Banned Books Week Redux

I was so annoyed to miss Banned Books week because of the flu as I had a particular story that I wanted to tell. I hope it’s still better late than never.

Some of you may remember that the last academic book I wrote (co-authored, to be precise) was on pornography. You may imagine that the question of censorship was inevitably a prevalent one, but I started to notice that some books quickly caught the eye of the easily outraged whilst others slid by under the radar. I was tackling a chapter on child abuse at the time and it was particularly noticeable here that in the past ten or fifteen years, the issue of children and sexuality has suffered a paradoxical split. Never before has it been the subject of such alarm and horror, and never before has it been an issue so repeatedly and pruriently discussed in the media. It is a Hot Topic, you might say, a very instant kind of sensationalism.

Well, there was a book published in France in 1992 by Gallimard, a highly respectable publisher that caused a national scandal. It was a novel written from the point of view of a pedophile, in a manner that was apparently intended to be sympathetic towards him. The publication was swiftly condemned by a number of children’s charities and the author, Nicolas Jones-Gorlin, had to barricade himself into his home to avoid being lynched by a media mob. After a little searching on the internet, I got hold of a copy of this book and read it. I steeled myself, as you may imagine, for a confrontation with the depths of depravity, and ended up laughing in disbelief after the first thirty or so pages. It was a truly terrible book – badly-written, ill-conceived, incoherent. The author had clearly started out full of pride in his daring, and then crumbled after the first few scenes, having frightened himself with the possibilities of his material. The story veered into farce, and then surrealism. The only crime it committed was against literature, and for that it should surely have been punished. How it ever came to be published, I have no notion, and I cannot believe that the people who were outraged by it had actually read it or they would have seen that there was nothing to fear.

However, another little book had come to my attention, by the writer Jean-Pierre Enard. He had published in 1989 a novel whose title I will roughly translate as Stories to Make Little Red Riding Hood Blush. So already you get the picture. This was also a Gallimard book and one that was published to acclaim. The narrator is the author of a number of louche fairy tale rewrites, scattered across the main story, that feature Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Tom Thumb, in… original ways. The stories are told to the narrator’s 13-year-old niece, a Lolita in training, who will beg for her sexual initiation and naturally receive it. Now this book is all slick and charm; it is funny and entertaining in ways that are interested in diverting the reader from the moral crime at its center. Jones-Gorlin’s banned novel was contrived and self-conscious; it screamed out its uneasiness with what it wanted to do. Enard’s, by contrast, never once strayed into unfamiliar territory; it was predictable and took itself lightly. And in this way, Jones-Gorlin brought censure down on his head, and Enard won himself praise and sales. But both of those books were essentially about pedophiles, and when I had read them, I felt a far greater revulsion for the author who could make it seem an entertaining and harmless topic.

We notice what doesn’t fit, what sticks out like a sore thumb. We notice what makes us uncomfortable, or disgusted or ashamed. The question is what we do with it. Calling for books to be banned is a waste of everyone’s time; all it does is to alter the patterns of distribution and arouse the interest of the public. What matters far more is that we know how to read. That we learn enough about stories to be able to recognize them and their power, to hold ourselves a little apart from them when necessary, so we can see what we are being sold, how we are being seduced. Because to my mind, the blatant crimes of literature, those moments of shock and outrage, are often simply offences to the dominant rule of the familiar. And it is the familiar, the homely, the soothing that requires scrutiny every bit as much, for what it hides in its generous, cozy embrace.

13 thoughts on “Banned Books Week Redux

  1. What an incisive post, Litlove. Critical reading and critical thinking are skills that many people, including people who would by many criteria be considered intelligent, lack. It brings to mind the social acceptance of beauty pageants for children who are made up, dressed, and even given adult looking fake teeth in order to appear like miniature sexy adults.

  2. Wonderful post! Your point that the important thing is that we know *how* to read is a crucial one. When you read stories of why people have called for certain books to be banned it becomes clear that they often don’t know how to read the text. (Calling to ban To Kill a Mockingbird for negative portrayals of African Americans, for example.)

    And yes, it’s so important that we also engage with the texts that seem familiar and innocuous. Many such familiar books that claim to be selling one thing are after something else altogether.

  3. Oh so true, which is why great literature is often banned as well. Those who are reading it don’t really know how to read and rarely understand the author’s intent, creating their own stories around it based on their own misinterpretations (and needs). And all we have to make sense of our lives are stories.

  4. What are your thoughts on Lolita, LL? I always tend to believe, somewhere deep inside, that this question of ‘how to read’ is resolved by the act of voracious reading itself, so it astonishes me when people who claim to read a lot do it poorly. Some people are born disapprovers, but I just don’t understand book banning, outlawing things has never worked, with ideas least of all.

