Is Literature Still Dangerous in the Western World?


“Nobody these days holds the written world in such high esteem as police states do” is the opinion in Italo Calvino’s novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller.  This sentiment, that governments must recognise the power of books through the very act of banning them, is echoed in the nine hundred writers around the world that were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or ‘disappeared’ last year.

Durham University English Society hosted a talk before the Christmas break inviting guest speakers to discuss whether literature really is still dangerous in the Western World, sparked by PEN International’s November campaign “Day of the Imprisoned Writer”.  Every year literary organisation PEN International stands in solidarity with writers that have suffered persecution for their views by sending appeal letters, raising publicity and staging events to call for their immediate release from prison.  PEN in particular highlight the cases of five persecuted writers, such as Kyrgyzstani Azimjon Askarov who is sentenced to life imprisonment after exposing corruption in his country.  Fellow authors have even written open letters in support of those imprisoned.  Argentinian Alberto Manguel told Iranian poet Mahvash Sabet, who is facing twenty years imprisonment, “generations of readers to come will remember your name as they remember theirs, long after the names of your jailers have been swept off the memory of the earth.”

Words have just as much power as bullets

Although book censorship may seem like a notion only present in less democratic or less developed countries, only taking effect in the Western World between the pages of dystopian fiction, governments have in fact banned certain texts from entering public circulation for political, moral and religious reasons. America is guilty of banning books on countless occasions, such as John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, apparently because of its shocking description of the poor, which Steinbeck later admitted was a diluted version of the realities of that era. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, after being called “the filthiest book I have ever read” by the editor of the Sunday Express, was banned by the Home Office in 1955 on the grounds that it was pornography.  However, it was published without controversy in the US, a country that has withdrawn Stephen Chobsky’s best selling Young Adult novel Perks of Being A Wallflower from libraries due to its apparent explicit sexual content and homosexual aspects.  Therefore, if a novel that was only published in 1999 is still censored in a presumably democratic country, does this mean that the pen is still mightier than the sword?

Our current climate certainly requires reactionary literature.  Although we may not be in the midst of a revolution or a war, our society is fraught with problems of gender inequality, poverty, racism, religious tension and, most currently, the threat of terrorism.  There are countless campaigns that have had an impact, such as Emma Watson’s recent He4She canvass, clearly showing a market for literature that reaches out to society in response to an issue.

Phil Jones
Phil Jones

However, is it even a writer’s duty to compose ‘dangerous literature’?  Arguably, literature’s aim is to entertain or enlighten, and if it achieves this without abrasiveness or controversy then surely it still retains its societal value?  Many people have an idealised view that writers should write gritty and politically charged underground literature on a shoestring that stabs at the underbelly of authority and consumerism.  Writing is not only a catalyst for freedom of expression but also a job, and a writer must tap into current literary trends and comply with the agendas of publishers if they want their novel to even see a Waterstones shelf.  Perhaps it is unfortunate that publishers are reluctant to invest in controversial novels that are less likely to gain a mass audience, however, it does not mean that commercialism is destroying the power and influence of novels.  Realist and social novels such as Monica Ali’s Brick Lane – that details the oppressive life of a Muslim woman forced into an arranged marriage and taken to the alien world of East London – are still shocking enough to change mindsets, in this case racist attitudes.  Although these novels are not directly ‘dangerous’, they allow the reader to better understand the culture or situation that the author has experienced or observed, still enlightening the mind in the same way as censored literature.

In a world of sound bites and buzzwords and 140 character limits, perhaps the problem is not the writer but the audience.  It is old news that nowadays, thanks to social media and texting, we lack the concentration and ability to absorb lengthy passages.  Therefore mediums such as Twitter, which holds a large platform thanks to the accessibility and ease of concise tweets, could be more ‘dangerous’ and influential in the Western World, for example, with the recent #JeSuisCharlie trend.  Whilst books take a while to write, publish, and then reach the mass market, tweets are short and instantaneous and can therefore make a greater impact on society.

“Dangerous” is, in fact, a word outside definition.  Guns are dangerous, so then are books not weapons because they don’t kill?  Words have just as much power as bullets if used in the correct way, as George Orwell’s dystopian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four shows, but whilst a gun only requires one person pulling the trigger to do harm, literature needs the ideas and talent of the author and then the interpretation of the reader to be impactful.  Maybe literature will not spark a revolution but, in a world that is far from perfect, it is important to remember the description of radical author Federico Garcia Lorca fighting against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco: “this man is more dangerous with a pen than a gun.”


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