by Connie Willis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Asimov's, January 1988

collected in —
Impossible Things

The Winds of Marble Arch December 2010

Literature on the defensive, and losing

Connie Willis plucks the title of her short story "Ado" from William Shakespeare's play, Much Ado About Nothing. Her theme is political correctness begets censorship, her method is satire. In 1988 when "Ado" first appeared, political correctness applied to great literature was much smaller. Since then it has metastasized into a pervasive anti-cultural force, a very deserving target. Willis takes for her arena a fictional school in a near-future America even more plagued and dumbed down than our contrived semi-ignorance which passes for institutional education today. Her sharp wit provides fine hilarity in a discourse where common sense has become rare, and humor ever harder to come by.

In the Introduction to her collection The Winds of Marble Arch, Connie Willis waxes enthusiastic on some influences and favorites, including Shakespeare; but then says:

... I also hate Shakespeare. He is so good at everything: character, plot, dialogue, comedy, tragedy, suspense, variety, romance, snappy banter, irony. It's obvious every single one of the good fairies was present at his christening. (The bad fairy's curse obviously went something like, "No one will believe a boy from Stratford-on-Avon could write this stuff, and they'll drive you crazy by claiming your plays were written by Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth, or a committee.")

Given that the Shakespeare plays already exist, what might a committee accomplish today in our sensitive era? We're not speaking of the community of Shakespeare scholars who establish and clarify the original text, but its contrary: a confederacy of dunces hammering the characters and brilliants down into common clay and sand. And where these cannot be broken up, take them out.

How might legal censoring "improve" these great plays for the schoolroom? What would happen if we totally applied the sensibilities of the politically-correct to the teaching of Shakespeare? What if everything that offended anybody had to be excised from the texts? From thin-skinned organizations to students who simply want some outdoor-demonstration days to tan their skins, everyone can find a grievance somewhere in the riches of Shakespeare.

This is the action of "Ado".

Connie Willis has a lot of fun with the outrageous demands of outraged censors. Of course, some complainants want to censor on religious grounds, claiming Biblical authority. Willis' teacher-heroine easily cites counter-texts, but the student protesters have law as well as sensitivity on their side.

Gardner Dozois, editor of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, says in the Foreword to Willis' collection Impossible Things, that "Ado" is not only a great favorite of his own, but "also one of Isaac Asimov's favorite stories of all the stories published in the magazine that bears his name".

"Ado" is a small counter-blast of free speech against censorship, and a fusillade of laughter against dunderheaded political correctness.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

For many true-life examples, see
The Politically Incorrect Guide to
English and American Literature

by Elizabeth Kantor

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