The new ‘Parthenon of Books’

There is an article in Architectural Digest, posted on July 11 by Nick Mafi , the title  – 100,000 Banned Books Have Been Formed into a ‘Parthenon of Books –  of which caught my eye.

“In the 1930s and 1940s, the Nazis banned books that were written by authors who were of Jewish descent, or had pacifist or communist sympathies.  The list included such luminaries as Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack London.  Now, some eight decades later, a monument is being constructed in honour of these censored books.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín has created a full-scale replica of one of the world’s most famous structures, the Parthenon in Athens, constructed entirely from censored books. The symbolism is striking, as the Parthenon is the very antithesis of political repression. Indeed, the artist went on to add in a statement that the original Parthenon is “the aesthetic and political ideals of the world’s first democracy.”

The display is part of the Documenta 14 art festival in Kassel, Germany. Now in its 14th iteration, the Documenta was first established in 1955 an attempt to bring Germany up to speed with modern art, after the horrific years of Nazism. For the current exhibition, Minujín created the structure by sourcing 100,000 donated books from around the world. The novels were then secured to the steel structure with plastic sheeting, protecting them from the natural elements while allowing sunlight to filter through the building. The site of the exhibition is noteworthy as well, as the city of Kassel (located in central Germany) was where several thousand books were burned during the Nazi-led campaign to rid the country of books deemed un-German.

The temporary exhibition will run through September 17, 2017. When it ends, the books will be taken down and recirculated around the world.”

Pretty cool, don’t you think?

Suppression of Freedom of Speech

Camilla Turner wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in late April on the topic “Student ban on free speech ‘blight of our age’.”  She said:

“Suppression of freedom of speech in universities is ‘one of the greatest problems of our time’, a former chancellor has warned.  (A chancellor in the UK government is the finance minister.) Lord Lawson, who led the Conservative campaign for Brexit, said that political correctness was a ‘great blight of our age’, adding that students often have their way because of ‘totally supine’ university authorities.

Lord Lawson

“‘Safe space’ and ‘no platform’ movements have swept across campuses, including campaigns to ban speakers deemed offensive.  But Lord Lawson, who served as chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the Eighties, said it was crucial that universities were independent from government.  He went on: ‘But now we have a new problem in the university sector, which is not the problem of government control – though that always needs to be watched – but the problem of the suppression of free speech.  The problem comes from political correctness to some extent, which is the great blight of this age.  A view is either politically correct or not, and if it is not, then it should not  be heard.’

“At an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s first  private university, he added, ‘This is happening throughout the universities today, where it is pushed by students.  They may not be the majority of students, but they are very vocal and they have their way because of totally supine university authorities.  The suppression of freedom of speech in the universities is now one of the great problems of our time’.  A new higher education bill has been criticized by academics, who say universities will be forced to pander to the demands of ‘snowflake’ students.

I agree with Lord Lawson.  There is entirely too much exclusion of what for some is painful dialogue on university campuses.  One example is at my alma mater where the name of a college (my particular college, in fact) was changed because of student protests.  The name of the college was Calhoun College, named for John C Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) who was an American statesman and political theorist from South Carolina and the seventh Viced President of the US  from 1825 to 1832.  He was also a two-term US Senator and US Secretary of State.He is remembered for strongly defending slavery and for advancing the concept of minority rights in politics, which he did in the context of defending Southern values from perceived Northern threats.

Wikipedia says this about Calhoun: “In Calhoun’s defense, Clyde Wilson, editor of the multi-volume The Papers of John C. Calhoun and a Distinguished Chair of the Abbeville Institute, argued: ‘Your ordinary run-of-the mill historian will tell you that John C. Calhoun, having defended the bad and lost causes of state rights and slavery, deserves to rest forever in the dustbin of history. Nothing could be further from the truth. No American public figure after the generation of the Founding Fathers has more to say to later times than Calhoun.’

While I can appreciate that Calhoun is an objectionable figure for many, is it necessary to expunge him from history?  It seems to me that particularly at university level, one needs to reflect on the good and the bad.  One needs to ask, “Why did they name this college after John C Calhoun?  Would we do the same today? Why not?  How have we changed?”  It seems to me that there are some learning experiences in such a dialogue.

Besides, when one starts cleaning up names, where does one stop?  Calhoun College (now called Grace Murray Hopper College) is part of Yale University.  Founded in 1701, it was originally the Collegiate School of Connecticut, but it became Yale College after the gift of Elihu Yale, a slave trader.

