A death certificate for creativity

With The Walrus’ new move to censor work, writers are getting left behind


I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to write another editorial on censorship so soon after my last one, but something grabbed my attention last week.

Two days ago, I read an article in The Globe and Mail detailing how none other than Nick Mount was leaving The Walrus.

The reasoning behind his decision was that the publication was pushing for more “family-friendly” material. Justin Giovannetti’s article, “Walrus fiction editor quits over magazine’s push for ‘family-friendly’ stories”, discussed how Mount announced on Friday morning that he would be leaving because The Walrus’ “management expressed ‘obscenity concerns’ about publishing words like ‘crap’ and ‘orgasm’ in a work of fiction planned for an upcoming issue.”

The article went on to cite Mount’s email to a list of past contributors: “‘The publisher has decided that the magazine wants more family-friendly fiction. There’s just not enough fiction in Canada that is both good and family-friendly. So I can’t be of much help to the magazine anymore.”

To me, Mount is a big deal. Well, let me clarify: Mount is a big deal to a lot of people. He teaches at U of T St. George, he’s a two-time finalist in TVO’s Best Lecturer Competition, and he won the President’s Teaching Award back in 2009. These accomplishments barely scrape the surface of his career achievements, let alone what he means to fiction editing. For The Walrus to lose him is actually a bigger loss than I think they know. Maybe my respect for Mount makes me biased. But The Walrus has succeeded in sacrificing their credibility for the sake of putting a Band-Aid on potentially offensive material.

The article went on to discuss how this push for censorship started due to a piece from Stephen Marche. The story included a scene where a man was having sex with a Boreal owl.

I don’t work for The Walrus. With this new rule they’re implementing, it’s clear to me that we obviously have different ideas of what should be in a creative fiction piece. I have, however, read several issues of it in my life, and still my question about Marche’s piece remains the same: so what?

A character had sex with an owl? Alert the church elders. Everyone rush to the river so we can be baptized. We must censor all fiction now.

In Giovannetti’s piece, Marche was interviewed about the decision: “‘Do we have children flipping through the pages of The Walrus’ fiction section, looking for obscenity? I would love to believe we live in a world where that is happening. We’re not. I find it appalling,’ Mr. Marche said.”

I absolutely agree with him. I could sit here all day and write about how ridiculous it is to censor fiction. I feel like I would be repeating key points made in last week’s editorial. But, to censor fiction is to do something else entirely. The Walrus’ claim is that they want more “family-friendly” material. Perhaps I’m missing something, but unless a nine-year-old is picking up a copy of The Walrus, I really don’t know who this new rule is meant to benefit. This new path of theirs is doomed to lead readers to a finish line of caution tape. And for what?

I think one giant publication making a move like this sets the tone for others to follow suit, and that’s a problem. Where would the limit be? Who would these rules reach?

Take last week for example. Just last Friday, I was at the Hart House, watching their first play of the 2016-17 year, Tideline. Not to click-bait our own articles, but you’re more than welcome to read the full review in arts this week. For some context, Tideline follows a young man named Wilfred, as he returns to his father’s home country so he can bury him there. But I’m going to skip over a review of my own, and jump right into the mature subject matter of the play. As Wilfred arrives in his father’s unnamed home country, he is welcomed into the house of a wealthy man who describes the horrors of the war that the country faced. He then goes on to describe, in detail, how a father was murdered, stripped naked, and sodomized with a wooden stake until he become erect. The soldiers then placed his daughter, no older than 10, on top of him as she begged them to stop.

I’ve been to many Hart House plays, and I’ll admit that that definitely isn’t something I ever expected to hear in a student production. Especially because the man telling the story had no sympathy. It was told as a funny anecdote to his dinner guests.

This is just one example of hundreds. Thousands. But pushing the boundaries like this is something I want out of my art. Is it disgusting? Yes. Is it disturbing? Of course. But did it serve a purpose in showing the brutality of war? Check that box, too.

It would be an unbelievable disappointment to see scripts with scenes like these be censored. These are the horrors of war being displayed to the audience. They shouldn’t be hidden away if the Hart House ever decides they want more family-friendly material for themselves. This kind of adjustment asks artists everywhere to sign a death certificate for their creativity.

Back when I was still in my creative writing class, I told a friend of mine that I wanted writing to mess me up. I wanted authors to shove graphic material in my face—because first, it’s the author’s right, and second, I don’t care, nor have I ever really cared, for stories that left me with a happy ending. I wanted something I could relate to. I wanted something that would shock me. I always want to read something that proved the author wasn’t writing to please an audience.

As a creative writer, I think I aim to do the same thing with my writing. I censor nothing, which of course gives me a biased opinion. But, it’s an opinion nonetheless. I don’t see the point in censoring. If you don’t write about it, someone else will. Why not be the one to do it? I don’t write so people will be happy with my message or glad I left out gory details. I write what’s important to me and what I think should be said.

To some, authors abuse these liberties. There will be characters who say something racist or sexist, and the author gets heat. It’s their creation, of course, so they should answer for what was said or done. I don’t agree with that. I think characters take on a life of their own and become their own people. If something unnecessarily cruel is said, then that’s another thing. But if a sexist character sees a woman on the street and decides to call her a pig, I’m not really expecting anything else from him. It offends me. It angers me. The character does his job, as does the author. This is best saved for an entirely different editorial, though.

This kind of censorship is exactly what I wrote about in my first editorial. In order to keep up with click-bait, news outlets are now turning to unimportant news that puts a smile on the faces of those reading it.

It’s bad enough that this is happening in the news, but to spread the disease of censorship to creative work is ludicrous.

I understand that not everyone will agree with me. But I don’t think that news or creative work should be censored. I admitted last week that I can’t handle some of the images being shown on the news. I also wrote that my reasoning was no excuse for censorship. Whatever anger or distaste I may feel for what is shown in the news simply stems from my inability to handle it. That doesn’t mean that every journalist should walk away from the field or their computers.

I don’t want to speak for Mount, but I think one of the biggest reasons why he walked away is because he understands the importance of artistic license. He was quoted in Giovannetti’s article as saying, “The initial cause was Marche’s story. If not that story, it would have been another.”

Marche used the perfect word to describe this change: appalling. It’s appalling to tell a fiction writer to censor his work because, all of a sudden, it doesn’t appeal to the new demographic. To make Marche the scapegoat for censoring all potentially graphic material is also insulting.

What’s even worse is that words like “crap” and “orgasm” were the ones to make this big shift. It’s actually kind of funny. Not in the “this is actually funny” way but in the “this is so ridiculous that I can’t help but laugh about it” way.

But it’s more than that. It’s degrading to the writers who have poured their time and effort into a piece that is now deemed too sensitive. It’s crap.