A word to the unwise
Candice Holdsworth opts for offence over mediocrity during Banned Book Week
02 Oct 09

This is a guest post by Candice Holdsworth

As part of its annual Banned Books awareness week, the American Library Association this week held a number of events promoting the right to free expression within the literary arts. Looking through the list of Frequently Challenged Books, it would seem that even in the 21st century, in seemingly liberal societies, intolerance remains prevalent and many authors are still threatened with censorship of their work, particularly if it is deemed “offensive” by those with partisan perspectives.

The literary works of Philip Pullman, the second most challenged author of 2008, are opposed by those who feel their religious beliefs are under threat, accusing Pullman of an “anti-Christian” agenda and religious insensitivity. This is not the first time an author has had to face such a charge, Salman Rushdie being one of the most famous examples. He received widespread condemnation for his fourth novel The Satanic Verses as well as numerous death threats and a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calling for all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers.

In June 2007 on the BBC’s Question Time, Baroness Shirley Williams answered the first question of the programme: should Rushdie have received a knighthood considering his seemingly “troubled relationship” with Muslims worldwide? Williams responded with the opinion that it was “a mistake”, “not very clever”, and that Rushdie had “offended Muslims in a deep and powerful way”. She went on to say that the police protection afforded him under threat of death was “a waste of taxpayers money”. Fellow panelist Christopher Hitchens countered by saying that Williams’s statement was “contemptible” and “what better way was there to spend taxpayer’s money than in the interest of freedom of expression?” (Watch here)

Hitchens’s argument was more persuasive, and not just in terms of free speech. There is also a case for preserving the quality of contemporary literature. In an environment where publishers’ main concern is not to cause offense, only the most anodyne literature can survive. Artistic expression can never advance, if we prioritise politeness over and above creativity and originality. Truly great literature speaks honestly and openly, and often controversially.

Or maybe, and perhaps more importantly, it articulates its own truth, which is too often oversimplified by those with self-interested agendas. All too often, those who oppose literature that causes offence end up legitimising mediocrity as well as intolerance.

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.