Whose literature? Whose democracy? Which public space?

How can we, in a now globalized world, re-think the question of possible links between literature and democracy?[1]

This question comes from the prospectus for the international conference entitled ‘Literature and Democratic Public Spaces’ held at the Maison Française in Oxford, England in November 2013, which provided the prompt for this post. For me, the most striking word in this challenging question is ‘re-think’. As the prospectus mentioned no specific theorists, I trawled through my own archive of possible precursors, lighting in the first instance on Jacques Derrida and this sentence in particular, which comes from ‘Passions’ (1993): ‘No democracy without literature; no literature without democracy.’[2] Knowing that we were going speak at the Maison Française, this teasingly gnomic remark made at the end of the Cold War in turn led me back to Sartre’s more vatic pronouncement in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War: ‘There is no guarantee that literature is immortal. Its chance today, its only chance, is the chance of Europe, of socialism, of democracy, and of peace.’[3]

Both these statements demand careful analysis, and each of course opens up only more challenging questions. In the space I have here, I shall simply comment on their relevance to a particular moment in the history of South African letters, which has an ongoing relevance to the debates about literature, democracy, and free expression today.

The lessons of 1988

The historical details of the occasion can be summarised too swiftly as follows. In late October 1988, the Weekly Mail, then a leading anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa, held one of its annual Book Weeks in Cape Town. This was essentially an arts festival designed to affirm the freedom of expression and dedicated to a democratic future, which, at that point, still seemed rather far off. Earlier that month, the government had closed a number of major newspapers, and, in the days preceding the festival, the Weekly Mail itself received a temporary banning order. The Book Week was entitled ‘Censorship under the State of Emergency’, and the headline event was to be a panel discussion about censorship involving three Booker Prize winners: Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and Salman Rushdie.

Rushdie had been invited jointly by the Weekly Mail and the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), the largest and most influential writers’ group to emerge during the apartheid era. By then, COSAW, following the ANC, had adopted a more flexible approach to the cultural boycott—hence the invitation to Rushdie. The proposed panel was, however, overtaken by events. Following the world-wide campaign against The Satanic Verses (1988), which was then gaining momentum, various Muslim groups in South Africa protested against the invitation, and some issued death threats against Rushdie (see The Satanic Verses Revisited post). Given the impact of technology on public space, it is worth noting that they were encouraged by Muslim organisations in the UK who faxed them marked up pages from the novel as well as other materials about it to help them frame their protest. As part of the same internationally concerted action, two local groups also lobbied the apartheid censors, asking for the book to be banned as a blasphemous insult to their religion. The censors duly complied and the novel was proscribed on 28 October, three days before Rushdie was due to speak. The oddly precipitous nature of this decision suggests they were under pressure from the government’s security apparatus who were seeking to disrupt the Book Week.[4] In the face of this campaign, and above all out of concern for Rushdie’s life, COSAW decided after much agonising debate to withdraw its invitation, much to the dismay of the now temporarily banned Weekly Mail. As a result, when the panel members eventually assembled on 31 October 1988, only Gordimer and Coetzee appeared on the platform.

Which public space?

That briefly is the background. My main interest lies not in the historical details, but in the questions this concatenation of events raises, beginning with ‘which public space?’ As the organizers of the Oxford conference rightly noted in their prospectus, the always-resonant ideals of the Republic of Letters, as articulated in Europe during the Enlightenment, carry little weight today. Perhaps with Habermas in mind, they pointed out that the ‘perimeter of public space has been extended and its structure transformed’ largely by the ‘mass media’ (now including the internet and social media) or the ‘market’ but also by the ongoing ‘forces of state control’. ‘Unless one chooses to idealize today’s public space’, they added, ‘it is only in theory that it can appear as the place of a community of ideal communication or of free expression, accessible to all’ (Prospectus). Their scepticism is clearly borne out by the circumstances I have just described, though the Weekly Mail’s ill-fated Book Week also shows how ‘autonomous frameworks of discussion’, no matter how fragile and compromised, can be created even in the most hostile environments.

More importantly, the fraught circumstances of the Book Week show how difficult it is to frame an analysis of ‘public space’ in a ‘now globalized world’, even when we look back to the relatively simple world of 1988, which had yet to experience the digital revolution. If we frame it in broadly political terms, then, we have a highly constrained public space defined by South Africa’s territorial borders, threatened by the apartheid regime’s censorship apparatus, and, no less importantly, impoverished by its language policies. South Africa, at that point, recognised only English and Afrikaans as official languages not the eleven it does today. If we frame the analysis in broadly cultural terms, then we have to take into consideration a much larger, though still not quite global, and much less constrained, though still not quite free, linguistic territory, dominated in this case by the English language, mapped primarily by international copyright law, transformed by the advent of the fax machine, and underwritten by the British and the American state, in fact, by European legal structures as well. (In 1990, the European Court endorsed a decision by the English High courts not to ban The Satanic Verses under English blasphemy law.) Though Coetzee and Gordimer often negotiated particular co-licensing agreements with the most significant anti-apartheid publishers in South Africa, their novels, like Rushdie’s, circulated for the most part under the imprints of major commercial publishers based in London and New York. They entered very different spaces once they moved beyond the transnational Anglosphere via the always unpredictable mechanisms of translation. It hardly needs to be said that for writers using minority languages public space looks very different, and a lot less global.

Given these complexities, to re-think the question of literature and democracy today, we need to begin by addressing two issues. First, we need to acknowledge that, when it comes to ‘autonomous frameworks of public discussion’, the state, like the market, is both a threat and a guarantor.  Second, we need to take as our primary object not ‘the public space’ but the multiple, often intersecting, public spaces that are shaped not just by the market and the state, but by language, technologies of writing and transmission, international law, supranational structures like the European court, cultural institutions with a global reach like the Booker Prize, and ultimately by complex, often asymmetrical economies of power and prestige. Focusing on these two issues might usefully curb any tendency ‘to idealize today’s public space’ or to frame the analysis in exclusively theoretical terms. As importantly, it might direct our attention away from free expression as such, which is too often brandished as conversation-stopping slogan, and towards the more demanding questions relating to the often complex conditions that make that freedom possible and the sometimes far from obvious forces that threaten it — particularly considering the rise of social media and non-state actors today.

It is these forces that produce varieties of what the legal theorist Rae Langton has eloquently called ‘illocutionary disablement’, effectively extrajudicial, broadly cultural, economic and pragmatic forms of public silencing.[5] After all, it was these broader conditions and forces, which were both enabling and disabling, as well as local, national, regional and transnational, that made Rushdie, Gordimer and Coetzee into names worth inviting to speak on the topic of censorship in the first place. Seen in this way, the question for any democratic public space, whether actual or potential, is not so much ‘who speaks out?’, but ‘who and what authorises particular citizens to speak out and to be heard?’ in a particular public space, or, to put it in Langton’s term, ‘what are the conditions of illocutionary enablement?’ For better or worse, the state, the mass media, technology, the market, a host of other institutions, including universities, and various ideas of literature all have a part to play in this always highly debatable process of authorisation.

Whose literature? Whose democracy?

So much for the question of public space. I shall take the other two questions ‘whose literature?’ and ‘whose democracy?’ together. With only Gordimer and Coetzee on the platform, the discussion inevitably focussed on the meaning of Rushdie’s absence, not on censorship as such. On this issue, Gordimer and Coetzee found themselves to be fundamentally at odds, not just because they saw things differently but because they spoke in different capacities. As an ANC-aligned writer, and founding member of COSAW, Gordimer was obliged to defend the collective decision to withdraw Rushdie’s invitation; whereas Coetzee, who always guarded his autonomy as a non-aligned writer, was free to speak his own mind.

