No. 14 - The Impulse to Censor

For those who weren’t following Century Press back in Spring of 2021, one of the most contentious conversations between ourselves and amongst our readership revolved around the presence (or absence) of one particular word in The Great Gatsby.

Great Gatsby Paperback Censorship Penguin Books Tyke 1970s

While typesetting our edition of Gatsby, I became aware of a little known fact that following WWII, editorial censorship had slyly and silently worked its way into millions of copies of this famous novel. Moreover, this censorship had been furtively enacted by such illustrious publishers such as Bantam Books and Penguin Books.

I won’t re-hash the whole story, but in short, I made a deeply considered editorial decision to participate in a century-long historical conversation about whether it is appropriate for a publisher to modify a word in an original work of literature. 

Great Gatsby Letterpress Century Press Tyke Jew Century Press

Here, I made the choice not to revert to the original source material, but to instead improve upon a widely disseminated word substitution that has gone largely unnoticed by readers of The Great Gatsby. By doing so, I felt like I was making a morally appropriate decision for a book publishing company in 2021.

My choice to exercise this editorial control led to receiving mixed opinions both in person and online; some approved of the word change, others vehemently condemned my decision. 

Flame War Thumbs Up Down Argument Mobile Phones

In the midst of this emotionally charged tempest, I did my best to take all of these comments in stride, learn from and reflect on them, with the goal of defining what Century Press’s approach would be moving forward. 

After all, if my goal is for Century Press to become a leading publisher of classic novels, it will be nearly impossible to avoid encountering language that is considered derogatory in 2022 and beyond.

After internalizing and processing all this commentary, I sat down to consider how I would approach our second novel The Sun Also Rises, which not only contains an instance the one word I decided to modify in The Great Gatsby, but numerous others, perhaps more offensive (i.e. the N-word), and appearing with greater frequency.

Unlike The Great Gatsby, there was no historical basis for either an intentional or surreptitious editing of The Sun Also Rises. Also, from a sheer logistical standpoint, the decision to edit dozens of instances of a word fundamentally didn’t make any sense. 

Hemingway Martha Gellhorn Boat Cocktails Mustache Leis

Before, things were relatively simple: it was a single word with a long history of editorial revision. Now, where should the line be drawn? I needed to take a step back and really consider: what truly scared me about publishing offensive content?

Well, what are any of us afraid of when we feel the need to censor ourselves from speaking or writing words that may offend? Of course there’s the selfish feeling that we may be judged. Indeed, what if Century Press were cancelled? Should I have my editorial perspective molded out of a desire for self-preservation?

Most of you reading this would instinctually respond: No!

Cancelled Guy Green Shirt iPhone Scribbled Away By Red Ink Thinking

In each of our lives and careers, I believe we should feel comfortable doing and saying what we feel is right, while remaining open to new ideas and information that can change us. We should be willing to make mistakes and learn from them. We should expose ourselves and learn from different groups of people with different ideas.

Therefore we should feel justified to stand up and state what we believe in, not out of fear of censure or condemnation, but because we believe it’s morally correct. As a publisher—tasked with disseminating information and ideas—this notion is extra relevant.  

At the same time, since Century Press’s core business is to send words and ideas out into the world, we need to have true empathetic concern with those who will encounter and engage with our books. We must consider the potential for psychologically damaging those reading our books, or worst case scenario, condoning violence against marginalized groups.

No Violence Hate Speech Protest Signs

Thus, in order to stand on solid ethical ground, I felt it vitally necessary to research and evaluate whether palpable harm could come from republishing language considered inflammatory or damaging.

To this end, I applied some different lenses to analyze this topic of inquiry and approached my research from a few different angles.

First, before diving in to some of my findings, I think it’s valuable to establish that there exists linguistically definable and categorizable groupings of ‘offensive’ language. Essentially, all language that ‘offends’ is not created equally, nor does it elicit the same repercussions, nor does it occupy the same moral territory. 

Since this is not going to be a purely philosophical/linguistic discussion, I’ll link this publication by Lynne Tirrell, as it does a better job than I would at disentangling offensive terms as applied to people. Briefly, she writes that there’s a fundamental difference between obscene language (e.g. “He’s an asshole”) and deeply derogatory language (e.g. “He’s a [racial slur]), the latter of which are often tied to systems of oppression.

