Censorship and Contemporary World Literature Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Censorship and Contemporary World Literature

The following entry presents discussion and criticism of censorship in contemporary literature through 2001.

Censorship is the practice of either banning or severely truncating a literary work, usually on political or moral grounds. A work can be pre-censored when submitted to an approval process before publication, or it can be withdrawn as a result of censorship after it is published. Some authors have commented that in chronically repressive societies such as the Soviet Union, China, or South Africa, the writer often internalizes the censorship mechanism, practicing a kind of self-censorship subconsciously during the writing process.

The relationship between censorship and contemporary world literature has developed across various historical contexts and geographical locations in the twentieth century. In some cases, the censoring of modern literature has been the result of collective opinion that a work presents a moral danger on the grounds that it is pornographic, that it treats a dangerous theme such as pedophilia or political rebellion, or that it presents an affront to the sociopolitical status quo. For example, William S. Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch (1959) was seized by the U.S. Customs Department before it was published in the United States and underwent a lengthy legal procedure during which it was declared obscene. J. D. Salinger's novel Catcher in the Rye (1951) continues to generate debate about its suitability for inclusion in school curricula, and it has been banned in some school districts over the last several decades. Sparking discussion of censorship on a global scale, Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses (1988) interweaves politics, religion, and culture, and has elevated censorship to an international level.

Often the political climate in a given locale functions as the determining factor in literary censorship. Regimes notorious for repression and censorship of literary works include the Soviet Union under the reign of Josef Stalin in the 1930s and during the Cold War, China during and after the People's Revolution, and South Africa in the era of apartheid. During Argentina's military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983, censorship was exercised routinely to limit exposure to writings expressing ideas that were considered threatening or uncomplimentary to the government. In Syria, the police state has tightly controlled the flow of information as well as literature, while in Eastern European countries under Soviet influence, the Communist Party adjudicated the appropriateness for publication of every new piece of literature. Although there were elaborate institutions and mechanisms established to control the movement of literature or to ban its expression in each of these countries, writers and readers have found ingenious ways of avoiding censorship and securing alternate channels for publishing and distributing their work. In the Soviet Union, for example, the samizdat book-publishing process became an industry in its own right, and the spetskhran, or library of forbidden books, has coexisted alongside the state library for decades. Writers have also incorporated literary techniques that allow them to evade censorship—for instance, utilizing parody, fantasy, or irony to allude to current events, employing double meaning, and using atomized voices in drama so that no one person can be held responsible for a particular utterance. Censorship in the form of media controls and Internet access remains a topic of discussion into the twenty-first century.