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.


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?

Are Top Writers Cowards?

No less a literary figure than Sir Salman Rushdie has labelled a pair of novelist friends (Carey and Ondaatje) as cowards.  In case you didn’t hear about it, on May 5, the global writers’ organisation, PEN, awarded its annual Freedom of Expression Award to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine which lost eight journalists during an attack by Islamic extremist gunmen in January.  Charlie Hebdo had satirised Islam – amongst other targets.

Six prominent authors: Peter Carey (two-time Booker Prize winner for True History of the Kelly Gang and Oscar and Lucinda), Talye Selasi (author of Ghana Must Go), Michael Ondaatje (Booker Prize for The English Patient), Rachel Kushner (author of Telex from Cuba and The Flame Throwers), Francine Prose (who received the PEN translation prize in 1988), and Teju Cole (Nigerian-American writer) withdrew from the PEN event.

Rushdie, writing on Twitter and  making reference to Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, said, “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just six pussies.  Six authors in search of a bit of Character.”

Carey acknowledged that the murders of the journalists were an “hideous crime”, but he questioned PEN’s wish to champion Charlie Hebdo.  He said, “Was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?  All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognise its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Gary Trudeau, the American cartoonist  who produced the Doomsday comic strip said, “By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”

Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said that the protesting authors appeared to be confused between the principle of free speech and endorsing the message of Charlie Hebdo.  “The big mistake that these authors make is that they are essentially withdrawing their support for the principle of freedom of expression.  If freedom of expression means anything, then it’s supporting work that you don’t like.”  She said that Rushdie knew all too well the risks of causing offense: “It’s highly understandable that Salman Rushdie supports this in the way that he does.  When he was hiding after writing The Satanic Verses he was attacked by writers including John le Carré and Roald Dahl.”


In my view, Ms Glanville has hit the nail on the head: the objecting authors are confusing supporting freedom of expression with supporting material with which you don’t agree.  If one starts saying, “Well, I don’t think they should have said that and therefore I don’t think they deserve a prize for saying it”, one introduces an element of censorship into the process, which is intolerable.

I also don’t think that Carey’s comments about the French nation have anything whatever to do with the issue at hand: Charlie Hebdo is not a mouthpiece for the French government or the French people.  And I think it is wrong for Gary Trudeau to assume that Charlie Hebdo was “attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority”, but if they were, and even if it was “hate speech” does it have to be suppressed?  In his column in The Times, Oliver Kamm wrote; “No one has a right to complain at having their religious beliefs mocked.  No one is ‘disempowered’ by being offended.  No one is entitled to redress for hurt feelings.”

For me, as a writer, the question is: what should I say?  I should be the judge of whether what I write is so offensive to some group of people that they will not see it as rational, but only as an attack.  If what I say is seen only as an attack, why do it?  My writing includes some religious content: Christian, Muslim and Jewish, and these passages, in particular, are where I have to ask the question.  But once I have answered it and once I have written, I fully expect that even those who disagree with what I’ve said will support my right to say it.

Clean Reader

I find the reaction to the Clean Reader app rather amusing.


The app was created by the Idaho parents Jared and Kirsten Maughan who were concerned that their daughter had read a book with words that made her uncomfortable.

The app is available on Apple and Android, and it works on a scale from “Clean”, which replaces swear words such as “f***” to “Squeaky Clean” which will replace words including “damn”.  It does not remove any words from a digital file, rather it puts an opaque highlight over the word.  The app can be turned off so that the reader can consume the book exactly as it was written.  On this basis, the creators claim that their app does no violate copyright because it doesn’t make changes to the file which contains the book.

Some authors have gone ballistic.

Joanne Harris, award-winning author of Chocolate and The Gospel of Loki fond the concept of Clean reader “infinitely more offensive than the words it blanks out”.   She added: ” We’ve been down this road before.  We should know where it leads by now.  It starts out by blanking out a few words.  It goes on to . . . stick fig leaves on statues.  It progresses to denouncing gay or Jewish artists as “degenerate”.  It ends up with burning libraries and erasing whole civilizations from history.”

Laurie Penny, a journalist and author said, “There’s now an app for taking swear words out of books.  I find this f***ing horrifying!”

