Thursday, 7 March 2013

Don't make literature your religion: a reader's plea

The stupidest thing ever said by man or woman was not said by George W Bush or Sarah Palin but by Joseph Brodsky in his Nobel lecture:

I'll just say that I believe - not empirically, alas, but only theoretically - that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens. And I am speaking precisely about reading Dickens, Sterne, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Melville, Proust, Musil, and so forth; that is, about literature, not literacy or education. A literate, educated person, to be sure, is fully capable, after reading this or that political treatise or tract, of killing his like, and even of experiencing, in so doing, a rapture of conviction. Lenin was literate, Stalin was literate, so was Hitler; as for Mao Zedong, he even wrote verse. What all these men had in common, though, was that their hit list was longer than their reading list.

Good to know that so as long as we check the length of the lists we'll be alright. It's hard to see how Brodsky could have more greatly slandered those who don't read novels (which include so many of anyone's friends and relatives), but views like Brodsky's are widespread among the literary world, and always have been. As Terry Eagleton demonstrated in Literary Theory: An Introduction, the beginnings of literature as a field of study and literary criticism as a way of life were as a kind of replacement for religion, the rise of one coinciding with the decline in the other caused by scientific discovery and social change over the course of the nineteenth century and continuing into the early twentieth. Eagleton quotes from the inaugural lecture of George Gordon, an early Professor of English Literature at Oxford:

England is sick, and [...] English literature must save it. The churches (as I understand) having failed, and social remedies being slow, English literature has now a triple function: still, I suppose, to delight and instruct us, but also, and above all, to save our souls and heal the state.

The link between religion and literature is rapture, or ecstasy. When you immerse yourself in a piece of art you adore, it creates the illusion that there is nothing else: how could anyone not feel the same way about this work? How could they not feel moved? The only explanation is that they are not fully human: there's something missing, something hollow about their lives; they can't be truly happy, even if they think they are. Kenneth Tynan famously wrote: "I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger." Even Kingsley Amis, scourge of the highbrows and normally a good bullshit-detector, suffered a lapse when he wrote that "to say or imply that [Shakespeare] is not our greatest writer marks a second-rate person at best" (His son Martin Amis wrote "I agree", which is less surprising). It might make that person a second-rate literary critic, but that's it. Was Tolstoy - who wrote a famously ridiculous essay on the worthlessness of Shakespeare - really a second-rate human being? Or was he just wrong about Shakespeare?

The supreme irony of this is that it reveals art as something which makes people smaller, and diminishes their empathy, even though boosting both our imagination and our understanding of human beings is the very advantage the same people claim it has given them over non-readers.
John Carey's books The Intellectuals and the Masses and What Good are the Arts have done sterling work exploring the history of this fallacy. He observes the obsession of literary intellectuals with the masses'
diet and pallor - even George Orwell couldn't come to terms with tinned food - their fear of the spread of mass literacy and the corrupting and too easily-gratifying effects of popular entertainment and their unshakable believe that, as they felt they had been improved by art, then the masses must be too. He points to the ghastly piousness of those in the nineteenth century who believed their favourite works of art could "improve" the working classes, such as Charles Kingsley:

Pictures raise blessed thoughts in me - why not in you, my brother? Believe it, toil-worn worker, in spite of thy foul alley, thy crowded lodging, thy ill-fed children, thy thin, pale wife, believe it, thou too, and thine, will one day have your share of beauty. God makes you love beautiful things only because He intends hereafter to give you His fill of them. That pictured face on the wall is lovely - but lovelier still may the wife of thy bosom be when she meets thee on the resurrection morn! Those baby cherubs in the old Italian painting - how gracefully they flutter and sport among the soft clouds, full of rich young life and baby joy! - Yes, beautiful indeed, but just such a one is that pining, deformed child of thine, over whose death-cradle thou wast weeping a month ago; now a child-angel, whom thou shalt meet again, never to part.

