This post starts with two paragraphs of back story which if you are a thoroughly post-modern Millie, feel free to skip; it’s included for readers who wonder which planet I hail from.
How we look at literature (or any other type of art or object) changes from era to era but it revolves around three things. The person who made the thing, the thing itself – and the person who is reading or looking at the thing. The ‘real world’ outside doesn’t – at least in current thinking – enter into the discussion, and the ‘thing’ is called a text – whether it’s Shakespeare, an oxo packet or even a chair. (It’s called ‘Critical Theory’ and you can study it.)
The top dog of these three – maker, text, reader – is currently the reader. This makes sense if you consider the secular consumerist nature of current UK society. For writers (and other makers), it means that the most important critics of the writer are the readers. On the surface, this isn’t problematic: surely works that are recognised to be popular will survive and be judged on their quality – or what the writer was seeking to achieve?
Writers have the freedom to make observations that are uncomfortable and poke into the dark places of the human condition without syruping them over; seeking after truths is one of the most important contributions they can make. (And, to anyone who thinks all the research money should go to science, the humanities are all the more free to make these uncomfortable observations since they are not as bound as science is to method and tradition – if you think this is a bad thing, go debate it with Aristotle.)
Readers themselves, I think, are fallen into seeing themselves as consumers, judging texts purely in terms of their own reaction and even extrapolating their singular experience to be general.
Work that may shock or offend – no matter how well justified the observations are – should be censored. This is why Harper Lee’s to Kill a Mockingbird is still on banned books lists, and an author feels the need to defend her choice of words for her character’s dialogue.
The desire to protect others from offense is the invidious tenor of our age – as Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times notes, that which is middlebrow has won.
Rich individuals and corporations are naturally gleeful; this approach means they can act with impunity – the attempt to make it illegal to offend the religious, silence legitimate news reporting, and the punitive libel laws are examples that come readily to mind.
There may be a mood for change – particularly once consumers lose their pocket power. Until then, redacted is a word for our times.