Linda Acaster, a novelist from Yorkshire, stated: “The first act of censorship is to censor books.  The second is to ban them.   The third is to burn them.”

I’m pretty relaxed about this, and I don’t see this silly app as the “sharp end of the wedge” of a new drive for censorship.  I think Western society is liberal and mature enough not to get all upset about the use of the f-word.  After all, it’s used on day-time soap operas, and, if one listens carefully, is part of the vocabulary of the average twelve-year-old.

As an author, I don’t use swear words in descriptive text, because I think that there are alternative adjectives and adverbs that better express the picture I’m trying to convey.  But I certainly have put the f-word into the mouth of a character when his use of the word tells the reader something about him (or her).  (Real people do use profanity).

Would I worry that one of my grandchildren wanted to read one of my novels (The Iranian Scorpion, for example)?  It would depend on the age of the child.  I would say OK to a thirteen-year old who wanted to read it, after I explained what it was about.   (I would be more concerned about the violence than I would be about the drugs, sex and profanity, about which I think most teenagers have at least an abstract understanding.  Video games notwithstanding, I think that real adult violence can be hard to understand.)


There is an article in the books section of Last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph which caught my attention.  It is written by Hanif Kureishi, who is a novelist and a teacher of writing.  He makes the basic point that to be a ‘good writer’ one should not concentrate on a study of such things as plot, perspective and dialogue; rather, one should give the imagination free rein.  He goes on to make the following specific points:

“The imagination rarely behaves well. It can be ignored and censored, but never entirely willed away.  Such a willing away would be a mistake because, unlike fantasy, which is inert and unchanging – in fantasy we tend to see the same things repeatedly – the imagination represents hope, rebirth and a new way of being.  If fantasy is a return of the familiar, you might say that an inspiration is a suddenly uncovered part of the self, something newly seen or understood.  Emerson, who tells us in ‘Compensation’ that ‘growth comes by shocks’, writes in another essay, ‘The best moments of life are those delicious awakenings of the higher powers.’

“One of my students said he read books in order to have ‘more ideas about life’. You’d have to say that the imagination is an essential faculty, and that it can be developed and followed.  It is as necessary as love, because without it we are trapped in the bleak polarities of either/or, in a North Korea of the mind, dead and empty, with not much to look at.  Without imagination we cannot reconceive what we know, or see far enough. The imagination, while struggling with inhibition, represents more thought and possibility; it is myriad, complex, liquid, wild and erotic.

“The imagination is not only an instrument of art.  We cannot delegate speculation to artists.  Or rather: whether we like it or not, we are all condemned to be artists. We are the creators and artists of our own lives, of the future and of the past – of whether, for instance, we view the past as a corpse, a resource or something else.  We are artists in the way we see, interpret and construct the world.  We are daily artists of play, conversation, walks, food, friendship, sex and love.  Every kiss, every piece of work or meal, every exchanged word and every heard thing – there are better ways of listening – has some art in it, or none.

“To survive successfully in the world requires great capability.  To be bold and original is difficult labour; it can seem impossible, because we have histories and characters that become fixed identities.  We are made before we know it; we are held back by who we are made into.  Not only that, we are inhabited by destructive, chattering devils who want less than the best for us. . . .  There is nothing as dangerous as safety, keeping us from reinvention and re-creation.  Imaginative work can seem destructive, and might annihilate that which we are most attached to.

“Naturally, if we can do this, we pay for our pleasures in guilt.  However, in the end, misery and despair are more expensive, and make us ill.  Let madness be our guide, not our destination.

“Aspiring writer who wish to be taught plot, structure and narrative are not mistaken, but following the rules produces only obedience and mediocrity.  Great writing and great ideas are strange: their sorcery and magic are more like dreaming with intent than they are like descriptions of the world.  Daily art makes and remakes the world, giving it meaning and substance. . . . The imagination creates reality rather than imitates it.  There is no interesting consensus about the way the world is.  In the end, there is nothing more out there but what we make of it, and whether we make more or less of it is a daily question about how we want to live and who we want to be.”

I think this is a brilliant essay about the role of imagination in writing and in life.  For more about identity, how it is formed and shapes our lives, I refer the reader to Sable Shadow and The Presence.

Is Surveillance Undemocratic?