Fr and QD Leavis were probably the most prominent advocates for this position - applied to literature - in the post-war period. Carey - in a discussion of QD Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public collected in his earlier book Original Copy - offers an excellent case study of how this led to an almost psychotic inability to comprehend their fellow human beings. He recounts how QD Leavis suggests:

if we wish to see what a mind warped by bestsellers us like, we shall find an "invaluable reference point" in the Gerty McDowell episode in Ulysses. "Such a life is not only crude, impoverished, and narrow, it is dangerous." It is, she declares, because such minds as Gerty's are among us that society is not "efficiently equipped for the business of living." This is certainly a remarkable procedure for a critic so opposed to escapism and to the substitution of literature for life. It is hardly what we should expect, either, when we take into account Mrs Leavis's constant warnings that literature ought to shock and disturb us rather than merely confirming our prejudices. Finding that the fictional Gerty McDowell accords gratifyingly with her own ideas about the mass audience, Mrs Leavis awards her the status of reality, and preaches about the danger to society Gerty represents, forgetting that Gerty is only a figment of a cultured imagination: an imagination, that is, representing the same educated minority as she belongs to herself.

It's not for nothing that Clive James wrote of her husband's influence "Leavis was our brush with totalitarianism: we caught it as a mild fever instead of the full attack of meningitis" and that Carey in the piece cited describes her own voice as that of "a cultural dictator - and in that sense recognisably and ominously a voice of the thirties."

As for more recent examples I'd like to suggest a further case study for Professor Carey: Ursula Le Guin's curiously detestable essay "Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?" . It has that sickly evangelical tone present in the bookchat of everyone from the Leavises to Jeanette Winterson. Le Guin's words resembles Charles Kingsley's in their condescension and weary compassion towards those poor deluded people who don't appreciate the things she does:

"What's the good of it all,' he says. "dragons and hobbits and little green men - what's the use of it?"

   The truest answer, unfortunately, he won't even listen to. He won't hear it. The truest answer is, "The use of it is to give you pleasure and delight."

   I haven't got the time," he snaps, swallowing a Maalox pill for his ulcer and rushing off to the golf course.

So we try the next-to-truest answer. It probably won't go down much better, but it must be said: "The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny."

   To which I fear he will retort, "Look, I got a raise last year, and I'm giving my family the best of everything, we've got two cars and a Color tv. I understand enough of this world!"

   And he is right, unanswerably right, if that is what he wants, and all he wants.
The kind of thing you learn from reading about the problems of a hobbit who is trying to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano has very little to do with your social status, or material status, or income. Indeed, if there is any relationship, it is a negative one. There is an inverse correlation between fantasy and money. That is a law, known to economists as Le Guin's law. If you want a striking example of Le Guin's law, just give a lift to one of those people along the roads who own nothing but a backpack, a guitar, a fine head of hair, a smile, and a thumb. Time and again, you will find that these waifs have read The Lord of the Rings - some of them can practically recite it. But now take Aristotle Onassis, or J.Paul Getty: could you believe that these men ever had anything to do, at any stage, under any circumstances, with a hobbit?
But, to carry my example a little further, and out of the realm of economics, did you ever notice how very gloomy Mr Onassis and Mr Getty and all
those billionaires look in their photographs? They have this strange, pinched look, as if they were hungry. As If they were hungry for something, as if they had lost something and were trying to think where it could be, or perhaps what it could be, what it was they've lost.
Could it be their childhood?

The tone here is one of ecclesiastical regret - he's not going to like this but I fear I must tell him - with no awareness of the lunacy of the idea she knows more about someone's happiness than he does. When Ursula Le Guin is trying to get you to buy a subscription to The Watchtower, or at least a copy of The Dispossessed, I think you'd be wise to play Golf. It's not so different from Carey's example in What Are The Arts? of the words of Lord Justice Coleridge in 1857, who argued that the lower classes needed art "to purify their tastes and wean them from polluting and debasing habits."' Le Guin talks about the importance of understanding her fellow men yet can't imagine that someone who doesn't read fantasy would be happy. She assumes he will be aggressive and ulcered (that obsession with the masses' physical deterioration remains). The all-encompassing rapture leads to only one possibility: they're not happy even if they think they are. You can't get more religious than that.

