Anne Rice and Freedom of Expression in Literature

Recently, Anne Rice made a comment about free expression in literature and why it is important not to sanitise and censor works of fiction in order to be “politically correct”. Obviously, the internet lost it and has blasted her, which to me is just a little bit ridiculous. While I disagree with the premise of the novel Rice is defending (a Nazi romance… seriously? Nope. Not okay.) I think she has a decent overall point.

I think we are facing a new era of censorship, in the name of political correctness. There are forces at work in the book world that want to control fiction writing in terms of who “has a right” to write about what. Some even advocate the out and out censorship of older works using words we now deem wholly unacceptable. Some are critical of novels involving rape. Some argue that white novelists have no right to write about people of color; and Christians should not write novels involving Jews or topics involving Jews. I think all this is dangerous. I think we have to stand up for the freedom of fiction writers to write what they want to write, no matter how offensive it might be to some one else. We must stand up for fiction as a place where transgressive behavior and ideas can be explored. We must stand up for freedom in the arts. I think we have to be willing to stand up for the despised. It is always a matter of personal choice whether one buys or reads a book. No one can make you do it. But internet campaigns to destroy authors accused of inappropriate subject matter or attitudes are dangerous to us all. That’s my take on it. Ignore what you find offensive. Or talk about it in a substantive way. But don’t set out to censor it, or destroy the career of the offending author.

Saying the world is too PC these days is probably true. It feels like someone will take offence to anything you say, be it about race, religion, parenting, medications or animal rights. It’s totally taken over the internet and is creeping into literature- who can write what, what is okay to be published and where it comes from.

I’ve done a university unit where it was argued that Grimm’s Fairy Tales are too violent and sadistic for children, so we must water them down and make them more relatable and less intimidating to children. To me, that is coming extremely close to censorship. I read those fairy tales, as have millions of other little humans over many generations, and I’m pretty sure the vast majority were not scarred for life. I didn’t need to have them adapted to my ethnicity or gender to make them relatable- they were just stories to me. I was read May Gibb’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie  as a child and was absolutely terrified of the “Big Bad Banksia Men”, who really have nothing on some of the Grimm’s characters! Even Roald Dahl has come under attack for being too dark and far too inappropriate for the precious little angels these days!

It’s going a bit far to say that unless you’re a person of colour, you can’t write a character who is one. It’s basically the same argument as people were having in the mid-1920’s, where female writers began pushing back against male writers using a female perspective and believing they had every right to do so. While in that case, I’m on the side of the women, since the men were saying women had absolutely no understanding of what it is to be male, while they themselves understood females (HA!) it’s still a bit of a smokescreen. What authors should be focusing on is not who is allowed to portray a character, but who is able to portray that character well and with technical (and emotional) skill.

Getting offended simply because a white person portrays a person of colour, or vice versa, is (to my mind) not helpful at all. If the author did it with sympathy and respect, ie. not making the character a simpleton, redneck etc, then is there a problem? Kathryn Stockett published The Help and copped a bashing for it, because she wrote from the perspective of African American maids, when she herself is white. I think The Help was written with tact and showed those women in a really positive light, as they are smart, vivacious and brave women, in comparison to the many cowardly, downright mean and terrible privileged white women also portrayed in the novel. I see where some of the arguments are coming from, but truly…

Fahrenheit 451 predicted that humans would become so self-censoring and terrified of causing offence that they stopped permitting books altogether. Books were burnt regardless of their content, simply because they may cause offence or upset someone because they would feel inferior. Is this really the way we want to go? Obviously, one should understand the culture and background of the people they’re writing about, as I discussed here, but it doesn’t really make the novel an offence if it isn’t, as long as it’s done well.

To censor older texts because of their content, as has been happening recently with children’s songs and classical literature. I mean seriously, Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep and changing the words to Kookaburra from “gay” to “happy”? Does it even make a difference? What happens to actual black sheep then? Are we never allowed to use the word “gay” in it’s original form anymore? If so, that’s the end of me eating Golden Gaytime ice cream, and that’s just horrifying… Then what of theatres censoring Shakespeare, or publishers chopping up classics to remove “problematic” aspects? Do we ban Lolita because some people believe it condones child molestation?

