Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship

J.M. Coetzee

The University of Chicago Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1997
Coetzee's essays in Giving Offense deal not with the politics of censorship but with its psychological and moral effects — on both the censors and the censored. The opening chapter is a broad survey of both censorship and pornography, its common target. Chapter two sets the tone for the rest of the volume, considering the psychological damage censorship does to writers, the dangers of paranoia and megalomania.

The other ten chapters are critical studies of writers who were subject to censorship, who theorised about it, or who wrote in justification of it. The subjects are Catharine McKinnon's claims about "the harms of pornography", D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, Erasmus' In Praise of Folly, Osip Mandelstom and his Stalin Ode, Soviet censorship and Solzhenitsyn, and the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert. Turning to his native South Africa, Coetzee writes about the "madness" of theoretician of apartheid Geoffrey Cronjé, the writings of judge J.C.W. van Rooyen (head of the Publications Appeal Board from 1980 to 1990), André Brink's models of censorship, and the poetry of Breyten Breytenbach.

Coetzee leans a little too heavily on French critical theory for my liking. The essay on Erasmus, for example, invokes Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Girard and waves critical phalluses of various sizes around. But Coetzee never succumbs to the lure of applying the same recipe to everything, so one can follow him without having to swallow entire theoretical paradigms raw.

Apart from this I really enjoyed Giving Offense. It made me look at some familiar writers from a different perspective and introduced me to some subjects about which I knew nothing, notably South African censorship and the poets Herbert and Breytenbach. It effectively highlighted an argument against censorship — that it causes moral harm — which is often neglected in purely political approaches. Giving Offense should appeal to anyone interested in literary censorship.

February 1997

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%T Giving Offense
%S Essays on Censorship
%A Coetzee, J.M.
%I The University of Chicago Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, references, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0226111741
%P xi,289pp