In our 21st-century world, it seems disarmingly quaint that an entire printing of Dubliners was destroyed in 1912 for being obscene because James Joyce dared to use the colloquialism “bloody.” In the ensuing years, high-minded censors in both Britain and America continued to attack Joyce’s work, striving to keep his magnum opus, Ulysses, out of the hands of readers. Conventional minds were shocked by the book’s candid depictions of sexual and scatological matters and the “filthy” language Joyce used to portray them. The censors had the upper hand at first, but their campaign ultimately backfired, as the legal challenge to publish and distribute Ulysses transformed the culture and the laws that had tried to control it.
Edward St. Aubyn’s Lost for Words is a breezy, yet biting satirical novel about the internecine intrigue that unfolds behind the scenes of a major book award that is clearly a thinly disguised version of the Booker Prize. St. Aubyn, whose own novel, Mother’s Milk, was shortlisted for that honor, writes in the great pithy British tradition of David Lodge and Muriel Spark, infusing a deceptively lighthearted surface wit with more trenchant intent.