While he admonished COSAW for ‘conniving in censorship’ for the ‘sake of the unity of the anti-apartheid alliance’ and in order not to make ‘life too difficult for Muslims in the alliance’, he characteristically did not claim the moral high ground for himself.[6] In his deliberately double-edged concluding remarks, he said: ‘I am here with my tail between my legs like the rest of the participants, like the organizers too. That loose and fragile alliance of people, those who believe in freedom of expression and those who believe in freedom of expression for some people, we have suffered a crushing defeat’ (Harber). Looking to the future, he worried that the whole ‘sorry spectacle’ would ‘go down in history as the moment after which people simply got tired of pretending there was any place for the liberal shibboleths like freedom of expression in the anti-apartheid struggle’ (Harber). Gordimer, for her part, recognised Coetzee’s ‘democratic right’ to his views, but she was, as she put it, ‘extremely shocked and surprised and distressed’ by his unexpected ‘public attack on us’ (Harber). She accepted that the decision to withdraw Rushdie’s invitation was a ‘defeat’, but, she said, ‘we still think the man’s life was more important than our principles’ (Harber). As it happens, Coetzee later came to think she was right.[7] Much more needs to be said about the intricate ethics of this particular situation, which turn, in part, on the very Sartrean problematic of alignment, but to address my two remaining questions I shall focus on the very different ideas of literature and of democracy Coetzee and Gordimer stood for on that Cape Town platform in 1988.

As the spokesperson for COSAW, Gordimer represented a collective understanding of the link between literature and democracy, as articulated in the organisation’s constitution, which had been drafted only the year before. Taking up the kind of language to which the ANC had committed itself in the early 1980s, COSAW’s overarching strategic objective was ‘to advance the struggle for the creation of a non-racial, non-exploitative, non-sexist, united and democratic South Africa’.[8] After making a pledge to ‘resist all forms of censorship’, the constitution set out the terms on which writers and literature in particular could play a legitimate part in this broader struggle. Echoing the Maoist phrasing which the ANC had adopted in the early 1980s, when it initiated a movement of mass mobilisation under the banner of a new ‘People’s Culture’, it insisted that ‘writers and cultural workers, generally, are products of and belong to the community’ and that ‘as such they have a responsibility to serve the community.’ Which ‘community’ was left open, though, as the name COSAW, and as the preamble’s opening phrasing affirmed—it began ‘We, the writers of South Africa’—the assumption throughout was that it referred primarily to the territorially defined national community, or, more accurately, the democratic unitary South Africa that was yet to come.

The COSAW constitution also specifically noted the ‘critical role that literature and the other arts must play in the struggle for liberation’ and encouraged its members ‘to promote literature, other arts and culture that are directed to the creation of a new and democratic South Africa’. These formulations owed much to the ANC’s Maoist influences and to the Black Consciousness movement, which had emerged in South Africa in the 1970s, both of which repudiated liberal individualism—hence the stress on communities. Yet COSAW’s principles were also recognisably Sartrean. While Sartre had, revealingly and questionably, linked the ‘only chance’ of literature to the ‘chance’ of Europe, Socialism, democracy and peace in 1948, COSAW forty years later tied it to the ‘chance’ of South Africa, a Maoist-inspired ‘People’s Culture’, democracy, and the struggle against apartheid. For Gordimer, who had long been sympathetic not just to Sartre’s ideas of commitment but to his belief in the novel as an antidote to various forms of bad faith, this was what it meant to stand for literature and democracy on that platform in 1988. Like COSAW, she saw literature as having a ‘critical role’ to play in the struggle for democracy, which meant, first and foremost, a political system based on the principle of universal franchise in a unitary state.

As some of his more specific remarks about The Satanic Verses suggest, Coetzee understood both terms, and their linkage, differently. For him, COSAW had not only ‘connived in censorship’ by withdrawing Rushdie’s invitation, it had appeased ‘religious fundamentalism’ (Harber). Most immediately, this meant ‘Islamic fundamentalism in its activist manifestation’ (Harber). With South Africa’s white Christian government in mind, however, he also mentioned ‘Calvinist fundamentalism’, which, he said, ‘has been an unmitigated force of benightedness in our history’. He then extended his scope further still.

Lebanon, Israel, Ireland, South Africa, wherever there is a bleeding sore on the body of the world, the same hard-eyed, narrow-minded fanatics are busy, indifferent to life, in love with death. Behind them always come the mullahs, the rabbis, the predikante (ministers), giving their blessings. (Harber)

For Coetzee, the primary source of such violence lay in fundamentalist hatred of books and writing. Fundamentalism, he said, ‘stands for the one founding book and thereafter no more books’, and since it ‘means nothing more or less than going back to an origin and staying there’, it ‘abhors the play of signs, the endlessness of writing’ (Harber). ‘As the various books of the various fundamentalisms, each claiming to be the one true book, fantasise themselves to be signed in fire or engraved in stone, so they aspire to strike dead every rival book, petrifying the sinuous, protean, forward-gliding life of the letters on their pages, turning them into physical objects to be anathematised, things of horror not to be touched, not to be looked upon’ (Harber). According to Coetzee, this hatred of writing is what The Satanic Verses is about and what explained its murderous effects: ‘Rushdie presents the prophet not as a prophet but as a writer’ and that is ‘why the fundamentalists want him dead’ (Harber).

This was not the prophet as Sartre’s ‘committed’ or COSAW’s ‘critical’ writer, however. It was the prophet as Derrida’s ‘democratic’ writer who owed much to the tradition of Mallarme, Joyce, Beckett and many other European modernists of the early twentieth century. It was, after all, these writers and this tradition that Derrida had in mind when he insisted on the impossibility of dissociating literature and democracy. For this kind of writer, there can be ‘no literature without democracy’, that is, without all the fragile rights and freedoms associated with the world’s many democratic traditions; but, equally, and less obviously, there can be ‘no democracy without literature’, that is, without the ‘endlessness of writing’, which posits no stable origin and guarantees no final destination. On this analysis, democracy is not just a form of society, a problem or a moment in time. It is also a politically humane but ethically demanding vision of communal life, seen not as a determinate artefact but as ‘sinuous, protean, and forward-gliding’ process. Communal life modelled, in effect, on the open-endedness of writing, not on the boundedness of the book.

For Coetzee, The Satanic Verses was a work of literature and of democracy in this sense, an instance of writing as an anti-fundamentalist act. I am not so sure, but it would take more space than I have here to start developing this argument fully (see Chapter 8 of my book Artefacts of Writing, 2017). In my view, if you focus on The Satanic Verses that caused offence to Muslim readers and unleashed so much destructive violence in the world, then Coetzee is probably right. On this reading, the irreverent poet Baal looms large, as do the dream sequences that desacralize the Qur’an, turning it into an all-too-human artefact of writing subject to the vagaries of transmission, translation and interpretation. However, if you focus on The Satanic Verses that took post-war British racism and hostility to immigrants as its primary object — Mrs Thatcher is Mrs Torture — then Rushdie looks rather more like a writer in the Sartrean tradition that Gordimer and COSAW revived in the South Africa of the late 1980s. I am not claiming this to quibble with Coetzee’s reading, but to underscore the point the organisers of the Oxford conference emphasised in their the announcement for their conference, namely, that ‘each literary work represents a singular way of questioning the commonplaces of cultural discourse’. As the singular concatenation of events in 1988 shows, and as The Satanic Verses testifies in its own no less singular way, these necessarily include the ‘commonplaces’ of literature and democracy, of public space, and, as Derrida noted in 1993, ‘of the ethics or the politics of responsibility’.[9]

[1] Philippe Roussin and Sebastian Veg, ‘Literature and Democratic Public Spaces’, conference prospectus, November 2013. All subsequent references in the main text.

