Friday, December 29, 2006

Censors and Sensibility

A recent turn of events has led me to contemplate the many forms of censorship writers encounter. There is, of course, the external forces - censorship driven by the market, your audience, the FCC, etc. And then there's self-censorship.

Sometimes, we self-censor based on the audience we have in mind. When I'm writing for an audience of elementary-age children, I will naturally exercise a certain kind of self-censorship. But even there, where the parameters ought to be pretty obvious, you can run into hazy territory. I may be okay with witches or ghoblins, or stories about death or divorce or other ugly realities that kids experience. Someone else might think these topics inappropriate or unacceptable. I've been working on a highly abridged version of MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM for my drama club of 4th-6th graders. The word "ass" appears in reference to the donkey's head that Bottom wears. But, Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the double-meaning is played upon liberally. Do I cut these references? It seems a crime. But parents may complain.

There is a deeper kind of self-censorship, the kind Virginia Woolf refers to as the Angel on your shoulder, the voice that tells you not to upset your family or friends or polite society by writing about darker issues, or intimate subjects, or family secrets, etc. Woolf has a wonderful essay in which she describes killing off this Angel as a necessary act, especially for women writers who are particularly susceptible to its form of self-censorship.

Can censorship be a good thing? A necessary evil? Or just plain evil? Which kind of censor is the hardest to beat - the outside one or the inside one?


  1. Cindy,
    I think the best form of censorship, if there is one, is when we edit ourselves and ask if the potentially offensive bit is meeting the needs of the story. If not, it goes.

  2. I've always seen censorship as a necessary evil. While I cherish the subversive influence of art, and often consider it an artist's holy obligation to crash-test society's parameters, I fully recognize there's a whole community out there that I have to reconcile with.

    In my experience, the internal critic is always the hardest one to deal with. Part of the reason why I'm doing Afterhell -- I want to free myself.

    I agree, it's possible to be gratuitous, to throw in a word or an image that doesn't really serve the story's purpose. That's why I often tell people to cut loose in the first draft.

    Censorship can be a good thing, I suppose. I'm just not inclined to trust it. It's an exercise of power, not restraint.

    When an artist censors himself, he's taking control of his work. He's setting a course of his own choosing. When someone else censors the artist, the ship is getting hijacked.

  3. Good rule of thumb, Craig.

    Joe - I like the distinction you make between an artist taking control and outside forces hi-jacking the work.


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