In Defense of Literary Imagination
During my presidency at PEN America, I have spoken often about how Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses transformed me as a writer and citizen, in large part due to the transgressive offense with which it confronted me and my conservative Muslim community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the early 1990s. Accused by many of trafficking in tropes that had been used to oppress Muslims and pillage their lands for centuries, in fact, the book posed the question of the historicity of the Prophet with unmatched poetic force. The offense it created for many resulted in violence and death. The harm that resulted was real, but the imaginative power of Salman’s book transcended the effects of that harm. The Satanic Verses remains an aesthetic and moral monument not only in the history of Muslim literature, but world literature more widely.
In 2021 Kazuo Ishiguro expressed worry about the “climate of fear” online causing authors to self-censor, and particularly young writers who, he added, “rightly perhaps feel that their careers are more fragile, their reputations are more fragile.” He was by no means the first to express concern. Writers as different as Bernardine Evaristo and Lionel Shriver had already been vocal in their defense of the freedom of the imagination, both roundly ridiculing the idea of cultural appropriation (to wildly different responses, it bears noting). And in the wake of Ishiguro’s comments, Arundhati Roy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Henry Louis Gates Jr. would be among those to mount eloquent critiques of the ways online intimidation and the restrictions of identity essentialism were threatening artistic freedom (again to similarly varied responses).
If my own experiences in the world of education and cultural production — classrooms and rehearsal rooms, literary festivals and television writers’ rooms — are any indication, the concerns Ishiguro and others have expressed are not only real, they are growing. And while anecdotal evidence is not evidence in any thoroughgoing sense, it’s nevertheless hard for me to deny the sheer ubiquity of the fear Ishiguro refers to, and harder still to pretend this fear isn’t resulting in the very self-censorship of which he warned.
The potential harms of speech are invoked in defense of the pressure brought to bear on representations deemed dangerous and speech experienced as offensive, pressure seen by many to be justified in the cause of advancing social justice. But as noted free speech scholar Jacob Mchangama suggests, echoing Karl Popper, militant intolerance of intolerance is likely a “flawed strategy,” for history does not support the argument “that we need to be intolerant of intolerance” in order to create more tolerant society.
Last year’s attack on Salman, a former PEN President, was a galvanizing moment for us at PEN America. Amidst the maelstrom of rising illiberalism and despite a declining appetite to defend speech deemed offensive and harmful — not necessarily the same thing, as this report endeavors to establish — it felt important for us to attempt to chart a course through these admittedly choppy waters. In some ways, this report is a companion to our report last year about inequity in publishing: “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing.” We believe that it is possible to move boldly forward for equity in publishing without disavowing individual books and applying new moral litmus tests to stanch ideas deemed offensive.
The report that follows is an attempt to ground larger issues of harmful speech, freedom of speech and the new online social pressures by focusing on the writing and publishing of books. In particular we pay close attention to the phenomenon of literary withdrawal, that is, when an author or publisher, invariably in response to online pressure, pulls a book from publication. Our report is the result of months of research and internal debate, and it arrives, of course, at a time when the freedom to read and think is increasingly under attack. State legislatures, school boards, and local governments across the country are banning books from libraries, proscribing ideas in the classroom, and sanitizing our history in textbooks. As we see the proliferation of these deeply undemocratic measures, it has also become increasingly impossible to ignore that the strategy of labeling books “offensive” and “harmful” — in particular “harmful to minors” — has emerged as the main tactic lawmakers and book banners use to translate their censorious demands into law. Without proffering false equivalences, the conundrum is nevertheless not without implications, some of which “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm” is focused on teasing out.
The problem, of course, is not limited to books. Academia, the theatre, Hollywood, the media, the corporate world and policymakers in Washington—all are buffeted by pressures threatening to take entire subject areas off the table for discussion. These orthodoxies, in turn, are contributing to a climate of frustration and grievance among those who hesitate to speak and write for fear of blowback. And the vicious cycle is only escalating.
The stakes for this debate are high and are not simply the result — as many suggest — of a difference in values between American generations. There is no contesting that the freedom to speak has been at the root of every advance in social progress in our history. And it is also this freedom — to contest and exchange, to critique and comment, to inquire and imagine, and yes, to speak — that is at the heart of all advance, advance in scientific and human knowledge, as well as political equity, and which is why we at PEN America believe so deeply in protecting this freedom.