Perhaps you will recall, Gentle Reader, the brouhaha generated by the professional hand-wringers at Puffin when they decided that it was absolutely necessary to make literally hundreds of changes to the works of the great children’s book writer Roald Dahl. Shortly thereafter, the target switched to the James Bond series by Ian Fleming.
|Agatha Christie (1890-1976)|
This one hits closer to home. Curmie doesn’t recall ever having read any of Dahl’s books—if he did, as a child, he found them unmemorable—and he’s certain that he never read any of the Bond books. He’s seen a bunch of the movies, but that’s a separate issue. Agatha Christie’s books, however, were never in short supply at Chez Curmie when he was a teen. Curmie’s Mom was a huge Christie fan, and Curmie followed in her footsteps.
There may be a Christie book or two that Curmie hasn’t read, but there certainly aren’t many, and he’s seen the overwhelming majority of the film and television adaptations, as well. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence, Mr. Parker Pyne… yeah, Curmie is there. The plays, too, of course: The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution, Verdict...
Sure, there are a couple of phrases here and there that might raise an eyebrow—for example, the original title of the book now marketed as And Then There Were None was Ten Little Niggers, and it was sold in this country as Ten Little Indians for several years (Curmie first read it under this latter title). But the texts themselves, apart from reflecting some of the attitudes of the time in which they were written, aren’t terribly problematic.
Enter the “sensitivity readers,” a collection of easily-triggered snowflakes. They are apparently paid very low wages, thereby suggesting to Curmie that one of two things must be true: that publishers aren’t really concerned with intelligent decision-making, or that no one who could command a better salary would take the job. Perhaps Curmie is not alone in noting the parallel to the qualifications of the people in this country would grade the essay sections of standardized exams.
Significantly, the decisions are often haphazard at best: the Fleming books, for example, have been edited to eliminate racial slurs against blacks, but the sexism, homophobia, and slurs against Asians remain. If you’re going to be a censorious asshat, at least be consistent! And, frankly, if the edits listed in the Guardian article linked above are representative of the whole of the project, then the entire operation evokes Gertrude Stein’s commentary on Oakland: there is no there there. (Note: the original reporting on this story came from the Telegraph, but it’s behind a paywall, and Curmie isn’t interested in going down that particular pathway.)
References to race are eliminated; even calling a character “black” or “Jewish” is apparently now verboten. A passage in Death on the Nile which originally read “they come back and stare, and stare,
and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children” has been edited as you see here. An intelligent reader, unlike a “sensitivity reader,” would suggest that the phrases that were cut tell us something important about the character speaking, and are not at all defamatory about the children thus described.
Even a description of a character’s “lovely white teeth” has been axed. Don’t even bother trying to find a reasonable explanation for that one, Gentle Reader, as you’re more likely to find Sasquatch enjoying a cup of tea on your neighbor’s porch. The utter absurdity of this entire operation is laughable… or, rather, it would be if we weren’t so conscious of seeing the thin edge of the wedge. It might also be worth noting that HarperCollins has apparently been doing at least some of this for a couple of years already; they can’t have been very proud of doing so, or we’d have known long before now.
The Christie story wasn’t the only one that crossed Curmie’s path in the last 24 hours, however. Curmie has long argued that the left and the right are equally interested in quashing freedom of expression; they just use different methods. (Curmie’s most recent rant to say this explicitly is here.)
For every university that demands agreement with so-called “anti-racist” dictates from an applicant wanting to teach chemistry, there’s a GOP legislator trying to ban discussions of anything that might make slavery look like something worthy of mention in a history class, or to pull books from the school library because they reference homosexuality. The most recent silliness about Michelangelo’s David isn’t indicative of all conservative thought, but neither is it an outlier.
Of course, many of the bills that emanate from conservative legislatures or school boards are crafted more to generate approbation, votes, and campaign contributions from True Believers than to actually do anything. Thus, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill doesn’t, in fact, specifically reference gay relationships, but the smarmy Ron DeSantis’s brainchild cannot be both constitutional and effective, as Peter Greene points out in a recent piece that is excellent, even by his standards.
The problem is, it’s almost impossible to craft legislation that prohibits what you want excluded without also prohibiting something you don’t want to lose. Outlaw drag? Well, there go a host of classic movies (“Some Like It Hot” is at the top of the list, but hardly alone; all those versions of Peter Pan with the title character played by a woman would have to go, too).
