Alice Munro: Censors think "if we don't write about sex, it will disappear"

"As soon as one step is taken you have to start resisting."

Alice Munro

On Jan. 19, 1979 Alice Munro talked censorship on CBC's Take 30. "I think that as soon as one step is taken you have to start resisting because that makes the next step easier." (Screen capture)



Alice Munro once told the New York Times that her hometown of Wingham, Ont. is "the most interesting place in the world," and in 1978, her statement perhaps rang a little truer to Canadians who've never driven County Road 86. Huron County, which is where you'll find Wingham, was involved in a censorship controversy, one so notable that it played a part in the creation of Canada's Freedom to Read Week. This year's edition doesn't kick off until February 21, but on this day in 1979, CBC invited Munro to the Take 30 studio to talk about her experience as the target of censorship — and to discuss the power of books in general.

The Lives of Girls and Women

Although Alice Munro’s 1971 book The Lives of Girls and Women is a collection of short stories, it is often classified as a novel as it covers the life of one protagonist Del Jordan and has the wide scope of a novel. Del Jordan lives in Jubilee, a small town in Ontario. While Munro shares a lot of autobiographical details with Jordan, she does not consider it to be autobiographical.

When Munro appeared on the program, six months had passed since the Huron County school board had voted whether to remove a number of classic titles from the high-school reading list: John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye — and Munro's own Lives of Girls and Women

"As far as I can tell from the talk of the people who are against the books they somehow think that if we don't write about sex it will disappear, it will go away," Munro explains in the program. "They talk about preserving their 17-year-old and 18-year-old children, protecting them. Well, biology doesn't protect them. They don't need to read books."

Ultimately, Huron County refrained from banning Munro's short stories, but another CanLit classic, Margaret Laurence's The Diviners, was removed from their schools — and this, as a handy CBC Books infographic reminds us, is hardly an isolated incident in recent Canadian history. 

As Munro tells CBC interviewer Harry Brown in the clip, there's one way to react when people take steps towards censorship. "I think that as soon as one step is taken you have to start resisting because that makes the next step easier," she says.

"Books have been important all through my life and particularly when I was growing up as a teenager in Wingham. And what they did then was broadened the world for me. A sense of all sorts of possibilities. Of life being important because the writers took life seriously," Munro says in the video. "I don't mean just that I saw how people were living in other places than Wingham, but I saw that there's an extra dimension to life, and people who love books feel that."

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