[2] Jacques Derrida, On the Name, ed. Thomas Dutoit, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1995, 28. The English version of ‘Passions’, which originally appeared in French in 1993, was translated by David Wood.

[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, What is Literature?, trans. Bernard Frechtman, London, Routledge, 2001, 229. This English translation first appeared in 1950, two years after the French original.

[4] I discuss the details of this decision more fully in The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, 211-16.

[5] See Rae Langton, Sexual Solipsism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009, 5 and passim.

[6] Anton Harber, ‘South Africa: Clash of the Booker titans’, UK Guardian online, 28 May 2013. A former editor of the Weekly Mail, Harber offers the only full account of Coetzee’s speech. All subsequent references to this article are indicated in the main text.

[7] For his further reflections, see The Literature Police, 214-15.

[8] All quotations from the constitution come from The Literature Police, 205.

[9] Derrida, On the Name, 28.

This post is a slightly revised version of ‘Quelle littérature? Quelle démocratie? Quel espace public?’, Communications, 99 (2016), 123-31.

The Satanic Verses Revisited

Once upon a time in a bookshop

In August 2006, to prepare for a talk I was going to give the following month, I visited a local branch of Waterstones in Oxford, England to buy a book. As the title I wanted was classified under ‘Fiction’, which in the lexicon of booksellers at the time meant not so much the opposite of ‘non-fiction’ as the antithesis of ‘genre fiction’—not ‘Sci-fi’, say, or ‘Crime’ fiction—the book was located in a prime position on the ground-floor immediately behind the latest arrivals and 3 for 2 bargains. Given the marketing ingenuity chains put into designing their retail space, I knew this position signaled the continuing commercial success of ‘Fiction’ in the booksellers’ special sense. I found this reassuring, especially since the old chestnut about the death of literature was then going through one of its perennial revivals. As an object the book was familiar enough, though, as a reasonably diligent follower of book trade practices, I knew by its size, shape and feel that it was not quite the mere paper (pre-digital) thing it appears to be — remember this is 2006, the year before Kindle arrived on the scene. Measuring 130 mm by 190 mm, it wore its B-format paperback status as a badge of honour. These print-era markers indicated that it was published under a prestigious literary imprint and intended to be sold mainly in specialist bookshops, like Waterstones, not in supermarkets. In the unstable but still hierarchical literary marketplace of the early 2000s, B-format paperbacks upheld the distinction between books as culturally esteemed symbolic goods and books as disposable mass-market commodities, a fragile, paper-based order Kindle was about to disrupt.

The bibliographical details on the inside pages confirmed what the format suggested. The book was published by Vintage, then the specialist literary paperback imprint of The Random House Group in the UK, the multinational subsidiary of Random House Inc. in the US, which was in turn the trade publishing division of the German global media conglomerate Bertlesmann AG—it is now part of the Penguin Random House group. Vintage prided itself on the portability and literary quality of its books, which, as the publicity tag on the cover pointedly emphasised, allow you to ‘Take your imagination with you’. The elevated cultural status of my B-format Vintage Book was underscored by the laudatory endorsements on the cover from established authors—Nadine Gordimer and Angela Carter—and the Anglo-American broadsheet and literary press. Gordimer called it ‘a staggering achievement, brilliantly enjoyable’, while the New York Review of Books compared it to ‘Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, and Sterne’s Tristram Shandy’. What all these material, institutional and textual markers indicated is that by all contemporary measures this was a work of serious literature, belonging to a canonical European tradition dating back to the great Enlightenment fictions of the eighteenth-century.

All these minor, seemingly extrinsic, details had a special hold over me because the book in question was the latest paperback edition of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. It was striking enough that the late-twentieth century’s most iconically controversial novel was now readily available in paperback under a mainstream literary imprint, as it had been since 1998. As the book’s dedication indicated, this was not always the case. Unlike the first hardback edition, which was published in the UK by Viking in 1988 and which bore a more personal inscription to Rushdie’s then wife (‘For Marianne’), this edition was dedicated ‘to the individuals and organisations who have supported this publication’. In 1992, ‘this publication’ referred to the first paperback edition, which was brought out, amid further controversy, by an anonymous company called ‘The Consortium’ that had been especially constituted in the US State of Delaware for that purpose. This was after Viking-Penguin, who were still the focus of a campaign of intimidation, ceded the rights back to Rushdie at his request. And ‘the individuals and organisations’ referred not just to the ‘International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers’, initiated in 1989 by Article 19, the London-based free expression advocacy group, but to the writers, journalists and politicians who began actively calling for the publication of the paperback after the first anniversary of the fatwa in February 1990. By 2006, the dedication had a different, perhaps less urgent, meaning, though the fact that it remained suggested that Rushdie still wished to record the novel’s tragic early publishing history and to acknowledge the ongoing support of publishers, like Vintage, who risked keeping the book in print.

So the fact that The Satanic Verses was by then widely available as a Vintage paperback was not merely of bibliographical interest. Yet what made my visit to Waterstones an especially sobering, even vertiginous experience was the realisation that my simple act of taking the book off the shelves was made possible not just by the publishers and booksellers who openly supported the novel’s publication, but by the more powerful guardians, in this case the British state and European human rights structures, who protected them. This is not just because both bodies uphold certain ideals without which modern European ideas of literature would not exist, notably the autonomy of the public sphere, the rights to intellectual property, to free expression, and, in the British case, the special cultural status of books (the UK, unlike most other European states, exempts books from VAT). It is, more particularly, because both bodies dismissed appeals by offended Muslims who attempted to bring a case against Rushdie and his then publishers Viking-Penguin under English and European law. Since these specific decisions had a part to play in my actions in Waterstones, I shall briefly describe some of the salient issues they raised. This will also set up the next part of my discussion, focussing on the history of The Satanic Verses in the world beyond Europe, particularly in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa.

The English High Court

Early in 1990 two separate, though apparently concerted, cases were brought before the English High Court. The two applicants, who had previously failed to bring criminal prosecutions against Rushdie and his publishers in the Magistrate courts a year before, applied for a judicial review, partly to test the law, partly to have the earlier decisions overruled. The first case, which was brought by Abdul Choudhury, who was acting on behalf of the Muslim Action Front, attempted primarily to argue that English blasphemy laws covered all three major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The second case, which was brought by Sayid Siadatan, an Iranian living in Britain, invoked the Public Order Act of 1986, focussing on the question of whether or not the distribution of The Satanic Verses would provoke unlawful violence. In both cases the High Court refused the application for review and upheld the Magistrates’ earlier rulings.

In the first, the court argued that, since the offence of blasphemy was, under English common law dating from the seventeenth century, inseparable from sedition it was exclusively and unequivocally linked to the Christian faith. For the courts this meant that a crime against God had to be treated as a crime against the state and, more specifically, the established Anglican Church. As The Satanic Verses did not constitute such a crime, it could not be deemed blasphemous under the law. The second case, which, the court admitted, was based on more secure grounds, failed largely because of a technicality. As the Magistrate had noted, the applicant had not produced evidence to show that immediate violence would follow if distribution continued. Significantly, in summing up the High Court’s ruling, the leading judge in the first case, who recognised the novel’s literary value and the offence it had caused, noted that the courts’ powers were limited, since, in this case, there was no uncertainty about the law. Even if the court felt that the laws of blasphemy might be considered ‘anomalous or even unjust’, or, as one key legal precedent eloquently put it, ‘shackled by the chains of history’, it could not reach any other determination. Any major review was, he insisted, the prerogative of Parliament alone. It is worth recalling that the Law Commission recommended that the offence of blasphemy be abolished in 1985 and that Tony Benn, the opposition Labour MP, presented a bill, which was not carried, to the House of Commons endorsing the Commission’s view four years later at the height of the ‘Rushdie Affair’—the common law offences of blasphemy in England and Wales were eventually abolished in 2008 with Scotland following in 2021.

