Tag Archives: Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury and Censorship

In the comments to my post about Bradbury and authorial intent, Evan pointed out that Ray Bradbury wrote an afterword to Fahrenheit 451 against censorship:

The most important reason Bradbury can’t get away with this re-interpretation is that a few years back he wrote a postscript to the novel in which he talked about how bad censorship was. He made some very good points. I don’t know why he would back away from it now.

Curious, I looked back at my copy of the book, and sure enough, it’s in there. Bradbury states clear as day:

Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel with, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony.

And if you wonder how he really feels about it:

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist/Unitarian, Irish/Italian/Octogenarian/Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/Republican, Mattachine/FourSquareGospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.

Yet Bradbury is still mostly concerned with his rights as an author, not the right of readers to read the text (either at all, or as written). From the end of the brief essay:

The tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. […] All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.

Here he clearly feels his books are his own territory–which is true as far as the writing goes. Nobody should be editing his books for content. However, the attitude here is strikingly similar to his recent attempts to reclaim power over the interpretation of his novel. Interesting question: If he decided to edit his book now and try to destroy previous editions, would he be a censor? Would such changes be acceptable, after the book as it stands has been available for so long? I tend to think they wouldn’t–certainly literary scholars would do all they could to hang on to the original text. :)

So in this 1979 postscript, Bradbury says the novel is about censorship, at least partially, and decries censorship of his work, but via a claim to authorial superiority–at this point, explicitly only applying it to the text itself, but now he’s applying his superiority to interpretation also, to promote an interpretation which contradicts his apparent 1979 opinion (although perhaps he is only focusing on the censorship angle because that’s what he’s struggling against at that particular moment–even so, that would suggest opportunism). Interesting. Thanks, Evan, for pointing that out. I don’t know if I’d read it before.

Bradbury and Authorial Intent

It’s been around the web for a while (and I guess the regular news, too, but I’m not a regular news person), but Ray Bradbury has spoken out against the common interpretation of his book Fahrenheit 451 as an anti-censorship novel. Instead, he says, his intended target was television, which he believed would destroy interest in reading books. So now that we know what he meant, there shouldn’t be any more problems “misinterpreting” it, right?

I’m sorry, maybe I’m becoming too entrenched in contemporary literary criticism mental patterns, but I have a problem with this. Now, I don’t have a problem with Bradbury saying what he intended to write. I don’t have a problem with people taking another look at the book in light of an anti-television theme. What I have a problem with is Bradbury’s apparent desire to eliminate the anti-censorship reading altogether in favor of an anti-TV reading. I’m still working on my thoughts on authorial intent versus reader’s interpretive role, but I’m pretty sure I’m not in favor of an author shutting down any alternate views of his work that are clearly supported by the work.

I can’t go very deep into the topic without rereading the book, but here’s a few off-the-cuff thoughts.

  • As I said, his statement holds very little water with contemporary critical theory–Roland Barthes declared “the death of the author” over twenty years ago, and the importance of authorial intentionality has been steadily eroding since at least the 1950s. He has as much right to interpreting his own work as anyone else, but no more. Now, that’s a critical position that can be agreed or disagreed with–so let’s move on.
  • Millions of people have read Fahrenheit 451 as an attack on censorship since its 1953 publication. My copy of the book proclaims it “the classic bestseller about censorship” right on the cover in type as big as Bradbury’s name. If that’s not what Bradbury intended, why has it taken him fifty years to speak up?
  • If Bradbury did originally intend a polemic against television rather than censorship, he obviously did a crappy job of communicating his point, since almost nobody has read it that way. I figure an author’s chance to express himself is when he writes the text; if they fail to communicate what they mean, they’ve lost control over it. Crying “but that’s not what I mean” after the fact is far less effective, and rightfully so, than communicating clearly in the first place.
  • I don’t have a problem with an interpretation that sees an anti-television attitude in the text–I’m sure that’s there, though I haven’t read the book in a while. I remember the walls of television screens broadcasting mindless drivel. I remember the sense of Montag being freed from a life of enslavement to the mollifying screens (something his wife was subject to, I believe) through his involvement with the book-saving community. In the article linked above, Bradbury claims the book-burning wasn’t censorship because the people had already turned away from books in favor of television–that the government wasn’t imposing screens for brainwashing purposes as in Orwell’s 1984. However, and I’d probably need to read the book again to see how this plays out, why would the government start burning the books at all if it were merely an issue of the people giving up books in favor of television? It seems that if no-one were reading books, the mere existence of books would become a non-issue. Since the government IS burning books, that leads me to believe that the government feels that in some way televisions are less dangerous than books, and thus preferable to them, whether or not it was the people or the government that began the migration from books to television. And the book is, after all, titled after the temperature at which paper burns, thus focusing on the book-burning itself rather than whatever social changes led to it. It’s more than the government following the people, too, as Bradbury seems to suggest in the article…it’s against the law to read or keep books around, which would be stupid and pointless if the government didn’t have some interest in mandating the move from books to television. Book-burning by an authority is censorship, whether Bradbury likes it or not.
  • I’ve seen a few people really take to Bradbury’s anti-television polemic, but I’m not concerned about which interpretation is correct. I think both are possible readings, even at the same time. The question of “is he right” to me isn’t a question of “is he right about the dangers of censorship” or “is he right about the dangers of television”, but “is he right to try to mandate the way his book is understood.” And I think in this particular case, at least, he is not. In fact, if I wanted to be really cynical, I would suggest that he’s seen the growth of television’s ubiquity over the past fifty years and latched onto that, making himself seem extremely prophetic. But that would be overly cynical.

Now I want to reread the novel. But I don’t have time. So, someone who’s read it more recently than I have, if you’d like to help me understand how a government burning books isn’t censorship, and how a book whose very title evokes book-burning doesn’t foreground censorship, that’d be great.

Banning Fahrenheit 451

Last week, the father of a 15-year-old girl near Houston complained to her high school about one of the reading assignments and felt it should be banned from the school. The book? Ray Bradbury’s anti-censorship novel Fahrenheit 451. And, last week was Banned Books Week, too. Ironic. Houston Community Newspapers (pop-up warning) via Boing Boing

I’m not always sure how I feel about things like this. In this case, I’m pretty squarely for keeping the book on the curriculum, largely because it’s a darn good book, and because I don’t agree with censorship and I think the book has a necessary message. But the kicker here is that the man hasn’t even read it! Direct quote from the original article: “It’s just all kinds of filth,” said Alton Verm, adding that he had not read Fahrenheit 451.” I’m sorry, but I don’t think you should be allowed to challenge a book unless you’ve read it. Otherwise, how do you know that it contains “all kinds of filth,” or that the “all kinds of filth” isn’t sufficiently offset by good qualities in the book? That just makes you look willfully ignorant.

On the other hand, I do think that parents should have a say in what their children read, and I appreciate parents who care enough about their children to care what they’re reading and watching. But it seems to me that care would be better exercised by reading/watching things before they do and with them and being ready to discuss problematic issues. Dad can’t keep the world out forever, and better she learns discernment while in a safe environment than be thrown into the world wholesale in a few years when she goes to college.