Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

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