Saturday, September 19, 2009


I did a library gig last night, a signing and panel discussion on Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the topic of censorship.  This was quite the panel, consisting of myself and ten other authors, so you can well imagine that none of us were encouraged to wax too eloquent with our responses.  However, our moderator, Betty Webb, did an outstanding job of encouraging interaction and inviting everyone to have a say, and it turned out to be a very interesting discussion.

In these days of electronic communication, the idea of censorship is almost passe, since it’s now almost impossible to keep people from getting hold of and reading whatever they want, which of course doesn’t keep people from trying.  I’m sure every author and avid reader has more or less the same attitude toward censorship, that being that it’s a bad,bad thing, and that the antidote to unsavory ideas is not less talking, but more talking.

But here is an interesting question for an author - how much do you censor yourself, and why?  Of course, we all keep our target audiences in mind, and try to write material that will not offend them so much that they won’t buy our subsequent books. We don’t want to be killing any kitties or puppies unless we absolutely have to for the integrity of the novel. Nor do we wish to go too far beyond the language/sex/violence parameters set by our publishers or agents or editors lest they decide no longer to publish us.

But there are times when the story you are telling just calls for something shocking, or it won’t ring true.  My self-censorship problems have to do with the mores of the times and the place I’m writing about in my current series.  In  1910s Oklahoma, there were a lot of common and wide-spread attitudes that we in the 21st Century would find unsavory in the extreme - casual racism, even among people of good will who would never knowingly harm another person of any color; assumptions about women and people of other ethnicities; the treatment of children.  Can you imagine what would happen today if a parent took a belt to a whiny child in the grocery store?  In 1915, it would be expected.  Language, too.  Words that today would give the hearer a stroke were tossed about with abandon and nobody batted an eye.  And I don’t mean just epithets, either.  My grandmother, a farm wife with the straightest laces you can possibly imagine, used all kinds of what we would now call scatological words. In her society, crude words for excrement didn’t have nearly the cachet they now have, probably because people were up to their knees in it every day of their lives.

But I don’t want readers to judge my characters by modern standards and thus think less of them.  Nor do I want to present early 20th Century societal shortcomings in a way that makes light of them or seems approving. So how do I deal with the reality of the time and place?  Very, very carefully, let me tell you.


Anonymous said...

Kurt Vonnegut's Fahrenheit 451? I don't think so unless I missed that day at school....

Donis Casey said...

Uh-oh... I had a momentary attack of something.

Donis Casey said...

Slaughterhouse Five - that's what I was thinking - Slaughterhouse Five!

Charles benoit said...

When I wrote my YA, I made it a goal not to swear at all - not because it wouldn't get published (you'd be surprised to see what's in those books) but because I just wanted to see if I could do it. My nephew, Max, is in 9th grade (grade 9 for my Canadian friends) and knows all the swear words and how to use them - only he chooses not to. His dad and brothers and his foul-mouthed uncle have no problem with the words, but for Max it's more of a personal challenge, and he loves giving me this adult-ish tsk-tsk-tsk look when I use a word that I probably shouldn't have. He's not a prude or some plaster-saint, he's just set himself to a different standard, and when I was writing the book I tried to live up to that standard.
In print anyway.