Thursday 6 January 2011

PC World

I laughed my head off when I read about that Twain "scholar" who's had the brilliant idea of replacing some un-PC words in Huckleberry Finn with more acceptable words, on the grounds that the book was not been taught in schools any more because of that.

That's 24-carat bullshit! If there's a place in hell for such stupidity, well, that man and his publishers should be rotting there, head down into the ground.

If you are a writer, a critic or a publisher and cannot cope with words and their meaning in the context of society and history, then my advice is simply: don't go there.

I am not a particularly courageous or adventurous publisher, but when I had to publish Aretino I didn't dream of bowdlerizing it, nor did I hold back from publishing D'Annunzio or Mayakovsky on ideological grounds. Publishing those authors does not necessarily mean sharing their ideas or worldview – and those writers lived in a different country, society and time, so it is stupid and short-sighted to apply our modern judgemental yardstick.

I remember there was a bit of an outcry when we published Virginia Woolf's rediscovered diary pieces in Carlyle's House and Other Sketches. Some of her descriptions were quite unsavoury. In 'Jews' she wrote: "One wonders how Mrs Loeb became a rich woman. It seems an accident; she may be behind a counter… Her food, of course, swam in oil and was nasty." There are even worse bits in other of her sketches and in some of her other works – but that doesn't mean she – or her publisher – was anti-Jewish.

I agree that publishing should be sensitive and avoid any offence, but in the right context, when language is used in an expressionistic way, I believe that satire is acceptable. Otherwise it is all wishy-washy, and writers become censors of themselves.

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