This column started out as something different.
I wrote a few hundred words. Then I decided the piece wasn’t working. It didn’t say what I wanted it to. I also worried people would be bothered by some sections and thus miss my overarching point.
So, I deleted what I had written. With a few keystrokes I sent the paragraphs swooshing into oblivion, never to be seen or read by anyone ever again.
Was that censorship?
Did I “cancel” myself and the now vanished column?
Or was I just editing my own work?
The purest, easiest answer is that I was editing myself. I was making sure what I wrote was something I could stand behind. The government didn’t suppress what I wrote, which is the true definition of censorship. I was the only party suppressing my thought and expression.
An argument, I suppose, could be made I was self-censoring. There have been writers who have argued the first thought is always the best thought.
The Beat writer Jack Kerouac, for instance, made a bit of a cult surrounding the notion of spontaneous prose, arguing that revision only weakened what the writer truly meant to say. His advocacy for the concept is undercut by the fact that his manuscripts and typescripts show he blotted out many a line before his books saw print.
His championing of casting prose without reflection also left him open to an epic putdown from Truman Capote:
“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
A more serious contention would be that I altered what I intended to say because I worried how an audience might react.
I’m a professional writer. As such, I belong to the Samuel Johnson school of literary motivation.
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” Johnson once opined.
By that, he meant that the purpose of professional writing was to engage an audience. One shaped one’s prose to allure and move readers. Anything that distracted from that mission was self-indulgence.
There is a place to put writing designed only to please one’s self.
It’s called a diary.
This brings me to the current kerfuffle over the decision by the estate of Dr. Suess to discontinue publication of six titles in the children’s author/s massive oeuvre. The six books have racist images or depictions many readers find offensive.
Some voices on the right now scream “censorship” and “cancel culture” because fresh editions of the half-dozen books won’t roll off printing presses. (Old editions still will be available and might even become collectors’ items.)
On the first point, these screaming voices are clearly wrong.
It isn’t censorship.
The government didn’t suppress the books. The Suess estate made the decision on its own.
The Seuss estate owns the rights to the books and can choose to do with them what it wishes, so long as the estate has honored its contractual obligations and the terms set forth in the late author’s will.
But what about the notion that choosing not to publish those six books somehow “cancels” them—and that this is a sign America and Americans are becoming much too “sensitive,” too “politically correct?”
Well, the Suess estate isn’t telling anyone else they can’t draw racist caricatures or make ethnically insensitive comments if they wish to.
The members of the estate just are saying they regret doing so themselves and do not wish to do so any longer.
The members of the estate are making a choice about what they can stand behind. About what work they want to defend.
That’s not canceling, that’s editing.
This dust-up reminds us of how easily we can be diverted by false issues.
There are genuine ongoing attempts these days to deny free people the right to express themselves. The voter suppression campaigns taking place around the country are at the head of that list.
The Dr. Seuss estate’s efforts to clean up the late author’s catalog aren’t even a footnote.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.