‘Banned’ books

There were two recent articles in The Daily Telegraph regarding the ‘banning’ of books by Holocaust deniers.  The first article, by Olivia Rudgard, reads:

“A Cambridge college has removed a David Irving book from display in its library after a visiting Jewish academic complained.  Churchill College, Cambridge, said the Irving’s biography of its namesake, Winston Churchill , would now be held in a ‘closed access’ area with borrowers only able to read it on request.

“Dr Irene Lancaster, formerly a teaching fellow in Jewish history at Manchester University, encountered the books written by the Holocaust denier on display.  She said: ‘They certainly weren’t hidden away – they were sticking out like reference books.’

“A spokesman for the university said: ‘Holding banned or challenged books in no way endorses the views or scholarship of the authors.  Rather, they are accessible to scholars to allow them the opportunity to challenge and refute their contents’.  The spokesman added that the library was used by college members and visiting academics and not the general public, and therefore the books had not been on ‘public display’.”

Wikipedia says this about Irving: “Sixteen years after an English court discredited his work and the judge called him ‘antisemitic and racist’, the historian David Irving claims he is inspiring a new generation of ‘Holocaust skeptics. On the eve of a major new Bafta-nominated film about the trial, Irving, who has dismissed what happened at Auschwitz concentration camp during the second world war as ‘Disneyland’, says that a whole new generation of young people have discovered his work via the internet and social media. . . . Irving v Penguin Books Ltd was one of the most infamous libel trials of the past 20 years. An American historian, Deborah Lipstadt, had accused him in her book, Denying the Holocaust, and Irving, then a somewhat respected if maverick historian, sued her and her publisher.”  (And lost.)

I had a look on Amazon where there are plenty of David Irving’s books.  His book, Churchill’s War, The Struggle for Power, has nine five-star reviews and one three-star review.  The 3-star review complains about non-delivery of half of the e-book.  The five-star reviews focus on the depth of research and the quality of historical writing.  Many of the reviews mention Irving’s reputation, but say that this work is not biased.

The second article, by Robert Mendick:

“Amazon has bowed to public pressure and quietly removed from sale dozens of anti-Semitic books that deny the Holocaust.  An outcry followed news it was profiting from titles such as The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews, by Carlo Mattogno, which was available as a download.  Dr Nicholas Terry at the University of Exeter, said Amazon had last week withdrawn form sale more than 30 books.  The expert on contemporary Holocaust denial added: ‘This is a major blow for Holocaust denying authors.  Amazon has been a major outlet for their sales’.  Despite the decision, Amazon still sells anti-Semitic literature through its website, and it is unclear what rules determine what material is acceptable and what is not.  The company refused to comment.”

I would make three points about all of this:

  1. Non governmental organisations should be free to exclude material which they consider objectionable.  The government should not have any such freedom.
  2. Amazon ought to be transparent about it’s policies, which should err in favour of exclusion of objectionable material.
  3. Any policy should be intelligent and selective, leaving ‘on the shelf’ quality, constructive books by objectionable authors.

Rape & Freedom of Speech

On Tuesday evening, my wife and I went to a piano concert at Southbank Centre.  As we approached the entrance, staff diverted us to another entrance around the corner.  When we turned the corner, we found we were in the midst of a demonstration, complete with portable loudspeakers, signs and angry people – mostly women.  We hurried through and found an entrance at the far end of the building.  I couldn’t help wondering what in the world a demonstration at Southbank Centre would be about.  On the way home that night, I picked up a copy of the Evening Standard, and found what was the issue: Tom Stranger and his ex-girlfriend, Thordis Elva were going to tell their story of rape and reconciliation.

The story is this: at the time of the rape, 20 years ago, Stranger, who is Australian, now married and a youth counsellor, was on an exchange trip to Iceland.  There, he met Elva, an Icelander who was 16 at the time (he was 18), and he became her first teenage romance.  The Evening Standard article continues: “The pair went to a Christmas party, and, wanting to impress him, Elva tried rum for the first time.  She became very drunk and spent the night being sick in the toilets – staff at the venue wanted to call an ambulance to get her home but Tom volunteered.  She was incapacitated and remembers how grateful she was to him for removing her vomit-stained dress and high heels, and how alarmed she suddenly felt when he started to go further.  He raped her.   She remembers it being painful.  She never reported what happened because it didn’t fit with her idea of what rape was.  Or his, he says: ‘I presumed that after a night out with your girlfriend, a boy is deserving of sex.  I sanctioned my own perceived needs and sexual urges, and had no regard for Thordis’ well-being.  I did not have an intent to hurt Thordis, but that is what I did.’

