- Censored: A Literary History of Subversion and Control by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis
Few people believe in free speech. Many pay lip service to a Voltairean ethos—"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"—but few mean it in practice. Rare is the person with no red lines. This fascinating volume by Matthew Fellion and Katherine Inglis is about those red lines: the attempt since the fourteenth century—by religious and political authorities, by morality crusaders, by the "politically correct," and by self-censorship—to impose, police, reinforce, move, or erase them.
The authors claim that their book is a "history," but it is not—not even really a "literary history." Anyone searching for a coherent narrative and analysis of censorship and its travails in the two regions under examination—the British Isles and North America—will be disappointed. Instead, Fellion and Inglis offer up twenty-five case studies of censorship in action in broadly chronological order. Each essay is concise (ten to twenty pages) and brings out the background, core details, and critical issues with admirable clarity. Any reader who starts at the beginning and reaches the end will be able to deduce the main currents of the history of censorship and to make the connections between the episodes featured. But the fact that the chapters are self-contained and repeat salient information as if it were appearing for the first time (the influential court decision in R. v. Hicklin of 1868, for example, which set a low bar for obscenity, is explained afresh in several different chapters) suggests that their main target audience may well be browsers and dippers.
Samplers of bite-sized morsels or devourers of the full meal will be equally rewarded. All the old sexual causes célèbres are here, from John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, to James Joyce's Ulysses, to [End Page 110] Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Homosexuality is well represented, and not only through landmark books like Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (which faced, and weathered, a challenge from Comstockery), Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (which figured prominently in his trial for gross indecency), and Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (banned in Britain but not in the United States). Lesser-known works also appear. Kate O'Brien's The Land of Spices (dominated by sodomy, according to its accusers) is used to illustrate the more stringent censorship to be found in Ireland. More recent gay-bashing moments of British history are also covered. We learn about the conviction of the editors of Gay News for blasphemy after their publication of James Kirkup's poem "The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name" and the moral panic around Suzanne Bösche's illustrated booklet, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which prompted the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act (1988).
Other chapters variously treat the political (such as Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem Queen Mab, a key text of English radicalism), the religious (from early attempts to publish English versions of the Bible to the furor following the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses), and the racial (notably, Black Voices from Prison, penned by Etheridge Knight and inmates of Indiana State Prison, and Richard Wright's Black Boy, targeted for its alleged racial slurs). Self-censorship figures prominently: Fanny Burney, for example, never published her comic play The Witlings because her male mentors thought it unseemly coming from a woman. So does "age-appropriate" censorship: Is Marjane Strapi's graphic novel Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, for instance, too racy for seventh graders in Chicago? And then there is censorship deployed to avoid offending powerful interests. A chapter on Ma Jian highlights the failure of the British Council to invite dissident exiled Chinese writers to the London Book Fair in 2012, which showcased Chinese writing, so as not to disrupt British...