There is an article in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph as follows:

“More than 500 of the world’s leading authors have condemned the scale of state surveillance, warning that spy agencies are undermining democracy.  In a statement the writers from 81 different countries, including British authors Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Irvine Welsh, and Martin Amis, call for an international charter enshrining digital rights.  The authors warn that the extent of surveillance has undermined people’s right to “remain unobserved and unmolested” in their communications.

“This fundamental right has been rendered null and void through abuse of technological developments by states and corporations for mass surveillance purposes,” it says.

“A person under surveillance is no longer free; a society under surveillance is no longer a democracy.  To maintain any validity, our democratic rights must apply in virtual as well as in real space. . . . Surveillance is theft.  . . . . This data is not public property.  It belongs to us.  When it is used to predict our behaviour, we are robbed of something else – the principle of free will crucial to democratic liberty.”

The statement comes after eight of the biggest technical companies formed an alliance to call on Barack Obama, the American president to reform surveillance laws.  Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Yahoo have united to form a group called Reform Government Surveillance, marking the first time competing companies have presented a united front.

From what I have read about Reform Government Surveillance, it seems to make a lot of sense.  But I have major reservations about the language used by the authors in their statement.

Reform Government Surveillance seeks five areas of reform:

1. The government should codify sensible limits on surveillance, limiting surveillance to known users and eliminating bulk surveillance.

2. Executive powers should be subject to strong checks and balances.

3. Government should be transparent: it should allow companies to report demands for data and it should promptly disclose the data publicly.

4. Governments should not restrict the international flow of data.

5. Legal conflicts between different government jurisdictions should be eliminated.

I have no problem with these five reforms, but, for example, where do people get the right to “remain unobserved and unmolested in their communications”?  If we speak publicly, we give up the right to be private and unobserved.  Just ask any celebrity who’s made a mistake on Twitter (or any other public place for that matter): are they unobserved?  No!  Are they unmolested?  They may not feel like it.  Hasn’t the person who wrote this statement for the authors heard of libel or slander laws?

“A person under surveillance is not longer free.”  Strictly speaking, this is true, but does it pass the ‘so what?’ test?  Where in the US Constitution or in the Declaration of Independence is there mention of ‘freedom from surveillance’ (or observation).  No civilized society can function without its citizens being able to observe the behaviour of others.  For a starter, we would have no witnesses in court.

“Surveillance is theft” . . . and when it happens, “we are robbed . . . of the principle of free will”.  There is a leap of logic in here somewhere.  It sounds a little like the existentialist concept of ‘Other’, but even the existentialists believed in free will.

You may have read about the trial currently underway in London of two Islamic terrorists who are on trial for murdering and trying to butcher a UK soldier in the street.  One was a Christian who converted to Islam.  In his defence (he denies murder, but admits killing the soldier) he said that he is a ‘soldier’ (he never served in the military), and that Allah told him to kill a soldier in revenge for all the Muslims who have been killed.  Can we afford, as a society, to overlook the behaviour of people like that?  I don’t think so.  I agree with the eight technical companies, but not with my fellow authors.

By the way, if I had been the prosecutor in the above trial, I would have asked the defendant two questions:

One: did he ever consider the possibility, as a religious person who believes in God and knows about the devious, lying devil, that it was the devil, not God, who gave him the instruction?

Two: has he studied the Qur’an sufficiently to understand, as most Muslims do, that to kill someone is a major sin?




Freedom of Speech

Several recent events have come together:

  • The reaction in the Muslim world to the stupid film Innocence of Muslims
  • The publication of topless photographs of the Duchess of Cambridge
  • The renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie

All of these have to do with freedom of speech/publication.  I have a particular interest in this subject as I ‘survived’ an attempt to block the publication of a novel.

