Every two years or so in France, there is a new literary scandal. A book with odious moral content is published, heavily publicised, or gets a literary prize, and the debates is revived, with the same arguments every time: on one side, some people are convinced that a book that explains howgreat paedophilia is or how neo-nazis are really the good guys shouldn’t be published, much less receive publicity, period. On the other side, people argue that yes, those books are morally unwholesome (to say the least), but literary quality and morality are two different things, censorship is wrong and would you have deprived the public of Céline’s or Sade’s books just because they were not to your taste, morally speaking? And then it dies down again, without having brought any constructive change in the way people view literature.
This year, an important prize was attributed to Gabriel Matzneff, an old fool who thinks the world should know about his taste for sex with children and teenagers. So far, so good; no doubt you’ll be overjoyed to learn that this man is still free to go where he pleases, because apparently, most of the children he abuses live in Southern countries, and while there’s nothing our society hates more than a paedophile, protecting children in former colonies is too much to ask, it seems. I haven’t read that man’s books and I definitely don’t intend to. And I don’t intend to criticise him either. It’s the whole debate that irks me, and particularly the side that would let any idiot publish any flith because ‘literature and morality are two separate things’.
So, for the record:
1) Yes, it would be a shame for French literature not to have Sade and Céline (I mean I take everybody’s word for it; I have’nt read Céline, and I’ve been unable to read more than three pages of Sade, however much I tried). Our literature would probably be different. That doesn’t mean it would be any less good, however. I’m not aware that there is a Grand Design of literary history, and if one single step is skipped, the whole thing collapses forever.
2) So we have Sade, and Céline, and Gide, plus a whole regiment of others who harboured more or less tasteful views of women and people of colour. Fine. But what about Judith Shakespeare? What about Madame X, who could have changed the face of Western literature if only she had been a man, or at least wealthy enough to make it to Paris and be heard? What about Madame Y, who could never find a publisher because she wrote in Breton, or Occitan, or Basque, or any other minority language? What about Monsieur Z, who was Black and lived in the colonies, and therefore could never dream to achieve recognition? We don’t hear so many people mourning their voices. Sade and Céline weren’t the obvious, unavoidable evolution of French literature. They were white men with enough money to be able to be recognised. There are literary critics today who get into a fit at the very thought of weeding out unwanted voices from literature, just because those voices are not ‘politically correct’. Well, we’ve been weeding out voices from our literature for centuries, not because they said things we didn’t want to hear, but simply because of who their authors were. If our literary history has achieve a state of absolute perfection despite this, then I predict it won’t hurt our literary future all that much if the next Céline-or-Sade gets kicked out of the limelight because we’re tired of hearing paedophiles and antisemites for a change.
3) Of course, an ideal situation would be to learn from our past mistakes and let everyone express themselves, regardless of their origin or opinion. I said ‘would’, because we’re not there yet. Because those tired old literary scandals still happen very often, and that means one thing: if our society is as liberal as it thinks it is, then crazed obnoxious writers with extreme views on fascism or ethics are getting a disproportionate amount of exposure compared to their representativeness. And for all the hand-wringing, none of them has been dubbed the new Céline–they all simply belong to the same sad little pool of mediocre Parisian writers hungry for their little taste of scandal. And speaking of Parisian writers: I’m assuming it must be the same in every country with a cultural centre, but there is absolutely no doubt that you stand a much better chance to be recognised if you’re from Paris than if you’re from absolutely anywhere else in the country. That imbalance in exposure is still there. We’re nowhere near the place where we could welcome all points of views, even the most outrageous ones, and call it a fair and balanced distribution of publicity; there is nothing fair or balanced about the literary milieu as it is now.
4) (and last) Get over yourselves, literary critics. In that day and age of permanent media exposure, your chance of being remembered as the discoverer of the literary genius of the 2010’s is extremely slim. It won’t hurt your career too much if you choose to be decent instead and refuse to help an imbecile promote paedophilia, honest.
And that’s all I have to say.