09/23/2014 08:20 am ET Updated Nov 23, 2014

How Censorship Shapes Literature

The problem with the history of censorship is that it looks so simple. It pits oppression against freedom of expression. But if you look harder, it appears more complicated -- and full of surprises. Having studied it under three authoritarian regimes, I believe we should rethink our understanding of censorship in general.

In eighteenth-century France, one censor approved a book in a typical report to his superiors because it was a good read: "I had pleasure in reading it; it is full of fascinating things."

Another censor, in an in-house memo, said he was defending "the honor of French literature." As they understood it, censorship was positive. It conveyed a royal stamp of approval to a work, which then could circulate with a "privilege" dispensed through the book trade administration of the crown.

Privilege existed at every level of society under the Ancien Régime in France -- in publishing as well as taxation and participation in public life. To receive a royal privilege, a book had to be of a certain quality, in style and content. It did not qualify if it merely contained nothing that offended the state, the church, and morality.

Censors sometimes purged heresies, but above all they exerted quality control. In the memos they exchanged among themselves, they often sounded like reviewers. One censor gave the following reasons for refusing to approve the manuscript of a novel: "I find only insipid moralizing interspersed with ordinary adventures, vapid bantering, colorless descriptions, and trivial reflections... Such a work is not worthy of appearing with a public mark of approbation."

A book that offended official values would not be submitted to the censorship. Almost all the works of the Enlightenment were printed outside France and circulated within the kingdom through an elaborate underground trade. Thanks to an active and well-informed literary police, the regime frequently raided bookstores and imprisoned authors in the Bastille. This kind of repression can be considered as post-publication censorship. But in the strict sense of the word as it was understood at the time, "censorship" was different from the work of the police, and on the whole it was a good thing.

To understand censorship from another perspective, it is useful to leap over two centuries and study the way it worked in Communist countries after World War II. I spent a year in Berlin in 1989-90 and had the opportunity to interview two East German censors soon after the fall of the Wall. They defined their job as "planning." Literature, they told me, had to be planned like everything in a socialist society. It was a matter of social engineering, and they were proud of what they did. They gave me a copy of "The Plan" for 1990 -- an extraordinary document, which described every book that was supposed to appear in that year and which justified the overall output of literature to the leaders of the Communist Party, who ultimately approved the Plan.
The censors were Party members themselves, and they made sure that manuscripts conformed to the Party line by deleting taboo expressions, such as "ecology" (readers were not to be informed in print about the pollution that poisoned the air and rivers of East Germany.) But they considered themselves as friends and even as collaborators of authors, whom they sometimes defended when the Party leaders wanted to ban books.

There was plenty of banning -- and worse: show trials, imprisonments, spying, denunciations, and manipulation of all kinds, as I later learned by research in the Party archives. But to dismiss the system as nothing but repression is to get it wrong. The censors believed in the system, and so did the authors -- or at least those who remained in East Germany and struggled against the banning and pulping of their books.

The most famous authors, such as Christa Wolf and Volker Braun, constantly ran into trouble with the authorities, but they also negotiated over every change that the censors demanded, and they often won small victories -- small enough to satisfy hard-liners in the Communist Party and big enough to give them some sense of independence.

East German literature was the product of complicity and compromise -- not just between authors and censors but among everyone in the system, including editors in publishing houses and reviewers in journals. The participants, like their counterparts in eighteenth-century France, understood how the system operated. They accepted it as a fundamental reality of the world in which they had to find their way, and on the whole they seem to have considered it a good thing.

Robert Darnton is the author of Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature.