Words are under attack. Bad words, mean words, contentious words must be snipped out of familiar novels and stories to make them palatable to more discerning modern tastes, claim the word police on the left.
The word police on the right want to ban some books altogether, those collections of words being far too dangerous to allow an encounter with young minds, or any minds.
It is wrong for a publisher or estate to alter the works of a deceased author, removing content deemed racist or sexist or homophobic. Seeking to have a work banned from libraries or schools is worse, although at least that effort has the (singular) merit of being an unmistakable act of censorship.
The Jeeves and Wooster stories by P.G. Wodehouse are the latest works to fall victim to the word police. Penguin Random House is removing what it deems offensive words and passages in the comic misadventures of the dim-witted English gentleman and his butler. A content warning has also been placed at the beginning of the books.
There’s no problem with such notices, which can serve to alert readers to content that some might find offensive. And, of course, a copyright holder has the legal right to do with a work as they choose.
But surely any intelligent reader plunging into Wodehouse’s wonderful satires of the class system in between-the-wars England will understand that what was considered acceptable then may differ from what is seen as acceptable today.
The same is true of the children’s books of Roald Dahl, which have had such words as “fat” and “crazy” excised (the publisher, to its credit, has also released unredacted editions), the murder mysteries of Agatha Christie and the spy novels of Ian Fleming. All have been published in versions with offensive material removed.
This is all too reminiscent of the much-mocked prudish 19th-century censors in England, who aimed to scrub any bawdy thoughts from Shakespeare, an effort infamous enough that it earned its own verb: bowdlerize.
Two centuries on, the sensitivities that need protecting are different, but the result is the same – a sanitized text that is inauthentic, at the very least. Wise readers want to experience fully what the author intended to say. Those who don’t can simply read something else.
These offences pale, however, in comparison to the orgy of book banning under way in the United States. The American Library Association (ALA) catalogued 1,269 demands to ban books in the United States in 2022, almost double the number of challenges from the year before. Many of these books involve the experiences of the LGBTQ community; others examine racial tensions or the experiences of women.
Protesters complained about foul or sexually explicit language, scenes of sexual violence, or positive depictions of queer people, especially young people.
The most chronically challenged books in the United States, according to the ALA, include such literary masterpieces as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with more recent works such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie and the Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey.
Canada is not immune. There have been efforts, mostly by religious groups, to ban Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, along with Morley Callaghan’s Such Is My Beloved, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners and others.
Many of us had first-hand experience in our youth of surreptitiously reading a book, fiction or non-fiction, perhaps in a school or public library, that helped us understand our confusions around sexuality or gender, or our experience of racism, sexism or abuse. To deprive young readers of those books is to deprive them of both knowledge and solace, and violates the very purpose of a library or a school.
Parents reading a book to their child are well able to explain any potentially sensitive passages. Teachers are equally able to guide students through contentious classic works, using them as a window to explain the times in which the author wrote. Librarians should be trusted to include materials that assist young readers seeking knowledge and support. Mature readers can distinguish the power of a work’s message from the misguided assumptions and outdated, even hurtful, words of those who wrote before our time.
Words do not need policing.