Monday, January 17, 2011

Do You Get Offended?

Posted by Simcha 4:44 AM, under | 9 comments

Several months ago I had read a science fiction book from the 1960's which I had very much enjoyed but which was marred for me slightly by the condescending attitude towards the book's female characters. If this were a recent book then I would have probably stopped reading it because of this or I would have completed it just so I could write a scathing review of it afterward. But instead I took into account the time period in which the book was written and allowed myself to enjoy the rest of the story, just occasionally gritting my teeth in annoyance.

After finishing this book I wondered how other readers react to books with content that would be considered offensive by today's standards although it was completely acceptable at the time the book was published. Last week's uproar about the publication by
NewSouth Books of altered versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn got me thinking about this question again.

NewSouth Books seem to feel that Mark Twain's use of certain offensive words, such as "nigger" and "injun," turn readers off from reading these classics. Their response is to publish edited versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, replacing these "politically-incorrect" words with more sanitized (though not completely accurate) versions.

Now I'm not judging if NewSouth Books is correct to do this or not but I am curious if there are actually people who are offended enough by Mark Twain's books to not read them. While I had easily enough brushed off the offensive behavior of the characters in the SF book that I read I'm pretty sure that if the content had been of anti-semitic nature I would not have been as forgiving. And perhaps if Tom Sawyer had included a Jewish character who was referred to in a derogatory manner that book would have been somewhat soured for me as well. It's hard for me to say but I do realize that my reaction to an anti-semitic slur in a book would be stronger than to an offense made against women, no matter when a book was published. And I'm sure other readers have their own sensitivities that affect where they draw the line, but does the fact that a book is older or a classic make it more likely to be forgiven for such offenses?

How about you? Are you less bothered by offensive content in a book if the book is older or would you judge it by the same standards as you would a modern book?


I tend to be rather forgiving of things like that in older/period books as long as the story is compelling. I'll cringe a bit, remind myself why I'm letting it go and then push on. Those moments do pull me out of the story so if there are too many I'll eventually put it down and go on to something else in my reading pile.

Hi Simcha,
I think that books are a product of the time and place that they are written, and to change them after the fact because they no longer reflect popular thinking is wrong. To me, it's like going into a museum and painting over an artist's work. I have a pretty high tolerance for non-politically correct material in older books (and I'm sure, like you said in your blog, there are different "hot buttons" for everyone) and if something becomes too distracting, I will eventually put the book down. But I think we ought to respect the glimpse at another time and culture that older literature gives us. It is our history, whether it is politically correct or not.

Eden: While I wouldn't condone editing all copies of a book what if offering a few "retouched" versions of certain books guarantees that more people would read it? I don't think I see the harm in this, as long as the spirit of the story is not lost along the way. Particularly for books such as those by Mark Twain which can be read entirely for entertainment purposes, as I read them when I was younger.

Personally I don't think it is the publisher's place to rewrite someone's book for them just because certain words are no longer deemed acceptable. If you object to the content don't publish it. I certainly hope they will indicate clearly that they have changed it.

I guess I would not object to it if the language was so obscure that it would not be intelligible to large numbers of readers. Dutch has changed quite a lot in the past few centuries. You need some serious education to properly understand 17th century written Dutch. A lot of these works are ... they have a nice word for it in Dutch that doesn't have an English equivalent. Let's just say the language is updated.

Do I get offended.... well, a book is a product of it's time to an extend. I don't expect a golden age SF novel to contain liberated female characters. They were written in a time when ideas on the role of men and women were very different and the books written in those years show that. I can see why some readers would find it irritating but there really is no point in being offended by it. If someone were to do that today however.... I guess that I do take the time a book was written in into account to an extend.

When I get offended by a book, I just stop reading it. Unless it's a book for review. In that case I feel obligated to read to the end to be as fair as possible and then write about what offended me in my review post. In one case, I e-mailed the author letting her know what offended me. She replied to me and I included my e-mail and her reply in my post.
That's not possible with Mark Twain, obviously. But the last and only time I ever read Huck Finn was for required reading in high school. I remember feeling very uncomfortable about the use of the n-word and I'm sure I wasn't the only one; however, the teacher never even discussed it. While I don't condone the use of it and don't have any particular affection for Huck Finn, I do not think that any publisher has a right to re-write an author's book without his or his estate's permission. If schools insist on making Huck Finn required reading (which I don't agree with either since there are so many worthier, more enjoyable books out there), why not take the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion regarding the use of the n-word in it?
Last example - in college, my Shakespeare professor, who I respected in all other ways, assigned The Merchant of Venice and during the subsequent discussion tried very hard to convince the class that it wasn't anti-Semitic. I didn't really by her wildly creative interpretation. I read it for myself. Shakespeare was a genius, but The Merchant of Venice is still anti-Semitic

While I'm not an advocate of changing the words in a book to something that is more PC. I do understand why someone is uncomfortable reading them.

One of my favorite Agatha Christie books is "And Then There Were None" also titles "Ten Little Indiands" and origionally "Ten Little N******". When I first read the book I was a little taken aback by the term as I wasn't used to having it put out there like that. I had to top and think though that the book is a product of it's time and that word while offensive never had the same connotations behind it in England as it did here. I'm not surprised when the changed the title too "Ten Little Indians" though I do find it rather silly that they had to change it to "And Then There Were None" later because people found it offensive. I actually bought one version of the book where the name of the island is called Soldier Island instead of Indian Island. I was annoyed enough that I returned that edition and bought a different one.

Another book I loved is "The Sentinel" by Jeffrey Knovitz. It has a rather dated impression of lesbians and gays that I personally found offensive but I kept reading anyway because I had to remember the times the book was written in.

I did choose to not read an older Christmas anthology though because the editor used "darkies" when talking about African Americans. Not sure why that was too much for me to take but it was.

I'm going to wrap this rather long comment up with this. I look at books the same way I do early films. A lof of my favorite movies (The Thin Man movies or even The Women use household decor that would never be accepted in modern movies) use racist imagery, language, or stereotypes. You obviously can't edit them out of a movie so why should you be able to do it to a book. You have to remember that art reflects the culture both good and bad. It's up to the viewer/reader to either decided to seperate that out of their experience or just not read/watch it to begin with.

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I have stopped reading books around being offended by the positions they espouse, but yes, I'm more forgiving of older books. In general, not always. The social dynamic changes -- n***** is now so totally unacceptable for (non-black) people to say out loud, and in Mark Twain's time it just wasn't. Word usage changes, social norms change, the amount of offensiveness you can get away with before society smacks you in the face changes. :p

Stephanie: I first read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn when I was 13 and I enjoyed the books so much that I hunted down every other book about these characters and devoured them as well. I didn't notice anything offensive about them and just took pleasure in the stories. That's why I think it wouldn't hurt to have versions of these books which other kids can read just for the simple pleasure of the stories, without being caught up by language which, while outdated, they might find hurtful.

Ryan: I actually thought of you while writing this post because I recall you mentioning a similar reading experience once.
Your comment about erasing movies reminded me of something I read after the World Trade Center was bombed about the Twin Towers being erased from the backgrounds in some movies, which I thought was a horrifying idea. I suppose I can see how that would extend to books as well.

Jenny: Yes, it makes me wonder which of the content included in modern books will be considered offensive by future generations.

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