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.


  • Bradley Beetar

    I read a lot of classics. Almost all male authors. Read through a contemporary lens, they are almost all misogynistic in tonality at worst, and patronising at best. It reflects the cultural norm of the past. But the basic story is … a classic… it has stood the rest of time. That is what I want to read. I don’t want a version that compensates for the hetero-normative. I have just finished “the adventures of Kavalier and Clay” which itself gives a history of the term “kike”. Obviously offensive but so interesting to learn more about its origin. You should probably trust that your intended audience is relatively literate and intelligent. If you censor and censure the challenge is one of “reductio ad absurdum”… where will you draw the line. The intent is noble, but ….

  • JEvFB Beckman

    Censorship is the way of *itwits and re-re revisionists.

  • Joan Ryan

    I am on the side of not censuring books. I think editing is not what that is, it is censure. I think the intent of the author can be lost and the story changes. I am currently reading Lovecraft Country and the slurs lend empathy to the characters. I would be difficult to understand the terrible way they were treated and things they endured without the use of offensive words. The point is that they are offensive. It saddens me when things are watered down for easy consumption.

  • Jeff

    If someone finds the language offensive (good grief), they can close the book and put it aside. In this so ultra sensitive day and age, people need to grow up. Hemingway wrote almost a hundred years ago. People have lost all historic perspective, as it’s easier to jump on the bandwagon. Seems like people are offended by everything today (they better not pick up Henry Miller!). As my parents taught me decades ago, sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.
    Keep up the great work!

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