“Nine years after the rape, Stranger, long since back in Australia, all thoughts of Elva buried, received an email. ‘It was detailed and clear.  Her words took me back to that room nearly a decade earlier.  They told me what really happened and revealed the effects my actions had on her. . . . But I also felt I was being offered something really rare, something that needed to be understood, respected and not questioned. . . . He wrote back and they spent the next two years corresponding in long emails, unpicking the events and repercussions of that night.”  She proposed that  ‘in six months time we meet up with the intention of reaching forgiveness, once and for all.  In person.’

“They met on neutral ground – a hotel in Cape Town.  Talking was difficult.  At one point Stranger broke down. ‘I’ve come to understand the damage that I caused.  It’s been a long journey for me to be totally able to acknowledge that it was rape, and to comprehend how Thordis has had to live with the effects of my actions.’

The two have written a book: South of Forgiveness, published by Scribe.

Tom Stranger & Thordis Elva

Their appearance at the Women of the World festival at Southbank Centre last Saturday was cancelled.  2364 people objected to his appearance, but it was rescheduled for last Tuesday.  The petition to cancel said: “By giving the rapist in question a platform to relay their narrative the event will inevitably encourage the normalisation of sexual violence, instead of focusing on accountability and root causes.”  Those who opposed the appearance said it would set a precedent in which rapists can be applauded simply of admitting their crime, “and may even encourage rapists to contact survivors, an action that would severely disrupt their process of healing.”

Stranger says he disagrees with the female judge who warned that drunk women put themselves at higher risk of rape.  “I would say that’s a continuation of victim-blaming.  Once again the scrutiny is on the actions of women. . . . I would not speak about the choice of women in that way.  I want the focus to be on the young men making their choices and why they do what they’re doing. . . . It’s about time we started looking at sexual violence as a men’s issue.  It’s very clear – unless it’s a mutual thing, unless there’s consent, then it’s wrong.”

In reading the Evening Standard article (which covers two entire pages), the writer, Stefanie Marsh, leaves one with the impression not only that Stranger is contrite, but he understands why he is a hate figure, and is willing to suffer abuse to get his point across: It’s a Men’s Issue.

As to whether the Women of the World appearance should have been cancelled, I take a neutral view: it’s up to the management of the festival, and more generally, I think it depends on the time and place.  What I would object to is if the government were to interfere in the decision.  Having said that, I have an issue with the protest petition.  My issue is not about freedom of speech but about willingness to listen.  It seems to me that there is an increasing tendency in our society today when a subject is introduced to say: we don’t want to hear about that!  There are three words in the petition to cancel that make me believe this is an example of refusal to listen.  Narrative: have the petitioners considered what Stranger’s narrative might be instead of assuming what it is?  Accountability: the petitioners want to focus on accountability; that’s exactly what Stranger does: his own.  Root causes: Stranger identifies the root cause as being a men’s problem.  Is that not correct?

A Real UK Threat to Freedom of the Press

For most of us it probably seems unlikely that freedom of the press could disappear in the UK – that the government will control what the press can publish, or that publishers will be afraid to run exposés of politicians and other public figures.  But that is exactly what could happen when the government’s consultation regarding the implementation of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act, 2013 ends next Tuesday.

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The Crime and Courts Act, 2013 is a result of the Levenson Inquiry after the phone-hacking scandal that put the News of the World out of business.  Section 40, a part of the statute that was never implemented, would require that every newspaper not signed up to regulation by Impress would pay all costs in any libel case brought against it, even if it won the case.  So, for example, if a major newspaper ran an exposé of an MP involved in a money for votes  scandal, the newspaper would have to pay all of the MP’s legal expenses, no matter the outcome.

Impress is funded by Max Mosley, a barrister and former racing driver with interests in Formula One and other automotive organisations.  He is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the former leader of the British Union of Fascists.  In 2008, his sexual exploits were exposed by News of the World.  He sued and won, not on the basis that the reported exploits didn’t happen, but on the basis that they were falsely described as being fascist.   Mr Mosley funds Impress to the extent of £3.8 million, and says he may continue funding for years.