Let me deal first with Sir Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses.  This novel, first published in 1988, is the fictional story of two men, both steeped in Islam, but distracted by the temptations of the West.  One of the men survives by returning to his roots; the other, caught between his spiritual need to believe in God and his intellectual inability to return to Islam, commits suicide.  It won the Booker prize that year.  In February, 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie.  There were violent protests throughout the Muslim world calling for the death of the author.  Over the following decade, thousands of people were killed, many of them secretly in prisons in Muslim countries.  In the UK , a private prosecutor sought to bring Rushdie to trial for ‘blasphemous libel’.  The magistrate refused, but the prosecutor took his case to the High Court.  Thirteen Muslim barristers tried to get the book banned, and as a consequence, they were forced to specify how the novel was blasphemous.  Geoffrey Robertson, QC, who defended Rushdie and the publisher says that the barristers were able to identify only six blasphemies, but nothing was found to actually vilify God or the Prophet.  The Home Office then announced that it would allow no further blasphemy prosecutions.  It said, “. . . the strength of their own belief is the best armour against mockers and blasphemers.”  For the next decade, Sir Salman Rushdie lived under constant police protection, in hiding and fearful of assassination.  In 1998, the reform-minded president of Iran, Mohammad Katami, declared to the UN General Assembly that the Rushdie matter was “completely finished.” But the fatwa has never been annulled, and now Ayatollah Hassan Sanei, head of an important Iranian foundation, has raised the bounty on Rushdie’s head to $3.3 million.  He said, “If the imam’s order was carried out, the further insults in the form of caricatures, articles and films would not have taken place.  The impertinence of the grudge-filled enemies of Islam, which is occurring under the flag of the Great Satan, America, and the racist Zionists can only be blocked by the administration of this Islamic order.”  (What I would say, in response to the Ayatollah, is that he can only assume that the insults would not have taken place.  It is also possible to assume that if the fatwa had been carried out, the insults against Islam would be even more common than they are now.)

Then we have the 13 minute film, Innocence of Muslims, apparently made by a convicted fraudster, who allegedly misled the cast as to the purpose of the film, and re-dubbed their voices.  The film, which is said to demean the Prophet, was dubbed in Arabic and up loaded onto YouTube.  Immediately, the violent protests and the killings (including an American ambassador) began.  It doesn’t matter that the film was made, unprofessionally, by an Egyptian Coptic, in likely violation of his parole terms, with an underpaid, misled cast.  It matters only that the film was produced on American soil and it demeans the Prophet.  Why this apparently mindless reaction by the Muslim world?  First of all, it has to be said that not all of the Muslim world acted mindlessly.  In an article for the Daily Telegraph, David Blair quotes a friend in Tunisia as saying: “My Prophet would not worry about a video.  He wouldn’t care about that.  My Prophet would care about the state of our societies.  He would want us to be developed, he would want us to be successful.”  It seems to me that there are several answers to the ‘Why?’ question.  First, some elements in the Muslim world stir up sentiments to support their own position.  For example, the Taliban have whipped up violent protests in Afghanistan.  Secondly, some governments seize on any criticism of Islam as a means of distracting the population from the failures of government.  In Sudan, there have been huge demonstrations against the regime of President Omar Al-Bashir.  He has allowed the crowds to attack embassies, rather than him.  Third, I think there is a general misunderstanding in the Muslim world, of what freedom really means in practice.  Certainly, freedom is what the Arab Spring sought to create.  But freedom also must include what Rushdie called the ‘freedom to offend’ (this does not include libel, which is intended to cause measurable injury).  In his article, David Blair quotes Inayat Bunglawala, who at the age of 19 was burning The Satanic Verses, but more  recently wrote, “Our detractors had been right.  The freedom to offend is a necessary freedom.”  Finally, it seems to me that some Muslims – particularly those not well educated – may harbour unconscious feelings of inferiority.  For them, their Islamic faith is a source of consolation.  When their faith is attacked, they take it personally.  They fail to remember that Islam is one of the world’s great faiths, with 1.5 billion followers.  They fail to reason that so great a faith, based on one all-powerful God does not need to be protected by a thousand or a million lowly humans.  They fail to understand that the “Lord of the Worlds, the Lord of Mercy” would want his people to live in harmony, not discord.  That is what I, as a Christian, believe.

So, since I believe in the freedom to offend.  Wasn’t the Duchess of Cambridge offended by the photographs taken of her?  Yes, she probably was.  OK, one might say, if she was offended,  and one  has the freedom to offend, what’s her problem?  The problem is that she has the freedom to be private.  Most of us take our privacy for granted.  But try to imagine what it would be like to have photographers trying to take your photograph during every waking moment.  If they could, they would follow you into the shower and beyond.  I think privacy is a particularly important freedom for the Duchess.  I hope that the paparazzo and the editor both spend a year in jail and have to cough up £36,000.