In defence of freedom in fiction

While we may think we have moved beyond the censorship of the past, writers' artistic freedoms are still constrained.

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence was the subject of a watershed obscenity trial. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

Are writers free to write what they want? That is a simple question, answered in the average Western society with an unambiguous yes. We believe in freedom of speech, one of the basic freedoms, and are quick to criticise restrictions on the ability of writers to express themselves artistically without fear of recrimination. When measures are taken ­— elsewhere — to silence writers, these are condemned as an unwarranted interference in literary freedom.

The battle for freedom of expression through the printed word has been a long one. State and religious authorities have in the past been unembarrassed about silencing writers of whom they disapprove. The banning of books by awkward authors was a fairly unexceptional activity even into the late twentieth century: Europe witnessed the public burning of books in the fascist period and the silencing and persecution of dissident authors under communism. Then came the Salman Rushdie affair, when we saw an author go into lengthy hiding to escape the attentions of religious zealots. And it was not all that long ago, of course, that D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, a novel that is, by today’s standards, completely incapable of raising an eyebrow, was the focus of a cause celèbre in the London courts. How things have changed, one might be tempted to say. And yet, have they? Has all that moral energy devoted to preventing the publication of seditious or obscene material simply been transferred to other targets?

In one view, writers, even in those countries that ostensibly protect freedom of expression, are, in fact, increasingly subject to restrictions on what they can say. These restrictions may be subtle, and yet are just as powerful for their indirect nature, having a strong inhibiting effect on artistic freedom. Artistic liberty is today threatened by illiberal attempts to tell authors what they can or cannot say, and to threaten those who do not comply with isolation, embargo and, in some cases, with police investigation and prosecution.

Of course, not everything about our current cultural climate is bleak. Sensitivity to the feelings of others, and awareness of the extent to which many voices have been silenced in the past by exclusion, is indicative of greatly enhanced moral understanding and is to be welcomed. That represents progress, and few would argue for its reversal. Against that background, restrictions on the expression of extremist opinions intended to cause social unrest are an important part in the defences of liberal societies. Freedom of expression does not include the right to threaten social peace by inflaming divisive sentiment or encouraging the unjust treatment of others. There is every justification for criminalising writing that sets out to inflame others to feel hatred for another section of the community. Some writing is clearly intended to encourage acts of violence and should not be allowed to shelter behind any protection provided by the principle of freedom of speech.

Yet acknowledgement of that principle does not end the debate. Even if we accept that public order provisions will necessarily restrict artistic liberty, the proper boundaries of these restrictions may be difficult to identify. This is particularly so in the contested areas of children’s literature, the offence principle, and authorial identity. In all of these fields, there is clear tension between freedom of expression and the pursuit of social and political goals. It is here that literature has become something of a battleground between liberalism and tolerance in one corner, and illiberalism and intolerance in another.

Children’s literature may seem an unlikely locus of disagreement, and yet it has long been a sensitive area. The notion that books are a powerful way of transmitting values to the next generation is hardly new, and any glance at children’s fiction from the Victorian era onwards will reveal the high moral tone adopted by authors of such works. There are some who will remember from their youth Struwwelpeter, a German collection of cautionary tales that terrified generations of children with stories of the fate awaiting those who behaved badly. That robust tradition continued in the twentieth century with more modern practitioners revealing their inner moralist, dealing out much anticipated and appreciated comeuppance to deserving recipients. Hilaire Belloc was one such writer; his characters met with strikingly unpleasant ends, usually brought about by some failing or bad habit on their part. Children are never slow to get the point: behave badly and something unpleasant will happen to you. Roald Dahl also comes to mind here, with his recognition that children like to see the proud laid low and the underdog rewarded.

The moralising tendency of children’s literature today has taken a different trajectory, moving beyond the encouragement of the traditional virtues — kindness, respect for others, and so on — to the pursuit of a broader agenda in which it becomes part of what is perhaps a more politicised project. One focus of this has been to stress gender equality, a laudable goal. If girls played a subservient role in the children’s books in the past — and there is no doubt that they did — this is certainly no longer the case. The bookshelves of any children’s bookshop are groaning under the weight of books about little girls whose ambition it is to be an engineer or a pilot, or any of the other callings to which boys have traditionally aspired. But those same shelves now seem barer of encouragement for boys, who seem to be somewhat relegated from the front bench. That might be necessary in a period of correction, when old-fashioned sexist assumptions are — rightly — challenged, but even welcome and much needed corrections can go too far if they then marginalise or exclude others on class or gender grounds. In particular, the sense of self-worth of boys needs to be taken into account. And there is always a danger that encouraging a particular view of society will lead to the exclusion of authors themselves because they do not fit the profile that editors wish to project. No author should be silenced because they come from a particular class or are of a particular gender. To do so is to recreate the sort of discrimination that existed in the Soviet era, when bourgeois writers were penalised for accidents of birth.

Children’s literature should be moral; it should be sensitive. But it must not exclude those whose faces do not fit, nor should it be monolithic, portraying only one section of society and ignoring others.

The offence issue provides perhaps the most vivid example of the threat that cancel culture holds for freedom of artistic expression, because its objectives have been and continue to be pursued illiberally and, in some cases, in a way that threatens important aspects of our cultural heritage.

