Free Expression: French and US Industries’ New Challenges

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Parallel to new court action mounted by American publishers, authors, and bookstores, France finds prohibitions slapped on a children’s book.

In the window of a bookstore in Sarasota, Florida, September 20, 2022. Image – Getty iStockphoto: H A Besen

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

In France: ‘What Are Young People Being Protected From?’
For some time, the United States’ book market has stood as the de facto capital of the world’s far-right efforts in literary censorship.

A new government-imposed limitation on sales of a novel for young readers in France, however, is drawing stark criticism as censorship: Support for Manu Causse’s Bien trop petit (Far Too Small) from Éditions Thierry Magnier now includes the full-throated backing of the powerful French publishers’ association, the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE).

Three titles from the 15-book Collection L’Ardeur at Éditions Thierry Magnier. One of its volumes, Manu Causse’s ‘Far Too Small,’ has been singled out by the French interior ministry for special constraints on sales. The decree, based on a 1949 law, requires that ‘Far Too Small’ be sold to no one younger than 18.

The SNE has issued a particularly forthright demand for a review of a 74-year-old law used by the French national government to limit sales of a single children’s book.

The association writes in a terse statement delivered today to the international press corps, “The National Publishing Union (SNE) recalls its unwavering attachment to the principles of freedom of creation and publication, in compliance with the legal provisions intended to protect minors.

“Taking note of the decree of July 17, 2023 prohibiting the sale to minors of Manu Causse’s work Far Too Small published by Éditions Thierry Magnier—taken in accordance with the law of July 16, 1949 revised in 2011—the SNE requests that [there be] carried out an evaluation of the system for the protection of minors established by this law. The SNE questions the consistency and effectiveness of the rules defined almost 75 years ago, when the main current vectors of exposure of minors to the content covered by the law did not exist.”

Not only is this case clearly defined and—thanks to the SNE—now very high-profile, but its content lies in areas that society isn’t always comfortable discussing, even in the name of free expression: young male sexuality.

This makes it, of course, of particular value as an instance in which publishing can test its own critical allegiance to producing its best work and resisting self-censorship.

The author Manu Causse’s Bien trop petit was published in September as part of a series, Éditions Thierry Magnier’s Collection L’Ardeur.

In the publisher’s descriptive copy about the book, accompanying an audio sample from the novel, Éditions Thierry Magnier writes:

“A novel full of humor that explores the complexity of adolescence and a tribute to the powers of the imagination in the construction of our sexualities.

“Grégoire has a small penis. If he had never really realized it, after the derogatory comments of his comrades at the swimming pool, he is forced to face the facts. He’s convinced that his love and sexual life is now over before it even started because of this insurmountable flaw.

“His immediate solution to cope with his frustration: take refuge in his fan fiction. He has been writing for a long time the adventures of the brave Max Égrogire and his sidekick, the beautiful Chloé Rembrandt. But this time, his story will take an unexpected turn since Grégoire writes an erotic passage for the first time. And among his readers, one person will challenge him: Kika encourages him, jostles him a little, and pushes him to go farther.

“From message to message, Grégoire delivers the sequel to Chloé Rembrandt’s erotic adventures to Kika. Through their exchanges, he explores his own fantasies and can’t believe he can share them with someone. Perhaps excitement and desire can go through many other things than bodily contact?”

According to French press accounts, the publisher wasn’t aware until July 18 that France’s interior ministry had issued a decree on the book, which is said to have had an initial print run of 2,500 copies with sales of some 500. Apparently, however, the book had been reported by the Commission for the Supervision and Control of Publications for  Youth to the interior ministry in January.

So “shocked” is the publisher by the action of interior minister Gérald Darmanin, per news coverage, that the house has asked booksellers to return their unsold copies. The plan is to be put on sale only to adults, which is authorized under the ban in which Darmanin invokes the Publications for Young People Act 1949, Section 14, quoted as allowing the prohibition of “publications of any kind presenting a danger to young people on account of content pornographic character.”

Thierry Magnier

Quoted in a writeup from FranceInfo, the publisher, Thierry Magnier, has criticized “the stupidity and hypocrisy” of the interior department’s ban. “Today,” Magnier is quoted saying, “the government does not block pornographic sites for minors, … [but] it prohibits a literary work like ours. And this, while any 15-year-old child can buy Lolita or Sade.”

