Is there such a thing as a dirty book? And if there is, what should we do about it?
Those questions have been asked in the past year in this country and . they'll be asked again, if not this week, then next week, or next month. And when the questions are raised in the future, you can be sure of one thing: the resulting discussions will not be any more temperate than similar discussions of the past few months.
For on that fateful day, there are those who will take one scared look about them, utter the dreadful cry of censorship and begin to polish their adjectives in preparation for slaughtering the opposition. These people are the anti-censorship zealots and 1 propose to have something to say about them now.
If some of our anti-censorship zealots lived in Paris, they would resist every effort to suppress the vendors of filthy postcards on the grounds that this would lead inevitably to an invasion of the Louvre and an attempt by the mob to put a sweater on the Venus de Milo.
And it seems to me it’s about time that somebody talked back to them. They’ve had things their own way for far too long. This is understandable, for large numbers of them belong to the group that writes books and articles and publishes and edits newspapers and magazines.
Are censors under the bed?
And, just so nobody can say I failed to give you an example of what I mean right at the start of this piece, I cite you the editors of Maclean’s as being among the most nervous in the country. Indeed, the sight of the editorial board of Maclean’s searching frantically in print for a censor under their beds is enough to make the firmest jaw drop in stunned surprise.
Anti-censorship crusaders are divided into two classes. Let us take the first class first, for we won’t have to spend much time on them.
This group belongs to the school that lives by the slogan: “Anybody should have a right to read anything he likes.” The members of this crowd are marked by naïveté, turbid thought processes and, generally speaking, are the kind of intellectuals who like to think of themselves as Intellectuals.
They can easily be driven into a corner. They flail around, for exampie. when asked if it would be sound public policy to permit dissemination in the schools of books advocating a revival of human sacrifice, or of others recommending organized murder as a way of life and robbery as a solution for economic want.
The fact is, of course, that in Canada at the present time censorship operates in wide areas and is so fully accepted that nobody thinks of it as censorship. The Canadian Criminal Code, for instance, is highly censorial. I can’t write anything I want to in this country. I can only write what is not forbidden by the criminal code or the law of libel. I can’t write anything seditious, obscene or blasphemous and neither should I be able to —and if I did nobody would have any sympathy for me and neither should he.
A book or magazine that falls afoul of the criminal code can be dealt with in the lengthy processes of the criminal courts. Another area exists, however, and this area was defined very succinctly by a magazine editor in a speech berating all censorship.
He said: “There can be very little question that at least sixty percent of the people under fire by the censors today are people who arc perfectly willing and, indeed, serenely determined to pander to the very worst levels of morality and taste and in so doing to stoop as low as they possibly can without laying themselves open to criminal charges.”
And what does he propose to do about them—this sixty percent who stoop as low as they possibly can without laying themselves open to criminal charges?
Nothing very much, it seems.
This editor belongs to the second grouping of the anti-censorship zealots. This group is uneasy about the mass of lurid tripe circulated in the form of paperbacks and girlie magazines, but it is even more uneasy about any attempts to get rid of it. Better to suffer smut than to risk, they say, the suppression of ideas or the banning of what might turn out to be tomorrow’s literary masterpiece.
It seems to me they are far too hysterical. far too nervous and show far too little confidence in the operation of common sense. Although they pretend to operate from a lofty level, they are masters of the technique of the smear, that device so dear to the hearts of Communists and Senator Joe McCarthy. Anybody who dares to raise his voice in condemnation of the tidal wave of smut that pours out of the drugstores and cigar stores of the nation is branded as a “book-burner,” a “witch-hunter” or even an “anti-intellectual” or a “vigilante.”
“Anyone who raises his voice against the tidal wave of smut is branded as a witch-hunter”
And, paradoxically, the doughtiest defenders of the right to read cheap smut are intellectuals who never read it. Not only do they not read it, they would be embarrassed if any of it were found on their bookshelves. Ánd, more than that, they look down on anybody who does read it as, at best, having an immature attitude toward sex and a deplorable taste in literature or, at worst, as having a sick mind.
And if you asked them what is the essential difference between James Joyce’s Ulysses and something with a title like, we’ll say, Daughters in Brothels, they'd be able to tell you right away. Ulysses is a serious work of art in which the pornography is incidental to its aesthetic value as a whole. And Daughters in Brothels is badly written tripe designed solely to arouse eroticism.