   Then there's the hatred of the furniture of ordinary people's lives, and of their working for a living (those withering references to Maalox, mortgages, TV and golf). Le Guin reminds us that:

In the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it's unmanly to do so, or because they aren't true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down.

There's a touch of wistfulness there in the reference to the past : certainly Le Guin shows far more disgust at the freedom to watch "bloody detective thrillers" than the earlier lack of freedom to read anything other than a single religious tract.

At one point Le Guin says "Now what about our man's wife?". Our man doesn't have a wife because he doesn't exist: he's a phantom conjured up by Le Guin's own contempt for those that don't admire the things she does, her sense of superiority and her zealous defensiveness towards her own work. This is an argument with an empty chair. Nevertheless, Le Guin continues:

She probably wasn't required to squelch her private imagination in order to play her expected role in life, but she hasn't been trained to discipline it, either. She is allowed to read novels, and even fantasies. But, lacking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and "true romances," and nursy novels, and historico-sentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.

There's a nasty little touch of snobbery in the assumption that in non-writerly households like these the husband will be the one who "allows" her to read novels. As for the sweatshop comment, one almost admires Le Guin's audacity in turning people who like her stuff and indeed buy her product into heroes protecting the imagination, and those who don't buy her books into enemies of that noble cause.The irony of Le Guin's essay is just how out of touch she is with her fellow human beings: fantasy has made her contemptuous rather than empathetic, complacent rather than thoughtful, and certain that he she knows the little there is to know about these wretched non-readers rather than curious about them.

Roald Dahl's children's novel Matilda dramatises this view (with scenes so snobbish the late Puffin editor Kaye Webb was reportedly reduced to tears at having to publish it). The wickedness of Mr and Mrs Wormwood, Matilda's demonised parents, is explicitly and repeatedly put down to their lack of interest in reading. "All the reading she had done had given her a view of life that they had never seen. If only they would read a little Dickens or Kipling they would soon discover there was more to life than cheating people and watching television," thinks Matilda. We saw in Le Guin's essay how the newspapers that terrified the 30s generation and the cinema that horrified DH Lawrence and Leavis had been replaced with television (which, as Le Guin reminded us, is now a substitute for the Bible). Here, the tinned food that horrified Orwell and Eliot is replaced with TV dinners, and where Le Guin has Golf, Dahl has bingo. Dahl's sneering at Mrs Wormwood's addiction to soap operas is strikingly similar to "our man's wife" in Le Guin's piece. To hate a soap opera is the sign of a good critic, but to hate someone for watching one is the sign of a bigot. This tension peaks when Mr Wormwood returns home after a taxing day selling second-hand cars (filled with sawdust and with rigged speedometers, naturally) and stares with hatred at Matilda reading a book. He tries to stop this by putting on the television, and when she ignores it he grabs her book and rips it to pieces:

She kept right on reading, and for some reason this infuriated her father. Perhaps his anger was intensified because he saw her getting pleasure from something that was beyond his reach. [...] There seemed little doubt that the man felt some kind of jealousy. How dare she, he seemed to be saying with each rip of a page, how dare she enjoy reading books when he couldn't? How dare she?

As with Le Guin's comments about how unhappy Onassis and Getty look, we see the book-zealot's view that those who don't like books must be very unhappy, even if they think they aren't. The rapture reading fills them with makes the possibility of happiness existing anywhere else impossible for them to consider.

When Matilda's beloved teacher Miss Honey visits the Wormwoods, Dahl descends into full-on class hatred. The belief that the working class are frightened of education is dominant here, as is the Wormwoods' physical repulsiveness, their addiction to the TV and their hatred of books. Dahl is unashamed in making Miss Honey address them as their educator, too:

"University?" Mr Wormwood shouted, bouncing up in his chair. "Who wants to go to university for heaven's sake! All they learn there is bad habits!"
That is not true," Miss Honey said. "If you had a heart attack this minute and had to call a doctor, that doctor would be a university graduate. If you got sued for selling someone a rotten second-hand car, you'd have to get a lawyer and he'd be a university graduate, too. Do not despise clever people, Mr Wormwood. But I can see we're not going to agree.