The European Court

Having failed to make any headway at the national level—his application for leave to appeal to the House of Lords was refused in July 1990—Choudury exercised his rights as a British citizen by taking the case to the European Court in September. Developing his other key but ultimately unsuccessful arguments in the High Court hearing, which centred on Britain’s obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), he entered two formal complaints: the first, which fell under Article 9 of the Convention, was that ‘the United Kingdom has not given the Moslem religion protection against abuse or scurrilous attacks, and that without that protection there will inevitably be a limited enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion provided for by that Article’; the second, which fell under Article 14, was that the protection afforded exclusively to the Christian religion under English blasphemy law was discriminatory. The Commissioners, who were at the time responsible for deciding which cases could legitimately go before the Court, agreed with the English High Court and deemed both complaints inadmissible on related grounds. They noted that

the applicant sought to have criminal proceedings brought against the author and the publisher of the book “Satanic Verses” in order to vindicate his claim that the book amounted to a scurrilous attack on, inter alia, his religion. He does not claim, and it is clearly not the case, that any State authority, or any body of which the United Kingdom Government may be responsible under the Convention, directly interfered in the applicant’s freedom to manifest his religion or belief.

Seeking redress via the Convention, which applied to states only, was inappropriate, the Commissioners claimed, because its provisions could not be extended horizontally to guarantee a right, on the part of an individual or group, to bring a criminal case against an author or publisher for offending their religious ‘sensitivities’. This claim followed uncontentiously from Article 27 of the Convention. By contrast, the Commissioners’ claim that the Convention applied to states if and only if they ‘directly interfered’ in a citizen’s freedoms was a standard but disputed interpretation.

This summary account of a complex and closely-argued series of decisions, which, in turn, opens up the vast, tangled politico-legal histories that have shaped distinctively English and European modernities at least since the seventeenth century, might go some way towards justifying my sense of vertigo on an otherwise ordinary afternoon in Waterstones. It does not, however, explain why my feelings were fixated on the simple act of taking a copy of The Satanic Verses off the shelves. What made this an issue for me was the realisation that, at that point in 2006, I could not do the same thing in one of Cape Town’s branches of Exclusive Books, South Africa’s equivalent to Waterstones.

Once upon a time in another bookshop

Had I been talking about the contrast between South African and British bookshops around seventeen years earlier, say, in 1989, this would not have been so striking. After all, in late October 1988, apartheid South Africa, following India, Pakistan, and various countries across the Middle East, banned The Satanic Verses in its first hardback edition. This was two months before the book burnings in Bradford in the UK and the demonstrations in Hyde Park, and three months before the fatwa was proclaimed. As we shall see, this decision, which tested anti-apartheid solidarities and divided South Africa’s minority Muslim community, was not as predictable as it seemed at the time. It was, however, not inconsistent with the apartheid government’s disregard for basic freedoms. The same cannot, of course, be said for South Africa’s young democracy in 2006, which was underpinned by one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. Given the terms of the European Convention it is worth noting that the South African Bill of Rights, which places as much emphasis on traditional freedoms as it does on more recent ideas of human dignity, is unconditionally binding on all organs of the state and conditionally binding on all ‘natural or juristic’ persons.

Why, then, could I not take a copy of The Satanic Verses off the shelves at Exclusive Books in Cape Town? The answer is compelling, particularly given the questions facing intercultural and multifaith democracies today, though, as you might expect, it is far from straightforward, in part because the novel’s status in the South Africa of 2006 was inseparable from the legacies of the past.

Rushdie and the Apartheid Censors

Just how The Satanic Verses fell into the hands of the apartheid censors is itself a knotty question. As it was not submitted by customs officials, the usual conduit for imported books, Nadine Gordimer suspected direct political interference. In an article, which appeared in the New York Times for 22 February 1989 and London’s Evening Standard a week later, she speculated that the local ‘Muslim extremists’, as she called them, who campaigned for the ban were aided by ‘a member of the Muslim community with influence in the House of Delegates’. This, as she explained, was ‘the segregated “house” of South African Indian collaborators in our apartheid tricameral parliament, which excludes Africans’. In the same article she also claimed that the censors banned the novel without reviewing it, as she had the only copy in the country at the time—proofs sent to her by Rushdie’s American publisher. The chief censor, Abraham Coetzee, refuted both these claims at the time, but the fact that he scribbled a note to his colleagues saying that ‘certain things’ on the censorship  file ‘must be removed’ suggests that his public version of events was at best partial. Based on the surviving documentary evidence, it is possible to say that the censors received a copy of the book, that it is extremely unlikely that they read it, and that the circumstances surrounding its submission were more convoluted than Gordimer’s simple, and narrowly local, story of ‘Muslim extremists’ and apartheid collaborators allowed.

A short week in late October 1988

Following the chain of correspondence in the archives, we can reconstruct the following sequence of events. For reasons that will become apparent in a moment I have to be precise about the dates:

*The novel is officially published in the UK on 26 September 1988.

*On 21 October the well-established Islamic Foundation in Leicester (UK), which has been co-ordinating an international protest since the beginning of the month, sends a fax to the African Muslim Agency in South Africa, which contains the Foundation’s general statement against the novel as well as annotated copies of the pages which it regards as especially offensive. The highly charged protest statement, which was also published in Impact International, an independent Muslim news magazine, for 14 to 27 October, states that ‘this work, thinly disguised as a piece of literature, not only grossly distorts Islamic history in general, but also portrays in the worst possible colours the very characters of the prophet Ibrahim and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on them).’ The annotations focus on thirteen passages from the novel. Many of these refer to the poet Salman’s subversive commentaries on, and manipulation of, Mahound’s teachings, the interpolated ‘satanic verses’, which, as Rushdie himself repeatedly insisted in his own defence, belong to the ‘dreams of a man [Gibreel] who is losing his mind’ as depicted in a work of fiction (Guardian, 19 Feb 2005). Rushdie’s various defences, some more convincing than others, require careful and detailed analysis. For now I’ll simply note that his appeal to the novel’s literariness, and fictionality in particular, is both indispensable and inadequate in part because it underestimates the inherent frailty of literary writing, as a discursive category, from which, paradoxically, so much of its power to intervene in the public domain derives.

*On 24 and 25 October prominent, mainstream Muslim organisations in South Africa, including the Muslim Judicial Council and the Council of Muslim Theologians, write to the censors demanding that the book be banned, giving detailed reasons and including the passages with the Leicester Foundation’s marginal annotations. Importantly, the latter include a reference to M. M. Ashan’s scholarly article ‘The “Satanic” Verses and the Orientalists’, which appeared in Hamdard Islamicus, V.1 (1982), 27-36. Ashan challenged the ‘unsympathetic and often hostile’ responses to the Qur’an by ‘scholars of the Occident’ who treated it ‘as the writing of the Prophet and not, as Muslims regard it, the word of God revealed through the angel Gabriel’ (27). The various local organisations also say they will shortly be able to make a copy of the novel available.

