Living with censorship

'Banned books' exhibition

Cover of 'Sleeveless errand'
'Sleeveless errand' -
banned in the UK,
published in Paris.

Writers and publishers have had to resort to various strategies in order to avoid censorship and suppression (sometimes with violence attached).

From the moment the work is conceived, a writer might exercise self-censorship by avoiding certain issues, or by making use of allegory or other literary conventions.


Measures to avoid suppression

Interventions in a writer's work can occur at various stages in the publication process too. In some cases it is only possible to publish anonymously or posthumously, or publish abroad. Some writings have to be circulated privately. In extreme cases writers have to go into hiding.


Opposition to censorship

Meanwhile, individuals and associations organise resistance to censorship and suppression on their behalf. Over the years a number of bodies have engaged with opposing censorship, many of them active today.


Changing society's values

Of course, social mores differ from place to place.

Threats to a society's self-image or the fear of social disorder can be a powerful impetus to the suppression of information. But opposition and constructive debate can change society's values and standards over time.


Exhibition topics in this theme:

  • Posthumous publication
  • Publishing abroad
  • Anonymous publication
  • Pre-publication struggles
  • The 'F' word
  • The extreme case of Taslima Nasrin
  • Fighting back — organisations and libraries


Some of the exhibits on this theme: 

Posthumous publication

Engraving of David Hume

Philosopher David Hume had circulated the original manuscript of his 'Dialogues' to numerous friends, including economist Adam Smith, who all advised him not to publish. Hume's determination to publish is shown, however, by revisions he made to his manuscript shortly before his death in 1776, partly expressing support of the need for revelation and faith. 'Dialogues' was published anonymously in 1779.

On display: Manuscript of 'Dialogues concerning natural religion' by David Hume. (Around 1751-1761, revised 1776).


'Dedicated to a happier year'

Although he completed 'Maurice' in 1914, E M Forster decided that his novel of homosexual love should not be published until after his death. He explained in a terminal note that since 'a happy ending was imperative', this alone would prove the main obstacle to the novel's acceptance in print.

On display: 'Maurice'. by E M Forster. (London, Edward Arnold, 1971).


Publishing abroad

Publishing the unpublishable

Photo of Henry Miller
Henry Miller.

In 1929, Manchester-born Jack Kahane published Norah C James's 'Sleeveless Errand' in Paris. This was the first of many titles banned in the USA and UK that were then taken up by his Obelisk Press imprint. He went on to publish a number of well-known authors, and was the first publisher of the work of Henry Miller in the 1930s.

On display: ''Tropic of Capricorn', by Henry Miller (Paris, Obelisk Press, 1958) and 'Tropic of Cancer', by Henry Miller. (Paris, Obelisk Press, 1959).


Pre-publication struggles

'I won't attack the dog in the dark'

Lord Byron originally dedicated 'Don Juan' to Robert Southey, Poet Laureate: 'You, Bob! are rather insolent, you know, / At being disappointed in your wish / To supersede all warblers here below, / And be the only Blackbird in the dish'. But the poet cancelled the dedication since the work was published anonymously, and because such attacks 'are for scoundrels and renegadoes like himself'.

On display: 'Don Juan', Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron. (London, 1819, annotated proof copy).


The wielder of the red pen

David Lvingstone

Authors have to deal with interventions in their work at many stages. The editor employed by the publisher John Murray made some changes in red ink to explorer David Livingstone's manuscript of 'Missionary's Travels'. Livingstone accepted none of them.

On display: Manuscript of 'Missionary's Travels', by David Livingstone. (1857).


The extreme case of Taslima Nasrin

Taslima Nasrin exemplifies current-day writers living with the constant threat of censorship. A prize-winning author, she has been physically attacked, forced into exile and had numerous 'fatwahs' issued against her. Her works, which are critical of Islam and its treatment of women, have been banned in Bangladesh. 'Lajjā'   (Shame), documents the persecution of the Hindu minority there.

On display: ''Lajjā/Shame', by Taslima Nasrin. (New Delhi, Penguin Books India, 1994).


Fighting backorganisations and libraries

Empty chair symbolising persecuted writers

Over the years, various organisations in the West have taken up the fight against censorship. Some are exclusively anti-censorship (Article 19 and Index on Censorship), some are supporting writers (Scottish PEN), and others are part of human rights campaigning (Liberty and Amnesty International). The American Library Association takes a leading role in the fight against censorship in libraries.

On display: The Scottish PEN Empty Chair, which highlights the plight of writers internationally who are imprisoned, tortured or in hiding, for engaging in freedom of expression.


'Banned books' exhibition

Speak me