Even though this is an article about imagination, censorship, self-censorship and the power of literature, I’m going to have to start by talking about my reactions to reading another article that I saw online a couple of months ago. There’s a good reason for this and I’m not just rambling about my own thoughts for the sake of it.
Likewise, although I’ll try to keep this article suitably undetailed, I should probably warn you that I’ll begin by discussing a genre of fiction that some people may disapprove of. I am writing about this genre purely because of the questions it raises about censorship, self-censorship and the nature of the imagination.
Anyway, although I won’t link to the exact article I read (for reasons that will probably become apparent later), I stumbled across an absolutely fascinating interview (on a popular American humour website, no less) with a professional author who writes lots of … how shall I put it?… short E-books that are designed to be read in private.
This is, if I’m being honest, a genre I’ve always been curious about writing in. But, on the rare occasions that I’ve challenged myself to write something of publishable quality in this genre, I’ve always ended up toning it down quite significantly. I’ve always worried that it would be too shocking if I didn’t self-censor quite a bit. Well, after reading the interview, I had a very different perspective on the genre.
From the interview, I quickly learnt that – even if I didn’t self-censor – my stories would, by modern standards, actually be extremely tame. Hell, they would probably be boring.
I won’t go into detail about some of the more obscure sub-genres of fiction described in the interview – other than to say that the fact that some of them actually exist freaked me out a bit.
And, when it comes to this subject, I like to think that I’m a fairly open-minded and non-judgemental person. Still, at least I was open-minded enough to realise that, although several of the sub-genres of this type of fiction certainly weren’t my kind of thing, the writer still had every right in the world to write and publish these stories.
Naturally, this also made me think about the power of the written word and of the dangers of censorship. In the western world at least (apart from Germany, thanks to a rather bizarre censorship law they recently passed), literature is one of the last bastions of true free expression. It is, as I think I’ve probably mentioned before, one of the few truly anarchic spaces that we have left.
Writers have, thankfully, been able to get away with far more than film-makers, videogame developers or comic creators have and I think that this is due to the difference between the written word and visual media.
In prose fiction, everything takes place entirely within both the writer’s imagination and the reader’s imagination. As such, literature is justifiably free from censorship for the simple reason that to censor literature is to censor thought itself.
Likewise, in order to understand a collection of letters on a page, you have to look closely at it for a few seconds – whereas, with visual media, it’s contents are obvious even from a distance. Prose fiction has much less of an immediate impact than, say, films do. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing in favour of film censorship here, but this does explain why things like films, comics and videogames have been victims of censorship far more often than literature has.
A great example of this can be seen in the horror genre in 1980s Britain. Back in the early-mid 1980s, there was a silly moral panic about “video nasties“. These were gruesome horror movies on video that, by modern standards at least, are fairly tame.
Anyway, a bunch of stuffy old conservatives and preachy tabloid journalists got themselves worked up into an absolute tizzy about these films and this eventually led to the regrettable decision by the conservative government of the time to extend official film censorship to videos as well as cinemas.
However, were you to visit a bookshop at the same time, you could apparently find a plethora of splatterpunk horror novels which contained far more gruesome horrors than any film at the time did.
Hell, even when I first read second-hand copies of these books back in the ’00s, they still seemed wonderfully edgy and genuinely shocking. In fact, when I was finally old enough to lie about my age convincingly enough to buy some real horror movies, I actually found them to be quite disappointing by comparison.
Not only that, thanks to the fact that literature is often eclipsed by other forms of popular entertainment these days, controversial or shocking works of literature can thankfully slip under the radar in a way that, say, even slightly controversial videogames cannot.
I mean, even when “Fifty Shades” made a particular genre of literature popular again, there wasn’t really quite the kind of silly outraged moral panics and moralistic howls for censorship that there would be if someone had produced a film containing the exact same content as the book apparently has.
Yes, I’m aware that there’s a film adaptation of “Fifty Shades” but, from all I’ve read about it, it apparently had to be toned down a lot in order to avoid censorship and controversy.
Literature is a slightly obscure entertainment medium, it’s contents are not always immediately obvious and it takes place entirely within the anarchic private space of our imaginations. It is for these reasons that literature is not only one of the most powerful entertainment mediums in existence but also one of the few things which is thankfully well and truly out of the grasp of puritans, prudes, political fanatics and armchair censors.
Literature is a little pocket of anarchy in a world that is increasingly becoming dominated by censorship. Whether it’s the frothing moralistic censorship of the political right, or the self-righteous buzzword-ridden censorship of the political left, we’re living in a world where self-expression is often constrained by a few people’s personal feelings of disgust or offence.
Not only does literature manage to dodge most of this outrage by virtue of being literature – but also because of the sheer volume of it online. Even if a few people used their personal feelings of disgust to censor someone’s e-books, then there would be hundreds of other self-published authors out there who would take that writer’s place in less than a microsecond.
Although, when it comes to things like films, comics, videogames, advertising etc… the miserable censors on both sides of the political spectrum might win the occasional high-profile “victory”, literature is – thankfully – an entertainment medium that is far more powerful than all of these censors are.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