And don’t bother telling me that Ulysses was banned in Canada until recently because I already know that. I ve also read it and own it.
It’s just that I can see absolutely nothing inconsistent in my attitude if I fight to free Ulysses from the bonds of censorship and aid and comfoit those who want to suppress Daughters in Brothels.
But the anti-censorship zealots say in effect: “We recognize that panderers are stooping as low as they possibly can to disseminate smut and that this is not good for the community; but the control of smut is a difficult and troublesome matter and we had better not do anything about it.”
Can a book have a power for good? To deny this is to deny the efficacy of the printed word. Can a book have a power for evil? To deny this is to make the same denial. I hat’s the way it seems to me anyway.
And there is junk on the market these days that is sadistic, erotic, loutish tripe, glorifying brutality and apologizing for perversion and bad from any perspective, moral or literary.
The most virulent denunciations of the anti-censorship zealots are reserved for citizens’ or church groups that seek to exercise a boycott against stores that handle books deemed objectionable. 1 hey look upon these campaigns as motivated by meddlesome nice-nellics and view the participants with a mixture of scorn and fear.
They say: “If a book is obscene, lay a charge and prove it’s obscene. But don't go around with a list trying to stop people from reading certain books.”
But now we come to the problem of what is obscene and what isn’t. The editor whose remarks I cited earlier recognized that sixty percent of the panderers under fire stoop as low as they possibly can without laying themselves open to criminal charges.
But he’s obviously opposed to them, isn’t he? Does he then, and others in his camp, advocate a widening of the definition of obscenity to include what these panderers publish?
Would they like the criminal code amended, for example, to state: “Obscenity shall be deemed to mean the showing of the nude body of a woman or the description of sexual relations between men and women”?
That kind of definition would put the girlie magazines out of business and would strike at much of the erotic smut on the market today.
It would also put out of business the books on painting on the shelves in my home which contain hundreds of reproductions of paintings of nude women and would also deprive me of the works of Joyce, Hemingway, O’Hara and D. H. Lawrence, to name only a few.
If the anti-censorship zealots are sincere in their repugnance for the output of these panderers, they must want to get at them in some way—but that way isn't a widened definition of obscenity. I'm quite sure of that.
And it seems to me that the organized boycott by a pressure group is an eminently sensible device for ridding counters of smut.
What’s wrong with a pressure group anyway?
Pressure groups are' formed in Canada to persuade governments to abolish slums; pressure groups are formed to protect residential areas from commercial encroachment; pressure groups are formed to persuade the government to abolish the CBC and pressure groups are formed to advocate purchase of parkland.
They aren’t called pressure groups when they do those things, of course. But that’s what they are. They are pressure groups and what’s wrong with them?
The banding together of citizens to espouse a common cause isn’t evil. The principle is a sound manifestation of the democratic process. And, in fact, the very people who denounce the campaigns against smut as interference by bluenosed vigilantes are the very ones who, very often, cry out loudest for citizen participation in community affairs.
And what’s wrong with a boycott? I’m a writer who is being boycotted all the time. The people who boycott me do so because they don’t like what I write. That’s their business and their democratic privilege. I have no complaint against them. 1 operate on the theory that, in the long run, by speaking my mind, I’ll gain more readers than I’ll lose.
Why shouldn't a citizen go into a store and say: “1 don’t like this pornographic junk you’re peddling and if you don’t stop peddling it, you’re going to lose me as a customer”?
Of course, the anti-censorship zealots have an answer for that one, too. Anything to avoid doing anything is their slogan. They say that some of the titles on the lists of these groups are not in the least objectionable and, in fact, highly commendable from a literary standpoint.
But did they offer counsel or assistance to the groups trying, even in a fumbling way, to reduce the quantity of the stuff that many of the anti-censorship zealots themselves consider deplorable? Did they say: “Listen, much of the stuff you’re opposed to, we’re opposed to, too. But let’s separate the wheat from the chaff here. We’ll go along with you on some of these titles and the thing to do is to talk the whole thing over”?
Of course, they said nothing of the kind. They simply sniffed and screamed and gathered up their collective skirts and went howling down the street, bawling that censors were after them again.
And it seems to me that a lot of them are going to develop permanent cricks in their backs from toting around those portable ivory towers of theirs.
For there is such a thing as a dirty book. And a lot of them are being circulated in this country. ★
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