Snip. Snip. The Censorship Debate

What to cut and what to keep? It’s a question I’ve asked myself time and time again.

I came across an old blog post about the process of editing. During our humble beginnings, we had finish the last words of Along Comes a Wolfe, our first novel in the Shepherd and Wolfe series. It was an exciting time.

Next step, to the editor

At that point it felt great to reach another milestone in our journey to the goal—of finishing our first book. I remember that feeling of completion. It was definitely like crossing a finish line after a long ass run. However, when you hand your writing over to an editor you must be prepared for what may come.

Our editor at the time did a thorough job but left a comment in one particular scene in our story. The comment was “Is this character going to go there?” The trouble the editor encountered was that one of our characters was trying to mess with his friend, and it came off, well, racist—at least to our editor. Out of context what one character said to another was racist according to him. David quickly messaged me with all sorts of concerns. We considered cutting the line. We considered the implications of leaving the line. We went back and forth on it—a lot.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember who even wrote the line in the first place—David? Me? I can’t recall. I’m sorry that this is all so vague but I don’t want to spoil the story in any way. But I will tell you that I struggled with censorship—even if it may have offended. I mean we write murder mysteries which are gruesome and very likely offensive to some.

I did my own personal Gallop Poll.

I asked my senior art class for input. I read the passage to them. The level of offense didn’t even hit their radar. One girl even said “Counios, that’s nothing. Stand in the hallway at lunch and listen to us string together offensive language like poetry.” I asked the Indigenous advocate at our school if I could read the problematic bit to him. No context, just the story, to see how he’d react. He listened patiently. He snickered when I got to the part in question because it was meant to be funny. I asked him if there were any flags. He said no. I explained that our editor was concerned and he quickly retorted that we are always on the edge of being offended and that’s not a good way to live. Lastly, I stopped my friend, and maintenance member at school. He’s originally from Sri Lanka and a person of color. I was approaching him in the hall and of course my mouth ran on ahead without me and the excitement that there was a person of color right there I could address this issue with. “Nolan! You’re black!” He looked at his hands and replied “What? No!” Smart ass. “Got a minute?” And there we had a discussion about language, intent, racism and all that stuff. Did we come to any conclusions? Not really. Was the scene pulled from the book? I don’t think so, but maybe. It was a long time ago.

The bottom line in this first experience in how things are perceived became a telling lesson in the kind of work we want to create. Since then we have written four more books in the series. We’ve been open to suggestions but keep our intention in the forefront.

Censorship experiences over time

My Fine Arts degree was all about the artist making his or her statement. Nothing was censored. There was art with swears, sexual content, political stuff, and a performance piece where the artist walked around in a turtle neck—only—with his penis dangling out from under said turtle neck. It was a time of pushing boundaries. Nothing was shocking and everything was shocking.

As a high school teacher of visual art, I had to ask the students to remember that I was their audience (and evaluator) and to keep their sensibilities when creating work. If they wanted to explore particular topics they should consider getting their own personal sketch book for home. If a piece was outstanding but walked the line of inappropriateness in school, I would simply not display it. No one disagreed or debated.

Back to cutting words

My reaction, when it came to our first book, was defensive because, well, I guess I love our ‘baby.’ I’m proud of what we have done. I don’t really like being told what to do, but I also don’t want to be offensive. Admittedly I dug my heels in to keep the line we wrote because I knew the intention behind
the words was playful. There will always be someone who finds something offensive. Our editor’s job was to point it out and it was our job to decide what to do about it.

Fallout and lessons

I have said that what I want is to please the majority and offend the least amount of people possible. However, thanks to the internet there are a lot more people out there. If we appease everyone’s concerns, our work could be pretty bland. There is balance in creating a work that is interesting but not over the top filled with R-rated or offensive content. A good story doesn’t need to be sensational. As Dave and I talked about this issue, he said the goal of Along Comes a Wolfe is not to confront racism, but to entertain. I hope we’ve accomplished this in our choices. In the end, I stretched my muscles around the idea of censorship. I learned to consider what purpose particular content serves. I learned what to keep and what to cut. Great and necessary lessons for me.

Time has passed

David and I have done some gruesome writing since, as we now have four books in this series. We are focused on the genre of murder mysteries so it makes sense. I’m not so quick to jump on the sensibilities of others but I am willing to look at my own intentions and stand behind my words.

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