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.