Fighting Words 2

Should We Burn the Books?

by George Simmers

Have you noticed how the censoring types seem to be changing their tactics (in Britain, at least)?

In the old days, they would shake their heads sadly and express concern about offensive material falling into the wrong hands - the young, perhaps or the emotionally fragile (ladies, for example). The classic formulation was the question that Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the jury at the Lady Chatterley trial:

Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?

These days that approach won't work so well . Feisty women will make short work of any suggestion that they are less robust than males (and I bet some of our female readers growled and bristled at my use of the word "ladies" in the previous paragraph). As for young people becoming depraved and corrupted - well, their elders generally have an uncomfortable suspicion that in this age of the Internet the young are a good deal more accustomed to the rude, the violent and the subversive than they are themselves.

Yet the protestors still want to protest. These days, though, the argument is not that the vulnerable may be depraved. It is that the protesters themselves, should they come across the material, would be offended.

There are two examples that have been much in the British news recently. One is the protest by eight hundred vociferous and potentially violent Sikhs against performance of the play Behzti, by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. They disliked the fact that Ms Bhatti had set her story of sexual abuse inside a Gurdwara, a Sikh temple, preferring to believe that such things could never happen there (or that if they do, they shouldn't be talked about). Well, Catholics once felt the same.

The other big news story about censorship has been the organised lobby of evangelical Christians against the BBC broadcast of the successful West End musical show Jerry Springer the Opera, a wild, tasteless and very funny attack on the modern media, which also sprayed ridicule on some traditional Christian imagery. Prominent in the campaign were shady figures like "Bishop" Michael Reid, the leader of a church in Brentwood that has been accused of being cult-like.

The BBC resisted the Christians, but Birmingham Rep caved in to the Sikhs. But the most important outcome of the pair of rows is that in future all cultural institutions (especially publicly funded ones) will be that little bit more careful about presenting any work that might allow someone to claim a grievance. A small measure of liberty has been eroded.

Religions, of course, are particularly vulnerable to comedy. When I first read a solemn account of how Mohammed had the Koran divinely dictated to him, I couldn't resist giggling and asking "How could anyone possibly believe that?" Anyone not brought up in a Christian culture would doubtless have the same response to the story of the Virgin birth. Hindu legends have the benefit of such a wild picturesqueness that an outsider can enjoy them hugely without even considering that they might be believable.

To certain religious types, therefore, the sacred images must be surrounded by taboos. Muslims forbid any pictorial or dramatic representation of their Prophet in any way, and threaten all sorts to anyone even hinting at contravening the diktat. Salman Rushdie was forced into hiding for The Satanic Verses, the key crime of which was that it suggested that the Koran was a text, and so vulnerable to the vicissitudes (editing, corruption, revision) that affect all texts. The threat generally works very well. Could Voltaire's interesting tragedy Mahomet be presented anywhere in the world, (even though a very serviceable eighteenth-century translation of it into English exists, called The Imposter)? A Swiss company attempted to act it a while ago, but were prevented by fearful authorities.

The job of literature, unfortunately, is to test ideas. Novels since Don Quixote have shown characters governed by ideas, and brought into harsh contact with reality. Comedy takes images and sees how far they can be distorted. Drama at its best shows the conflict between public attitudes and living reality.

If we follow the lead of the sensitive protesters, and ban anything that might possibly offend anyone else's sensibilities, literature can't do its job. It will become feeble. Very nice, perhaps, and probably very decorative, but very feeble.

Yet all the time choices must be made. Librarians have to decide whether to keep a classic on their shelves when critics have found neo-colonial stereotypes in it. Editors have to decide whether a potentially offensive poem is worth publishing.

Ultimately literary worth, not inoffensiveness, has to be the criterion. If a book or a play is truthful and/or profound and/or resonant and/or vital and/or moving and/or dazzling, it probably deserves to reach an audience. An editor, a publisher or a librarian has to trust in his or her gut feeling. The trouble with the grievance brigade is that they wriggle in between human and instinct; by raising other issues, they make merit harder to discern.

But I've an awful feeling that it's people like them that represent the future. More plays will be banned. More books will be burnt.

George Simmers

This is the second in a series of monthly polemics about literary issues by different
writers. We hope that later contributions will tackle a wide variety of themes,
from strongly differing points of view. Contributions to the series are invited.

If you've any comments on this polemic, George Simmers would probably like to hear from you.