When Writers Censor Themselves

The suppression of literature is an ancient tradition that probably started with the invention of writing and which thrives today all over the world. In the west we generally venerate those authors who stand up against acts of silencing by the authorities. But what are we to think when an author suppresses himself?

The easiest form of self-suppression is to have an idea and not write it, and we may well wish that more authors would exercise this prerogative. It gets more complicated once the book exists, however—even in unpublished manuscript form. Since we usually don’t know about the successful suppressions, the most famous cases of authorial efforts at self-silencing are those of writers who attempted and failed to quash the publication of works they had written but did not wish to see the light of day.

Consider Virgil, who died during the editing of the Aeneid in 19BC and left instructions for the incomplete work to be destroyed. The Emperor Augustus overruled his wishes, a rare historical instance of an authoritarian leader insisting on the publication rather than suppression of a text. Almost two millennia later and Kafka asked his executor Max Brod to destroy his manuscripts. Brod declined to do so, and the history of 20th-century literature took a radically strange turn as a result.

What lay behind these posthumous orders to kill texts? A frustrated hyper-perfectionism? A desire for deep oblivion? We might also ask how sincere such requests actually were: Kafka had plenty of time to throw his work in the fireplace himself—but he didn’t.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), however, did. His poetic talent flourished early, but after joining the Jesuits in 1868 he was unable to reconcile his faith with his creativity and so surrendered all of his literary work to the flames. In 1872, he saw a way forward, but even then he wrote little and most of that was published after his death.

Religion was the motivating force in another case of fiery self-suppression. Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) was already the author of several masterpieces when he published Dead Souls in 1842. The book was a critical and commercial smash, but that wasn’t enough for Gogol, who decided to write two more volumes that would lead his anti-hero Chichikov from crime via punishment to redemption. No simple literary trilogy this, Gogol—who was in the grip of a messianic-religious fervour/fever—hoped that his words would somehow “save” Russia. Alas, he soon fell in with a priest who convinced him that anything not directly connected to the Russian Orthodox Church was sinful … and so he really ought to burn the manuscript for Dead Souls Part II. Gogol obeyed, and at 3am on the night of 24 February 1852 he started feeding the pages of his manuscript into the fire of his Moscow study (by coincidence I am writing these words on the 160th anniversary of this deed). After the fire was sated, Gogol stopped eating and died.

Authors, then, may wish to suppress their work due to pride, neurosis, or religious conviction. As often as not, however, it’s because they’ve written something embarrassing. For instance, Philip Larkin left instructions for his diaries to be burned after his death, and was fortunate enough to have executors who obeyed his wish. It’s a lot more difficult to destroy incriminating evidence once the work is in print. Mark Twain spent decades avoiding discussion of a bawdy novel entitled 1601, which he’d published anonymously in 1880. Framed as an extract from the diary of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s servants, it contains lots of fart jokes and codpiece talk. After a quarter-century of evasion he finally admitted ownership in 1906.

Last week meanwhile I read an excellent review on The Millions website of Martin Amis’s 1982 foray into video game reviewing, Invasion of the Space Invaders. Apparently he knocked it off while working on Money, and it seems these days he would much rather talk about Koba the Dread or “horrorism” or something serious like that, thank you very much. It never makes the list of published works inside his books and whenever interviewers raise it in discussion he declines to “go there”. This is perhaps unfair as the book contains this indisputably awesome passage:

“Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality … Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you … the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.”

Not quite as embarrassing, yet nevertheless a book its author has never admitted to writing is Amazons, a 1980 novel about a female hockey player by “Cleo Birdwell” AKA Don DeLillo. Quite why DeLillo is so keen to distance himself from this work is unclear—the reviews were good, and Amazons enjoyed double the print run of any book DeLillo had written up to that point (ah—perhaps that’s it).

No doubt there are many other authors who have suppressed their own work. What remains to be discovered? Salman Rushdie’s early scripts for On the Buses? Zadie Smith’s work ghosting for Katie Price? Meanwhile, in the age of the internet, we may wonder if it is now much harder to hide embarrassing work than before. Consider the cases of Orlando Figes and Johann Hari, both of whom adopted virtual personae—or “sock puppets”—to savage the work of colleagues they didn’t like online. Once they were exposed, they constructed farcical narratives to conceal their authorship of the incriminating material, which failed dismally thanks to the wonder of IP addresses. If you think you might regret it later, make sure you can burn it.

The Guardian, March 6th, 2012

This will close in 0 seconds