Censorship and Contemporary World Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Censorship and Contemporary World Literature


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 A work can be pre-censored when submitted to an approval process before publication, or it can be withdrawn as a result of censorship after it is published.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.

Representative Works

Breyten Breytenbach
Blomskryf: uit die Gedigte van Breyten Breytenbach en Jan Blom (poetry) 1977
Dog Heart: A Travel Memoir (memoir) 1998

William S. Burroughs
The Naked Lunch (novel) 1959

Camilo José Cela
La familia de Pascual Duarte (novel) 1942

J. M. Coetzee
Dusklands (novel) 1974
In the Heart of the Country (novel) 1977
Waiting for the Barbarians (novel) 1980
Life & Times of Michael K (novel) 1983
Foe (novel) 1986

Roberto Mario Cossa
La nona [The Granny] (play) 1977

Ricardo Halac
El destete [The Weaning] (play) 1978

Ulfat al-Idilbi
Wada' an ya Dimasha (novel) 1963

Susana Torres Molina
Extraño juguete (play) 1977

Ricardo Monti
Visita [Visit] (play) 1977

Eduardo Pavlovsky
Telarañas [Spiderwebs] (play) 1976

Salman Rushdie
Midnight's Children (novel) 1981
Shame (novel) 1983
The Satanic Verses (novel) 1988

J. D. Salinger
The Catcher in the Rye (novel) 1951

Mercedes Salisachs
Una mujer llega al pueblo (novel) 1957

Hubert Selby
Last Exit to Brooklyn (novel) 1964

Zakaria Tamer
Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories (short stories) 1985

Oscar Viale
Encantada de conocerlo [Pleased to Meet You] (play) 1978

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

J. M. Coetzee (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Coetzee, J. M. “Emerging from Censorship.” In Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, pp. 34-47. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, South African author Coetzee explores the influence of censorship on the psychological state and work of writers.]

From the early 1960s until about 1980, the Republic of South Africa operated one of the most comprehensive censorship systems in the world. Called in official parlance not censorship but “publications control” (censorship was a word it preferred to censor from public discourse about itself),1 it sought to control the dissemination of signs in whatever...

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Norman Podhoretz (essay date April 1997)

SOURCE: Podhoretz, Norman. “Lolita, My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt.” Commentary 103, no. 4 (April 1997): 23-35.

[In the following essay, Podhoretz discusses the pros and cons of censoring pornographic literature, using Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, the works of the Marquis de Sade, and Larry Flynt's Hustler magazine as points of departure.]

Not long ago, the Library of America put out a beautiful new three-volume edition of the novels and memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov,1 and I decided to seize upon it as a convenient occasion for reacquainting myself with his work. Which explains why I happened to be reading...

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Criticism: Notorious Cases

Michael B. Goodman (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Goodman, Michael B. “The Customs' Censorship of William Burroughs' Naked Lunch.Critique 22, no. 1 (1980): 92-104.

[In the following essay, Goodman discusses the process by which Burroughs's novel was seized by the U.S. Customs Service in 1959 and subsequently banned as an obscene work.]

With its descriptions of violent eroticism, William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959) hit a sensitive cultural nerve more forcefully than other books which discussed sex explicitly. It dealt vividly with the interrelationship of sex and violence, with sex and cannibalism, with bestiality, and with homosexual exploitation. Through his caricatures of sexual...

(The entire section is 5413 words.)

Aamir Mufti (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Mufti, Aamir. “Reading the Rushdie Affair: ‘Islam,’ Cultural Politics, Form.” In The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere, edited by Richard Burt, pp. 307-39. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

[In the following essay, Mufti explores the cultural, political, and aesthetic forces at work in the reception of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.]

Gayatri Spivak has argued that, in the case of The Satanic Verses, “the praxis and politics of life” intercept the aesthetic object to such a degree that a “mere reading” of the novel has become impossible.1 In...

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Pamela Hunt Steinle (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Steinle, Pamela Hunt. “The Catcher Controversies as Cultural Debate.” In In Cold Fear: The Catcher in the Rye Censorship Controversies and Postwar American Character, pp. 106-39. Columbus, Oh.: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

[In the excerpt below, Steinle examines the various reasons cited for withdrawing J. D. Salinger's novel The Catcher in the Rye from school district curricula in the 1950s through the 1980s.]

Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn't that right? Haven't you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren't they? Don't we keep...

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Criticism: Censorship In The Global Context

Valeria D. Stelmakh (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Stelmakh, Valeria D. “Reading in the Context of Censorship in the Soviet Union.” Libraries & Culture 36, no. 1 (winter 2001): 143-51.

[In the following essay, the full version of which was published in Solanus 10 (1996), Stelmakh presents an overview of literary censorship in the Soviet Union in the period of the 1960s to the 1980s, noting the rise of samizdat literature and of the spetskhran, or the library of forbidden literature.]

The period preceding the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. and the collapse of the Soviet regime (from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s) had a number of distinctive features that are important for...

(The entire section is 3361 words.)

Mohja Kahf (essay date spring 2001)

SOURCE: Kahf, Mohja. “The Silences of Contemporary Syrian Literature.” World Literature Today 75, no. 2 (spring 2001): 225-36.

[In the following essay, Kahf examines the historic problem of censorship and repression faced by writers in Syria.]


There is, of course, no such thing as Syrian literature. Certainly, citizens of the modern nation-state of Syria write literature, but to claim that “Syrian literature” exists in the same way that, say, Russian literature or German literature exists is misleading. First, it implies that there is a language called Syrian. Syrian literature is, for the most part,...

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Jean Graham-Jones (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Graham-Jones, Jean. “Broken Pencils and Crouching Dictators: Issues of Censorship in Contemporary Argentine Theatre.” Theatre Journal 53, no. 4 (2001): 595-605.

[In the following essay, Graham-Jones discusses how Argentine playwrights devised ways to incorporate “counter-censorship” into their productions during the repressive 1970s in that country.]

Autocensura [self-censorship] continues to be as dirty a word for the Argentine artist as it was during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. When asked about the subject, artists commonly respond much as the writer Héctor Lastra did in 1986: “I have always insisted that self-censorship does not...

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Further Reading


Blium, Arlen Viktorovich. “‘The Jewish Question’ and Censorship in the USSR.” In The Holocaust and the Book: Destruction and Preservation, edited by Jonathan Rose, pp. 79-103. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Describes the censorship and persecution of Jewish authors and works during the Stalin era in the Soviet Union.

Cohen, Mark. “In Defence of Censorship: Margaret Laurence.” In Censorship in Canadian Literature, pp. 88-118. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001.

Discusses the censorship case of Canadian feminist novelist Laurence.


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