Over the course of history, fiction has always clashed with censorship. Whether it was from governments, schools, libraries or public intervention, you could guarantee that if a book stepped even slightly beyond the realm of social normality, someone was going to flag it up. Try to censor it. Move to ban it. Today we live in a very different environment. Whilst invariably people find something to complain about, artistic license has extended to a point where even the idea of outright censorship tends to cause far more problems than it supposedly solves. With kitchen table “mummy porn” like 50 Shades of Grey topping the bestsellers lists and self-published eBooks giving creative space to even the darkest realms of an individual’s mind, the prospect of banning something because of its content seems alien to us today. So let’s take a moment to step back in time and look at some of the most tantalising examples of censorship from the past.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carrol
The vividly imagined Wonderland in this children’s masterpiece is one of the most famous settings in literary history. But Carrol’s novel fell foul to censorship in China in 1931. General Ho Chien banned the book due to its portrayal of animals acting on the same level of intelligence as humans. Now, this wasn’t only because he saw this as an insult to humans. The biggest issue? Ho Chein feared that reading the book would lead children to regard animals and humans on the same level. Now I know the pen is supposed to be mightier than the sword, but I think the Chinese youth may have hit some problems if they tried to round up an anthropomorphic army for rebellion against the government, using The White Rabbit as the prototype for their new model army. Which is obviously the only logical reasoning for Ho Chien banning the book: fear of animal overlords.
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
This moving tale of a rural American families struggle to exist during the Great Depression is one of Steinbeck’s true masterpieces. But, despite its critical adoration, Grapes was banned throughout much of America. Steinbeck’s writing was seen to be too accurate in its depiction of the life of the rural poor. So, rather than using it as a benchmark to which American society should aim never to return to, the powers that be took a slightly different route and banned it instead. Why solve a problem when you could just hide it? Steinbeck later admitted that this was a lighter version of events, and that the reality was far harsher, so we can assume the reaction to that would have been equally as constrictive.
The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” Kafka’s most commercially famous work, The Metamorphosis faced controversy from its very beginning. It was banned in Nazi Germany and the USSR, but given the nature of these nations, unpredictable censorship is hardly a surprise, and it pales in comparison to almost everything else they did. The choice to ban it in Kafka’s homeland of Czechoslovakia, however, is a little more surprising. His refusal to write in Czech led to its censorship; but this wasn’t a political decision. German was Kafka’s mother tongue and it was the language he wrote all his work in.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
Since 1960, censorship has surrounded J.D. Salinger’s most famous work. The controversy about the book began in 1960, when an American high school teacher was fired from his post for teaching the book in his syllabus. The issues taken with the book surrounded its protagonist, Holden Caulfield, ranging from his promotion of drinking to his undermining of supposed American family values. But the problem was that often, the campaigners for censorship were unfamiliar with what actually happens in the book, and their complaints were sometimes at odds with what is actually described, which is strange, because the other examples of censorship so far have been well thought out and based on convincing and rational arguments.