*On 26 October A. M. Bhorat sends a handwritten report, on one of the censors’ official forms, to the chief censor recommending that the novel be banned because it is ‘detrimental to the religious beliefs and convictions of the Muslim community.’ His ‘expert’s report’, as the censors call it, is, for the most part, a verbatim transcript of the Islamic Foundation’s general statement. Bohrat, a South African Muslim who works as a film censor, also appears to have submitted a copy of the novel at this point, which the chief censor returns on 2 November.

*On 28 October the chief censor, following the usual procedure, convenes an ad hoc committee chaired, in this case, by J. P. Jansen, an Afrikaans professor of politics and one of the main security censors during the late apartheid era. Significantly there are no literary censors among the members of this committee. It unanimously endorses Bohrat’s recommendation, and, in its own final report, it simply reproduces his version of the Islamic Foundation’s general statement and adds the more detailed remarks contained in the protest letters from local organisations. The only comments the committee itself adds focus on the novel’s status as literature:

In reaching its decision, the Committee has taken due consideration of the literary merit of the publication and of the author’s previously acclaimed works, literary distinctions, etc. It is however felt that these considerations do not outweigh the obvious offence which his latest work is likely to give to the strongly protesting Muslim community in South Africa who clearly regard the book as offensive to their religious convictions or feelings, and likely to bring them as a section of the inhabitants of the Republic into ridicule or contempt, a point of view with which the Committee concurs.

The legalistic final sentence incorporates phrasing from the provisions, covering blasphemy and community relations, of the relevant Publications Act (1974). The committee’s decision not to treat the literariness of the novel as a trumping value was consistent with apartheid censorship legislation, which never formally protected literature, and with the censors own highly equivocal practice. Throughout the apartheid era their capricious and often politically expedient literary judgements made decisions either for or against a specific publication particularly unpredictable. In this case, they agreed with the Islamic Foundation’s view that the novel was the ‘grossest sacrilege’, which was at best ‘thinly disguised as a piece of literature’.

*Consequently, The Satanic Verses is officially banned on 28 October 1988.

This meant that whole the process from complaint to banning was completed in four days, which was something of a record, since, as exasperated local booksellers and authors frequently noted, it generally took anything from a month to three months for a book to get through the apartheid censorship bureaucracy. Given the gaps in the record it is not possible to say if this remarkable efficiency was a direct result of political interference, whether from the House of Delegates, as Gordimer thought, or any other branch of the apartheid state. Yet it is difficult not to infer from the timing and the wider circumstances that pressures of some kind were brought to bear on the censors to respond promptly to genuine protests by respected Muslim organisations. After all, as the local press reported throughout that week, Rushdie was due to speak against censorship at a high-profile anti-apartheid literary festival in South Africa on 31 October 1988 at the invitation of the Congress of South African Writers, which was affiliated to the United Democratic Front and the ANC. At that moment, then, the government had obvious political reasons for ignoring its official commitment to the idea of South Africa as an exclusively Christian state, which was written into the terms of the Publications Act of 1974, and for being especially concerned about the depths of Muslim feeling. Rushdie, in the end, decided to cancel his trip—but that is another complex story (see the Whose Literature? Whose democracy? Which Public Space? post).

Annotated page from the fax dated 21 Oct 1988

June 2002: another decision

Whatever the truth about the precise extent to which the murky political manoeuvrings of the last apartheid government lay behind the banning of The Satanic Verses in 1988, the significance of the decision remains merely local and now historical. The same cannot be said for the subsequent ruling in the post-apartheid era. This decision speaks to the future of literature and its relation to the state in our globalised, multicultural era.

The novel remained technically banned in South Africa until February 2002, when it was removed from the list of restricted publications in terms of the new Film and Publication Act (1996). At that point many of the same local Muslim organisations that had campaigned against Rushdie in the apartheid era wrote to the new Film and Publication Board objecting in the strongest possible terms and requesting that a ban be re-imposed. As the Board, which classifies rather than censors—its motto is ‘We inform you choose’—has an obligation under the Act and the Constitution to be ‘attentive to the needs and values of every faith system and every cultural community in South Africa’, it convened a committee of experts to reconsider the case in June 2002. Representatives from among the principal complainants were invited to participate in the deliberations but none turned up.

The committee recognised that it faced a problem. For one thing, the option of outright banning was no longer available, except in very limited cases mainly to do with child pornography; for another, as it noted in its report, ‘it might be argued that in a secular state, questions of religious propriety have no place in governmental decision-making’. Moreover, under the new Constitution the committee was bound to uphold Rushdie’s right to ‘freedom of expression’, specifically including ‘freedom of artistic creation’, as well as his and his publishers’ property rights. True, the constitutional guarantees in the case of the right to free expression were not unlimited, as they did not extend to the ‘incitement of imminent violence’ or the ‘advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm’. Yet, even these limitations, did not apply to ‘bona fide literary publications’, which were specifically and additionally protected under the terms of the new Publication Act (1996). None the less the committee was ‘sympathetic to the charge of blasphemy and of severe hurt to the religious sensibilities of the Muslim community’ and felt an acute ‘sense of responsibility to the complainants, and to the public at large, to take these issues seriously.’

Summing up its three main findings, which were on this occasion based on a careful reading of the novel and its history, the committee noted that

although The Satanic Verses is considered profoundly blasphemous and injurious by the Muslim community, it does not in fact advocate hatred against Islam or indeed against any other religion or faith system. The material which is found to be injurious is a parodic literary deconstruction of ancient Islamic lore and belief, which is an unpacking of tenets of faith by an author, who, in the novel, questions the basis of his own belief. Salman Rushdie’s Rabelaisian scepticism may well be profoundly shocking and hurtful to many of the Islamic faith but it does not invite hatred towards Islam. It certainly does not argue, in its pages, any incitement to cause harm or civil violence. Third, The Satanic Verses is without argument a bona fide literary work by a leading international literary figure.

For these three reasons the committee felt it was not ‘legally possible’ to consider giving the novel an XX classification which would, in effect, ban it by ‘restricting all public access or possession’. Instead, it opted for an X18 classification, thereby limiting its distribution to adults only, and it recommended that the novel ‘should not be for sale in public in South African commercial booksellers or any other commercial outlet, nor should it be available for borrowing from any municipal or public library’ (the latter restriction did not apply to legal deposit or university libraries).

This is why I could not take a copy of the novel off the shelves at Exclusive Books in Cape Town in 2006, though, as the committee insisted, these restrictions did not prevent me from asking a local bookseller to order one for me, or, ‘given the transnational nature of the contemporary book trade’, buying one for myself over the internet.

Literature and Democracy tomorrow

It could be argued that The Satanic Verses does not make a very good test case for the post-apartheid legal framework in South Africa. For one thing, somewhat like D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the landmark trials of the 1960s, its status as a ‘bona fide literary work’ was, like Rushdie’s reputation, too securely established by 2002 (though it is, of course, still contested in some quarters). It is possible to imagine other kinds of writing, say, a parody of vicious racist thinking or of pornographic violence against children published by a previously unknown author on the internet, about which it might, in principle, be impossible for any committee of literary experts to reach a consensus. As the British philosopher Bernard Williams argued on several occasions this is an insuperable juridical difficulty for any law intended to ‘protect creative activity’ in so far as it ‘makes the deeply scholastic assumption that the merit of a given work must be recognizable to experts at the time of its publication.’ This kind of argument lay behind the recommendation, put forward by the 1979 UK Commission on censorship and obscenity, which Williams chaired, that all restrictions on the ‘printed word’ (what about the digital word today?) should be lifted, and, no doubt, similar arguments about the essentially contested nature of the literary, or of artistic merit more generally, could be made in defence of the abolition of blasphemy laws. To this extent The Satanic Verses decision in 2002 does not expose the potential pitfalls of the 1996 Publication Act, which does not lift all restrictions on the printed or digital word and does indeed make ‘deeply scholastic’ assumptions, partly for the well-intentioned purpose of redressing the legacies of apartheid censorship laws which did not protect creative activity.

Any claims about the international relevance of the 2002 decision rest, however, on the fact that the Board restricted the public display of the novel not under the Publications Act but under Section 36 of the 1996 Bill of Rights. This section, which raises the self-reflexive question about application of constitutionally guaranteed rights in unusually general terms, empowers the Board to restrict any right—in this case primarily Rushdie’s right to free expression—‘to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom’. Any such restriction was also dependent on other factors, including ‘the nature of the right’ and ‘the importance of the purpose of the limitation’. The committee took the view that its recommendations regarding the public display of the novel, which allowed the Board to ‘satisfy the theological and religious concerns of the South African Muslim community while also allowing for the crucial principle of right of access and freedom of expression’, represented a legitimate interpretation of this general constitutional provision. In the context of the controversies over the Danish cartoons in 2005, and the passing of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act (2006) in England and Wales, this decision, which did in fact appear to satisfy the complainants, unsettles the predictable positions that tend too quickly to dominate public controversies about free expression. At the same time, it opens alternative, less Manichean ways of thinking about the future of literary writing today.

In response to Muslim calls for an apartheid-era ban to be re-imposed, it offered not censorship (nor a reinstatement of blasphemy law) but recognition, at the level of the state, of the offence many law-abiding Muslims feel the novel has caused them and their faith. In response to secularist, libertarian, or literary arguments against all forms of state censorship, it offers both a robust defence of Rushdie’s commitment to literature as a space in which, as he put it in an interview in September 1988, ‘there are no subjects which are off limits’, and a practical way of acknowledging, again at the level of the state, that understood in these terms literature has the power to produce shattering real-world effects.

In short, like the Constitution on which it is based, the SA Board’s decision goes beyond the disablingly emphatic either/or, in which an absolutely autonomous public sphere seems to be the only alternative to state censorship, or vice versa, while recognising that, in today’s unpredictable, connected, and heterogeneous world, states are judged and defined not just by the rights they regard as indispensable but by the ways in which they decide to apply and uphold them in particular cases.

Taking down a copy of The Satanic Verses from the shelves in Waterstones in Oxford in 2006, I was powerfully reminded of the modern, specifically European history in which as, Jacques Derrida once put it, literature tied its ‘destiny to a certain noncensure, to the space of democratic freedom’. Asking for a copy to be ordered for me in Exclusive Books in Cape Town, gave me a vividly visceral sense of just how valuable, fragile, and potentially incendiary that linkage continues to be.

(Coda, May 2022: though the SA Board’s 2002 decision is still technically in force, it appears local booksellers are no longer adhering to it, as the paperback edition of The Satanic Verses is now on display once again.)

This is the revised text of a talk originally given at Kapittel, the annual literary festival held in Stavanger, Norway in 2006. An edited version appeared in Norwegian as ‘Sataniske vers I Sor-Afrika’, Dagbladet, 26 September 2006, 51.

literary activism…politics..human rights

Exhibit A

1. The text above comes from the minutes of a meeting held by the founding centre of the international writers’ group PEN in London on 5 October 1926. It is essentially a draft of what would become PEN’s original ‘Statement of Aims’, the final wording of which was collectively agreed the following year. This statement, in turn, formed the basis of what would become the ‘PEN Charter’ in 1948 (see ‘Shadows and Ghosts: The Evolution of the PEN Charter‘).

2. There are several ways to think about the wording of this document. You could, for instance, begin by seeing it simply as a strategic move in the debates PEN was at the time having with itself as a relatively new organisation. From the start, its inaugural president, the English writer John Galsworthy, was insistent about keeping PEN apart from, perhaps above, the increasingly polarized politics of the immediate post-war years. ‘It meddles not with politics,’ he wrote in a letter to the London Times on the eve of PEN’s first international congress in April 1923. Three years later, he had reasons for wanting to reaffirm this commitment. At the congress held in Berlin in May 1926, he had been challenged by a group of young German writers of the left—the so-called ‘Gruppe 1925’, which included Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, and Ernst Toller—who considered PEN’s stance on politics outdated and naïve at best, irresponsible at worst. The draft statement was Galsworthy’s response.

3. Yet it was not just a rallying call designed to bolster internal support for the kind of literary activism the London centre believed PEN should represent. By adding the disclaimer about politics, the draft statement took a position in a wider contemporary debate about writers and their public role. For one thing, it allied PEN to champions of an autonomous ‘Republic of Letters’ like Julien Benda, whose polemic against intellectual partisanship La Trahison des Clercs appeared in 1927. For another, the disclaimer linked PEN to the International Committee on Intellectual Co-Operation, the precursor to UNESCO within the League of Nations, which was founded in 1922. Despite its role as an advisory body to the League, the ICIC, like PEN, saw itself as an international association of non-aligned clercs in Benda’s sense. Its founding members included Henri Bergson, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Paul Valery, and Gilbert Murray, many of whom had close ties to PEN (see Artefacts of Writing, Chap. 1).

4. As the ‘Gruppe 1925’ showed, it is not difficult to critique this non- or anti-political position. Brecht and his co-members thought it damned PEN as an establishment dining club. Today we might be more inclined to focus on what it reveals about early PEN’s parochialism not just as a largely Anglo-European affair but as a coterie of clercs who had no qualms about appointing themselves guardians of the universal—Benda’s eternal ideals of justice, truth, and beauty. ‘We writers are in some sort trustees for human nature,’ Galsworthy declared, toasting PEN’s inauguration in 1921. As it happens, it was not long before events caught up with him. At the Dubrovnik congress, just over a decade later, members of the newly Nazified German PEN tried to save themselves from censure by invoking Galsworthy’s humanistic ideals, showing how amenable his strictures against political meddling were to political meddling. The strategy failed. PEN took a stand against Nazism and, for the first but not the last time in its history, it expelled one of its own centres. ‘After 1933’, as the international secretary Hermon Ould later put it, ‘the International PEN and a Totalitarian form of government were shown to be incompatible.’ Does this mean PEN’s early efforts to stand ‘apart from politics’ were fatally undermined? Flash forward to Exhibit B, which comes from PEN International’s current website.

Exhibit B

5. The key detail here is the apparently unremarkable wording about its charitable status: ‘International PEN is a registered charity in England and Wales with registration number 1117088.’ To appreciate the significance of this you need to search gov.uk’s official Register of Charities where you can learn two things. The first is that PEN International was incorporated as a charity under the law of England and Wales only in 2006. The second is that it defines its primary object as a charity in the following elaborate terms:

To promote human rights (as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (“UDHR”) and subsequent United Nations conventions and declarations and in regional codes of human rights which incorporate the rights contained in the UDHR and those subsequent conventions and declarations) throughout the world.

Its second and only other charitable object is ‘to advance the understanding, appreciation and development of the creative art of writing.’

6. So far, perhaps still so unremarkable. At this point, however, it is worth recalling that, until the changes introduced under the Charities Act (2006), human rights organisations were officially barred from charitable status under English law because they were deemed to be political. This changed with the passing of the Human Rights Act (1998), which laid the foundations for a new statutory understanding of such organisations—in effect making the promotion of human rights a legitimate ‘charitable purpose’ in the eyes of the state. Determining exactly what this means, especially for an organisation like PEN, is not straightforward, since, as the Charity Commission specifies in one of many guidelines on this necessarily vexed issue, ‘the purposes of a charity must be clear, unambiguous and exclusively charitable,’ or, more bluntly, ‘an organisation will not be charitable if its purposes are political.’ In another document, the Commission explains that ‘political purpose’ means ‘any purpose directed at furthering the interests of any political party; or securing, or opposing, any change in the law or the policy or decisions of central government, local authorities or other public bodies, whether in this country or abroad.’