Miss Honey, like Le Guin trying to grab Our Man's attention before he disappears to play golf, is a weary pilgrim, trying to convert them to the church of literature.

Unlike Le Guin, though, I don't think Dahl's more reactionary books will temporarily shape their child readers into something resembling the author. In a letter to The Horn Book regarding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Le Guin recounts how her young daughter went from "amiable" to "quite nasty" as she read the book. Quite a high - if simplistic - claim for the power of literature to change people, but an ungenerous view of readers. The critic of Roald Dahl must always balance - as Jenny Diski and Michael Irwin do more skillfully - the dislike of the adult reader with the enjoyment of the child reader, as Dahl's work is a particularly striking example of a reading experience that changes drastically as one grows out of one stage into the next (the Narnia books, too, are harmless when you're young, but obnoxious as one ages: it's funny how some books get more right-wing when you get older). Today, I find Matilda a dislikeable and compromised book, but as a child I would frequently reread it. Child readers can be left to reach these conclusions for themselves as both they and their reading experiences grow

We can still see the attitudes that produced the Wormwoods and "our man" in Phillip Hensher's execrable claim that "I think you can tell, when you meet someone, whether they read novels or not. There is some little hollowness if they don't", in Harold Bloom's views on children who read Harry Potter (which are even less researched than Fiction and the Reading Public - "Their eyes simply scan the page. Then they turn to the next page. Their minds are deadened by cliches" ), and in almost everything Howard Jacobson says. This, as anyone familiar with this blog will know, is not to say I don't believe that one's dislike of a particular book should be vociferously expressed, merely that is has nothing to do with whether someone else chooses to read it. Despite what Jacobson and Bloom tell you, harsh literary criticism is not a disagreement with anyone who enjoyed reading that particular book. I'd argue strenuously with anyone who claimed there was any literary merit in Mills and Boon (let alone Tony Parsons or Jodi Picoult) but anyone who directly sneers at someone for reading one is a despicable human being. I wholeheartedly endorse Adam Mars Jones's superb takedown of Stephen King just as I admire AS Byatt's piece pointing out that JK Rowling does not write the true heady wine of fantasy, but my views on King and Rowling's limitations do not put me at odds with anyone who enjoys their books. A typically odious anecdote from Howard Jacobson sees him describe having dinner with a Rabbi, who tells him that he took the family to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: "I wanted to kill him! It's the one thing I can't forgive Jews for - philistinism." He elaborates on this anecdote in another interview:

I just couldn't sit still. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? It's total crap! Then I looked at his shelves and saw all these holy books and at the end, a Harry Potter! I said "You're a Jewish scholar! Where's the Saul Bellow? Where's the Philip Roth? Where's the Me?" We as Jews are people of the Book! So Rabbi! Read a book!'

I loathe this piece of sociopathic behaviour, and I say this as someone who would probably loathe Chitty Chitty Bang Bang almost as much if he saw it (Note also how the author's own work becomes a holy text proffered Watchtower style: even Le Guin didn't directly suggest that A Wizard of Earthsea was the kind of fantasy "our man" should be reading. And let's not get started on the idiocy of Jacobson placing himself in Roth and Bellow's league). A literary opinion is where you put forth your own response to a work. What's chilling about Jacobson and Bloom is that they wish their responses to replace all others: they're not putting forward an argument, they expect others to already have it. Again, one can't ignore the supreme irony here: that someone who can't even imagine the point of view of someone enjoying Chitty Chitty Bang Bang should write novels set in the inside of other people's heads, and believe that literature has enriched their imagination (Jacobson also has his own variation of Brodsky's idiotic thesis: "When were you last mugged on the Underground by someone carrying Middlemarch in his pocket?"). Jacobson is an unashamed Leavisite who studied under the man himself at Cambridge, and his latest novel, Zoo Time, dramatises these prejudices (that is, crudely hammers them into the shape of fiction rather than right-wing columns for the Independent, just as his last novel The Finkler Question did.) When he appeared on Radio 3's Night Waves to discuss the book, the excellent interviewer Philip Dodd compared Zoo Time to the other Leavis's aforementioned Fiction and the Reading Public, but I would disagree with Jacobson's response - "You could not have paid me a greater compliment." One thing the books have in common is a lack of interest in their target, a failure to know their enemy. Carey points out in Original Copy that:

Mrs Leavis did send out her questionnaires to authors, but her ideas about readers are not derived from any corresponding sampling or survey. There is no realistic enquiry into the conditions of life and leisure, into the mental and emotional habits, of the mass audience upon which she pronounces with such confidence. So far as we can see, she never, in the course of her investigations, spoke to a member of the reading public.

