The War on Words

by | April 13, 2023 | General | 1 comment

A year ago, I published a blog containing a list of banned books from the American Library Association. I compared their list to one I ran across from 40 years earlier, and was surprised to see many of my alma mater’s “required reading” titles. To put this in perspective, that was the era when American history books told us all about the Civil War, slavery, the Holocaust, the Communist menace, and the civil rights movement. No one felt the need to withhold the facts about these historical events that shaped our country.

Lately, the culture wars have been heating up to the boiling point. For those who might not be clear on the concept, a culture war refers to a disagreement between groups about the value something has for society. Book banning is still the rave, but now it’s acceptable to rewrite school textbooks and classic literature. Within the last year, we were informed that the estate of the late Dr. Seuss would discontinue publication of six of his biggest selling titles, and would revise others due to what is now perceived as unflattering portrayals. The latest salvo fired by the Radical Right landed broadside on another popular children’s book author, Roald Dahl.

In the case of Dr. Seuss, the business founded by his family announced that it would stop publishing six of his popular titles because they include racist and insensitive images. As a sort of consolation prize, they will release some previously unpublished works and illustrations by the late writer that are considered “safe.” This decision drew mostly criticism from all corners of the industry, with one publication calling it “corporate safety-ism.” The company line was that the books in question “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” an Asian person is portrayed wearing a conical hat, holding chopsticks and eating from a bowl. “If I Ran the Zoo” includes a drawing of two bare-footed African men wearing what appear to be grass skirts with their hair tied above their heads. The other books affected were “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!,” “Scrambled Eggs Super!,” and “The Cat’s Quizzer.”

Roald Dahl’s firing squad-worthy offenses include the children’s favorite “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl had the audacity to refer to Oompa Loompas, the diminutive staffers of Willy Wonka’s candy emporium, as “small men.” In the rewritten version, they are now “small people” to make them gender neutral. Another favorite story character, infamous glutton Augustus Gloop, is now called “enormous” instead of “fat.” Why not just say “calorically challenged” and play it safe?

Dahl’s gender references have also been neutralized to not offend women or the transgender community. In “The Witches,” a section saying witches are bald beneath their wigs has a new disclaimer: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.” That sounds like the punchline of the old “Seinfeld” bit about being gay.

Adding insult to injury, Dahl’s original version of “James and the Giant Peach” contained the character rhymes “Aunt Sponge was terrifically fat, and tremendously flabby at that,” along with “Aunt Spiker was thin as a wire, and dry as a bone, only drier.” After being scrubbed, the text now reads “Aunt Sponge was a nasty old brute, and deserved to be squashed by the fruit,” and “Aunt Spiker was much of the same, and deserves half of the blame.” Don’t feel bad—it didn’t make sense to me, either!

This trend has added a new profession to the publishing world—sensitivity readers. Their job is to look for perceived offensive content, stereotypes, and bias, then create a report for an author or publisher with suggested changes. Examples include those listed above, plus works by Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie, among others.

The practice has been around since the early 1800s, but under different names, like expurgation and bowdlerization. During this earlier period of politically correct ass-kissing, Shakespeare’s plays got the treatment, and you couldn’t find an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s novels (like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”) until 1960. The wholesome all-American Hardy Boys children’s mystery novels (published starting in 1927) contained heavy doses of racism, and were extensively revised starting in 1959 in response to parents’ complaints about racial stereotypes.

A fig-leaf edition of a book is another name for a bowdlerized text, derived from the practice of using fig leaves to cover the genitals of nudes in classical statues and paintings. Author Upton Sinclair thumbed his nose at this practice when the city of Boston banned his novel “Oil!” (1926), owing to a motel sex scene. As a publicity stunt, Sinclair assembled a 150-copy fig-leaf edition of the book with the offending pages blacked out.

Recently, Ian Fleming Publications announced that Fleming’s James Bond series was being re-published, with many references to race removed from the original text. A disclaimer will be added at the beginning of each book, reading “This book was written at a time when terms and attitudes which might be considered offensive by modern readers were commonplace. A number of updates have been made in this edition, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period in which it is set.” I guess you’re supposed to use your imagination to get what Fleming really intended.

A related development comes courtesy of the Associated Press style guide. Apparently, it is now politically incorrect to use the word “mistress,” because it implies submissiveness and a subordinate relationship. I don’t mind retiring that word because mistress is really a bit old fashioned. The guidebook suggests that terms like companion, friend, or lover are acceptable substitutes. They didn’t mention “friend with benefits,” “girl on the side,” or “f***-buddy,” so I assume those are still safe. Some Realtors have also been told to stop using “master bedroom” and “master suite” when they write home listings. The thinking is that the word “master” could be construed as not only sexist, but racist, and reminiscent of slavery. Where does this end???

We who write adult romance for a living now need to add these two m-words to our list of unacceptable euphemisms. It’s becoming a long list. We already have the n-word, f-word, s-word and c-word, among others. Soon, we may be using letters and acronyms to communicate. That would make news reporting a lot of fun, wouldn’t it? “The President declared that the opposition was a bunch of c-words, and the opposing party leader replied that his speech was a steaming pile of s-word and that he was an a-word.” That’s as frustrating as deciphering text messages from a teenager.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is an award-winning bestselling author. His books range from romantic mystery/thriller to contemporary erotic romance. He is also a freelance photographer. When he isn't pursuing those two careers he can often be found in The Florida Keys, indulging his passion for parasailing between research and seeking out the perfect Pina Colada.

1 Comment

  1. Lisabet Sarai

    Ugh. I refuse to give in to this silliness. It makes my stomach ache.

    Meanwhile, anyone who thinks that “mistress” implies submissiveness is obviously unfamiliar with the BDSM genre!

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