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

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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‘.