Jacobson falls back on obsolete references like Richard and Judy, and predictable targets like "woman's reading groups", plus buzz-words like "3-for-2" or "the graphic novel" which are apparently bad in some half-assed "less is more" sense. Just as Mrs Leavis looked back to an "organic" pre-mass media community of readers which never existed, so Jacobson looks back to a time when books like Ulysses were taken more seriously, even though as Edmund Gordon pointed out in a review for The Observer:

It's unclear quite when the golden age of reading that [Jacobson's protagonist Guy] Ableman pines for is meant to have occurred, but judging from his frequent allusions to Joseph Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce and Henry Miller, he'd situate it at least partially during the modernist period. Those were certainly great years for literature, but were they really so different in terms of literature's reception? Conrad's Nostromo and James's The Golden Bowl were both published in 1904, and it's true that they found contemporary readers, but Marie Corelli published two schlock bestsellers the same year, and these were incomparably more popular. Joyce's Ulysses and Miller's Tropic of Cancer, meanwhile, far from securing for their authors the kind of universal esteem denied to Jacobson and his contemporaries, were banned for several years after they were written. So much for the good old days.
The same goes for Ableman's horror of recent technological innovations such as ebooks and Twitter. In the past hundred years, the advent of mass-market paperbacks, radio, film and television have all been viewed as dooming the novel. For as long as literary culture has existed, there have been warnings of its imminent demise. It's a deeply reactionary attitude. 

Indeed, Jacobson's beloved teacher Leavis was once warned by police after referring to Ulysses in his lectures. Jacobson lives in an age where a copy can be found in any shop, and far more pieces are written in defence of modernist or avant-garde fiction in the literary supplements than were thinkable in the days of Jacobson's novelistic heroes. Radio 4 recently marked Bloomsday with a series of programmes including a full-length dramatisation of Ulysses. By contrast, when Joyce died, at the height of what Orwell called "the hunting of the highbrow"', the Times wouldn't even print TS Eliot's letter of protest at their stingy obituary. Had Jacobson been alive in Henry James's day, he would have been exasperated by the attention paid to Henry James's friend George Du Maurier's Trillby - which achieved popular success James only dreamt of - and no doubt bemoaned the public's preference for Bennett and Wells to James and Lawrence, while struggling to smuggle contraband copies of Henry Miller books into the country.

In another interview discussing the book,  Jacobson offered the following opinion, identical to Ableman's in the book:

I was sitting in the American Embassy a while back, trying to get a visa, and every woman in the room was reading the vampire series – you know, the one with the black cover and the bit of blood. Now people are reading soft porn! What happened to the fun of reading a good book? There are people who, when they say they prefer Henry James to Fifty Shades of Grey, they do actually mean that...

This reminds me of the the Sally Ann test for autism, which is to show a child two dolls, Sally and Anne, with a basket and a box. Sally puts a marble in the basket and leaves, and Anne removes it and places it in the box. Sally returns, and the question put to the child is this: where will Sally look for the marble? The idea is that the child with autism will simply say the box because of their failure of empathy: he or she acts on what they know rather than seeing it from Sally's point of view. The limited empathy of Howard Jacobson in the above passage, or when he mutters "you should be ashamed" when he spots someone reading Harry Potter on a train leads him to the same brick wall: he doesn't like reading those books, so how could anyone else? As Carey writes of QD Leavis: "she assumes that the literary works she prefers are simply superior, and to support this shows that they possess the qualities she likes. The argument is circular."