Impress is the only media regulator to have won the backing of Press Regulation Panel, which has been set up with a royal charter, introducing a degree of government involvement.  About 50 media outlets have signed up to be regulated by Impress.  The other media regulator is IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, with over 2,500 members,  IPSO does not submit to the Press Regulation Panel, and is governed by the media industry.  IPSO has an Editor’s Code of Practice, they can levy fines of up to £1 million, they can force publication of corrections, there is a 24-hour anti-harassment hotline, a whistle-blower’s hotline, they can investigate complaints and require their members to submit annual reports of compliance with the Editor’s Code and how they have handled complaints.  This is a regulator with professional due process and teeth!

Mr Mosley suggests that requiring a media defendant to pay all legal expenses is an incentive to arbitrate disputes.  He is disingenuous.  A new horde of ambulance-chasing lawyers will certainly appear, attracted by the high fees to file ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawsuits.  Why would they be interested in arbitration?  He says that Impress will screen out frivolous law suits.   Really?

You may be asking why I, as a writer, am interested in this issue.  The answer is that I care greatly about the preservation of our democracy, and history has taught me that once laws are passed to regulate the press, it is not long before other freedoms of expression are regulated or discouraged.

If you agree with me, and if the government decides to put Section 40 to a vote in Parliament, please make the case for a ‘NO!’ with your MP.

A Writer Unmasked

You may have read that the New York Review of Books’ investigative reporter Claudio Gatti has unmasked best-selling novelist Elena Ferrante.

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 Perhaps it is best to quote from an article in The New Yorker by Alexandra Schwartz:
“The news that the true identity of the writer Elena Ferrante has, allegedly, been uncovered was published on the blog of The New York Review of Booksat 1 a.m. on Sunday—the Internet’s witching hour, when salacious tidbits are unloaded online to greet the unsuspecting citizens of Twitter bright and early in the morning. It was met with widespread consternation from Ferrante fans. People are pissed. The sleuth, an Italian journalist named Claudio Gatti, has gone beyond the efforts of previous Ferrante truthers, who have generally tried either to compare the biographies of various Italian writers with what is known or inferred about Ferrante’s life or to match their literary style with hers, and used forensic accounting to uncover a money trail that, he believes, leads straight to the source. The process has taken him months. If only someone had got him interested in Trump’s tax returns during the primaries, just think where we might be today.

“I hate to do it, but in the interest of clarity, here, briefly, is what Gatti claims. Ferrante, he says, is Anita Raja, a translator who lives in Rome with her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone. For many years, Raja has translated books from the German for Edizione E/O, the publishing house that puts out Ferrante’s work. Gatti says that payments from the publisher to Raja “have increased dramatically in recent years,” in line with the increase in revenues that Edizioni E/O has enjoyed as Ferrante has become an international literary star, and thus “appear to make her the overwhelming beneficiary of Ferrante’s success.” (He obtained information about Edizioni E/O’s revenue and Raja’s income from an anonymous source.)

“To this evidence Gatti adds the further proof of Raja and Starnone’s real-estate dealings. In 2000, the year that Ferrante’s first novel was made into a movie in Italy, Raja bought a seven-room apartment in what Gatti assures us is an expensive neighborhood in Rome. In 2001, she bought a country house in Tuscany. This past June, Gatti reports, Starnone bought an eleven-room apartment “on the top floor of an elegant pre-war building in one of the most beautiful streets in Rome,” not far from Raja’s apartment. Gatti, after making a brief foray into Italian tax law to explain his suspicion that it is Raja who has purchased the new apartment in Starnone’s name, reminds us that most translators do not earn enough from the sweat of their labor to be able to afford such nice things. Raja has risen suspiciously above her station.

“The part of Gatti’s claim that has unavoidable meaning for readers is that Anita Raja’s biography does not at all correspond to that of Elena Ferrante as gleaned from her novels, or as described in “Frantumaglia,” a work of autobiographical fragments that first appeared in Italy more than a decade ago and which will be published in the United States on November 1st. In that book, Ferrante writes that she grew up in Naples, the daughter of a local seamstress. Raja’s mother, Golda Frieda Petzenbaum, worked as a teacher, and was born in Worms, Germany, into a Polish Jewish family that fled to Italy in 1937. She married a Neapolitan magistrate, but the family moved to Rome, in 1956, when Raja was three. If Raja is Elena Ferrante, that would mean, among many other things, that she has no firsthand knowledge of the postwar Naples milieu that she evokes with such fiercely unsentimental strokes, the oppressive rione on the city’s outskirts that anchors the Neapolitan novels and gives them their extraordinary texture of lived truth.”

