Friday, 20 February 2015

Burn Them, Ban Them, Bowdlerise Them!

Warning: the books mentioned in this article are dangerous and offensive. This blog takes no responsibility for the corruption of your mind or the damnation of your soul should you recklessly choose to read any of them.

Children's books have had the axe taken to them, bigtime, especially in America. Various states in The Land of the Free have banned Winnie-the Pooh and Charlotte's Web because talking animals are considered an “insult to god.” Alice in Wonderland promotes drug use (must be the caterpillar's hookah … or maybe the "Drink Me" bottle that made her shrink?) Where the Wild Things Are promotes witchcraft.  The Wizard of Oz is chockful of sexual fantasies (which says more to me about the banner than about the book) … and so it goes.

Enid Blyton is the worst offender. Noddy lives with Big-ears! There are Golliwogs in the toybox! The Faraway Tree series is all right, as long as we remove the witches and change the children's names: Jo is no name for a boy, we'll make that Joe. Don't want any whiff of gender confusion, the Big-ears/Noddy menage is already enough like Brokeback Mountain, thank you very much.  Fanny and Dick had better become Frannie and Rick, don't want any nudge-nudge giggling in the ranks. And Fatty will be Freddie from now on, no bullying!

Little Black Sambo? I'm not even going there.

Now that we have rescued the kiddies from having their minds corrupted, let's turn our attention to some offensive books for grown-ups:     

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain is an American classic and an acknowledged masterpiece. It is also one of the most controversial American novels and has been banned on and off in various states. What is the main objection to it? Is it the evils of slavery they object to?  No, it's the racial slurs. The S-word is fine, but we can't have the N-word!

Anyone who has actually read the book, will know that it is a scathing satire on entrenched 19th century attitudes, particularly racism. Sadly, the most vociferous book-banners have seldom read the material that so profoundly offends them.  

The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century; it has been translated into practically every language spoken on the planet and sixty years later it still sells about half a million copies a year. It has always been controversial: full of swearing, smoking, drinking, sex, atheism and subversive elements of teenage angst and rebellion.  No wonder it sells so well!

The scenes of brutality and sadism in American Psycho gave rise to wholesale banning of the book, and its author, Bret Easton Ellis, received a plethora of death threats. What offends me most about it, is the unabashed product placement and the poor writing.

Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club is an immensely popular bestseller that has been turned into a very successful film starring Ed Norton and Brad Pitt. It has given rise to demands for banning due to its "glorification" of violence, and its casual acceptance of controversial matters like abortion and drug use.

The publication of Fight Club had considerable cultural impact: a rash of "fight clubs" were started by young men with more testosterone than common sense, and "the first rule of Fight Club" entered the lexicon of popular culture: You Don't Talk About Fight Club. (It is a frequent question at Trivia Nights!)  
Today Lady Chatterley's Lover seems pretty tame: a few four-letter words, a bit of adulterous sex in the potting shed, a few coy references to "John Thomas" and "Lady Fanny". But at the time it was incendiary stuff and gave rise to all manner of lawsuits and questions in Parliament. All in all it's quite a boring book – as we passed an ill-gotten copy round at my boarding school, it always fell open at the bit in the potting shed (page 94) because that was all we ever bothered to read. 

Thanks to Vladimir Nabokov's much-reviled and banned novel, "Lolita" has entered the language as shorthand for a sexually precocious pre-teen. The paedophile Humbert Humbert marries Charlotte Haze purely to be near her 12-year-old daughter Lolita, with whom he is infatuated. When Charlotte dies, he takes Lolita on a road trip, so he can be alone with her in motel rooms to indulge his fantasies – no questions asked. Just to make this article more interesting, here's the trivia question: How did Lolita's mother die?

  • Run over by a car.
  • Apparent suicide by overdose.
  • Went on the lake in a rowboat with Humbert, never came back.

No, not telling. You'll have to risk your immortal soul and read the book.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is another novel which seems pretty tame now, for all the fuss it caused in 1856. Emma Bovary, married to a crashing bore, spiced up her life a bit by having couple of adulterous affairs, running up a lot of debts and finally committed a rather painful suicide by arsenic. Despite this severe punishment for her sins, Madame Bovary was still considered a dangerous book: might give other boring men's wives ideas above their station!

Not only was there tremendous outrage and calls for banning when it was first published, but poor old Flaubert was chucked in the slammer overnight and prosecuted. Luckily he was acquitted a year later, and with all the publicity, the book was a runaway best seller.

Portnoy's Complaint, a humourous satirical novel, was not only censured for its explicit portrayals of teenage Alex Portnoy's frequent masturbation (using all manner of inventive props, including a catcher's mitt, a milk bottle and the famous piece of raw liver from the fridge), but it also offended the Jewish community for its negative depiction of Jewish characters.  Alex's mother, Mrs Sophie Portnoy, in a particulary acerbic portrait of the stereotypical Jewish mother, insisted on inspecting his bowel movements. She'd stand outside the bathroom yelling:"Don't flush!"  Portnoy made us cringe, but laugh at the same time … did he really deserve to be banned?

Portnoy having offended the Jewish community, let us now in the interest of Equal Opportunity, see how Salman Rushdie offended the Muslim community.
His perceived blasphemy in The  Satanic Verses affronted them to such an extent that he had to go into hiding. The Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in 1989, declaring him under sentence of death. The fatwa has never actually been withdrawn, but these days, Rushdie says, its existence is more a formality than a threat.

Lord Of The Flies, the classic story by William Golding of schoolboys stranded on an island without adults, is one of the 20th century's most frequently challenged and banned books. It paints a disturbing picture of the innate savagery of human nature. There are no noble impulses: in a short time, the children revert to selfish and brutish behaviour – survival of the fittest is the name of the game.

"No, you can't have any vegetables. They are only for grown-ups", is a sure way of getting the four-year-old to scoff the greens. That's why banned books are guaranteed good sales and a wide readership!

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