Obviously, there are lines you just don’t cross, and way too many people use “the world is too PC these days” to justify being a jerk, but we really need to consider how much offence we take from novels and other forms of art. Not portraying Aboriginal characters in this TV mini-series is offensive, as it denies and ignores the existence of an entire race of people who had their homeland invaded and were victims of a sustained genocide. Simply having a POC character in a novel when the author is white is a non issue in comparison.

I’m hoping that everyone remains respectful in the comments, as I’m not meaning to be offensive or to upset anyone. I think this is a genuine issue, especially in the days of the internet, where people are able to get their voices heard very quickly by thousands of people. It’s unfortunate that a medium that has the potential to manifest deep discussion also self-censors, or censors others who just want to think outside their own experience.

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5 thoughts on “Anne Rice and Freedom of Expression in Literature

  1. I agree entirely. I read a lot of classics and the political and racial views sometimes expressed are not ones I subscribe to. Nevertheless I think I’m intelligent enough to know that’s the author was reflecting the view of their times and to make an allowance for that. I really cannot accept that I need some nanny-state censor to tell me what it’s safe to read so I don’t get offended. Great literature has always pushed the boundaries and it will be a bad thing if it doesn’t. The rot has already started with authors like Blyton being rewritten – are we going to end up rewriting Fagin???

    • Not to mention that the people who try to rewrite these classics usually have no idea what they’re doing. For instance, one academic suggested replacing every instance of “the N word” in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word “slave.” But as another writer pointed out, the whole point of the book is that Huck starts to see Jim as something more than just a slave. Removing the N word actually demeans Jim more than leaving it in does!

  2. I was thinking of blogging about something just like this the other day. How thinking people can allow the craziness that goes on in the name of political correctness is beyond me.

    If that “Nazi romance” novel Anne Rice mentioned is the book I’m thinking of, then yes, the author was insane to think that was a good idea. But, that’s her problem: her bad writing is not some evil force that the public needs to be protected from. People will continue to write silly, stupid things, and sometimes even cruel, spiteful things, but that doesn’t mean these people don’t have a right to say and write what they please.

    And as for the Grimm Brothers, Roald Dahl, etc. being too dark for kids, well, I defer to G. K. Chesterton:
    “Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already…. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

  3. I agree with Rice. Censorship is becoming a serious problem.

    People should be free to write about whatever they like. It’s a form of expression. Unlike fashion or music you needn’t be exposed to literature unless you choose to be. (Technological advancements aside) a book does not read itself. One makes a conscious decision to read it.

    So if people disagree with the content of a book, don’t read it. A better approach would be to rate the books, as they do games and movies, and then enforce the ratings. Anything more than that starts to feel like living under a communist regime.

  4. The issue is “the internet” wasn’t going crazy. Rice was. She was calling anyone who criticized the book online a “gangster bully thug” on her Facebook page to her million plus followers. Although she hadn’t read it, she defended the book comparing it to other books with “transgressive” ideas such as “Lolita.” People who left negative reviews were in her opinion, “immoral” and “unethical.” No one was calling for the book to be censored. No one was threatening the author. The issue arose when the book was nominated for two prizes by the Romance Writers of America, and one writer wrote a letter regarding to the RWA about that, and then when she was ignored, she published the letter, leading to some public chatter mostly between romance writers and then a viral effect where other people (mostly Jews) heard about the book, which also has a Christian theme and involves conversion and were disgusted. Again, people were discussing something and debating something, and criticizing something. How does any of that equal censorship? Oh yeah, and the writer who wrote the letter that started this, once wrote something critical about Rice’s online behavior, and Rice herself has a track record of over reacted to her own negative reviews. There may be a problem with “political correctness” but this is not an example.

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