Ferrante, through her publisher had said: “I have my private life and as far as my public life goes I am fully represented by my books. . . Thanks to this decision, I have gained a space of my own, a space that is free. . . . To relinquish it would be very painful.”  For me, the appalling aspect of all this is the character of Gatti.  He seems to be motivated entirely by selfish interests: enhancing his career, making money, putting himself in the limelight while injuring the interests of another person.  His allegations that Raja (if indeed it is she) was engaging in a kind of publicity stunt, and that eventually she would be found out.  He seemed to imply that she was asking for it.

I sincerely hope that Gatti will continue to be showered with approbation and that other ‘investigative journalists’ will not try to follow in his footsteps.  Life is about making choices; it is not about frustrating other people’s choices.

First Amendment Problems

As you may know the first amendment to the US Constitution covers free speech.  There is an article in my alumni magazine which addresses the ‘First Amendment Problem’.  You will know that freedom of speech is, to me as an author, a key issue.  The article says that hate speech isn’t the issue; politics isn’t the issue; the problem, says the dean of Yale Law School, is that nobody knows how to think about free speech.

The article says,” Take Sorrell v. IMS Health.  In 2007, Vermont passed a law restricting the sale of doctors’ prescriptions to drug companies, which were using the records in their marketing.  The drug companies, along with data mining companies sued, saying that the law violated their First Amendment rights. Vermont argued that the law regulated commerce, not speech.  The case reached the US Supreme Court, where Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the majority opinion in 2011.  Marketing, he reasoned, consists of speech.  Therefore, singling out marketers amounts to government censorship.

Sorrell wasn’t treated like a blockbuster in the press, but it caused a sensation in the legal world.  It’s hard to argue with Kennedy’s declaration that ‘the state cannot engage in content based discrimination to advance its own side of the debate’.  But if that’s true for pharmaceutical marketers, what else does it apply to?  All kinds of commercial and professional regulations restrict speech based on its content.  Under Sorrell, can states still require psychologists to be licensed, considering that therapy is speech?  Can a public school teacher be fired for telling students that the earth is flat?”

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Robert Post

Robert Post, the dean of Yale Law School and an expert on the First Amendment, has been following Supreme Court rulings on freedom of speech for about 30 years.  He has been trying to deduce the criteria that the court uses in making its decisions.  For example, the Supreme Court recently ruled that a newspaper couldn’t publish confidential information it had obtained through the discovery process in a civil lawsuit.  At first, Post disagreed, but he came to the conclusion that the court had made the right decision.  “The legal system, Post realised, isn’t an open forum for public debate; it’s a government institution designed for a specific purpose.  For the courts to function, judges have to have the power to regulate speech in a trial setting’”

Post’s insight is that “the amendment applies differently is different contexts or ‘constitutional domains’.  The most important domain is what he calls ‘public discourse’, because the goal of free speech is self-government.  Only speech relevant to that goal should get the highest level of protection.  Because public opinion shapes laws in a democracy, people need a chance to affect it: otherwise they won’t experience self-government.”

An interesting example is that some dentists believe that the mercury contained in some dental fillings can leach into the body, but they are punished by their professional regulators for malpractice if they advise their patients to remove the fillings.  The same dentists can, without censure, write op-ed pieces setting out their views.  This latter case is ‘public discourse’ and has First Amendment protection, while advice to a patient is not ‘public discourse’.

The question for an author, whose work is clearly ‘public discourse’, is: how far can you go?  If I were to write a piece belittling or making fun of the Prophet Muhammad (which I have no reason to consider), that would probably be OK, based on the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and The Satanic Verses.  But if I were to write a treatise recommending that the readers go and join ISIL, I might well end up in jail (like Anjem Choudary, the UK hate preacher).  What’s the difference, legally?  Professor Post doesn’t say, but I guess the legal differences arise from two subjective factors:

  • Public opinion, and
  • The perceived threat to a democratic form of government

