A few weeks ago was Banned Books week in the U.S., an annual campaign that celebrates the freedom to write.
Book are rarely banned by governments in the UK these days compared with the past. We’re pretty liberal about sex and swearing in the printed word though it’s more complex when it comes to religion and politics.
I wonder what exactly a writer would have to do to be censored? Create a sympathetic paedophile character who wears shell suits and presents a children’s TV shows? Or write a moving love story between an elderly member of U.K.I.P. and the female editor of a best selling tabloid?
Fifty years ago my own novel might have faced the axe. There are sex scenes, a large dollop of swearing and a couple of reviews have called it “gritty” and ‘dark.’ If a review described it as
‘A shocking piece of filth”
or wrote on Amazon
“I thought I’d seen it all in Fifty Shades but this really takes it to another level.”
there’d probably be a sharp rise in sales rather than a rush to get it banned.
But there are courageous writers who have written stories they probably knew would get them into trouble and others that may have doubted they’d ever see their work in print. Yet they went ahead and wrote them because they had the strength of their convictions. Here are a few of my favourites:
D H Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s lover.
As an English undergraduate at Goldmiths, London University, I was taught by the academic Richard Hoggart. Hoggart was an expert witness defending Lawrence’s novel at the famous obscenity trial in 1960. In one of our classes he talked about his involvement in the trial and I read and loved the book immediately. For me Lawrence has always been the bravest of writers. He actually wrote Lady Chatterley in 1930, it was privately published in Italy and the unexpurgated version was only printed in the UK thirty years later. Its explicit sex scenes contained number of cunts and fucks which was outrageous for the time really. But his use of language wasn’t really what riled the establishment in 1960. As Hoggart explained to us students back then, it was an issue of class. Lawrence had produced a book about a member of the aristocracy shagging her gardener and loving it. One of the most memorable lines during the trial was when the prosecuting lawyer in his opening statement, turned to the jury in his opening statement and asked if Lady Chatterley was a book,
“you would even wish your wife or servants to read”
The book’s acquittal became a landmark in terms of censorship. Without it I am sure many other worthy but slightly risqué novels would never have reached our bookshelves. So thanks for that Dirty Herbert, as he was once affectionately known.
George Orwell – Animal Farm
Orwell wrote his novella Animal Farm in 1943 but couldn’t find a publisher in the UK until 1945 as the USSR was an ally of Britain in the war and, a satire on communism, the novella was seen as a political hot potato. When it was published it was immediately banned in the USSR and other communist countries. In 2002 it was also banned in schools the United Arab Emirates for content that was anti Islamic. In particular the authorities objected to the inclusion of a talking pig.
Animal Farm is still banned in North Korea and Cuba.
Lewis Caroll – Alice in Wonderland
Yes, really. It was once banned in a Chinese Province in 1931 because the characters took on human qualities and the governor at the time thought that children would start to perceive humans and animals on a similar level which he thought might end in disaster. Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty suffered a similar fate. Although it sold over 50 million copies, it was banned by the South African Government during apartheid because it had the word ‘Black’ in the title.
Dav Pilkey – Captain Underpants
Apparently Captain Underpants is the book most people want banned in the U.S. Yes. Captain Underpants. That immoral tale of a superhero and two young boys that we love so much in our house got the number one spot in 2012 and 2013 in the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books List. (Naughty books that have received lots of complaints). It actually beat Fifty Shades of Grey. I’ve read them both and if you ask me Captain Underpants is by far the better book. Click here to see author Dav Pilkey talking about it.