Home > rant > Thoughts on Censorship and “Taboo” Subject Matter in Fiction

Thoughts on Censorship and “Taboo” Subject Matter in Fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about censorship and fiction that has subject matter that might be considered taboo or potentially offensive recently.

This has kind of been brewing for a short while now for a variety of reasons, mostly with a few news stories I’ve been following, namely the decision to release an edited version of Huck Finn with instances of the n-word removed, this story about a book list of  “100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader” releasing a list then revising it after some readers thought some of the books contained controversial subject matter, specifically it’s handling of rape as a plot element, and finally the recent controversy over a Penny Arcade comic that used the word rape, which many people felt using it in a humor comic was perpetuating a “rape culture” (this last story I won’t be going as in depth on as the other stories since, frankly, it’s been discussed so much that I don’t really think I have a unique perspective on it. However, I’m including it in the post since it, and the other two stories, sparked the general thoughts I have in this post). I urge everyone to check out the discussions around all three of those stories, as the stories and controversy surrounding them leads to some interesting debate.

Just to warn ahead of time, I will admit that this post might seem kind of rambling. Mostly because this is just me thinking out loud about these topics based on the stories I’ve pointed to.

As a writer, I found all three of these stories very interesting, since it got me thinking about how strongly people can feel about subjects matter in fiction they feel is taboo or that they feel is making light of what they feel is a serious issue. Many people feel that subjects like rape and incest and the like don’t really have a place in fiction if not handled properly, that they can do harm to the culture as a whole or that they will simply trivialize the issue. The latter two stories I linked to included quite a lot of discussion about this (although the last story involving Penny Arcade is a lot more complicated since that controversy had a lot of different factors that caused it to roll out of control a bit).

I certainly believe in intelligent discussion about whether a work of literature or media is appropriate. Elements in all the stories I linked provoke debate about these subject, what’s okay to write about and to promote. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and if they believe a work is offensive or trivializing an issue they have intense personal experience in, they have every right to let people know that.

However, it works both ways. Above everything else, I believe in freedom of speech in regards to art and expression. Unless that form of expression involves physically harming someone, I personally don’t believe there is any subject that’s off-limits to explore in art and literature. There are plenty of works of art and literature I believe handle controversial subjects in bad taste or that I feel have just plain disturbing subject matter with little artistic value, but I don’t feel there is any one topic that’s taboo. It is one thing to say you don’t like a piece of literature because you feel its offensive, it’s an entirely different one to say that literature should be banned, censored, or that the people who read it without being offended are immoral people contributing to social degradation.

People who make statements claiming people should be barred from being exposed to a work of literature or art, usually very well meaning people, can lead to censorship, which I don’t believe in. It can lead to some people not being exposed to very respectible pieces of literature or weaken the point the work is trying to make. As we see in the first story I linked, not even Mark Twain is big enough to avoid censorship. That case is remarkable since anyone who has ever read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the entire point of the story was that slavery and racial discrimination is immoral. This book was written at a time where racial discrimination was depressingly common and where the n-word and ethnic slurs were heard quite frequently. Twain’s point is while that kind of behavior was the social norm at the time, it did not make it morally right, that just because words like those were used by nearly everyone and that treating people a different race as inferior was something commonly practiced, did not make it right. By censoring the book with this new edition, it weakens the overall point he was trying to make. Obviously the point is still there, but it won’t be quite as potent. It won’t be what the original author intended.

So when I see stories like the second link, where in a booklist was quickly revised after a few people complained about the inclusion of books like the critically acclaimed Tender Morsels and the chilling Living Dead Girl (which I happen to be currently reading through), it’s kind of unsettling. Again, people have every right to say how they feel about the list. Every top 10 or top 100 list anywhere, ever, has discussions over what should or shouldn’t be on it. The people who thought some of the choices were offensive are entitled to their opinion and most cite reasonable reasons why they don’t feel it should be on the list. However, the creators of the list actually changing the list because of those comments is the unsettling part. I felt it did a disservice to the authors and works that were removed from the list and it seemed to seem to be self-censorship more than anything. It’s disturbing knowing a book can be recommended then very quickly disregarded because of a vocal minority.

It’s the same thing with banning books. Many books have been banned from libraries and schools, including classics such as Catcher in the Rye, because of a vocal minority believing its not appropriate for one reason or another. Again, most of the campaigns to ban books are well intentioned, but it can lead to people not being exposed to great works of art. It can lead to someone else’s freedom of speech being silenced or diluted. And unfortunately, censorship and banning one work can set precedent for other works to be censored or banned.

My point in this post, if there is one to be made aside from me thinking out loud, is that I believe that everyone has the right to write about any subject, even if it might seem controversial, just as everyone has the right to make express how they feel about it be it positively or negatively. Freedom of speech isn’t limited to the freedom of speech you feel is appropriate. Whether you think a piece of literature is offensive or if you think someone’s post complaining about a piece of artwork is making an argument you don’t agree with. As long as nobody hurts one another, everyone has a right to express themselves. Controversies such as this provoke some great discussion and thought (after all, it got me thinking about all this), but I don’t feel like anyone has a right to be censored or silent when it comes to art.

Anyway, that’s my thoughts on all this. Sorry if it seemed to ramble a little bit. Just got to thinking about all that. I promise the next post won’t come off nearly as rambling or preachy or anything.

  1. Miki
    February 7, 2011 at 6:11 am

    Nice post. I completely agree with you on this subject. Being involved with publishing stories of a somewhat controversial genre (not so much in Germany, but in the US) I have experienced some interesting things with censorship as well.

    In Germany, books aren’t as easily taken off the market or modified/censored, but we do have something called “The List”. Books , games and films are reviewed after release and sometimes put on there if the content glorifies violence, rape or racism etc. Once on The List, the publisher/author/developper/studio is no longer allowed to advertise this product but it is still available. The good side is, things that are really grotesk and offensive are still available to whoever wants them without being marketed to the mainstream, yet on the downside, anything can be put on there if someone thinks it’s offensive at the time.
    (Counter Strike is on this list, because we had school shootings and politicians needed a scape goat. it’s completely out of date now, yet no one reviews it again to update The List.)
    And then there’s the whole issue of Germany’s n-word… Anything involving Nazis is pretty much automatically outlawed. (The only exception being historical stuff. I am surprised Inglourious Basterds was shown in theatres here actually! though they did photoshop out all the swastikas on the film posters…)

    In general I have a strong anti-censorship stance. As a creator, I don’t draw comics to offend anyone or to teach youth, but to please my niche audience and mostly myself.

    When it comes to people trying to ‘protect’ their children, I find that the parent is not giving their own children enough credit for being able to understand the content of a book, or that it’s smart enough to stay away from material that’s obviously not suited for them.
    If it’s grown-ups just merely yelling for censorship without the ‘protecting our children’ argument, well… I think it’s an attack on every creator’s freedom of speech.

    Anyway, rambling here as well. xD
    Thanks for the great post!

  1. February 9, 2011 at 2:47 pm

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