one more way that Wokesters are grabbing power
This is a guest post by J. Daniel Sawyer, a prolific writer, producer, and podcaster with over fifty published works including science fiction and fantasy novels, mysteries (as J.D. Sawyer), and several educational and how-to books (as Dan Sawyer). He currently hosts The Every Day Novelist podcast, blogs on geopolitics and history at Unfolding the World, and maintains his own sordid corner of the internet at Literary Abominations. His most recent publication, The Secrets of the Heinlein Juvenile, explores the history of Young Adult fiction and its relationship to the mythic traditions of the West. You can find his entire catalog here, and all his podcasts here.
by J. Daniel Sawyer
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The New Censorship?
In the last few weeks, news dropped that two revered voices of mid-20th century literature have had their work revised to suit the tastes and expectations of modern audiences. The news concerns:
Roald Dahl (author of children’s classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Mathilda, and The Witches as well as dozens upon dozens of disturbing stories for adults that make the work of Stephen King look like a series of Sunday School sermons)
Ian Fleming (author of the James Bond books, which inspired the eponymous film series)
This turn towards rewriting the past to bring it into accord with the moral tastes of the moment is less sudden than it might seem. The 19th century saw a wave of such retroactive censorship directed at everything from fairy tales to Shakespeare to works of history to the Bible. This movement was pioneered by Thomas Bowdler, a reputable man of letters who wished to “preserve” the great tradition of English literature while making it “suitable” for the tender, easily corrupted minds of women and children. His bowdlerized (a term named for him) The Family Shakespeare was published in 1806, establishing the market for sanitized literature.
Walt Disney proudly carried on this tradition with his bowdlerizations of classic fairy tales for the silver screen. Every Disney film, from Snow White (the first) through the Disney Renaissance (a period running from The Little Mermaid through Tarzan) received this treatment. Gone were the terror and gore of the Grimm and Anderson fairy tales, the sexual frisson and political provocation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan adventures, the suicidal ideations and revenge plot and moral complexity of Hamlet (the source text for The Lion King), the great moral thrust of the legend of Mulan, and the scandalous (and religiously dangerous) labors of Hercules, all replaced with the comfortable, morally straightforward happy-endings that we all came to expect from Disney films.
In all cases, such censorship is justified with the purported need to protect the tender minds of the vulnerable from dangerous and upsetting ideas and themes. And, in all such cases, the logic underlying the justification holds that we, today, are more enlightened and clear-sighted about the nature of good and evil, right and wrong, and the way things oughta be than were the poor benighted fools that, by sheer luck, managed—in their ignorance and wickedness—to muddle through long enough to give birth to those who, generations or centuries later, would finally apprehend the secret to human flourishing and liberation.
The Heirs of Thomas Bowdler
Bowdler’s contemporary heirs in the publishing world are called “sensitivity readers.” These self-appointed guardians of public morality burst onto the scene in the mid-2010s in the wake of the indie publishing revolution. Young authors who feared unintentionally offending their readers, and who did not have the security blanket of an editor provided by a publishing company, started casting about for someone—anyone—who could help reassure them that their opposite-sex protagonists weren’t laden with sexist tropes, that their handicapped characters were not recapitulating damaging stereotypes, etc.
Once upon a time, authors might have looked among their fans for people who could give constructive feedback on whether their characterizations of “the other” were solid—now, one needn’t go through the bother. Simply pony up a few-hundred-to-few-thousand dollars, and an author could be sure that his or her fiction wouldn’t offend anyone. Such an author need never worry about accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, and cultural appropriation (all labels which carry the kiss of death—or at least, the curse of ignominy—for the authors who are, however unintentionally, caught on the wrong side of the moral pique of the day). Sensitivity readers offered professional reputation insurance for the small price of letting somebody else “fact-check” the author’s moral and aesthetic vision.
Pioneering a new freelance niche is tough. The gig gets a lot easier if you can get yourself considered indispensable, so the predictable soon followed: authors who didn’t employ such people became suspect among their fellows, and agents and publishing companies came to see a need for keeping such people on staff. One must, after all, make sure that one’s publishing catalog reflects what we all know to be good and correct where sociality and morality are concerned.
After all, we in the 21st century finally know that which our ancestors did not: racism, sexism, et al. are bad, and sneaky, and we all harbor such things deep within us, especially if we are privileged—which, if we are authors, we must be, especially if we are white, western, cisgendered, and/or male. Even having such people as protagonists is seen as a potential expression of unexamined privilege and prejudice, to the point where several writers of my close acquaintance have expressed to me a deep discomfort with the number of white/western/heterosexual protagonists in their catalog (and, in one case, has taken to editing anthologies which specifically prohibit such characters from occupying center-stage).
Stings in the Tail
Unfortunately, the logic of Bowdlerization is deeply flawed. Our era is not one in which we have cracked the moral nut. It has its pet sins, and they are doubtless as terrible as those of days gone by.
This sounds obvious, as those assholes on the other side of the political or ideological divide are always advocating for plainly immoral transformations to law, culture, society—transformations that would hurt children, or working people, or the downtrodden. If only the right people were in power, the proper movements ascendant, and if only persons of conscience and character were to get their act together and seize control, we could finally, finally, get things right and ensure an excellent future for our progeny...
But, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Our era’s pet sins do not merely rest on the far side of the political or ideological divide from you or me. They are everywhere, and they are as invisible to us as were the pet sins of those previous eras were to the people who lived back then, for a very troubling reason.
Think of some of the great virtues of humanity:
Fortitude, constancy, courage, survival, ambition, honesty, tolerance, temperance, love, loyalty, justice, the capacity for joy and beauty, ingenuity, forgiveness, discernment, mercy, humility, and adaptability.
