Friday, 4 February 2011



I’ve been thinking about posting something about censorship for a while. I don’t like it, I don’t agree with it, but as writers of Erotica, we censor our stuff all the time. We have to, if we want our stories to be published. I don’t particularly want to write underage sex stories, non-consensual sex stories, and “snuff” stories. If I do decide to, I have to file them away somewhere and wait for a cultural change.

Having said that, I have written a story about bestiality; another topic that’s on the censor’s hit list. I enjoyed writing it -- a few people have said they enjoyed reading it.

But as I’ve said before, there are examples of all of these practices in Homer and Shakespeare. So what’s going on? Perhaps folk in days gone by, weren’t so touchy about being politically correct. Maybe, just maybe, they were more in touch with themselves, than we are with all our ever growing gadgets, potions and technologies. Perhaps we, in the angst ridden 21st century, just look for stuff to worry about.

So, I was shocked and dismayed, when I read Benedict Page’s article in the Guardian newspaper, telling me that Alabama in the U.S. has dropped Mark Twain’s classic, “Huckleberry Finn”, from the school curriculum. Not only that, but the entire book is being re-written;

“…and will be published with a notable language alteration: all instances of the offensive racial term "nigger" are to be expunged. The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys' adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by "slave". The word "injun" will also be replaced in the text.”

Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery says it will have the effect, of replacing "two hurtful epithets" in order to "counter the 'pre-emptive censorship' that Dr Gribben observes, “has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide."

Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. "The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."

"We may applaud Twain's ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era," Gribben added, "but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers."

So what next? Re-writes of “To Kill A Mockingbird”? “Of Mice And Men”? There’s bestiality in “A Midsummer Nights’ Dream.” And “The Merchant Of Venice” is blatantly anti-Semitic. So, for that matter, is Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”. And while we’re at it, what about Vladimir Nabokov’s pornographic novel, “Lolita”? Nothing more than a call for legitimising paedophilia. What’s that? It’s not porn? And it’s not advocating paedophilia? Well, it would surely embarrass Dr Gribben! Re-write it anyway!

I have a mischievous image in my mind of Dr Gribben’s lectures. His students would pick up on the esteemed Academic’s embarrassment immediately. There would be nudges and giggles and wonderful impersonations of Dr Gribben. How the great man would be mortified.

It may be an uncomfortable fact, but the human race does have a lot to feel ashamed about, in terms of how we have treated “the other”. The person, whom for whatever reason, be it race, sexuality, disability, is different to the majority. That doesn’t mean we should re-write history. That was how things were back then. Yes, blush and mumble our excuses. Learn from the past, don’t negate it. To do anything else, lacks integrity.

Shame on you, Dr Gribben, you attempt to make words a liar. But words are tricky, slippery things and the truth has a way of working itself out. You should know, as an Academic, that we don’t control language; it controls us. You mess with words; they bite back.

Mark Twain himself, was a passionate critic of American racism, and donated money to a number of civil rights organisations including the nascent NAACP, as well as ironically critiquing prejudice in both Huckleberry Finn and the later novel Puddn'head Wilson.

I am mildly amused that Mark Twain makes Dr Gribben feel uncomfortable, I like to think that Mr Twain would be amused too -- but really, Dr Gribben, don’t be such a baby. Get over it. Get over yourself.


  1. Hey billierosie,

    How very sad that words can hold such power that even after all these years, they have to be altered. How sad that we can't simply understand that times are different now. At least I hope they are.

    My feelings are: Once a story/book is written and published, it's done. How many thousands, perhaps millions, have read Huckleberry Finn and so many other works that if submitted today, would most likely have been returned with the remark, 'Clean it up and resub. Story's fantastic, language, not so much.'

    You know, I remember years ago sending my innocent daughter to school one day where she recited the old nursery rhyme, eenie meanie miney moe...and you all know the rest. She came home in tears, inconsolable because she'd been sent to the principles office for saying the word nigger. She had no idea what the word meant, and I had no idea the rhyme had been changed since I'd been taught it as a child.

    So, I had to sit the poor child down and explain why one stupid little word had caused all that trouble. Now, if the teacher had simply asked my daughter to recite a different ditty, nothing would have come of it. Instead, she'd spend a day in tears and learned how idiotic people can be.

    I don't argue the fact that certain words hold some awful meanings for many. I do think there comes a time when we should be adult enough to understand the passed is the passed. Live with it, learn from it and go on to hopefully a better way of doing things.

    Great post!


  2. I saw this story too and wondered about it. I have half a memory of similar things happening to other books in the past, for a range of reasons - to make books acceptable to younger readers, etc etc. - without causing a great deal of fuss. But where the 'N-word' (is it's come to be called) is put in the mouths of people who are being satirised, losing it blunts the point of the satire as a whole. It's a difficult question because the idea of the change is to re-popularise a book that should be popular, by bringing it into line with modern sensibilities. I do wonder, though, how we'd think about it if the project was to popularise something that was, say, politically repressive... Arguably making the changes, for whatever reason, is itself politically repressive and we need to respect the origins of the work - it's an argument I'd buy but I doubt it would get much support in wider society...