Lucy Frazer is the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport and the Member of Parliament for South East Cambridgeshire.
Libraries represent what we should never take for granted: the freedom to read, the freedom to choose and the freedom to share our ideas. They’re places for broadening horizons, places to help people navigate the information age and places designed to help preserve our culture.
This Libraries Week (2-8 Oct) will be a chance to pause and celebrate these great institutions that are treasure troves of stories, knowledge and history. But it’s also a moment where we must confront and challenge the forces behind the slow creep of cancel culture into literature.
Growing up, I was lucky. My parents would read stories to me every night before bed. Each book opened a window into a new world, with characters and personalities of all kinds – the good, the bad and everything in between.
Sometimes the stories had dark, enticing edges to them like Struwwelpeter – a story that featured a boy who didn’t eat his soup, another who played with scissors, and a naughty girl who set herself on fire. It was often in the warts-and-all descriptions of flawed characters, like Augustus Gloop in Willy Wonka, where you would learn the most about life.
Each story illuminated something about the wider world, about other people’s perspectives, about right and wrong, whilst also shedding light on the values and societies that existed in the different eras in which the books were written. When I had children myself and the inevitable battle with my sisters for our old books began, it was books like Stuwwelpeter that we all wanted custody of.
And I read Pride and Prejudice every night to my daughter, keen to pass on the pleasure and insights I gained reading it as a teenager. Of course, reading with adult eyes I realised that even this story was more complex. Whilst Elizabeth Bennet was a strong heroine, it was in a world where women were held back and defined by the marriages they made.
I didn’t want to pass this world onto my daughter; but I still felt that the story and the heroine had something to offer.
By sanitising stories we risk endangering this kind of enjoyment for future generations. In recent years a number of publishing houses have taken to revisiting old literature, like Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie, to censor descriptions that are not consistent with today’s modern sensitivities. This use of so-called sensitivity readers to tamper with old texts is not only infantilizing, in many cases it actively deprives children of characters who offer valuable lessons on right and wrong.
Rewriting stories denies us precious cultural heritage and refusing to engage with uncomfortable truths does not make those difficult issues go away. Ignoring problems, failing to call out errors of the past, is itself damaging to society.
And who gets to decide where the line is? The reality is that it’s hard to think of a character across literature that would not give offence if a reader were sufficiently motivated to be offended. As Sir Michael Morpurgo put it, if you start nitpicking, you never stop.
This tampering with literature also fails to make the important distinction between history and literature. It is vital that we have the tools at our disposal to properly analyse and understand history – and that means reading works of fiction the way the writer intended them at the time, no matter how unacceptable or unpalatable they seem now.
We wouldn’t take history books off the shelf, so why are we taking history out of our books? Any self-respecting society should be prepared to treat people as grown ups and let them make their own minds.
Ours has always been a society that rewards and prizes diversity of thought and opinion. But I worry that value is increasingly under threat.
You see it on university campuses, where 40 per cent of students feel uncomfortable expressing out loud attitudes that conflict with the views of their fellow students, according to a report by Policy Exchange. And the problem reaches far beyond the campus.
You see it in the comedians cancelled by comedy festivals this summer and the ever-increasing use of marketing as a political weapon. The intense beam of censorship, most intense of all on social media, stifles debate and can ruin reputations. I fear the next frontier in this war against common sense could be our libraries and book shelves.
As Culture Secretary, I am proud of our cultural heritage and I want as many people as possible to be able to access it. The UK has produced some of the finest literature in the world, and I will always champion the original versions of these texts. These books have stood the test of time for a reason and attempts to put them through a modern filter is the opposite of progress and the opposite of reason.
My message to publishers is this: help future generations be inspired by these books.