Writing Wednesday (2)

Writing Wednesday 2

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Welcome to Writing Wednesday, my new weekly feature where I discuss my works in progress, project ideas, editing struggles, or anything else related to the world of writing. Feel free to grab my button and post your own thoughts on writing! Leave a link to your post in the comments and I’ll stop by.

Let’s talk about censorship, baby. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard about the new, sanitized versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn being released without the n-word. Critics on both sides of the issue have spoken out, with some arguing this makes the books easier to teach and others arguing that this is just plain censorship.

No matter which side of this argument you fall on, I think everyone agrees that the n-word is a nasty word that shouldn’t be used. Ever. Would I prefer not to read a book that uses it 219 times? Yes. I also would prefer it if the word hadn’t been a prevalent part of speech patterns at the time the book was set. The fact is that it was, and so Twain put it in the book, as the New York Times rightly points out.

The part of this whole mess that makes me cringe is that somebody felt the need to “correct” the book to make it more palatable. I have two words for you, my friends: slippery slope. Removing slurs from our vocabulary is commendable, but altering classic works of fiction is definitely not. I understand that most school districts and parents do not want to introduce this word as acceptable, even in the context of a historical work. Yet changing the n-word to “slave” just sweeps the issue under the rug.

For me, forcing myself to read language that I’m not comfortable with is a valuable component of the lesson. Why is this word not acceptable to me? What is the cultural history and significance of this word and how does that influence my reaction to it? How has the world changed since 1840? If Twain put in the effort to capture a moment in time linguistically, what right do we have to change it?

I should probably ‘fess up to the fact that I’m a pretty big advocate for free speech anyway. I don’t allow my personal objections to interfere with someone else’s right to speak their mind in whatever manner they choose. If I am uncomfortable, it is my right to not listen. This situation is no different. If you have a problem with the language in these books, and can’t look at the lesson it teaches, then don’t read the books. If we can’t trust high schoolers to treat the material like adults, then don’t teach it. But the answer cannot be to censor the books in order to make them readable and/or teachable.

To me, this just opens the door to censoring all offensive works of art. I’m equally appalled when nude sculptures are re-worked with clothing. Art is not something that can be modified according to taste by the consumer. I don’t go to rock concerts and unplug the lead guitarist’s amp and hand him a violin. I don’t see The Nutcracker and ask the men to put on gym shorts. In this case, I certainly am not going to alter a piece of fiction so I can pretend the n-word didn’t exist in our lexicon. I refuse to accept that erasing and sanitizing parts of our history is the appropriate response to our discomfort.

What do you think? Is this censorship? Is this appropriate?

10 thoughts on “Writing Wednesday (2)

  1. Agreed, this is unacceptable. If Tom Sawyer is such an important work of fiction that it should be taught, then it should be examined in the form that Twain intended. If that's too controversial for students to handle, then there are plenty of other good books about slavery, and plenty of other good Twain books to read. By pretending that this derogatory term wasn't widely used, we're lessening the severity of what the era was really like.

  2. I first heard of this idea (fiddling with Twain) in high school (loooong time ago!) and was so dumbfounded that adults assumed teenagers would just accept the n-word as an OK word to throw around rather than read it as a work of historical fiction. Messing with this American classic is like trying to rewrite American history. It's uncomfortable, yes, but would former slaves really want us future PC folk to whitewash (no pun intended) what they went through? Censorship, plain and simple.

  3. Logan! "I don't see The Nutcracker and ask the men to put on gym shorts."You just make me snort out loud. Yes, I have to say I completely agree with you. Especially the part in which you stated that forcing yourself to read something that you are not comfortable with is part of the lesson. Well said. I wonder if the censorship of Tom Sawyer would have become such a hot topic if it was done quietly. There are already many published, tamer versions of the book. This would just be added another.

  4. I guess the guy can publish what he wants and if people want to read that version then they're free to do so. I wouldn't say it's censorship, because we do still have the option to read the original version, but I do agree with all of your points as to why the original is the version that should be read. Hopefully enough people will recognize the importance of keeping the original form and reject this altered version.

  5. Oh man, I am going to be giggling all day as I picture the Nutcracker avec gum shorts. On a more serious note…yes, this is censorship. It drives me crazy because education SHOULD be all about making people uncomfortable. That is what makes us reflect on how to be better people. Rewriting the language of history to make us feel better about our own culture (those things happened in OTHER countries, but not here) is wrong.

  6. Hey Logan,I donâ??t know if everyone, as you say, would agree the n-word shouldnâ??t be used. Al Sharpton may have held a funeral for the word a few years ago, but as Twain himself famously said, I think reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.I happen to think that the n-word has a precarious place, not just in historical fiction, but in contemporary art as well. Jay-Z songs, for instance, would simply not carry the same punch if he dropped it from future recordings. As the old adage goes â?? context is everything. Thatâ??s especially true of the n-word, which, like Lord Voldemort, must not be fully named.At least not by white people. Indeed, you may have meant that it shouldnâ??t be used by people like you and I in everyday conversation, which is probably true. But art is different. You may have heard of â??The Help,â? which caused something of a stir last year. That book, like Huck Finn, would be greatly diminished had its white author, Kathryn Stockett, artificially limited her vocabulary. Thatâ??s just it. Yanking a single word from its source material and putting it into some kind of literary quarantine results in fiascoes like this latest censorship attempt. Separating language from it context renders both hollow.Iâ??ve enjoyed reading your blog. Keep it up.-Logan Seacrest

  7. @Rachel – Absolutely. What do kids gain by pretending the word wasn't used? Is it really better to read the sanitized version while still having to address the fact that it's been altered?@Marzipan – I agree. In fact, I'm pretty sure I read this in school.@Missie – Yes! I think the announcement just fed the fire.@Small Review – You're right in that he can do whatever he wants, but I think what bothers me is the thought that eventually, it's possible, that the sanitized versions become so prevalent or popular that they end up replacing the original. Sorry days, indeed.@Carrie – I'm with you on the discomfort thing. Some of my most powerful school learning experiences were when we finally got the truth about dark days in our history. Native Americans, anyone?@Logan – Thanks for commenting! You bring up a nice point. It absolutely has a place in contemporary art or any other form of speech expression, which reinforces the idea that we should leave the books untouched. You could develop an entire lecture around the African-American community's adoption of the n-word as an expression of power and ownership. It's all about context, and thank you for pointing out that I should "never say never." 🙂

  8. Wow, you make some excellent points and I agree with you. I wrote an essay on the disservice school boards and parents do for their children by prohibiting certain classical, or otherwise enjoyable reads by censoring. This definitely rings the censorship bells for me. I don't like it.Asher K.

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