Required Reading: No Laughing Matter
News from the international book scene: Female characters are not permitted to laugh in books sold at the Tehran International Book Fair, which opened this week in the Iran capital.
The word “laughing” (for female characters), along with “dance,” “dog,” “meditation,” and “cigarette” (only if a female is holding one), is censored at the book fair, where more than half a million Iranians load up on literature daily. That’s more than the total number of attendees at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which claims to be the biggest in the world, according to the Guardian.
Despite the large audience, I’m guessing that any acceptable literature featuring female characters will have to be limited to the novella form or shorter—certainly nothing long enough for a heroine to enjoy herself or tell a joke. Bridget Jones’ Diary is definitely out.
Even the buttoned-up Victorians may not make it through book fair censors. After all, Pride and Prejudice is like the Women Laughing Alone With Salad of 1813. And Jane of Jane Eyre is tempted to become Mr. Rochester’s unmarried mistress, which could hardly be considered "appropriate" by the book fair censors. On the other hand, since there isn't much laughing, Jane might slip though the morality filters with only a few tweaks and amendments. Her classic line, “Reader, I married him” hardly veers into anyone’s “too hot to handle” category.
I hope it does slip through, because Jane Eyre is an important book for many women. In 2006, Lisa Jardine and Annie Watkins surveyed more than 400 women (British, you have to assume) to find the most significant book for women. Turns out, it’s Jane Eyre. (In the same survey, men reported feeling most marked by Camus’ The Outsider.)
Jardine and Watkins reveal a remarkable pattern: “Men use fiction almost physically as a guide to negotiate a difficult journey…They use fiction almost topographically, as a map.” In contrast, “Many of our women respondents last year explained that they used novels metaphorically—the build-up to an emotional crisis and subsequent denouement in a novel such as Jane Eyre might have helped negotiate an emotional progress through a difficult divorce, or provided support during a difficult period at work, or provided solace when things seemed generally dull.”
The gender analysis sounds a little facile. But all the same, in a book fair where the word “laughing” is censored, Tehrani women could probably use some of that solace. Take it from Jane:
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer.
If female characters can feel "just as men feel," shouldn't they be able to laugh too?
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