- How fear governs the censorship of literature
“There is more than one way to burn a book,” according to the late author Ray Bradbury, “and the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” For anyone who thinks that literary censorship is a relic of the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, it will pain them to find that those matches are not yet extinguished. In countries such as Turkey, Hungary and the Philippines, authoritarian leaders still ban works which challenge their rule, but there are more nebulous forms of censorship which remain in the supposedly enlightened West. For instance, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, with its criticism of the prophet Muhammad, would simply not find its way into print were it written today, as publishers would be terrified of the novel’s ramifications. Fear drives censorship: fear lights the match. The state suppresses free speech when that speech is dangerous, when it inspires its audience to challenge authority. In the 21st century, as before, governments still fear the written word, whether obscene or revolutionary.
History’s most notorious banned books, from Lolita to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, take their place in the pantheon because of their unboundaried representation of sexuality. The latter, penned by D.H. Lawrence, was published privately in Italy in 1929, but did not reach British shelves until 1960, following a landmark obscenity trial brought against Penguin Books. Explicitly detailing the affair between an upper-class woman and the gamekeeper on her estate, Lawrence’s novel was put on trial because of the fear that its explicit language could become everyday. This is to suggest that obscenity, sexual openness, and profanity do not constitute everyday language. They do, and to deny it is to suppress the art which most reflects human feeling. Penguin’s victory in the trial ushered in the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s, and marked progress of sorts in Great Britain’s gradual escape from prudish Victorian values.
The year after the ‘Chatterley ban’ was lifted, another infamous work of fiction was brought to wider attention. Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller, was finally published in America, 27 years after its initial distribution in France. After American publication of the novel, over 60 obscenity lawsuits were brought against it in 21 states, for similar reasons to the Chatterley furore. As with Lawrence’s book, Tropic of Cancer’s literary merits were eschewed for its more sensationalist elements. When governments ban books, they only make them more appealing: this phenomenon is known widely as the Streisand effect, where the concealing of information provokes an interest which wouldn’t otherwise be there. Copies of Bret Easton Ellis’s more contemporary American Psycho are still sold in shrink wrapping in Australia and New Zealand, off limits to those under the age of 18. If this were not the case, if it were treated like any other book, the novel would not carry the - supposedly corrosive - influence that it does. Those who hold the matches don’t seem to appreciate that they are burning themselves.
Governments fear the reconstruction of the moral codes they implement, but that can hardly compare to the prospect of their very existence being directly challenged. Politically-motivated, as opposed to moral, censorship makes one think of the incineration of books in Nazi Germany, or of Stalin’s USSR silencing any writer who dared question the absolute benevolence of the state. Now-revered works by Boris Pasternak and Vasiliy Grossman had to be smuggled out of the country in manuscript form. When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn drew on his experiences from eight years spent in a Soviet gulag in his novels, he was heavily censored. Written in secret, in fear of the KGB, Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is now required reading in Russian high schools. His writing - and that of Pasternak, Grossman and others - is essential to our understanding of Soviet brutality because the USSR had no definitive reckoning, no Nuremberg. Their silencing may not be acceptable, but it is entirely understandable when we appreciate the degree to which they criticised the regime.
However, the strongman doesn’t fear resentment nearly so much as he fears ridicule, a truth which still holds firm among the rogues’ gallery of 2020’s leaders. George Orwell’s Animal Farm was banned in the USSR for its thinly-veiled attack on Communism, and remains prohibited in Cuba and North Korea for that very reason (it’s also unavailable in the United Arab Emirates for its inclusion of talking pigs, but that’s another issue). By portraying Stalin and his acolytes in such a humiliating way, Animal Farm perhaps carries more venom than other works of fiction which criticise power structures.
Fast forward to 1989, and it was the turn of The Satanic Verses to be the subject of a censorship row, vilified for an unflattering portrayal of Islam and its prophet. The book was publicly burned in the UK and a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran, demanding for Rushdie, and anybody involved in the novel’s publication, to be killed. The author had to go into hiding for a decade, while the book’s Japanese translator was murdered and other translators survived attempts on their lives. Those of no faith who condemned Rushdie in Britain, whose offence was strictly second-hand, missed the point. A close reading of the novel reveals that The Satanic Verses does no more to attack Islam than Lolita does to promote paedophilia. Discussion must not be conflated with rhetoric, and places which should be sanctuaries for provocative ideas cannot become inhospitable to the few who dare tackle them. Fear, for that is what overshadowed the publication of Rushdie’s book, must not hold sway over art.
Fear remains. The flame keeps burning. Last year, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s education minister Ziya Selcuk announced, with no hint of regret, that over 300,000 books, each in some way opposing the country’s leadership, had been removed from Turkey’s schools and libraries to be destroyed. Elif Shafak’s 2006 novel The Bastard of Istanbul challenged the accepted national narrative concerning the Armenian Genocide, resulting in the author going on trial, before being acquitted, for ‘insulting Turkishness’. Until being overtaken by China at the end of last year, Turkey imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world.
In his preface to Animal Farm, Orwell stated that ‘the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary’. Where more obviously totalitarian states censor because they fear their power may be threatened, the democratic West censors because it fears fear itself. We are afraid of a climate where fear can be manifested, but inadvertently create a space where thought-provoking literature is subdued. Satire, and fiction which carries equivalent aims, has its claws removed. Where we are less squeamish about penises than sixty years ago, we still hesitate in answering back to brutality in literary form. For fuck’s sake, put out that match.
Image: Via Time.Com