The author is a professor of literature in Montreal, editor-in-chief of the journal Argument and essayist. He notably published These words that think for us (Liber, 2017) and The prose of Alain Grandbois, or reading and rereading The Travels of Marco Polo (Note bene, 2019).
Last Wednesday’s edition of Duty reminded us that François Blais’ youth novel The boy with upside down feet was still to this day the subject of a public health warning, in the same way as a vulgar pack of cigarettes! We also learned that the publisher Penguin applied, with the agreement of the English novelist’s heirs, to “smooth” the work of Roald Dahl before its next reissue, in order to probably escape a traumatic warning indicating to its future readers that the book they were about to read might contain certain words that might offend them.
How does one come to consider a work of fiction as a danger for its young readers?
It is apparently enough that its author took his own life, that the word “suicide” appears there at least twice, and that it evokes young people who are pushed by a demon to act against their will. The same kind of argument is used to justify “smoothing”, that is to say this operation of watering down Roald Dahl’s novels, which is carried out, among other things, by deleting certain potentially hurtful words because they refer weight, mental illness, race or gender.
It is therefore a therapeutic approach that motivates these new censorial undertakings. The goal is laudable, of course: we want to protect children. But it is an approach that misses the mark; because, very fortunately, the vast majority of readers, of all ages, have no reason to be traumatized, offended, hurt by reading a word (unless they end up being so by dint of to be warned that they should…); and it is also very unlikely that a story read will give them thoughts of suicide. We do the reader a disservice by weaving such a protective cocoon around the act of reading.
Literature is not intended to become one of those “safe spaces” where we would be protected from anything that could displease us, move us, upset us. What’s the point, moreover, of reading a book if it doesn’t move us, if it only reinforces what we already know, think or appreciate; a book, in other words, which would confine us to our own expectations? Poor reading, that which would leave the reader unscathed and which would risk above all, in the end, to leave him indifferent.
Words, moreover, are no more blows than stones or bullets. In the form of insults, they can hurt, of course; but a book that you hold in your hands and that you read has no power to insult you, still less to inflict even a moral wound on you. If that ever happens, close it. But that would amount to losing a great opportunity, fiction having precisely this advantage of putting at a distance what happens and remains relegated between the pages of a book, and very often in a universe of fiction.
I can be deeply marked by a scene or a sentence that I read; but at the same time I am protected from it. It is therefore better to be confronted with the expression of a prejudice, a racist insult, a scene of extreme violence, the story of a rape, through a book than in real life.
This is why making words disappear, replacing them with others or with their initials to euphemize them does not make the slightest sense. Should I rewrite Alice in Wonderland without hatter f…, The gr… woman next door is pregnant so as not to stigmatize people who are overweight, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without a word in n…, as is already done in the United States? It is easy to imagine the number of words that will have to be replaced by their initials. The whole alphabet will go through it.
What is perhaps most shocking is that it does not occur to an editor that the words used by a writer are weighed, are the subject of a considered choice in principle, that they are therefore characteristic of his style, a style which itself is an integral part of a work. Thus washed, it loses its integrity and at the same time gets rid of its quality of work, to become a simple product.
A product must above all not take its potential consumers the wrong way and, to do this, it is constantly renewed, refreshed, brought up to date. A work is supposed to have more dignity and consistency, which also includes, in addition to its style, the past era during which it was written.
To attack this integrity of the work is to attack literature itself, its freedom and the originality of the works it generates. However, we can be assured that after literature for children and adolescents, this therapeutic and inquisitorial madness, this steamroller which quite simply does not support the slightest otherness will attack literature as such. The offensive is already launched. The censors are called today ” sensitive readers “. They take themselves for protesters, whereas they are only the agents of a generalized conformism.