At Actualitte, a damning statement from La Société des Gens echoes Magnier’s objection that literature should be singled out when Internet pornography is so readily available.

Manu Causse

And in an interview with Mathilde Barat at Le Figaro, the author of  more than 20 works, Causse—at 51, he also is a translator of work from English into French—speaks in lucid, humanitarian tones about the mission of literature and its distinctions.

“From a legal point of view,” Causse says, “we must of course protect young people from pornographic content, which is widely proliferating on the Internet. But when talking about sexuality in children’s literature, the objective is to prepare the young person or to repair his imagination. The purpose of the game is not to simply describe sexuality. But to question it, in order to break certain norms that we adults have been able to assimilate in the past.

“When a character expresses a shocking opinion or illegal thought in a book, should the book be banned? With this law, what exactly are young people being protected from? Sexuality? Shouldn’t we talk about it?”

And at Amazon.fr, look up Causse’s book today, and you find this notice on the Bien trop petit sale page, inclusive of those asterisks: *Ouvrage interdit aux moins de 18 ans par arrêté du 17 juillet 2023.* 

In English: “Work prohibited for children under 18 by decree of July 17, 2023.”

In the States: Resistance to a New Texas Law

This week PEN America is backing robust new legal resistance from the book industry to what it terms “censorious government overreach,” a Texas law, HB 900, that PEN says, “violates First Amendment rights by forcing private business to comply with government views.”

On Tuesday (July 25), Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris at The New York Times outlined an alarming “new front in an ongoing culture war over book banning and what constitutes appropriate reading material for children”—Texas’ bookstores. As Alter and Harris report, even as politically powered efforts in book banning have roiled the American marketplace and its vast readership, a new state measure signed into law by the Republican Texan governor Greg Abbott, is prompting a legal battle.

The Texas law, write Alter and Harris, “would force booksellers to evaluate and rate each title they sell to schools, as well as books they sold in the past. If they fail to comply, stores would be barred from doing business with schools.” What’s more, bookstores—having rated books as sexually explicit, sexually relevant, or no rating—must expose those ratings for government review. “If the state disagrees with the rating,” write Alter and Harris, “it can overrule the bookseller and impose its own rating.”

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this Texas measure—which is called with typical right-wing euphemism “The Reader Act”—has been filed in the US District Court for Texas’ Western District in Austin by bookstores and agencies. The bookstores are the Blue Willow in Houston and BookPeople in Austin.

At the Association of American Publishers, president and CEO Maria A. Pallante has joined with her counterparts at the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, in writing, “There is no question that reading in schools should be guided and age-appropriate, but this law does not accomplish that goal. It is inferior to existing constitutional standards because it robs parents, schools and teachers from across the state of Texas of the right to make decisions for their respective communities and classrooms, instead handing that role to a state entity and private businesses.

Maria A. Pallante

“It is central to the First Amendment that the government can neither restrain nor compel speech, but this law will force booksellers to label constitutionally protected works of literature and nonfiction with highly subjective and stigmatizing ratings, effectively forcing private actors to convey and act upon the government’s views even when they disagree. From a logistical angle, this law creates an impossibly onerous and cumbersome process that bookstores and other vendors must follow, forcing them to review massive amounts of material without the benefit of clear and workable standards, and compelling them to recall titles previously sold over an indeterminate period of time.

“The suit filed today seeks to protect the basic constitutional rights of the plaintiffs and restore the right of Texas parents to determine what is age-appropriate and important for their children to access in their schools, without government interference or control.”

And that issue and its news coverage has coincided with Gregory S. Schneider’s account (also July 25) at the Washington Post of what he describes as “an escalation of book wars in Virginia and across the country.

“In recent years,” Schneider writes, “clashes over whether to ban books—part of a national movement of parental grievance against cultural change in education—have largely played out in school libraries in Texas, Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Now the issue is spreading to public libraries, too.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship more widely is here, more on the freedom of expression and the freedom to publish is here, more on the Association of American Publishers is here, and more on the Syndicat national de l’édition is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.