books proliferate on the internet, telling eager readers of the books banned and protested against for everything and anything from being sexually explicit (DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover) to not upholding traditional values (John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men). The fact of these books being challenged or banned seems only in most cases to achieve the opposite effect: readers only want to read them more.

The most consistent 'victim' of the challengings and bannings (bannings taking place mainly in school and public libraries) is perhaps Judy Blume, who has had many of her books objected to for dealing with teenage issues so explicitly (such as masturbation, teenage sex, menstruation, racism, and parental divorce). It is worth asking what such protestors hope to achieve. Are they all religious nutcases who want their children to believe that everything is sweetness and light? Are they Mary Whitehouse-type figures who want to bring back the days of corsets, the birch, and being seen and not heard? Or are they parents who are paranoid that the information contained in such books will only serve to highlight their own parental weaknesses to their teenagers?

But more sinister, perhaps, is when books are actually changed on behalf of the public in order to not offend their sensibilities, or worse, simply to modernise. The two biggest casualties are surely Hergé (creator of Tintin) and Enid Blyton. The works of these writers are now at least 80, approaching 100 years old, so it is inevitable that the worlds inhabited by the characters and the attitudes represented therein will be very different to what 21st-century readers experience. The writers have therefore been criticised for a battery of 'offences' that held little or no offensive value when the books were written. Hergé's catalogue of offences alone comprises animal cruelty, racism, violence, colonialism and fascism - pretty serious allegations for a cartoon series about a young Belgian reporter and his dog. Hergé himself altered particularly patronising passages of Tintin in the Congo in 1946, but this was a voluntary change (unlike the changing of images of Tintin hunting animals, which was not, although Hergé did eventually redraw this as well). Even as recently as 2007, consumers were calling for Tintin in the Congo to be withdrawn from publication completely. While this was easily the most controversial Tintin album, it was not the only one to fall under scrutiny: The Shooting Star had a very Jewish-looking character's name changed to something less ethnically specific so as to avoid causing offence.

Enid Blyton has perhaps come off even worse, and to even greater protest around the world at the changes made to her books. The protests from the politically correct were obviously strong enough to result in many of Blyton's books having names or actions of characters changed in later reprints, but perhaps the naysayers did not count on the loyal battalions of Blyton fans, whose views on these changes can be found all over the internet. They complain that as a result of the changes, the books have become watered-down, less action-packed, and far less a portrait of the time in which they were written, as well as serving as a betrayal of Blyton herself. Blyton too is charged with racism and sexism in particular, with the Noddy series and the Faraway Tree series being most affected by the changes, as well as several of her books for younger children that feature golliwogs. The changes have been made chiefly in order to cause less offence and to modernise, and doubtlessly traders of second-hand and antique books will be thrilled - older editions of Hergé's comics already sell for hundreds of dollars (even the ones that were already edited by Hergé), so unedited versions of Blyton's works may be set to grow exponentially in price.

But the booksellers may be the only ones who are pleased by the changes. I personally find it discomfiting on several levels (though more in relation to Blyton's works than to Hergé's - at least at the time of the changes to the Tintin comics, Hergé was still alive to defend himself). On a practical note, we cannot go on adapting or the books will be unrecognisable - especially since times change so quickly. If I were going to be flippant, I would ask what was coming next - Dick and Jo (sorry, Rick and Joe) texting on their iPhones? Noddy trading in his little motor for a chavmobile?

More seriously, I believe that there is something to be said for maintaining authorial integrity. While the debate over how far we actually own works once they have left the authors' hands will rage forevermore, surely preserving a snapshot of their time is not only essential in order for us to teach our children how times change but also a matter of respect for the authors' work. I know I'll certainly be guarding my Faraway Tree books (featuring Dame SLAP, thank you) with my life.

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