7. And yet, ever since its founding in 1921, even under Galsworthy’s presidency, PEN has been campaigning on behalf of writers against any number of abuses, whether by state or non-state actors, ranging from specific acts of persecution and censorship to policies on free expression and linguistic rights. So how can it be ‘a registered charity in England and Wales’? Again, the Charity Commission’s guidelines provide some intricate pointers.

Whilst a charity cannot have political activity as a purpose, the range of charitable purposes under which an organisation can register as a charity means that, inevitably, there are some purposes (such as the promotion of human rights) which are more likely than others to lead trustees to want to engage in campaigning and political activity.

So, PEN can campaign to change laws, policies, and political decisions, since that is a legitimate ‘activity’, not an illegitimate ‘purpose’. In another, arguably more intricate formulation, the guidelines accept that promoting human rights is at best ‘analogous’ to ‘existing charitable purposes’, rather than charitable per se. ‘Given that respect for human rights is widely regarded as a moral imperative’, the Commission notes, ‘the well-established charitable purpose of promoting the moral and spiritual welfare and improvement of the community provide a sufficient (but not the only) analogy for treating the promotion of human rights generally as charitable.’ In these variously subtle senses, then, PEN still ‘stands apart from politics.’

8. Why bring these two exhibits and historical moments together? Not to claim that PEN’s early position on politics prefigures the strange convolutions of English charity law in the twenty-first century. Rather, tracing the genealogies of thought and action connecting early PEN’s efforts to create space for itself and for literature outside politics with the terms in which human rights are conceptualized today, reveals something about the history of literary activism over the past century, and perhaps something about its future too.

For more on the history of PEN, see PEN: An Illustrated History (2021), and the  Writers and Free Expression project.

Writers’ Groups: An Interview with J. M. Coetzee

(This copyrighted interview forms part of the AHRC-funded ‘Writers and Free Expression’ project—see https://writersandfreeexpression.com/. Do not reproduce all or any part of it without permission. If you wish to quote it for academic purposes, please reference the project blog.)

Peter McDonald: The South Africa of the 1970s and 1980s, the first decades of your career as a published author, was a place of many writers’ groups. The most established—PEN South Africa (1927) and the Afrikaanse Skrywerskring (1934)—were still in existence, albeit in variously fragile or altered states. By the time the Afrikaans group severed its ties with PEN International in 1967, for instance, the local, English-language branch was split between two often rivalrous centres, one in Johannesburg, the other in Cape Town. However, the former was more or less defunct when Dusklands appeared in 1974, leaving only the latter then under Mary Renault’s presidency. From then on, a wide array of younger, more active local groups began to emerge, including the white-led Artists’ and Writers’ Guild (1974), the Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde (1975), the Medu Art Ensemble (1977), a revived, short-lived, black-led branch of Johannesburg PEN (1978), the African Writers’ Association (1981), the Writers’ Forum (1985), and the Congress of South African Writers (1987). To what extent were you aware of these various groups and their activities? And did you formally join or simply associate with any of them?1

J.M. Coetzee: Of the organizations you mention, (a) I was aware of PEN but never thought of joining, it seemed too Anglo and too tame; (b) I can’t remember whether I was actually a dues-paying member of the Skrywersgilde, but I certainly attended some events and was friendly with André Brink and Elsa Joubert as well as with the secretary of the Gilde, Amanda Botha; (c) I was aware of COSAW but didn’t like its politics.

PMcD: What concerned you about COSAW’s politics?

JMC: COSAW conceived of itself as an arm of the Struggle. I was not part of the Struggle.


PMcD: What about the later decades from the 1990s onwards?

JMC: I don’t recall relations with any writers’ organizations in the 1990s. At a certain moment I began to be courted by PEN International, but that may have been after the 2003 Nobel Prize.


PMcD: As a contribution to the vast body of writing about censorship, Giving Offense (1996) stands out in part because you take issue, as a writer, with ‘the craft-solidarity of men and women of letters’ (44).2 You point, for instance, to the ‘dynamic of escalation in which the rivals, writer and censor, become less and less distinguishable’ and you challenge the commonly-held ‘myth’ among writers—even ‘intellectuals as a class’—that they will ‘outlast their foes and even write their epitaph’ (44, 118). Underlying this self-aggrandizing narrative, you also see a larger story at work, the origins of which you trace to ‘the Judaeo-Christian teaching of the vindication of the truth in the fullness of time’ (44). State censorship was a pressing concern for you more or less from the start of your career, given the circumstances in South Africa at the time. Yet it appears this particular turn in your thinking—your move to a certain style of auto-critique—happened sometime in the late 1980s. Was this a self-generated intellectual shift on your part or were there particular events or experiences that prompted you to start questioning the ethos, perhaps even the ‘groupthink’, of your own profession?

JMC: I believe it was self-generated (to use your term). I don’t remember that there were any events or experiences that prompted the shift. It struck me that the orthodox position taken by the profession—that ‘the word’ would ultimately triumph—failed to take into account those (many?) writers whose word the state had successfully stifled and/or expunged—and who had therefore failed to become part of the historical record—to say nothing of those (many?) projects that had been abandoned or less than wholeheartedly tackled because their authors could foresee no way in which these would see the light of day, by which I mean be published in a normal way.

PMcD: In the introduction to Giving Offense you note—presciently from today’s perspective—that ‘the bans effected by monopolies or near-monopolies can in practice be no less complete than those implemented by bodies of censors with the force of the law behind them’ (x). In the book itself you focused on the latter, that is, on the way state censorship deforms not just public life but the ‘inner drama’ of writing (38). Since the collection appeared, however, the digital revolution has given renewed impetus to the former—I have in mind the rise of private corporations (monopolies?) like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It also created the conditions for a new breed of self-appointed cyber-censor to emerge who sometimes works in concert with the state, sometimes outside it. Do you think these technological developments, all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?

JMC: You ask: “Do you think these technological developments [social media in particular], all of which give more power to non-state actors, oblige us to re-think our guiding assumptions about censorship: what it is and how what you called its ‘contagious power’ affects writers (37)?”

I am not the best person to whom to address this question. I belong to a generation (the last generation?) that can manage to live happily and successfully outside the ambit of social media. From my sketchy knowledge of what pressures social media are capable of exerting, I would guess that these pressures are better considered under the rubric of social conformity or groupthink rather than under the rubric of censorship.


PMcD: For a writers’ group, the International PEN Club, as it was called at its founding in 1921, is unusual because it was not established to oppose censorship or champion free expression. Those key commitments, which began to take shape in 1933 following the Nazification of German PEN, the book burnings and the persecution of writers in Germany, were formally codified as Article 4 of the PEN Charter only in 1948. At first the organization promoted international solidarity among writers as a counter to the malign nationalism that many felt had led to the First World War. John Galsworthy, the founding President, also believed that as ‘trustees for human nature’ (his phrase) writers had a special calling to act as a counter to politicians. Hence Article 1 of the Charter, which was ratified in 1927: ‘Literature, national though it be in origin, knows no frontiers, and should remain common currency between nations in spite of political or international upheavals.’ The phrase ‘national though it be in origin’ was dropped in 2003. On the same occasion, ‘should’ became ‘must’ and ‘between nations’ was changed to ‘among people’. So Article 1 now reads: ‘Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.’

