“Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.” — Lauri Anderson
When does being sensitive to the ever-changing standards of polite society cross the line into censorship?
As writers, that question is becoming more relevant — and dangerous
Back in 2012, I submitted a fictional satire to my publisher as part of a collection of short stories and novellas. Titled, The Cruise, the piece was a 35,000-word parody of love on the high seas — an adult-oriented tale of a cruise ship romance.
“This won’t work,” the publisher’s rep told me. “It will offend too many readers.”
At first, I thought he was kidding
My work has always been egy. My readers not only know it, they expect it. I believe in writing vivid and, if necessary, graphic descriptions of a setting and situation — especially when it helps the reader fully engage with the character’s experience. I also know it’s a fine line, and I’m equally adamant about avoiding the hack writer’s practice of overwhelming the reader with gratuitous and over-explicit passages for mere sensationalism or shock value.
Knowing where that line is — and making sure I stay on the correct side — has been critical to my success as a writer
After thinking about the publisher’s request, I decided to shelve the project. I wasn’t going to re-write a story based on trying to second guess the sensitivities of those who saw themselves as targeted recipients of every disadvantaged stereotype. I quickly forgot about The Cruise and moved on to other work.
Recently, I received an email from the publisher
He’d been reviewing my back-list and came across the original submission from nine years ago.
“Do you have any interest in resurrecting this?” he asked.
I wondered … had the social climate matured to the point of being able to recognize and discriminate between intentional social commentary based on reality, and the descriptions and actions of fictional characters who sprang from the womb of pure fantasy?
“I think with a little editing and updating,” the publisher said, “you could incorporate The Cruise in your upcoming Journeys collection. (Journeys … From Above and Below the Belt is my newest book-in-process, and I’m in the final phase of determining which stories to include.)
“How much editing are we talking about?” I asked.
“I’ll shoot you a few notes,” he replied. “Look them over and let me know what you think.”
A few hours later, I opened his email and read his comments. Most of the suggestions were easy to accommodate, but this one really threw me:
“Eliminate chapter one. I’m concerned the travel agent’s weight will be a real stumbling block. I know the character’s physical description is integral to the story, but with the current hypersensitivity to obesity, this could open the door to accusations of fat-shaming.”
Understand, we’re talking about a work of FICTION. The story isn’t some preachy essay on the self-destructive behavior of those who binge on fast food, cigarettes, or alcohol and then suffer from obesity, heart disease, or cancer. This is a simple story about a single young man’s quest to find an attractive woman and coax her into a sexual liaison.
The reader quickly learns the protagonist is a chauvinistic womanizer, evaluating members of the female gender by the size of their breasts, the curve of their bottom, and their willingness to conform to his fantasized version of a willing sex kitten.
Remember, this piece is a satire
In this style of writing, particular characteristics — both good and bad — are emphasized to make a point. Before revealing the “offending paragraphs,” I’d like to ask a favor. If you’re willing to read beyond this point, promise me you’ll finish the entire article.
I realize the passage that follows may offend, upset, or otherwise piss you off. But that’s typically true with any derisive writing taken out of context. So for right now, I’m asking you to withhold judgment until you have the full picture. I want this to be an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one.
Photo by Remy_Loz on Unsplash
Here’s the passage
Travel agent Debby is in her mid-thirties and extremely overweight. She wears enough makeup to paint a good-size barn. I notice her legs — too large to reside under the desk in tandem — are splayed wide, her asphalt-black stretch pants glistening with a taut elastic shine screaming of an impending breach. Whatever she’s sitting on is hidden underneath bulging hips that overflow its edges like a jellied waterfall.
Slipping a hand into her top desk drawer, Debby begins to shuffle through pens and paperclips, moving small piles of junk aside. Finally — and not caring that I can see — she picks up an unwrapped chocolate Rollo from the bottom of the pencil tray. Examining it closely, she flicks off the loose hairs and dirt and quickly pops it into her mouth. Parking the candy in her right cheek, she holds it there for just a moment, and then slowly begins to chew.
Hell, I wrote it, and I’m offended. But remove it? The character’s weight is an essential — critical — part of the story’s conclusion. After chapter one, Debbie isn’t mentioned again, until she re-emerges on the final page. Without her — and the reader’s empathetic acceptance of her physical form as only a small part of her identity — the ending no longer makes sense. Take Debby out of the picture, and the protagonist cannot learn his lesson: Love is more than skin deep.
Does that matter? Apparently not. In this case, the publisher believes that writing in socially correct “case” is more important than conveying honest human emotion or expressing the “greater truth” that personality, kindness, and selflessness are far more important than the superficial values of a pretty face and slim figure.
I believe the publisher’s response is a consequence of fear — his concern centered on a new “hypersensitive” generation who have appointed themselves the vanguard of social propriety. With fingers placed on a hair-trigger of condemnation, they watch and listen — ready to sound the alarm.
I understand his apprehension, but my intent has nothing to do with perpetuating stereotypes and fueling cultural demonization based on physical appearance. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Through the use of parody, I’m attempting to show the advantages of looking beyond the physicality of size and shape , allowing others to reveal their personality and character before summarily dismissing them for not meeting the superficial standards of face and form.
And that’s the other side of the issue the “sensitivity” movement doesn’t understand. Yes, Debby’s description as an overweight woman highlights society’s bias against the obese. And yes, I could simply sweep it under the proverbial rug, subordinating the issue to sensitivity seminars and commercials for Weight Watchers.
But if I remove the offending description, will the problem disappear?
Will it eliminate our collective prejudice? As a writer, I believe presenting culturally volatile issues within a fictional setting is not only appropriate, it’s necessary, especially when portrayed within the context of a larger moral or ethical issue. It allows the reader to witness hurtful and discriminatory bias from a perch of self-analysis — to see and hear the objectionable behavior demonstrated by fictional characters, to learn why it’s a problem and, if appropriate, take preventative measures to correct their personal conduct.
“The books that the world calls immoral, are the books that show the world its own shame.” — Oscar Wilde
The socially-prescribed alternative — hiding the truth from view and eliminating reality with broad, sweeping strokes of the pen — is certainly an alternative. But artificial constructions are just that — artificial. By intentionally avoiding the issues that violate our social conscience, we end up shoving the uncomfortable subjects into that dark closet where we keep the rest of society’s faults and