Jacobson and Bloom have both argued that reading Rowling or Tolkien doesn't lead a child to read anything else, but the list of readers whose experiences refute this is infinite. We could list EM Forster starting with the Swiss Family Robinson, Clive James starting with Erle Stanley Gardner and ending up learning Russian because he "could no longer bear not to know something about how Pushkin sounded” and any number of readers who go from Fleming to Le Carre, from Le Carre to Graham Greene and from Graham Greene to Joseph Conrad. Starting with garbage and ending up with Proust is the experience of most literary intellectuals, but the rapture of literature can close minds to this self-evident fact.The possibility of someone else reading this and getting something from it does not exist, just as the possibility of someone reading Dickens and Kipling without it changing their worldview, of someone reading Dickens and not finding it less problematic to shoot people, of someone who doesn't read fantasy not becoming dull or bad-tempered, of someone watching soap operas or "bloody detective thrillers" and not becoming corrupted, of people reading Middlemarch and mugging someone or of an intelligent man not owning any copies of Howard Jacobson novels on his shelves can not possibly exist. The rapture is all.

Ian McEwan's musings on this are more subtly irksome, representing the next stage in the evolution of this phobia. "It seemed almost blasphemous to write about someone who doesn't think Anna Karenina is much cop," ruminated McEwan in an interview on the writing of Saturday, a novel about a neurosurgeon. It should be taken for granted, and not just by novelists. On The South Bank Show around the same time McEwan graciously acknowledged that he now realised that people like his parents who didn't read literature were "not asleep" after all, as if this were a rites of passage rather than an admission of immense stupidity and snobbery. Henry Perowne, the protagonist of Saturday, is a demonstration of this "people who don't read are not inferior"' thesis, and while his creator's intentions may be more benevolent than Dahl's towards the Wormwoods, Le Guin's towards "our man" or Mrs Leavis's towards her interpretation of Gerty, he's just as bogus a figure. Le Guin sneers at her test subject for his drinking, taking pills and golfing, McEwan congratulate his on his ability to make a fish stew and play squash, but both are phantom lab rats, fictional characters created to prove delusional or condescending hypotheses.

   Having discussed what will happen to you if you don't read novels, we should consider the other side of the writers-as-saints argument: what can happen if you do read and write them, specifically the belief that literature has power, and that those who wield it are helping to improve the world. No-one who has read a word of George Orwell or James Baldwin could deny that literature has political power, of course, but fetishising "storytelling" is a more dubious prospect, as Oscar Wilde knew when he warned "all art is quite useless." Two refreshing counter-opinions to the idea of the storyteller as political hero are worth considering here.

One is from the writer Tim Parks in a review of Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet, collected in his book Hell and Back:

In Haroun [and the Sea of Stories], Rushdie posits a world where all the stories there are flow together in beautiful harmony in one great ocean. An evil 'cultmaster' wishes to destroy this ocean. Novelist and critic Hilary Mantel glosses the idea appreciatively thus: "this tyrant hates stories because he aims to rule the world, and fiction creates an alternative world, a multiplicity of worlds he can never command." In this view of things - almost a critical orthodoxy these days - storytelling is seen as inherently liberal in so far as it offers alternatives to some outside-the-story reality. The story is thus understood as of its nature a hybrid on the factual world we know, its alternatives affording imaginative escape from that world's political powers.
But is this the case? Do stories flow together in tolerant harmony distinct from our "factual" world? Aren't they rather, with their rival visions, in urgent conflict with each other to establish what the nature of our world is, what the "facts" really are? Aren't evil "cultmasters" themselves supported by elaborate stories within the terms of which they do not consider themselves evil at all? Far from objecting to stories in general (usually they will be content to have people read innocuous tales that have nothing to do with anything), don't they rather object to those particular stories that undermine their own?
[...] Perhaps if  one begins to feel that it is enough to write fiction to be engaged on the right side of some global moral battle and indeed to "end up telling the truth", then there is a risk of growing careless.

