True censorship

A few weeks ago, American librarians “celebrated” Banned Books Week. We made displays. We raised awareness of challenges around the country in school districts and public libraries. We patiently explained the difference between a book challenge and a book banning to anyone who asked. And then the week was over and we put the books back on the shelf. The strange thing about Banned Books Week, for me, is that in spite of anyone’s attempts to get a book away from readers is that a determined reader can always go to another library or buy the book. Books don’t truly get banned in the United States anymore and, apart from periodic outrage when a book is challenged, it’s easy to not think about censorship.

Students reading in North China University’s
library, 1946. Via Vintage Libraries.

Yesterday, I read this timely article in The New York Times about the Hobson’s choice writers have to make when getting published in China: “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China.” According to the article, censors work at every major publisher in China. Publishers can no longer slip books past a central censorship office. Censors will remove offending passages or prevent an entire book from being published. Andrew Jacobs, the authors of this report, points to the wide array of possible offensive topics: references to Tienanmen Square, sex and sexuality,even a depiction of a politician being embarrassed at a state event by dropping food from his chopsticks. The choice for authors who want to sell their books in China is to accept the censors’ changes or refuse to let their books be published there. The choice is between getting some of one’s book through or maintaining one’s artistic integrity. As with the horses at Hobson’s stable, it’s really no choice at all.

Compared to the literary world in China, the book world in the West is a hedonistic and artistic paradise. It seems a little silly to keep pointing out the fact that books get removed from a school or library here and there when there are places in the world where books truly are banned. (Not that I’m going to stop participating in Banned Books Week. BBW will only stop being necessary when people stop trying to get between readers and books.) Soviet Russia had and the Middle East still has their samizdat. No only can you not openly purchase these books, but in some places simply having a copy is a crime.

I have no idea what I would do, were I an author that had just sold the publication rights to a Chinese publisher. Would I stand my ground? Or would I try to sneak some of my words through to readers? If I stuck to my ideals, readers in China would probably never hear about it, unless a pirated copy got through. If I bowed to the censors’, how much of my message would really get through?

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