Review: The Satanic Verses

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I decided to read this novel by Salman Rushdie because I had not read any of his work, because this particular novel is famous, and because of my interest in better understanding Islam.  The novel is famous for the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the death of Rushdie for having committed blasphemy and for mocking the Islamic faith.   There was a bounty of £2.8 million on Rushdie’s head and several failed assassination attempts; others associated with the novel were not as fortunate: Hitoshi Igarashi the Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991, and a number of attempts were made on the lives of others.  The novel was published in 1988, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, but won the Whitbread Award for novel of the year. The fatwa was issued on 14 February 1989.  In the UK, 13 Muslim barristers drafted an indictment for the High Court attempting to justify a charge of blasphemy.  This attempt failed and blasphemy is no longer an offense under English law. For years, Rushdie lived at no fixed abode under Special Branch protection.  In 1998, Iran issued a conciliatory statement and Rushdie declared he would no longer live in hiding.   The Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.

In the context of blasphemy, it is worth a brief description of the origin of the term ‘satanic verses’.  Muhammad was living in Mecca at the time and he was experiencing difficulty persuading powerful Meccans to accept that he was the prophet of God.  There is a theory – repeated in Rushdie’s novel – that, as a concession to these men, he gave brief permission for prayer to three popular idols.  What is certain is that Muhammad originally recited several verses naming the idols, praising them and indicating that they should not be neglected.  Muhammad then inserted three replacement verses which say that the idols are only ‘names’ and that ‘God revealed no authority for them’.  His explanation for the change was that Satan had managed to slip in the verses without him knowing it.

In the novel, Muhammad (called Mahound) comes across as a weak, indecisive individual who uses religion for his own benefit.  But the sequences in the novel involving Mahound are contained in the dreams of the character, Gibreel Farishta, who is mentally ill and who believes that he has become the archangel Gabriel, so these characterisations cannot be said to represent the author’s personal views.

The central plot of the novel is that two Indian Muslim actors fall from the sky over the English Channel when the flight they are on is blown up.  Miraculously, they both survive, and they take on the personalities of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel Farista) and the devil (Saladin Chamcha).  Each of them has difficulty being accepted in London, each finds to a prior love, and each returns to his previous occupation.  Chamcha seeks revenge on Farista for having deserted him after their fall from the sky, and he stokes Farista’s pathological jealousy, destroying his love relationship.  Farista realises what his colleague has done and he forgives him.  Nonetheless, Farista kills his lover, Alleluia Cone, and commits suicide.  Chamcha returns to India and is reconciled to his dying father.

The novel – at 547 pages – has a great deal beyond this simple plot, including dream sequences involving the prophet Mahound.  There are also sequences involving relationships of the primary characters with lovers, friends and acquaintances.

This is not an easy book to read.  The sentences are long, sometimes complex, and the references to characters, places and things unfamiliar.  There is one sentence 146 words long.  Being somewhat familiar with Islamic history, I recognised some to the dream characters, but I could have benefited from a working knowledge of Indian mythology.  It is also not easy to follow what is going on: is this part of a dream or reality?  Having said that, I did find much of the writing uniquely engaging.

The feelings one encounters in reading the book are doubt bordering on hopelessness with some offsetting glimpses of humour.  The doubt has to do with the purpose of life, religion, acceptance as an individual, and perception vs reality.

 

 

Freedom of Speech

Most of us are in favor of freedom of speech; we regard it as one of the great benefits of living in the West.  I, as a writer, am bound to be a strong supporter of free speech.  But recently, there have been at least three categories of objection to freedom of speech:

  1. Government, and other public bodies, which do not want certain items of their information exposed
  2. Individuals (mostly celebrities) who do know want their actions to be publicized
  3. Religious groups who do not wish to see any criticism of their beliefs

As a writer, I am not involved in categories 1 & 2, but I can’t resist commenting on each of them.  Regarding Category 1, the usual objection by a governmental body to disclosure of information is: ‘The public don’t need to know’ or some similar excuse.  In my experience, the real reason is; ‘We’ll be embarrassed if that is disclosed’.  To which my response would be: “All the more reason to disclose it!”  I believe that the only legitimate reason not to disclose the requested information is ‘national security’.  Not infrequently, the body will protest that disclosure represents a financial burden.  If this is actually the case (reams of information, much photocopying, etc), I believe the requesting party should reimburse the costs (but only the costs – no discouragement fees).

