One of Canada's foremost magazines is embroiled in a battle over whether serious literature tackling serious subjects should also be family-friendly, leading to the resignation of The Walrus's fiction editor and charges that politeness has gone too far at the publication.
Nick Mount, the magazine's fiction editor and an English professor at the University of Toronto, announced by e-mail on Friday morning that he had resigned after The Walrus's management expressed "obscenity concerns" about publishing the words "crap" and "orgasm" in a work of fiction planned for an upcoming issue.
"The publisher has decided that the magazine wants more family-friendly fiction," he said in the e-mail, which went to a list of past contributors, including Margaret Atwood. "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 any more."
While Mr. Mount did not name the writer of the story, he told The Globe and Mail the current troubles started with the publication of a piece of short fiction written by Stephen Marche. Published in the January-February issue of The Walrus, the story dealt with bestiality and described a man having sex with a boreal owl.
The story sparked heated debate, and Mr. Marche says he was told a number of the magazine's readers cancelled their subscriptions.
After the story was published, Mr. Mount says he was given directives by the magazine's publisher and editor not to print content in the future that dealt with such sensitive topics. It became informally known as the owl rule. "The initial cause was Marche's story. If not that story, it would have been another," he told The Globe.
Jonathan Kay, editor-in-chief of The Walrus, could not be reached for comment. Members of the magazine's board of directors reached by The Globe said they could not comment on a "personnel matter."
Mr. Marche, who is also an author and columnist for Esquire magazine, said Mr. Mount is widely considered the best short-fiction editor in Canada. The editor's resignation will have a significant impact on the development of Canadian literature, he added.
"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.
He bemoaned what he called a movement towards ever-greater Canadian politeness where the rules governing writers in today's Walrus are more restrictive than those many Canadian authors faced in the conservative 1950s.
Ms. Atwood expressed support for the former fiction editor.
"He's quite wonderful and I am sure he will have a new incarnation soon," she said in an e-mail.
Toronto-based writer Lynn Crosbie said Mr. Mount approached her last week to write a story. "Whatever monstrosity I sent would have sent him off with a bang," she said. "His resignation is very bad news."
While some have seen the magazine's move as censorship or a restriction of free expression, Mr. Mount conceded in his resignation that he understood the decision because The Walrus must appeal to a wide audience, advertisers and donors.