In order for a book to be published, it needs to be well-written, tell a good story, and either share insights into human nature or provide entertainment to readers. But these days, one more component is required: political correctness. And those that are not may be edited, pulled from library shelves, or banned entirely. This applies not only to new tomes but even to those published decades ago – including some considered classics.
Do such changes really shield readers from shocking or immoral ideas? Do they go far enough? Or should books never be tampered with for any reason?
Not all that long ago, no one was asking such questions. In many circles, books – even secular ones – were sacrosanct. The idea of writing notes in one, underlining certain passages, or bending a page as a marker was blasphemous.
But everything changes over time, and these days, some publishers clearly have a political agenda; if a manuscript does not fall in step, good luck to the writer trying to get it published. And if the book does get published, the author may still have to contend with angry parents, school boards, or other groups that have objections and demand that changes be made.
Empty Space In Libraries
Whatever the reasons, more and more school districts across the country are pulling books off library shelves, according to the non-profit organization PEN America, which defends free expression in literature in the US and the world. According to PEN America, nearly 1,600 books had been pulled from libraries in 26 states in 2021.
One, which has been a frequent target of censors, is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. The book is about a teen going through an especially difficult adolescence, and although originally intended for adults, it struck a chord with young readers who felt misunderstood, lonely, and troubled by the phoniness of society. Over the years, it has sold more than 65 million copies.
Despite holding up to the tests of time, the book has been banned or recommended to be banned by dozens of school boards for being, among other things, “anti-white,” “obscene,” having “excessive vulgar language,” “sexual scenes,” and raising concerns regarding “moral issues.” If you’ve read the book, you may agree that these criticisms are valid. But does that mean the book should be banned? And if so, where does banning begin and where does it end?
Numerous highly-regarded books have/had also dealt with critics for the same criticisms, and they include: The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone With the Wind, Animal Farm, 1984, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, to mention just a few.
The critics are right in the sense that some of these books do have obscene or racist passages. But is it fair to censor them, while many easily accessible TV shows, movies, and videos are even more graphic, explicit, and offensive, and go unchallenged? Should we be naive and say those are viewed only by mature audiences?
One would think that a best-selling author wields a lot of clout, and that a publisher would be very careful never to offend him or her. But that’s not always true.
R.L. Stine is the author of the Goosebumps series geared to young readers, as well as other books. Some of his themes are strange, but Stine is a first-class storyteller and master of suspense; his books have been translated into 32 languages and have sold more than 400 million copies. Goosebumps is the second best-selling book series in history.
In early March, The Sunday Times reported that “Stine and his publisher, Scholastic, had made over 100 edits to his famous series.”
That report angered lots of readers. Worse, it was not true. Stine denied this vehemently and twitted that “I’ve never changed a word in Goosebumps. Any changes were never even shown to me.”
Books of another popular children’s author were also “updated.” Roald Dahl’s books have sold more than 300 million copies, but his publisher, too, changed language it thought some readers would find offensive.
Hitting Closer To Home
Is rewriting books going too far? If your impulse reply is “yes,” consider the entire picture before answering, because that includes slurs, smears, and slanders about Jews.
And some of those are blatant and vitriolic. In an interview in 1983, Roald Dahl told the New Statesman, “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity… Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” Aish.com reports that in a 1990 interview, he openly bashed Jews and acknowledged that he had “become anti-Semitic.”
Although Dahl never retracted those remarks, his family has – to an extent. “The Dahl family and the Roald Dahl story company deeply apologizes for the lasting and understandable hurt caused by some of Roald Dahl’s statements,” the apology read in part. Unfortunately, it came decades after his passing, didn’t mention his anti-Semitic views, and wasn’t sent to any Jewish organizations.
With more than two billion of her books in print, Agatha Christie is the best selling writer ever. Unfortunately, she too had a problem with Jews. Born in the English countryside in 1890, she grew up in a place and time where anti-Jewish and racial prejudices were fashionable and was influenced by them. Her early books frequently make reference to Jews loving money and having huge noses.
According to her biographer, later in her career “she backed away from her seeming contempt for Jews and anyone who didn’t look exactly like her.” But there are numerous other well-known anti-Semitic writers, including the highly regarded French novelist Celine, and Ezra Pound, considered one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
When respected writers repeat hurtful stereotypes, they legitimize and perpetuate them. Who can say that slurs we read so often in books have not contributed to the hatred out there today? They probably do!
There used to be a saying: “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me.” But the truth is that words do hurt and very badly – even more than sticks.
This is a complicated subject, but the question of freedom of expression vs. fanning the flames of hatred needs to be considered carefully. Will editing books really make a difference?
Sources: ala.org; bakerstreetjournal.com; bookshelf.com; dispatch.com; historyhub.history.gov; independent.co.uk; theblaze.com; theguardian.com