Let’s consider, also, the two Shakespeare plays Curmie has directed. In the original production of Macbeth, boys played (female) witches who had beards. There’s some drag in there somewhere! As You Like It is even more fun, as we get a boy playing a girl playing a boy playing a girl. Curmie knows of not a single critic who denies that the sexual ambiguities at play are central to the play’s appeal.
In Gallathea and Phillida, one of the better-known plays by John Lyly, a just-prior-to-Shakespeare English playwright (and subject of Curmie’s MA thesis), the cross-dressing of the title characters confuses them both to the point that they fall in love. They’re both women, by the way (well, the actors were pre-pubescent boys, but…).
The situation is resolved by none other than Venus herself, who promises to change one of them into a boy so they can continue their loving relationship. Avoiding the “L” in LGBTQ+ by making it a “T.” You gotta love it! No, Curmie doesn’t think this play will (or, frankly, should) be taught to schoolkids, but he’s mischievous enough to want to see it happen.
Predictably, Utah was one of the states that was most concerned about students’ access to written materials the legislature didn’t want reading. HB 347, passed last year, reads in part that “A public school may not… adopt, use, distribute, provide a student access to, or maintain in the school setting sensitive materials.”
“Sensitive materials” in this context means an instructional material that is “pornographic or indecent.” Utah pols are righteously indignant that anyone would suggest that their book-banning exercises are… you know… book-banning. State Senator John Johnson, for example, insists that they’re just interested in protecting the innocence of children.
Ah, but, as usual, excluding everything you want to exclude while not forbidding what you don’t want to forbid requires language skills surpassing those of the average state legislator. According to Utah law, there’s a long list of what constitutes “a description or depiction of illicit sex or sexual immorality.” You can pretty much guess what’s there, Gentle Reader, or you can click on the link.
The key interpretation of how these laws apply is that of Michael Curtis, general counsel for the Utah Legislature. He states that in the case of indecency, a book doesn’t need to be “taken as a whole”… or left on the shelf during a review. If there is a scene involving any of those acts, according to HB374, it should be immediately removed.
news story referenced a few paragraphs ago: an ostensibly irate parent has demanded that the Bible be removed from school libraries, as it is “one of the most sex-ridden books around.” Accompanying the request was an eight-page listing of allegedly (let’s be real: not just “allegedly”) offensive passages from the Bible.
The complainant wrote: “Incest, onanism, bestiality, prostitution, genital mutilation, fellatio, dildos, rape, and even infanticide…. You’ll no doubt find that the Bible, under Utah Code Ann. § 76-10-1227, has ‘no serious values for minors’ because it’s pornographic by our new definition.”
Thing is, it’s true. And we’re not allowed under the law to argue that the book as a whole has redeeming value. There is no legal argument to allow the Bible to remain available to minors within a school environment in the state of Utah. A lot of other classic literature would have to go, too, but let’s start there.
Curmie seriously doubts that the parent involved, if indeed it even is a parent, really thinks the Bible ought to be banned. It’s a gimmick. The petitioner even pretty much admits as much:
I thank the Utah Legislature and Utah Parents United for making this bad faith process so much easier and way more efficient. Now we can all ban books and you don’t even need to read them or be accurate about it. Heck, you don’t even need to see the book! Ceding our children’s education, First Amendment Rights, and library access to a white supremacist hate group like Utah Parents United seems like a wonderful idea for a school district literally under investigation for being racist.
Whether these accusations have merit may be up for debate. What is not, is that book-banners are going to face opposition like this at every step of the process, and that there is no honest or even legal way out of the bind into which they’ve thrown themselves. That doesn’t mean they won’t escape through corrupt and selective enforcement (which was the intention all along, after all), but they’ll sure as hell reveal their censorial predilections in the process.
Curmie has no problem with a local school restricting access to certain books to students of a certain age in the absence of parental consent. But here, we’re talking about the state butting into a local school’s business and demanding the removal of books to which the local community and/or a particular student’s parents have no objections. So much for the GOP being the party of individual freedom.
Whether the target of the sanitizers and bowdlerizers is Death on the Nile, James and the Giant Peach, The Bluest Eye, or Gender Queer, we all know that unless the censorial forces are stopped, they’ll only get more aggressive. Next on the list might be Madame Bovary, or Love in the Time of Cholera, or The Laramie Project... or, frankly, virtually anything at all written more than a generation or so ago. None of these are good options. It’s time to stand up to the suppressors and the censors, the hypersensitive and the prudish, the craven intellectuals and the intellectually craven. Now.