You never considered joining PEN South Africa, which was regularly criticized at the international level throughout the 1970s and 1980s for its inertia and lack of inclusiveness—it narrowly avoided being expelled on more than one occasion. But you were elected Vice President of what is now called PEN International in 2006, a capacity in which you continue to serve. What value do you see in this association and what good do you think writers can do collectively today?

JMC: As I remember it, the Cape Town PEN of my youth was more or less indistinguishable from the English Association,3 culturally conservative, disdainful of Afrikaners and the Afrikaans language, and a bit timid. I never considered joining. PEN International is a different story. It is a big organization whose word carries a certain weight. It speaks up on behalf of persecuted writers—in practice, in our day, mainly persecuted journalists—and does a lot of good work behind the scenes too.

PMcD: In 1986 you attended PEN International’s 48th Congress in New York, together with Sipho Sepamla, Nadine Gordimer and a host of other leading writers, including Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Wole Soyinka, Saul Bellow, Toni Morrison, and Salman Rushdie. The Congress theme that year was ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’ Looking back on the occasion in 2011, Rushdie commented: ‘In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, “open the universe a little more.” Twenty-five years later, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.’ Do you agree? And, if so, what factors have made it harder in your view?

JMC: I would prefer not to frame the question in Rushdie’s terms, which seem to me extreme. I would prefer to rephrase the question as follows: Is it true that works of literature no longer carry as much weight, in the eyes of the public, as they once did? If it is true, why should it be so?

I am not going to attack the question frontally, but I will make four observations that relate to it.

One. If we are thinking of the effect of books on public opinion, then we must concede that some of the books that have had the greatest effect on public opinion have not been great books. Examples: The Jungle (1904) by Upton Sinclair; Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell.

Two. If, on the other hand, we are thinking of the effect books can have on the way we see the world, then we may seriously have to consider that some books can indeed have this shaping power, even on people who do not read them but absorb them from the surrounding discourse. Example: War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy.

Three. There was a time (the time of Dickens, the time of Zola) when the printed novel was as good a medium as any for airing concern over pressing social issues. This is no longer true. The lag time between writing and publication is too long. There are too many competing media, of equal or greater immediate impact. Example: cinema.

Four. Because of the way the publishing industry operates (has been forced to operate) nowadays, the public has unprecedented access to writers in person, and is thus able to confirm quite speedily that there is nothing special about them. This has in fact always been true. There was nothing special about, for example, Leo Tolstoy.

Observations One, Three and Four go some way toward accounting for the declining prestige of the writer. Nevertheless:

Five. While there is nothing special about writers as human beings, there is (sometimes) something special about what they write.

©J. M. Coetzee 2019


1For more details about these various groups, see Peter D. McDonald, The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences (Oxford, 2009), Chapter 3.

2See J. M. Coetzee, Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (Chicago, 1996).

3JMC notes: The English Association (Cape Town) saw its task as promoting English literature (understood in a fairly traditional sense) and the values associated therewith among the general educated public.

Censorship today

Once upon a time we all knew what censorship was, who the good and bad guys were, and what could be done to make the world a better place. Look up the noun “censor” in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’ll find an outline of a much-told story under definition 2 (b):

An official in some countries whose duty it is to inspect all books, journals, dramatic pieces, etc, before publication, to secure that they shall contain nothing immoral, heretical, or offensive to the government.

Attributing the first instance of this usage to the English poet John Milton, the lexicographers illustrated it with a quotation from his anti-censorship pamphlet, Areopagitica (1644):

He (the author) … must appear in print like a punie (i.e. a new schoolboy) with his guardian, and his censors hand on the back of his title, to be his bayl and suretye that he is no idiot, or seducer.

Following Milton’s gendered rendering, the story, therefore, went something like this: the censor was the bad guy (Milton’s “temporising and extemporising licencer” with his “cursory eyes”). The writer was the good guy (Milton’s “learned” champion of “free writing and free speaking”). And the plot involved the struggle of the latter against the former not just in his own interests, as a member of the “Republic of Letters”, but in the interests of creating a freer and more grown-up commonwealth for all.

True, the odds were stacked in favour of the all-powerful, infantilising state. Yet no matter how often the struggle played out, the outcome was assured: the seemingly puny champions of freedom and truth would prevail in the end.

There wasn’t much room for us so-called “ordinary readers” in all this. We were either the innocents the paternalistic-repressive state was supposedly trying to protect, or the voiceless fellow citizens on whose behalf the writers were supposedly fighting. But, if we wanted to make the world a better place, it was clear who we needed to support.

Messiness of history

For about three centuries, that is, for the greater part of what we could call the “age of print”, this story had some currency and even some plausibility. I’ll gloss over the messiness of the actual history that all too often throws up inconvenient facts. It reveals in some cases, for example, censors who were not cursory or paranoid state bureaucrats but “learned men” in Milton’s sense who believed they were making the world a better place.

It is not as if the canonical story dated overnight. Even in the early years of the digital revolution, it looked like it had plenty of time to run.

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

So wrote John Perry Barlow, former lyricist for the American rock band, Grateful Dead, in the opening of his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, an Aeropagitica for the digital age.

Barlow wasn’t being quixotic. Far from showing any signs of weariness, the old state giants were already gearing up to make the most of the opportunities the new technologies afforded for extending their sovereignty, whether repressively (think of China), defensively (think of the UK) or aggressively (think of Russia).

The complication was that the emerging tech giants of the post-industrial world were themselves poised to become the new disrupters in ways Barlow did not anticipate.

Over the course of the next decade the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter — the “private superpowers” as historian and commentator Timothy Garton Ash dubs them — turned Barlow’s brave new cyber world into a vast profit-making machine effectively run on surveillance algorithms. At the same time they created the conditions for other actors, whether of the state (think of Donald Trump), allied to it (think of India’s social media vigilantes), or outside it (think of the worldwide population of trolls), to wield new forms of “temporising and extemporising” power.

Sometimes adding the threat of violence to the mix, these new enemies of free expression act like a novel breed of self-appointed censor, deforming, infantilising or closing down public debate at every opportunity.

Freedom to hold opinions

Opening the digital Pandora’s Box may have spelt the end of the old story but well before the 1990s developments in international law had already introduced other complications:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

In the aftermath of World War II and amid the gathering shadows of the Cold War, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) represented a major turning point in the long story. It marked the moment the battle-scarred “giants of flesh and steel” collectively agreed if not to curb their powers, then at least to affirm the freedom of expression as a shared ideal.

Only six years later, however, another key UN instrument, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (drafted 1954, signed 1966), added some significant qualifications. The first was under its own Article 19(3) which covers the “rights and reputations of others” as well as “national security”, “public order” and “public health or morals”. Then in Article 20 it prohibited “propaganda for war” and “any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”.

As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the phrase “hate speech”, the origins of which it traces to a report about Hitler in the New York Syracuse Herald for 29 September 1938, now encompasses

hatred or intolerance, esp towards a particular social group on the basis of ethnicity, religious beliefs, sexuality, etc.

At the same time Article 15(3) of the companion Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights embellished the Universal Declaration. It specifically required states,

to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.

Taken together, these legal, cultural and technological developments made the canonical story look less and less tenable in the new millennium. They have also reopened the most basic questions once again: What is censorship? If thinking in simple binaries still makes any sense, then who is on the side of the good and who the bad? And what can we ordinary citizen-netizens do to make the world a better place?

Peter D. McDonald

This article originally appeared on The Conversation, 9 September 2018 under the title ‘Censorship through the millennia. And trying to locate it in the 21st Century‘.