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Frances Peck

Freedom to Read, Willingness to Edit

Good stories, for me, have never been treacly. My father, an RCMP officer, put people in jail; my mother, a halfway house director, put them back into society. My childhood was one of sensational publications and limited adult supervision. By age 11 I’d read Jaws, Helter Skelter and The Eden Express, a memoir of schizophrenia. I’d absorbed ghost stories, crime chillers and every “Drama in Real Life” article in every Reader’s Digest in the house.

As an adult, I loved Stephen King. I bought books on wilderness deaths, eating disorders, sexual fetishes and Everest disasters. I investigated harassment complaints and edited reports on workplace fatalities.

So in 2016, when a friend mentioned a manuscript she didn’t have the stomach to edit, I figured hey, I can do it.

The subject? Bestiality.

I flinched when she said it. (So much for being tough.) But as my friend described the project, a mixture of true crime and sociology by a journalist who’d chased the story for years, I was intrigued. “Send me the lead,” I said.

The lead was, surprisingly, a pitch letter, complete with blurbs by other journalists who’d read the manuscript, seeking an editor willing to take on the topic. “I need to find someone who is comfortable editing words written about this subject,” wrote Carreen Maloney, the author, “or this will be an awkward and less-than-inspiring experience for both of us.”

I thought on it, I talked to Maloney, I talked to my husband. And I said yes. I worked on Uniquely Dangerous over the next year, doing two passes before the book was published in 2018.


Partly it was the author’s appeal. Maloney is a professional writer, a meticulous researcher and an animal advocate. She was passionate about her subject and had written a serious book.

Partly it was the challenge. As Maloney wrote, “Being able to confront these issues takes a certain kind of brain wiring, an intellectual curiosity about human spirit and behaviour that transcends revulsion.” Did she know I’m a sucker for a dare? I don’t think so, but it worked.

But the biggest draw was the chance to work on a topic that’s almost never written about. Why is zoophilia so taboo? Why does society say it’s fine to brand, castrate and confine animals but unnatural to love them as zoophiles do? How widespread is zoophilia? Is it a hard-wired sexual orientation? The questions that Uniquely Dangerous tackles have largely gone unposed because of the feelings they provoke.

“Degrading, dehumanizing filth” — that was the reaction of one reader. Not to Uniquely Dangerous but to Margaret Laurence’s novel The Diviners. Surprised? Attempts to ban Laurence’s classic Canadian fiction in Ontario schools were what led the Book and Periodical Council to create Freedom to Read Week, which marks its 35th anniversary this week.

Freedom to read matters because filth, to quote songwriter Tom Lehrer, is in the mind of the beholder. Or as June Callwood said, in her 1993 Margaret Laurence lecture for the Writers’ Trust of Canada, “the speech with which you agree . . . is not threatened. The freedom of speech we must protect is the freedom of speech with which we explicitly, emphatically, categorically disagree.”

A free society must allow publications on controversial topics. We’ll never understand zoophilia if we don’t write about it, and writing about it means editing it.

Have you edited material on controversial or taboo subjects? Have you had to defend freedom to read?


Previous post from Frances Peck: A Little Strategy, a Lot of Satisfaction.

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Frances Peck

Frances Peck is an editor, writer and instructor who now lives on Canada’s West Coast.


13 Comments on “Freedom to Read, Willingness to Edit”

  • Tremendous post. I applaud you for writing it. I wish more people would stop and think, especially when considering historical texts.

  • Thanks so much for this article, Frances. It was a real eye opener for me. Recently, I’ve turned down a couple of jobs that were outside my comfort zone (religion, YA fantasy). Granted, the writing was poor, and I gave the authors some tips and suggested that the manuscripts were not yet ready for editing. But you’ve caused me to realize that I’m not taking enough risks in the types of projects I accept, and that my «willingness to edit» outside of my comfort zone is shrinking a little. So I appreciate the wake-up call that I need to be more open in the kinds of work I take on, rather like I was when I first began editing over a decade and a half ago.

    • Frances Peck


      I’ve been mulling over your comment, Arlene. It’s tough to decide when we should step out of our comfort zone and when we should stay (safely) within it.

      The friend who gave me this book lead had declined the work herself because she had just wrapped up a year of editing difficult manuscripts, including some emotionally draining memoirs. One more and she’d risk emotional burnout. We have to trust our instincts, I guess, sometimes opening ourselves up but sometimes guarding ourselves too, if that’s the healthiest response.

      I suspect there’s more about this in the webinar that Heather Saunders gave for Editors Canada, «Editing Distressing Content.»

