Please welcome my guest, Author, Hannah Warren
The literary censorship issue that is the heritage of my generation has no doubt been the Fatwa following the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988) and the need for him to go into secured hiding for years.
This whole affair has installed in me a sense of both awe and fear about the power of one person’s pen. Soldiers may excel on the battlefield and perform great acts of courage, but one writer can scribble down a piece of fiction that causes such waves of outrage that he suddenly finds himself having to save his bare skin and face the reality of not knowing if he’s ever going to be a free man again. The knowledge that hordes of people are lying in ambush to kill you only because you’ve written a book the theme of which they do not agree with, is something that makes every writer scratch his head and ponder self-censorship. After all, the basis of every form of censorship is fear. And if the threat has the magnitude of a Fatwa, it’s certainly a force to be reckoned with.
The Salman Rushdie affair was our first taster of Islamic extremism in the West. Up till then, we had experienced it as an isolated problem of the Middle-East, or internal dictatorship problems in countries such as Iran and Iraq.
I don’t think I will ever have to fear that any of my books could bring that type of wrath down on my head. I’ve just introduced it here as the ultimate example of what writers may be up against when we talk censorship. Fear fuels anger, ignorance breeds contempt.
Before I discuss my own opinions on the matter, I would like to start with some clarifications on what censorship is and how it has been adopted.
There are two forms of literary censorship: preventive—carried out prior to publication—and punitive—applied after the work has been published.
Furthermore, censorship can be explicitly recorded in laws forbidding publication of certain ideas or information, or it can take the form of implicit censure of unpopular ideas, in which people are, for example threatened with losing their jobs or position in society.
A definition of censorship is: the official prohibition or restriction of any type of expression believed to threaten the political, social, or moral order imposed by governmental, religious, or local powers. Censorship consists of any attempt to suppress information, points of view, or method of expression such as art or profanity.
The purpose of censorship is: to maintain the status quo, to control the development of a society, and to stifle dissent.
Many novels that are now considered classics such as James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1936), and Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl (1956) were once subject to legal battles.
Although the most publicized American and British censorship of literature in the twentieth century involved debates over obscenity and pornography, the United States government also censored literature for political reasons. During the Cold War, in addition to censoring films and “blacklisting” writers who were deemed “Communist sympathizers,” Sen. Joseph McCarthy had books by writers deemed politically suspect removed.
But when we contemplate censorship in the twentieth century, we find it has been particularly and thoroughly practiced by authoritarian and totalitarian states. Strict censorship of all forms of public expression characterised the Soviet Union, the Communist satellite states of Eastern Europe and the apartheid regime of South Africa.
Many writers in the Communist block were sentenced to hard labor or sent into exile. The writing of Nobel Prize winners such as Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Joseph Brodsky was banned in the Soviet Union and Poland. Prevented from publishing their work in their own countries, Eastern European and Soviet writers relied on samizdat—surreptitious self-publishing and dissemination of literary works—and tamizdat—émigré publishing houses in Western Europe—to evade censors. Many writers from authoritarian regimes went into exile in order to be able to write and publish freely.
Do censors principally distinguish between censoring literary or non-literary materials? Not really, but It is clear that literary works are their frequent and favourite target - despite the fact that literature has been developing an aura of artistic autonomy. One of the most important arguments is, of course, the elaboration of the complex opposition between "reality" and "fiction". Autonomous literary systems, which developed in democratic countries, actually created a unique space for the articulation of fundamental dilemmas of the society. Many examples show that the engagement of the literary field opened up new opportunities for creative expression of special insights that were often conflicting with the prevailing ideologies and social norms. So literature – and the arts in general – are and always will be freedom-loving forms of expression that authorities feel they have to scrutinise.
Next to the censorship from outside (government, religious groups, pressure groups), we know self-censorship, where the author has put himself under restrictions what he will write, or at least publish.
The definition of self-censorship is: Self-censorship is the act of censoring or classifying one's own work (blog, book (s), film (s), or other means of expression), out of fear of, or deference to, the sensibilities of others, without overt pressure from any specific party or institution of authority. Self-censorship is often practiced by film producers, film directors, publishers, news anchors, journalists, musicians and other kinds of authors.
The best example of self-censorship is perhaps the Preface to George Orwell’s Animal Farm which wasn’t published in the original edition for fear of reprisals from the USSR.
Now, what I have to say on the matter?
First of all, that I’ve been scratching my head many times why I’ve said ‘yes’ to this assignment. I feel totally inadequate to have an opinion on the matter, I know so little about it and it is complex, much more complex than shouting: “Freedom of speech! Pour down all forms of free thinking over our heads to your hearts’ content! This is a free country! Speak up each and every one!”
To a large extent, we seem to have left the censorship issues of the 20th century behind us: what is considered politically and morally wrong is now an out-dated belief system only found in small corners of the globe. We have pushed out our frontiers: we are free to use as much sex and violence in our books as we like and mocking the government won’t put you in jail. Writers can breathe freely and write almost anything they like.
Are human beings capable of handling total freedom? Whether it is freedom of speech or freedom of looking after the planet and themselves? Does freedom imply we take up our responsibility and do not hurt or cause pain? Moreover, am I waiting for all the rubbish that everyone feels a need to share now freedom is on the menu each and every day: paedophilia, pornography, violence, inflicting pain and chaos? Shall we opt for a free society, without rules or restrictions? And who are these morally-inclined writer-folks who still restrict themselves what they deem publishable and what not?
Yes, many more questions than answers this time.
It goes without saying, that when the free flowing of ideas and creativity are at stake, any form of censorship is wrong. At the basis of a successful society lies its capacity to change, to adapt, incorporate, yes, embrace new inventions and new ideas which are a gift from the source of creativity itself. No change without revolution, no learning curve without coming out of our comfort zones. A routine-based society that wants to exert pressure on its citizens is doomed to become extinct. This surge for growth and expression is at the basis of life itself. Hence, the battles with censorship that our colleagues fought in earlier ages was a noble cause because it was based on the pledge to stay true to the basic right of being an Artist. But, we also know that growth can have distortions and people can be unable to curb their fantasies or desires so that they become grotesque. True freedom is in fact a state of great inner control (says the yogi in me). The cry for freedom of speech nowadays seems more a cry for limitless debauchery than a struggle to bring out great works of experimental beauty.
So – I am still debating this with myself - but I think would like to advocate a form of self-censorship within writers themselves. If we know what we’re doing and we’re doing it for the right reasons, namely integrity and loyalty to the creative force of the universe, we would be close to not needing any form of outer censorship. This is still a Utopia but I will always have faith in the growth of human consciousness and in our capacity to take up our responsibility.
Until then, I have no problem with filth we don’t need to be banned from publication.
Hannah Warren is a Netherlands based translator and writer. Her debut, the romantic novel Casablanca, My Heart, will be submitted to agents in September 2011. Her second book, the psychological thriller Prior to You is scheduled for a professional edit in January 2012. Maker of Despair, a real-life scam Hannah became entangled in 2010, is undergoing a rewrite to make it into a film-script. Next to writing fiction, Hannah likes blogging and interviewing fellow-authors on her lively website.
Please join in the discussion ...your thoughts and insights are most welcome..S