He returns to this argument in a piece for The New York Review of Books -

Far from flowing together in a harmonious ecology, stories tend to be in constant competition with each other. Far from imposing silence, cults, religions, and ideologies of all kinds have their own noisy stories to tell. Christian fundamentalism with its virgin birth, miracles, exorcisms, and angels boasts a rich narrative flora; if we toss into the mix the Catholic saints and their colorful martyrdoms we can hardly complain that the censorship and repression of the Inquisition resulted in story-less silence.
Rather the problem is that preacher and polemicist want us to accept just one, mutually exclusive set of stories, one vision, which we must believe is true. And many people are happy to do this. Once they’ve signed up to a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or even liberal pluralist narrative it’s unlikely they’ll go out of their way to research competing accounts of the world. People tend to use stories of whatever kind to bolster their beliefs, not to question them.

The second viewpoint worth citing here is presumably from Chris Morris (it's from a piece co-authored by Morris and Arnando Ianuuci, but its anger suggests Morris). The subject is the aftermath of 9/11:

Hosting the film Baftas, Stephen Fry delivers an unspeakably trite and fucked-up heap of shit urging film makers to 'keep telling stories' in the face of world events - as if films make any fucking difference to anything, least of all the advancement of peace, as if in fact they don't more often promote, through piss like Black Hawk Down, the very surfeit of self-regarding superiority that makes the American West so unpopular in the first place. Naturally the audience of actors and industry luvvies spontaneously applaud like the blinkered, solipsistic, self-congratulating cunts they are.

Both raise the point that not only is the idea that by writing and reading stories we are helping in the fight against evil (which Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, a book particularly vulnerable to Parks's argument with its deeply unconvincing totalitarian state that bans books in general but doesn't produce any written propaganda of its own, must take a lot of the blame for), hubristic and insularly self-congratulatory, but that one could make as strong an argument for the negative political repercussions of stories as for the positive ones. More recently, Pankaj Mishra has quoted Parks's argument in a sharp review of Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton for The Guardian:

Certainly, Rushdie's neat oppositions between the secular and the religious, the light and the dark, and rational literary elites and irrational masses do not clarify the great disorder of the contemporary world. They belong to an intellectually simpler time, when non-western societies, politically insignificant and little-known, could be judged solely by their success or failure in following the great example of the secular-humanist west; and writing literary fiction could seem enough to make one feel, as Tim Parks wrote in a review of Rushdie's novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet, "engaged on the right side of some global moral and political battle".
Indeed, such complacencies of imperial intellectual cultures were what Rushdie had bravely attacked in his brilliant early phase. "Works of art, even works of entertainment," he had pointed out in 1984, "do not come into being in a social and political vacuum; and … the way they operate in a society cannot be separated from politics, from history. For every text, a context."

What Parks, Morris and Mishra point to is the importance of not allowing our love of western storytelling to make us feel superior to other cultures, in the same way that Le Guin and Dahl feel that those who don't read are spiritually undernourished (those who have allowed their imaginations to degenerate into "wild and weedy shapes," to use Le Guin's Gissingesque phrase).

Where the whiff of this peculiar strain of fundamentalist zeal regarding literature has been most detectable has been in the troubling attitude of Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens towards the implications of the murder of Rushdie's Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi and the attempts on the lives of his Italian translator Ettore Capriolo, Norwegian publisher William Nygaard and Turkish translator Aziz Nesin (which resulted in the Sivas massacre) due to the fatwa upon Rushdie for The Satanic Verses. In 1997 (after all of these events), in an exchange of letters with Rushdie and Hitchens in The Guardian, John Le Carre wrote that:

when it came to the further exploitation of Rushdie's work in paperback form, I was more concerned about the girl at Penguin books who might get her hands blown off in the mailroom than I was about Rushdie's royalties. Anyone who had wished to read the book by then had ample access to it.

Rushdie and Hitchens's answers to this were unsatisfactory. Rushdie replied:

But it is precisely these people, my novel's publishers in some thirty countries, together with the staff of bookshops, who have most passionately supported and defended my right to publish. It is ignoble of le Carré to use them as an argument for censorship when they have so courageously stood up for freedom.

