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The Literature Police

The Literature Police by Peter D. McDonald tells the strangely tangled stories of censorship and literature in apartheid South Africa, and how censorship affected writers such as Nadine Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, and Andre Brink. In his research for the book, he studied a wealth of original and previously unknown material such as state archives, the archives of writers’ and publishers’ groups, and oral testimony by the censors themselves. In this piece written especially for OUPblog, Peter McDonald talks about how what you expect to find in such archives isn’t always what you end up with in reality.

You enter archives, especially previously unexplored ones, at your peril.

For most of my professional life I have been doing research on the idea of culture as it has been shaped and reshaped over the past two hundred years, and on the uncertain processes of literary guardianship, especially in the complex, highly mobile and interconnected modern world that emerged in the course of the long twentieth century. The last thing I ever imagined was that the archives of the apartheid censorship bureaucracy in South Africa would provide me with an astonishingly rich, if also disturbing, body of evidence with which to address these sometimes abstruse but always pressing questions.

After all, it is a truth universally acknowledged that censors are the enemies of culture. They are the hateful guardians of the Law; the nightmarish state-sanctioned adversaries who have, for one reason or another, taken it upon themselves to keep modern writers and their readers in check; and, besides, they hardly warrant close study by literary scholars because they are censorious bureaucrats whose vocabulary is limited to a simple yes or no.

This, at least, is how I always thought about censors in general and about the apartheid censors in particular. Whenever the topic was raised when I was a child trying to grow up in the South Africa of the 1960s and 1970s, it would not take long for someone to recount a story about the censors once banning Black Beauty, Anna Sewell’s strange ‘autobiography of a horse’. Like many others, I thought this said everything I needed to know about the barbarous stupidity of the system. When I looked into the newly opened archives of the censorship bureaucracy in the late 1990s, however, and saw some of the secret censors’ reports for the first time and discovered who wrote them, I realized that I had a major problem on my hands and a potentially huge topic.

I expected to see reports signed by ex-policemen, security agents, retired military types, and the like, but what I found was that a vast number were actually written by literary academics, writers and esteemed university professors. That was surprising enough. Digging a little deeper into the archives, and the history of the system, I discovered that a particularly influential group of these seemingly miscast figures actually saw themselves as guardians of the literary, and, more bizarrely, as defenders of a particular idea of the ‘Republic of Letters’. What on earth were they doing there? And what sense was I to make of the fact that, as the archives revealed, repression and the arts were so deeply entangled in apartheid South Africa?

The Literature Police is my attempt to answer these questions and a host of others that are no less improbable. I never found any evidence to support the Black Beauty story, by the way, though I did discover that South African customs officials once found a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book hidden in an edition of that curious late Victorian animal rights fable.

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