Answering Censorship in France: Publisher Thierry Magnier

In Feature Articles by Eric Dupuy

‘We have decided to attack the 1949 law to repeal this commission’ on children’s literature, says French publisher Thierry Magnier.

Thierry Magnier. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Eric Dupuy

Editor’s note: While much recent news in censorship and book bannings has come from the United States, our international readership will recall an instance we reported in July in which the French interior ministry moved to limit sales of a book for teens. Sharp condemnation followed from the French publishers’ association, the Syndicat national de l’édition, or SNE. Today (January 19), we have an interview with publisher Thierry Magnier on his experience. — Porter Anderson

By Eric Dupuy

‘The First Time I’ve Had a Book Censored’
The move made by the French government against the novel Bien trop peitit (Far Too Small) in July 2023─that book being part of the 15-title Collection L’Ardeurmarked a rare decision in France. Not only was the government’s decree troubling for the national publishing community but it also had the unintended effect of helping to give the book new visibility in the marketplace.

Éditions Thierry Magnier is part of the Actes Sud publishing group, and Manu Causee’s novel Bien trop petit (Far Too Small) was published in September 2022 as part of the collection, described as mildly erotic literature for a young and informed audience. When released, the book was rated for ages 15 and 0lder. This was listed on the back cover, and the book was not a major success in bookstores until nine months later─when its sales were boosted by the controversy of interior minister Gérald Darmanin’s action.

Here is how the publisher’s sales text is written to describe the Collection L’Ardeurliterature neither considered nor intended by Éditions Magnier as pornography:

Read, dare, fantasy─three words that sum up the ambition of the L’Ardeur collection. Since its beginnings, our house has been proud to defend courageous literature which is interested in adolescence as it is, with its gray areas, its excesses, its heightened emotions. But adolescence is also a period when the body metamorphoses, where sexual life begins. What could be more logical, then, than to open our catalog to texts which speak of sexuality, desire, fantasy?

L’Ardeur resolutely places itself on the side of pleasure and the free and multiple exploration that our bodies offer us.”

‘A Counterpoint to ‘Dark Fiction’

Three books from Éditions Thierry Magnier’s 15-title ‘Collection L’Ardeur

Publisher Magnier uses the term traumatic when he describes the experience of having the book censored last summer.

“This is the first time I’ve had a book censored,” he says.

The Collection L’Ardeur, Magnier says, “was created for teenagers as a counterpoint to what emerged few years ago around ‘dark fiction.’ In France and abroad, ‘dark fiction’ was literature like Fifty Shades of Grey, in which women are objectified and men are stereotyped as rich with nice cars, and so on.

“We wanted to bring erotic literature to young people, without being educational, and to tell a different story from those you see on the Young Adult shelves,” Magnier says. And in the title that’s become so controversial, it’s youthful male sexuality that’s at issue.

“We started publishing in 2019 and Bien trop petit was the 10th novel in the collection. It tells the story of Grégoire, who is hung up about the size of his penis and vents his frustration by writing. As he interacts with Kika, one of his readers, he explores his own fantasies.”

#WhenIWas15: A Book Protests the Ministry’s Action

In speaking with Publishing Perspectives, Magnier points to some background that involves a French commission that reviews children’s books.

“You need to know that in France,” he says, “a law was passed in 1949 to create a specific commission for children’s literature. This commission is supposed to validate all works to ensure that they contain no anti-Semitic, homophobic, or other such elements. I regularly deal with them, particularly on titles from [the collection] L’Ardeur. We exchange letters in which I explain to them things they’ve misinterpreted.

“In January [2023], I received a letter from this commission informing me that Bien trop petit was a pornographic work and that it couldn’t be defined as literature for teenagers because of certain passages that were too explicit. As usual, I explained point-by-point.

“In July, to my great surprise, a decree signed by the minister of the interior prohibited the sale of the book to minors.”

Magnier says that despite being taken aback, he moved quickly to comply. And this was when the beneficial sales impact quickly materialized.

“I immediately asked the booksellers to return the books,” he says, “in order to avoid costly legal proceedings. Most of them refused. At that point, Bien trop petit had sold 182 copies in nine months. We had it reprinted with the words Underage Sale Prohibited.

“Today, we’ve sold more than 4,000 copies, in addition to 1,500 copies of the title #WhenIWas15. That book, also published by Magnier, is a gesture of support from author Nicolas Mathieu, a 2018 Prix Goncourt winner for Leurs enfants après eux (Actes Sud), as a reaction to the ban. Mathieu’s Goncourt-winning book would also win the Albertine Prize in 2021 for William Rodarmor’s translation to English.

This is support for Magnier from a very high-profile author. #WhenIWas15 gathers “the accounts of 70 men and women on how literature played a role in awakening their sexuality and their first teenage emotions.”

The #WhenIWas15 effort has been a way for members of the publishing community to rally to Magnier’s and his L’Ardeur authors’ defense, to protest the interior ministry’s action, and to present a unified response to the government’s censorship.

‘We Have Decided To Attack the 1949 Law’

Three books from Éditions Thierry Magnier’s 15-title ‘Collection L’Ardeur

With some six months of reflection available to Magnier now, we asked him what he thinks this book ban says about the state of children’s publishing in France.

“We have decided to attack the 1949 law to repeal this commission, as we believe that there are already laws in France prohibiting homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and pornography aimed at young people.”Thierry Magnier, publisher

“This commission meets four or five times a year,” Magnier says, “to examine publications from a sector that produces 20,000 titles every year.

“In the book Bien trop petit, the commission highlighted five passages which take up the hero’s fantasies that are influenced by porn videos. Obviously, the idea behind these lines was to show the harmful aspect of these images for the young public, but that’s not how the commission interpreted them.

“We have decided to attack the 1949 law to repeal this commission, as we believe that there are already laws in France prohibiting homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and pornography aimed at young people. The book trade, authors, and publishers are fully aware of this.

“And we’re also attacking the decree so that books can once again be sold to underage readers.

“I’m doing this, above all, to clear my name,” Thierry Magnier says, “because I’ve been in this business for nearly 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve had a book censored─wrongly, in my opinion.”

Three books from Éditions Thierry Magnier’s 15-title ‘Collection L’Ardeur

More from Publishing Perspectives on book bannings is here, more on censorship more broadly is here, more on the freedom of expression and the freedom to publish is here, more on the Syndicat national de l’édition is here, and more on the French book publishing market is here. Porter Anderson contributed to this report.

About the Author

Eric Dupuy

Eric Dupuy is a French journalist based in Paris. After more than 10 years as an economic and politics reporter for several news media including Agence France-Presse (AFP), Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD), and Europe 1, he joined the team at Livres Hebdo in 2022 to follow the book industry in France and abroad.