A new “Thoughts on the Craft” post at POD People deals with the subject of censorship and self-censorship. The central question:
Should you alter [a] story to make [a disturbing truth] more acceptable, and if you endeavor to soften the edges, will the truth you seek to expose lose its virility or its purpose?
I’ll start by noting how it’s always funny what people find disturbing or palatable. Case in point: Japanese censorship, which is notoriously oddball. The cover art for the eponymous Alice in Chains album had to be changed for that country due to sensitivity over images of the crippled (which was apparently what also kept Horrors of Malformed Men off the market there, too). Perverse sado-sexual cinematic material like Flower and Snake shows everything imaginable — except, that is, for genitalia, forbidden by law. What they can’t show on screen, they make up for in mean-spiritedness, which is in itself an argument for the idea that censorship creates more perversion than it ever prevents.
If someone chooses to censor themselves because they’re worried about presenting something that’s likely to turn an audience off, the first thing they have to remember is that there is no one monolithic “audience”. There are as many audiences as there are nations, cities, and ages of men. A book that was banned half a century ago barely elicits an eyeblink today. That said, most people are going to think about the audience they’re most likely to get here and now — but, again, how monolithic is that audience? Right here in the United States you’re likely to find as many sub-markets and sub-strata for a given work as there are sizes of clothing.
If you have a story in mind that you feel needs to be told a certain way, then do it that way; don’t second-guess other people’s reactions. Other people are other people, and you have to grant them the privilege of responding as they will. But you also need to do the dirty work in good faith.
Right now literary critics on both sides of the Atlantic are ripping themselves along the dotted line over Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, a near-thousand-page cinderblock of a novel that gives us an unrepentant Nazi as its central character, but which in the eyes of some mistakes truth and reality for vulgarity and garish exploitation. I haven’t read the book myself, but at a glance it seems like an attempt at recreating what Dalton Trumbo was attempting to do with Night of the Aurochs: making comprehensible the eroticism of power. Trumbo died before he could finish Aurochs, and so the only clues we have to what the book might have looked like are the partial manuscript and the welter of notes and letters published with it. The difference — again, from what I can see without actually reading Kindly Ones — is that Trumbo had sympathy for his character and Littell simply seems to have contempt and condescension. If you’re going to tell a story about such towering evil, the least you can do is treat it as a subject worth sparring with sincerely.