Lynne Tirrell Lecture Powerpoint Presentation Toxic Language University of Connecticut

In her work, she uses the example of the 1990s genocide in Rwanda to argue that an increasing normalization of the use of derogatory terms leads to a greater acceptance of non-linguistic (i.e. physical) actions. In this case, the state-controlled media was promulgating the normalization of these derogatory terms through newspapers and radio.

Fast-forwarding to 2021, social media giants such as Facebook have been blamed for causing religious riots as a result of their inability to monitor and flag inflammatory content on their platform.

Religious Hatred in India Riot

While these reports and studies are very much concerning, researchers have yet to causally prove a link between the temporal frequency of deeply derogatory language and the physical manifestation of hate violence in a society.

Moreover, I felt the examples of radio or social media quite far afield from the re-printing of classic works of fiction. For these reasons, my concerns about the detrimental effects of re-printing literature as it was originally written were tempered.

That being said, language in books has been a flashpoint in schools. Take for example Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, which contains numerous instances of the N-word. Here, I think it goes without saying that (quantitative research aside) asking black and white students, who have not yet emotionally or intellectually matured, to read that word aloud in an educational setting would not promote an effective learning environment.

High School Classroom Reading Books Aloud Together

Yet, Century Press’s catalog is not being taught in schools, but instead to adults who are themselves choosing to acquire and learn from our publications. The audience is fundamentally different.

Given this process of research and contemplation, I began to feel more confident moving forward with a framework for how slurs and other derogatory content would be addressed in Century Press editions.

And now to leave you (perhaps) with bated breath! Stay tuned for our next letter to learn how we approached deeply offensive content in our edition of The Sun Also Rises.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, so drop us a line on how you’d proceed if you were in the editor’s chair.


  • Ken Weber

    I’ve closely followed this discussion on LibraryThing and chose not to purchase your edition of Gatsby but I have ordered The Sun Also Rises since it won’t be censored. I really appreciate the time and effort that you have spent on this issue.

  • Iain Mackay

    I’m very much hoping that you resist the urge to censor. If you cannot, please be very clear about this so that I will not be tempted to buy any more of your books. Cheers.

  • Jack Shinder

    I’m very sensitive to out-of-fashion expletives but fortunately/unfortunately they form the warp and wood of the literature. “A Merchant in Venice”’comes to mind. It makes me wince however, if we “cleaned”’it up we’d lose the entire spirit of the play and wonder what all the fuss was about over the ages. Keep to the original text. Censorship is a slippery slope.

  • John Ferrell

    When the debate about Gatsby was taking place I was under the impression that you were going to print it as K___ and that would have been acceptable to me. When I received my copy I discovered that you had censored it. Even worse you changed the word. That is unacceptable. Had I understood your intentions I would not have purchased the book. So if you choose to censor or even worse change Hemingways masterpiece I think you need to be clear with your readers about your intentions and I for one will pass. To be clear I followed the discussion on the Librarything forum.

  • Mark Schuster

    Hi! This conversation reminds me of a Looney Tunes DVD set we have in our house. After years of the short films being edited for content (either removing dated cultural references, or removing offensive content), the decision was made to present the films unedited, as originally created. I think knowing the audience was most likely adult collectors, as well as the idea of a definitive collection not really matching with the idea of presenting edited versions, were the deciding factors. How Warner Brothers addressed this was by including a disclaimer about how the films are presented in the spirit of historical accuracy, and may not represent current ideals and cultural standards. Disney has done something similar on their streaming service. If you attempt to watch a film like Aladdin, you are confronted with a brief disclaimer about “outdated representations” (I paraphrase). And Aladdin was released in the 90’s! It just shows how fast cultural standards evolve. The job of editing classic material to make it match the moment would be a never-ending one, eventually running the risk of leaving the original work unrecognizable. As you said, if Century Press is going to traffic in classic works, they are going to regularly come up against troubling content. To me, in the interest of historical accuracy, I would leave the works unchanged and “definitive.” But, acknowledging current standards, I would add some kind of disclaimer regarding the content and the big-picture reasoning for presenting it as originally published. Thank you for presenting your process and being open to feedback, and good luck for the continued success of the press!

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