Censorship in Canadian Literature


205 pages
Contains Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-2214-X
DDC C813'.5409





Reviewed by Thomas M.F. Gerry

Thomas M.F. Gerry is a professor of English at Laurentian University and
the editor of Arachne, Laurentian University’s bilingual
interdisciplinary journal of language and literature.


Mark Cohen defines censorship as “the exclusion of some discourse as
the result of a judgment by an authoritative agent based on some
ideological predisposition.” His excellent book examines the role of
judgment in Canadian literary works that involve censorship in various
ways. The Wars and Headhunter by Timothy Findley, Cohen shows, by and
large maintain the traditional Enlightenment position that censorship is
primarily a governmental attack on freedom of speech and thus on reason.
Margaret Atwood’s Bodily Harm and The Handmaid’s Tale move from the
traditional, “absolutely no censorship” position regarding
pornography, to a sense that pornography is actually more dangerous than
censorship. The draft of an unfinished novel by Margaret Laurence, as
well as some of her published talks, reflects Cohen’s emphasis on the
role of judgment. In Search of April Raintree, by Métis novelist
Beatrice Culleton, and She Tries Her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks
by black Canadian poet Marlene Nourbese Philip, both involve
sociocultural censorship as practised by educators, publishers, critics,
anthologists, awards committees, and cultural producers who either
engage in self-censorship or appropriate the voices and subjects of
social groups that are not their own.

As Cohen convincingly argues, censorship is “widespread and
inevitable in our society, so when we argue about censorship, it is not
the practice itself we should be evaluating, but the reasons behind the
practice.” His final chapter, “Towards a More ‘Just’
Judgment,” specifies some procedures for improving our reasoning about
censorship. He acknowledges that free speech is an important value, and
also that its importance is enhanced, rather than diminished, by the
fact that a society steps in to regulate discourse only when this
intervention can be shown to be truly necessary. Cohen then emphasizes
the need to examine the various contexts of the discourses in
question—particularly their audiences, the potential and actual harm
they cause, and the nature of the discourse itself. The literary
examples both clarify and support his argument.


Cohen, Mark., “Censorship in Canadian Literature,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 14, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/9403.