      • Thanks for this link to Heather Saunders’s webinar, Frances. I’ll have a look at it a little later today. Whether to take on a difficult project or one with distressing content is definitely a highly individual choice, and it would depend on several factors including the editor’s personal state at the time of doing the work. I’ve just come off almost a month of very little work, so I’m ready to chew on something a little more difficult at this time. But at other times I might be mentally exhausted from a previous, difficult edit, and a light proofread would fit the bill much better.

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Just as every accused person deserves a good defence lawyer, so every well-prepared manuscript deserves a good editor. Did your author find a publisher who was brave enough to take the book on, Frances, or was she going the self-publishing route? Edward Albee wrote a brilliant play on this topic in 2002: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? I saw an excellent production by Soulpepper Theatre in the fall of 2017 – but in that case, this forbidden love devastated the family.

    • Frances Peck


      The lawyer analogy is an apt one, Rosemary.

      Carreen tried a few publishers. One editor (that I’m aware of) at a major press expressed interest, but despite several prods, didn’t move on the manuscript. After so many years on the story, Carreen wanted the book out there, so she self-published:

      • Frances Peck


        A correction to my reply: Carreen was in touch with only one traditional publisher, the major press noted above, to which she was introduced by an author friend. I should have remembered (but didn’t) that she was uninterested in going the traditional publishing route. For various reasons, she felt that self-publishing was the best avenue for this book.

  • Anita Jenkins


    So timely, Frances. My university studies were in English literature, and I am disturbed by the stories I hear about the culture that university students and profs are living in today. How a text that is judged to be «filth» or not «respectful» has to be either taken off the list or presented with «trigger warnings.» What? Art pushes the envelope and good conversations include willingness to hear things that you disagree with are not comfortable with.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      I find it especially annoying when the texts are a few decades or centuries old, and the writers are simply reflecting the views current at the time.

  • Congratulations on an excellent post. It’s important to remember that editors, like lawyers, sometimes have to take on the unpopular cases, because everyone has the right to good editing. (Hmm, maybe we need the Public Editors office?) I don’t think that contradicts an editor’s right to turn down work that makes them uncomfortable–that’s fundamental– but these days, passing a manuscript along to another editor who would be more suitable is ridiculously easy.
    I also salute your courage for taking this topic on. I confess to chickening out when presented with a similar opportunity. I was offered unique access to the zoo community through an informant just as the internet was allowing these individuals to connect and start to build community. I had just graduated with my PhD in sociology and was looking for my next big topic. I recognized there was a significant book to be written on the topic, not just of beastality, but the impact of social media on identity, deviance, and community. But I had been just been hired at a university in a very conservative community and I thought to myself, «better wait until you have tenure». But of course by then, someone else had done that study and I was off onto other topics. Always a bit ashamed of my cowardice, but also…not sure I’d take that on today either. Hat off to you.

    • Frances Peck


      Quite the coincidence, Robert. There can’t be many of us in the editing community who’ve been approached to work on this topic. Your reasons for turning the project down sound pretty understandable.

      Curiously, I wrestled less with the decision to edit this book than with the decision to be acknowledged in it. The author kindly said she would understand if I didn’t want to be mentioned by name. That really got me thinking about the worst possible consequences. Would people accuse me of being a zoo? Would I get blacklisted for being creepy or deviant?

      I thought of all the books I’d read about little-known aspects of human behaviour and realized that I’d always admired, not reviled, the authors and the editors who told those stories. I thought, too, about my own life and family. Growing up, I learned that three members of my family were gay: one firmly in the closet, one who emerged and one in between. Back then it was a lot harder to be gay. Homosexuality kind of lurked in the shadows. What if 20th-century authors had refused to write about homosexuality, and editors had refused to edit their work? Where would gay rights be without those publications?

      So I said yes to being acknowledged and figured I’d deal with the consequences if any came my way.

      The brave person here, after all, is the author. Carreen threw herself into this book, consequences be damned. And the other brave people, well probably the bravest, are the ones who were willing to share their stories with her.

  • Excellent article, Frances, and so timely during Freedom to Read week. To me, if a book or article is written articulately and sincerely, it deserves to be edited professionally. Kudos to you to being open to this and brave enough to take it on.
    The most difficult material I have edited deals with religious/spiritual experiences. This is very challenging because it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between faith, charlatanism, and even mental illness.

  • Rachel


    Thank you for writing this, Frances! I applaud you for taking on the project. I’ve edited controversial content before but I’ve thought a lot about where I would draw the line — your post is making me think more about why I would draw the line, and if perhaps I need to cross it in some cases.

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