Hitchens wrote:

      May we take it, then, that he would have had no objection if The Satanic Verses had been written and published for free and distributed gratis from unattended stalls? This might have at least satisfied those who appear to believe that the defense of free expression should be free of cost and free of risk.
As it happens, no mailroom girls have been injured in the course of eight years' defiance of the fatwah. And when the nervous book chains of North America briefly did withdraw The Satanic Verses on dubious grounds of "security," it was their staff unions who protested and who volunteered to stand next to plate-glass windows in upholding the reader's right to buy and peruse any book. In le Carré's eyes, their brave decision was taken in "safety" and was moreover blasphemous towards a great religion!

Neither of these replies answers Le Carre's point, which is: should we put those people's lives at risk? To do so is to turn literature into fundamentalism.

Zoe Heller, in her review of Rushdie's memoir Joseph Anton, took up this neglected point:

Peter Mayer, head of Penguin, and Sonny Mehta, at Knopf, published the hardback editions of The Satanic Verses, but equivocated over and finally backed out from publishing the paperback. That both of them had responsibility for the safety of large staffs—men and women who were included in the terms of the fatwa, but who did not have the benefit of around-the-clock police protection—does not strike Rushdie as a sufficient justification for their decisions and he has much comic sport with what he regards as their “spineless” conduct.

Robert Gottlieb, the former editor in chief at Knopf, with whom Rushdie published Midnight’s Children, is also chastised for having once suggested that Rushdie would not have written his book if he had known it was “going to kill people.” Rushdie was so disgusted by this comment, he tells us, that he never spoke to Gottlieb again.

Readers will differ in their opinions of whether the free speech represented by The Satanic Verses paperback was worth upholding at any cost. But even those who take Rushdie’s side on this will be hard pressed to match his scorn for the opposing point of view. By the time the Rushdie Affair was over, it had resulted in the deaths of more than fifty people. The questions that Mayer and Mehta and Gottlieb raised about the wisdom and the morality of continuing to publish in such circumstances seemed then, and seem now, perfectly reasonable and humane.

It is troubling that this point has been seldom made. The belief in freedom of artistic expression has, in Rushdie and Hitchens's words, a dangerous zeal, which seems to be privileged over lives. Indeed, since the Rushdie affair, the lines of the battle have been blurred by a move towards the very Muslim-baiting that Rushdie was unfairly accused of. To make a distinction here, it's important to remember that The Satanic Verses, The Life of Brian, the film version of Brick Lane, Jerry Springer The Opera and the play Behzti were - regardless of their high or low quality -  artistic works that were automatically misinterpreted  and attacked by fundamentalists: to say that they are offensive is to side with those bigots, which is why Shirley Williams's assumption on Question Time that Rushdie had "deeply offended Muslims in a very powerful way" was disgraceful, sweeping aside all Muslims that have defended the book in favour of the fundamentalists, and why I was rather glad that Hitchens was there at the time, admirably demolishing Williams in his very best tradition. The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten and the film The Innocence of Muslims, however, are very different propositions, no better than the moronic pastor Terry Jones's determination to burn the Quran. It's no more a restriction on "free speech" to censor these than it is to censor anti-semitic pamphlets or images of golliwog-style figures (which we rightly do). The audacity of the writer, satirist or filmmaker must be fought for in the face of intolerant monotheisim, but it must still be remembered that whoever produces a creative work is not automatically right. Literature doesn't by itself put us on the side of the just.

Next time you are moved by your favourite work of literature, try to imagine someone who doesn't like it (because millions exist.) If you can imagine someone who's happy, free of ulcers, remembers their childhood, has no hollowness in their voice and is not second-rate, than perhaps literature has made you wiser after all.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. What ego-driven snobs like Jacobson often seem to forget is that they're living in a golden age of appreciation for literature. As you point out with the example of Ulysses, one or two generations ago great books were sometimes banned or, more usually, ignored. The steep rise in literacy over the last hundred years means that more people are reading "good" literature than ever before, both in real and percentage terms, and when you add in the growth of post-secondary English programs, well, Jacobson should be thanking his lucky stars he's writing today. Of course, writers aren't the only artists who get stroppy about other people's tases. I'd say a music snob could teach Jacobson and McEwan a thing or two about intolerance and cattiness.