Offence most frequently rears its head in an academic context. Typically, it arises where objection is raised to elements of the curriculum that are seen to be in some way disturbing to students. It is an inevitable concomitant of literature that there will be books that are harrowing or upsetting to certain readers. It would be surprising if things were otherwise, as there is always something that will offend somebody — if one looks hard enough for a potential victim. This is because the world is a harrowing and upsetting place, and if literature reflects that, then some degree of distress is inevitable. If literature is to have any pretence of reflecting the world in which we live, then it will inevitably have to deal with matters that are uncomfortable in the eyes of those who do not want discomfort. The poet T.S. Eliot once remarked that humankind cannot bear much reality. He was absolutely right. There are many who do not want to be reminded of the harsh truths of our existence. There is war; there is suffering; there are numerous small tragedies, countless disappointments and failures, in the lives of just about everybody. Being offended is part of being human. A life without offence would be an artificial one, removing one from the world of emotions in which any reasonably aware life is lived.

There is, of course, much at which offence might be taken. Charles Dickens, for example, is an upsetting read in so far as he portrays the brutal social conditions of his time. That was the whole point of Dickens’s work, as it was of many writers who have sought to expose suffering, deprivation and injustice. Sometimes, books of that nature have a major impact on the way in which society is ordered, and a novelist may find themselves creating an entire climate of reformist opinion. It is important, then, that there should be novels and short stories that portray unequal and exploitative social conditions, or depict societies in which blatant wrongs, such as slavery, were tolerated. Reading about this may be upsetting, but is it grounds for the suppression of major works that reflect a particular reality? Unfortunately, there are those who take exactly that view and argue for the exclusion from the academic curriculum of those works that cause them offence. The argument is that the portrayal of social or individual injustice may be just too painful for sensitive students who are entitled not to be upset by such things. The unacceptability of this form of censorship is obvious but, increasingly, universities are yielding to pressure and removing from the literary canon works identified by pressure groups as being offensive to contemporary students. One would think that the whole point of university education is to encourage exposure to ideas that may make one feel uncomfortable, but that is not the way these objectors see it. They wish to decolonise the curriculum, which means the removal of books to which they take ideological objection. The offence principle is invoked as a means of achieving this objective.

The unacceptability of this approach to literature hardly needs to be spelled out. If one were to apply this to the study of the classics, for example, it would mean the removal of many major elements of western literature. For example, it is doubtful whether Homer would survive such scrutiny for long. The Iliad is, of course, deeply distressing to anybody who finds gory accounts of fighting unpalatable. And while the Odyssey, that matchless account of the universal human theme of the journey, is less bloody overall, there is still much in it that is capable of shocking modern sensibilities. When I read it, as I take great pleasure in doing, I must confess that I find myself appalled by the way in which Odysseus behaves when he eventually arrives back in Ithaca and deals with Penelope’s suitors and with those who, in various ways, accommodated them. It is very unpleasant, but it is ancient Greece, after all, and what do we expect? A modern attitude towards the rights of others? The concept of anachronism seems to be something the defenders of the sensitive do not fully understand.

It is easy to find in some of these instances of protection of students a risible hyper-sensitivity. Yet even the absurd demands — often taken seriously by university authorities — may have a concealed agenda of the discrediting of an existing cultural inheritance. If people are made to feel bad about their cultural inheritance, then they will be inclined to feel bad about themselves — and in this way, the sway of a culture may be weakened. The homogeneity of culture may be undesirable and may rightly be challenged to include other cultural influences and claims, but its complete suppression could involve abandoning aspects of a heritage that have value and are worth preserving. The Homeric epics could be abandoned because they are blood-thirsty, but if we pruned our cultural heritage in that way, we would end up with nothing worth keeping and with a landscape that was bland and arid. We need to be shocked; we need to be saddened; we may even need, at times, to be disgusted. By all of these reactions we assert the range of our humanity and remind ourselves of who we are and how we got where we are.

One of the potentially most limiting restrictions on authorial freedom is a product of the emphasis on identity in a whole range of spheres, including literature. The argument of the censorious is, in essence, that authors should only write from the perspective of one who shares their particular identity. In that view, an author who attempts to write about those who have had a different historical experience from their own is, effectively, appropriating an experience they have not had. If this argument is followed to its logical conclusion, then a male author should not be able to write about the experience of a female protagonist and vice versa,  nor should a straight author write of the experience of a gay character, or a gay author write about those who do not share his or her sexuality. The limiting nature of this position is self-evident and indeed it goes against the grain of the very essence of being a writer. A writer is almost by definition an outsider — an outsider who looks in on the lives and experiences of others. And it is this externality that gives the author insights worth expressing. It is often the outsider who will see things that the insider does not. Their perspective should be welcomed, rather than discouraged.

Think of the great travel writers — usually complete outsiders — who open a window on another culture, and often in a way that leads to an increase in understanding of, and sympathy for, that culture. How narrow and arid would literature be if publishers and other literary gatekeepers were to say that the only thing anybody should write about is what has happened to only them, with only their particular historical experience. That would kill imagination stone dead — and it is imagination, above all else, that enables literature to do its task of bringing home to us what it is to be human. Literature cannot thrive if the deciding factor in a book’s reception is the identity of its author. What matters is the content — its insights, its sympathy, its vision. The identity of the author may be a significant factor in our understanding of how the work came to be written, and of the perspective that the work adopts, but it is not the work itself. A perceptive author should be able to rise above the constraint of their own identity and to write, with freedom, about the full range of humanity and human experience. In dealing with this particular assault of authorial freedom, we might do well to remember those benighted times when female authors often felt obliged to adopt a male pseudonym to secure publication and an audience. Do we seriously want to return to silencing people because they are, quite simply, the wrong shape or come from the wrong place?

If it is the case — and it appears to be so — that authors today feel intimidated by those who would have them conform to a current consensus, a received truth, in all respects, and who are, in addition, prepared to use social media to hound those who deviate in any way from that consensus, then literature is in a dark place. Lights need to be switched on so that authors can follow their artistic inclinations and write about whatever they want to write about, subject only to certain clearly defined limits, intended to maintain social order and prevent real harm and real distress.


Alexander McCall Smith