  5. Well said! You are right that it is the familiar that requires the most scrutiny. I think people who want to ban books are the ones who tend to cling to the cozy familiar of what life, etc is supposed to be and when books come along that upset that they become threatened and frightened and cling even more fervently to the familiar becasue they cannot face that things might be otherwise.

  6. I too would be very interested to know what you think about “Lolita” — I’ve read it several times, and have never read any critical discussion of it, which may explain why I still have an idea that it’s not about pedophilia at all, really, and is in fact a very complex extended metaphor.

  7. I think the “familiar” – under which we might place ‘realist’ novels, historical romances, police procedurals, and government budget books – needs to be interrogated quite extensively, as it appeals to the complacent part in all of us.

    When you write –

    “But both of those books were essentially about pedophiles, and when I had read them, I felt a far greater revulsion for the author who could make it seem an entertaining and harmless topic.”

    – I wonder what revulses you, particularly. And, how does that fit in with you finding the book “funny”?

    Again, another excellent post. If there was the position of Blogger Laureate, you’d have my nomination.

  8. Well, that’s a conclusion to warm any English teacher’s heart! And I fully agree with it, of course — people need to read before they condemn, first of all, and they need to know how to read to make sense of what a text is doing with the controversial ideas it brings up. I like the idea of both recognizing a story’s power and holding oneself at a distance in order to understand it — we need to do both in order to give a book its due.

  9. Lilian – I read a very good article on just the phenomenon you describe (the child beauty pageant) when I was doing my other research. I don’t have the details to hand here but can find them for you if you were interested. Critical reading skills get ever thinner on the ground I find (the students I see cannot be so different to those across the world) and it really troubles me. How are we to deal with the power of the media if we can’t accurately assess the stories we are told? Well, it’s a bugbear of mine!

    Teresa – this is so true. The urge to ban arises in something quite other than literary analysis. I was going to write about the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which 35 literary figures spoke in defence of the book and no one could be found to speak against it. And to read it today, it seems very gentle and inoffensive. But the desire to ban is an intriguing one, very profound, I think, and something that ought to be studied in isolation.

    Emily – I completely agree. I recall a definition of reading as tracking the path of our unconscious desire, which is a rather complex way of saying we read things into books that we have unwittingly decided should be there. Books reflect back our minds to us, as much as they show us another world.

    Emily – suppression has always been a particularly weak form of injunction – there was always a country that would publish the manuscript, and willing hands to transport books over boundaries, and distributors who made a living in dealing with such goods. And books themselves rarely contain such dubious messages as the ones in the world around us all the time.

    Doctordi – Lolita has been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years now. My husband bought me a lovely copy one Christmas and I can’t quite get around to it. But I will now. And I completely agree – ideas are the last things you can ban!

    Stefanie – that’s exactly it! It’s human nature to cling tenaciously onto all that we know until it’s completely impossible – and then to cling on some more. But books do so well in showing us to ourselves often with humour and kindness and intelligence, if only we’d look properly, right?

    David – and you may well be right! I said to Di I’d read it and I will. The thought of discussing Lolita with the two of you is too good to resist.

    JB – ‘appeals to the complacent part’, yes, I like that. As for my revulsion, well, as it happens, I had changed that word (or so I thought) in my draft to ‘unease’ but somehow the older version came out. But still, I can stand by it, as I think one does feel revulsion on realising that what was presented as funny is in fact rather sick or troubling. I felt I’d had my emotions conned, that I’d been momentarily tricked and I wanted to hurry away from the book as if it had bitten me! And thank you for those kind words – you are a sweetie.

    Bluestocking – I was really surprised at first to find they’d been so differently received. I really thought someone would say, hang on a minute here…. but no. Amazing.

    Dorothy – lol! They send me money in unmarked bills you know!😉 I don’t understand book banning because books are stable objects, there to be looked at and thought about and reconsidered. They are never going to start a revolution because responses are always so individual. What worries me far more are the stories perpetuated in the media that are circulated as sensationally as possible, without irony or analysis (and often they are serious distortions). How we can consider banning books but repeatedly fail to question the media just astonishes me. And it’s one of the big reasons that I think learning about stories is essential. Okay! Getting down from soap box now…..🙂

  10. Speaking as someone who tries hard to teach people how to read (and that “tracking our unconscious desire” bit is very nice — we always see, from age to age, what we want to see in books of the past and the present), this is a gorgeous piece. I’m going to turn back to this. Thank you.

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