By Charlotte Higgins –
Comments on Guardian articles often the domain of trolls who don’t bother reading past the standfirst, says Patrick Ness
Instant feedback via social networking sites such as Twitter is encouraging a culture of self-censorship that threatens to stifle literary endeavour, the multi-award-winning author Patrick Ness has said.
“Instead of bringing us all together in an omnipresent, multi-faceted discussion, the internet instead has made sectarianism an almost default position. The nature of mass debate has become solely binary,” he said.
He said he doubted whether Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses would have been written today.
“Ask yourself, truthfully, would you sit down tomorrow morning and start writing a novel with Muhammad as your central character? A Muhammad treated as a fallible man rather than a prophet? A Muhammad perhaps even criticised?”
Ness added: “Though no one really wants to say so out loud, most of us seem to accept these days that the comments on Guardian articles … while occasionally containing interesting replies, are far more often the domain of outraged point-missers, incandescently furious pedants, and trolls who don’t bother reading past the sub-headline.”
The novelist China Miéville said self-censorship was both inevitable and desirable. “There are millions of things we shouldn’t say. We self-censor all the time, and a bloody good thing too. Our minds are washing machines full of crap that we pick up over our years on this earth.
“One of the problems [in this debate] is the elision between having the legal right to say something (and I don’t trust the state to tell me when I can and can’t say something) and having the moral right not to be told off for saying something objectionable.
“This is why the free speech warrior who thinks they have the right to say what they like and then complain when someone complains – that’s not censorship. Censorship is when the police come round.”
The Chinese poet Xi Chuan said censorship in his homeland was the “daily air” a writer breathed, but it defied simple categorisation wherever it occurred. “Censorship is unavoidable wherever you have social taboos, political taboos, religious taboos,” he said.
In China, which lacks a censorship law but where books are routinely suppressed through a complex system of second-guessing the wishes of the authorities, censorship could be used as a tool by writers, he said.
“Usually if a book is criticised it will cause a sensation. But [the authorities] are getting cleverer. If they are not satisfied by a book they are starting to keep silent, and so you will die on your own. In China, censorship is like a big game: you can use it to become famous or influential.”
The writers at the conference, led by the Dominican-American author Junot Díaz, pledged to write a letter of protest over the suppression of works by Latino authors and on Latino subjects in schools in Arizona.