Consider also some of our greatest vices:
Stubbornness, stagnation, arrogance, greed, the appetite for arbitrary power, cruelty, self-righteousness, puritanism, hatred, tribalism, vengeance, decadence, recklessness, self-vicitimization, judgmentalism, enablement, weakness, and equivocation.
If you compare those two lists, you may notice that each vice is simply an unchecked version of the respective virtue. As Aristotle first observed, to say “I love you” is, necessarily, to say “I hate those who threaten you,” otherwise the professed love is meaningless. Further, looking solely at the list of virtues, you will notice that each one is checked or limited by another item on the list.
What Good is Fiction, Anyway?
Among the purposes of fiction, the most important and lasting is the exploration of the nature of virtue, and of the tensions between virtues. The most basic and ancient form of drama—tragedy—is itself premised upon the setting of one good against another in such a way that one of the two goods must lose.
The Contexts We Live In
To return to the issue of Fleming and Dahl, both men wrote fiction that explored, explicitly, the tension between virtues with a stark, honest view of the horrific ways that such virtues might play out. James Bond is an instrument of the state, a miserable figure always dancing on the edge of death for the protection of his country, who finds his only meaning in the everyday pleasures of life (food, art, sex, tobacco, alcohol, power). Dahl’s child-heroes navigate a world full of predatory adults and frightening complexity they can barely comprehend.
These two authors are the definition of “problematic” by modern standards. Both were hedonistic, often mean, culturally conceited ethnocentrists with more than a touch of racism, and each possessed an edge of nastiness and cruelty that permeated their writing. They came of age in an era of intense interstate warfare, of economic devastation, of great treachery and moral fervor. Such an age makes hedonism, pettiness, and ethnocentrism virtuous, because it is these qualities that allow a person to survive privation, invasion, and stand up to the potential destruction of one’s culture and people, even at the risk of one’s own life (which both of these men did during World War Two).
These morally dubious men wrote glorious stories that captured—and continue to capture—the imaginations of millions of people across the English-speaking world, and the greatness of their prose is entirely dependent upon those “problematic” parts of their personalities. You can no more remove these men’s difficult thought patterns from their books than you can remove Tolkien’s Catholic thought-forms from Lord of the Rings or Orwell’s socialist worldview from 1984. These books are what they are, and bowdlerizing them isn’t just a crime against aesthetic greatness (though surely it is), it is something worse.
It is a lie.
Hiding Behind the Lie
To rewrite the great works of the past is to lie about what the past was. Ironically, this undermines the central dogma of the Bowdlerizer: moral progress. If one cannot look at the past and see its unenlightened aspects, one has no reason (beyond propaganda) to believe that humans can make moral progress, because one has nothing concrete to measure the present against.
But it’s worse than that.
By sanitizing the past, we cut ourselves off from our history. We steal from ourselves the ability to apprehend that different circumstances might call for different moral priorities. It blinds us to the ways that the human race, in all its marvelous cultural iterations, can adapt to the world, and can balance the trade-offs of one virtue against another. It deludes us into thinking that we now are what we always have been, and that we will always be what we are now. It prevents us from learning the lessons of the past—not only what mistakes to avoid, but what good tricks might need to be resurrected from time to time.
And, cut off from the wisdom of the past and the books it produced, we become morally retarded—unable to develop and mature, stuck forever in childhood, bereft of the resilience and responsibility we might otherwise acquire.
The study of history, including and especially the art of the past, allows us to know ourselves as humans in a way that nothing else does.
And one thing history shows time and again is that those things we consider most vicious (literally: characterized by vice) spring naturally from the human animal. Children (and adults) don’t learn tribalism by reading about it, they invent it on their own as a byproduct of loyalty to friends and family. They don’t learn prejudice from others, they create it themselves as a side-effect of forming the heuristics essential for navigating the world. The same can be said of all other pet sins:
They are not socially constructed. They emerge naturally from the human survival imperative with which we are all genetically programmed. Censoring them can not control them, it can only drive them into hiding.
It is for these reasons that I do not seek out sensitivity readers—on the contrary, I seek out insensitivity readers. These are people who will tell me when something in my fiction troubles them, and who know that these troubling aspects will likely be preserved as the result of their feedback, assuming they jive with what I’m trying to achieve in a given story.
I do this because I firmly believe that the best fiction—the most lasting fiction, the most healthy fiction—contains within it elements to offend and discomfit as much as elements which reassure and uplift.
I believe this because, as a reader, the stories that stick with me most are ones that challenge me to look at my own values and beliefs in a new light.
And, as a writer, I incorporate these challenging elements because I respect my audience’s intelligence and fortitude, and I refuse to treat them as moral weaklings.
ON GUEST POSTS: I occasionally publish guest posts by people whose perspectives I find interesting or intriguing. If the perspective—in Dan’s case, that of a prolific author who’s paid attention to the way that culture wars are affecting the publishing world—is interesting to me, I will publish anything the person cares to say, whether I happen to agree or not. This doesn’t pay, as my Substack doesn’t provide an income sufficient to pay guest writers, but my stats are quite good on engagement, so it will likely send you some traffic and new readers. Email hollymathnerd at gmail dot com if you’re interested in writing a guest post for my Substack.
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I am obligated to read the author's Heinlein book as evidenced by my screen name. Wasn't expecting to engage in commerce this early in the morning, but the world has its surprises.
We've always had "Children's Bibles " and "Abridged" works, and that was fine, because you knew you were getting a watered down, lesser version. This is so sinister, they are trying to pretend that Dahl and Fleming are crappy writers like they are. It's just jealousy. The Jo Ross-Barnett's of the world will never write a sentence as good as Dahl, all they have is "identity".