Sunday 20 August 2017

Book worm: The Censor App

Joanne Harris: 'A small victory for the world of dirt'
Joanne Harris: 'A small victory for the world of dirt'

John Boland

The English social history novel may soon become an extinct species on award shortlists, while character-based fiction is also under threat.

That, at any rate, is the view of author and arts journalist Rachel Cooke, who was one of the judges for this year's Folio prize (Eimear McBride's A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was shortlisted last year) and who has written about her adjudicating experience in the Observer. I'm not sure exactly what she means by "social history" (were Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies not social history?), though she mentions David Lodge's campus-based novels as books unlikely to find favour today; while of "character-based" novels she argues that 21st-century writers prefer to build their stories around themes, which was one of the reasons why she "fell so hard" for Colm Tóibín's "breathtaking" Nora Webster, where character predominates.

However, Toibin's novel didn't win this year's Folio prize (that honour going to Akhil Sharma's Family Life), leaving Cooke to predict that more and more American writers, with their fondness for big themes, are going to win the Folio and the Booker.

Meanwhile, a readers' app in the land of the free has had to withdraw many of its titles after angry authors protested that profanities and explicit terms in their books were being replaced by family-friendly alternatives: "heck" instead of "hell", "crap" replacing "shit", "penis" becoming "groin" and "blowjob" substituted by "pleasure".

This was the puritanical work of the Clean Reader app, launched by a pietistically-minded couple in Idaho and containing a filter which blanked out terms that sensitive souls might deem offensive. But instead many writers found it offensive, Joanne Harris declaring that the enforced removal of the filter was "a small victory for the world of dirt" in the face of "censorship, not by the state but by a religious minority".

Harris said she'd rather that her books weren't read at all than be used "to indoctrinate children into thinking that body parts are bad and sex is wicked". Even Irish censorship stopped doing that, though not before making us a laughing stock in the outside world.

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