On censorship

I don’t often think on the topic, but a recent New Yorker article, coupled with the recent announcement that China is the guest of honor at this year’s BEA Global Market Forum, pretty much demands a philosophical blog post today.

Office politics plays a role in publishing, same as in any other industry. In China, it’s Party politics.

Peter Hessler’s piece in the New Yorker not only sheds some light on the Chinese publishing industry and the extent to which it is controlled by the government, but it also begs an interesting question—one to which I don’t have a confident answer.

Should authors allow their work to be censored if it means bringing their book to a new market and a fresh audience?

I don’t know. As Americans, our freedom of expression valued as highly as it is, our initial reaction is: absolutely not. After all, allowing your manuscript to be censored can be seen as passive endorsement of government propaganda. But when the alternative is not being published, can you really deny an entire country of people your ideas? Change is often incremental, and many publishers in China are doing an admirable job working around the realities of censorship to bring fresh, sometimes controversial literature to the Chinese people.

What do our readers think? Does anyone have experience dealing with such issues?

8 Responses to On censorship

  1. May Zhee says:

    Great and timely post, Mike!While it might be great that China is opening up to foreign books, which supposedly results in Chinese readers becoming more “worldly,” I don’t see what good that does for Chinese writers who are in prison or how that’ll make China open up on freedom of expression. When you are okay with omitting sentences in your book about Tiananmen protesters, Tibets, or Uyghurs, it’s hard not to equate that with an endorsement of the government’s treatment of these groups, which is to basically silence and suppress them. Hessler may have gotten most of his books published in China, but he’ll never be able to publish his book on the Uyghurs, and he doesn’t seem to take an issue with that. In his article he talks about how publishers like Zhang can be punished relentlessly by the government for making one small error, but he seems to just shrug off all that as part of the system, and doesn’t ever take a strong stance against Chinese censorship. That’s what I have a real problem with. When you’re dealing with a bully like China, giving in to their demands and looking past their reprehensible actions won’t make them rethink their actions and policies.


  2. Writer says:

    I have to wonder how much control we have over it regardless of what we may or may not think. My publisher bought World Rights and then sold my book to China. I was informed by email (and I celebrated, it seemed like a good thing!) and the next thing I knew I had a copy of my book in Chinese…that I couldn’t read. Did they sensor anything? I have no idea.

    • Mike Hoogland says:

      If you had a choice, what would have been your decision?

      • writer says:

        I suppose it would have to do with what the changes were. I mean, sometimes something totally unimportant in one culture is terribly offensive in another. In that case, I’d probably allow them. If it changed the political slant of the story though, probably not. The only thing I know for sure is they changed the name of the main character to something more Chinese – from Molly to Jasmine. No one asked me, but it didn’t bother me and I’ve heard that happens regularly anyway.

  3. D. C. DaCosta says:

    I\’m wondering whether your work was translated in the US, by the publisher, or in China. My preference would be to have it done in the US so I could have some knowledge of what was being changed, if anything.Question: From a legal standpoint, if world rights are sold, is the right to censor included automatically?

  4. Mike Hoogland says:

    No, from a legal standpoint, standard contracts don\’t give the translator/foreign publisher the right to make any substantive changes to the book, which of course absolutely includes any form of censorship. However, in practice, authors don\’t usually speak the language that their book is being translated into, so any changes made are often done without the author ever finding out.

  5. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I remember it being a big debate a while back in the UK (I’m talking decades). The offending author was Enid Blyton and her ‘Noddy in Toytown’ series. Toytown was populated by a variety of toys, including gollywogs. As these were deemed racially offensive, all the toytown series (or indeed any of Blyton’s work in which gollywogs featured) – were either withdrawn entirely or revised and the gollywogs substituted for something else. For example, Noddy goes to work in a garage when first arriving in Toytown. His employer is a gollywog who treats him pretty badly. A doll called Mr Sparks replaced this character.

    I’m more or less recounting what I read in the newspapers at the time – I read very little Blyton as a child, but remember the series. I remember the ensuing debate even more vividly because it raised a whole raft of interesting issues – ie, when is it appropriate to revise an author’s work? Where do you draw the line? (other revisions were made as well, perhaps unnecessary ones) etc, etc. You could say that Blyton was ‘just’ a children’s author – but the same could be said of Tolkien or Lewis Carroll. You could argue about the relative literary merits of her work – but does this mean work that is racist but sufficiently ‘literary’ in quality should be excused? And so on and so forth.

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