Category 2 has been in the news lately with some individuals obtaining court orders prohibiting the media from publicizing acts (usually sexual) which they don’t want ‘people’ (read their wives) knowing, or about which they feel embarrassed.  I have no sympathy whatsoever for these individuals.  The appropriate remedy for these problems is not to prohibit their disclosure but to avoid creating them in the first place.

Category 3 is one where I’m involved.  In several of my books, my characters have criticized some aspects of religious culture or practices.  I have, for example, characters saying that Catholicism is nearly ‘polytheistic’, because Catholics are encouraged to pray to saints, rather than to God.  This being similar to Aztec or ancient Greek beliefs in multiple Gods.  My characters have also said that Islam, unlike Christianity, has no formal, overriding instruction to love your fellow men.  They have also said that Muslims can be too defensive of their religion, thereby conveying the impression that Islam requires protection.  Undoubtedly, some Christians and Muslims would object to these comments, but they are made ‘in good faith’ without any intention to insult or injure.  In my view, no religion is perfect; only God is perfect, but no religion should be mocked.  While I defend the right of the Charlie Hebdo journalists to publish demeaning caricatures of the Prophet, I consider it to be insulting, stupid, and in bad taste to do so.  I am currently reading Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  (Better late than never.)  In it, there is a character Mahound, who is a weak, indecisive prophet, who speaks with an angel Gibril, who doesn’t know what to say.  I haven’t read enough of the book to know what happens with these characters, but my reaction, so far, is that Rushdie is making fun of Islam, and, in particular, of the Satanic Verses in the Qur’an.  I’m not a Muslim, but I don’t think it’s funny, or amusing.  If Rushdie wants to say these kinds of things, he has a right to do so.  But, it’s intentionally insulting to Muslims to do so.  Back to my point about the defensiveness of Islam, I consider it a gross overreaction to sentence Rushdie to death.  If I were a Muslim who felt insulted by The Satanic Verses, I would tell the author how I felt, ask for an apology, and read nothing more that he wrote.  (But since I’m a Christian, I’ll continue reading.)

Social Media Backlash

There was an article entitled “Authors Stifled by Fear of Social Media Backlash, Franzen Warns” which appeared in the 22 August edition of The Daily Telegraph.  Jonathan Franzen is an award-winning novel and author of Freedom and The Corrections.

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Jonathan Franzen

Franzen claims it is becoming more difficult for writers to produce great novels in the era of social media because they are too frightened of a public backlash to be truthful.  He says that the “firewalls” protecting authors from their readers have now disappeared, and there is now too much pressure to use social media to promote new works.

The article says that he has famously refused to go on Twitter, having labelled it “unspeakably irritating”.  Now he has spoken of his concern it its impact on novelists, telling The Guardian: “The ways in which self-censorship operates – the fear of being called a bad name – people become very careful.  And it becomes very hard to be creative, actually.  Because you’re worried  about what you might be called, and whether its true or not.  There used to be rather serious firewalls between the artist and the buying public – the gallery, the publisher.  And technology demolishes that wall and basically says: self-promote or die.  And that is a bad head for any sort of artist to be forced into.”

Yesterday he was derided on Twitter after revealing he had once considered adopting an Iraqi orphan, adding: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation.  They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people.”

I’m afraid I don’t agree with much of what Franzen says.  I congratulate him for wanting to adopt and Iraqi orphan; let’s hope it wasn’t critics who dissuaded him!  I grew up in an era where we used to say to bullies, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”

I believe that if an author takes a well-reasoned position on a subject which may be controversial, and he is derided by trolls, there will be plenty of people who agree with the author but don’t bother to say so.  This is what good authors have done for centuries, and this is no time, in an age of social media and terrorism, for authors to lose their courage to speak freely!

Franzen might well say to me, “Well, but you have never been attacked by trolls.”  True.  But I’m certainly not going to change my position if they do.  Besides, I live in a country where personal threats are illegal.  There are some things which my characters have said in my novels which may very well offend some sensitive people.  They’ll just have to get over it.

As to social media, I have this blog and several Facebook accounts.  I’m on Goodreads and Amazon.  I’m not on Twitter – mainly for the reason that I don’t have time to prepare daily tweets.  The world is changing: get on board!

Franzen bemoans the loss of “firewalls”.  I don’t think that firewalls are helpful to the author in the long run.  Any artist should have access to the public’s reactions to his/her work – good or bad.  Dickens had very few “firewalls” between himself and the public.  Why should we?