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.