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This item is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

At the end of February the novelist Sir Kazuo Ishiguro expressed concern about the ‘climate of fear’ that has beset many starting writers, inhibiting them from writing what and how they want. There are problems of theme, point of view, and even of form that might prove toxic to explore. They dread that ‘an anonymous lynch mob’ will ‘turn up online and make their lives a misery’. He told the BBC: ‘I very much fear for the younger generation of writers.’

The suddenness and the effective anonymity of the lynch mob frightens, and the fact that it bays with one voice though many in the mob have not seen the provocation that started it off, only its righteous indignation. These collective actions have consequences, yet there is no way to hold anyone, any group, to account. As a result, the Nobel novelist suggests, writers who are new, or nervous, censor themselves as a precaution. They avoid viewpoints that might raise hackles, they shy away from creating characters outside their immediate experience. He remembered how his first novel ‘was written from the point of view of a woman’. A Pale View of Hills (1982) is the story of a Japanese mother trying to come to terms with the suicide of her daughter. The book made a mark and Ishiguro was not censured – four decades ago – for appropriation. Would he be let off so lightly today? Is the fact that his new novel features a female robot an attempt to step around a potential mine?

There are such perils! – of being ‘boycotted’, ‘erased’, ‘cancelled’. It is not only a ‘freedom of speech’ issue but a challenge to thought and imagination themselves. Negative capability has never been such a treacherous exercise, objective correlatives have never seemed so perilously subjective. Courage is urgently needed and in short supply. Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher and rector of the University of Salamanca, is reported to have spoken out at a public meeting. The crowd cheeringly responded to the symbolic cry Viva la Muerte. An old man, his copybook not entirely without blot, he rose to his feet: ‘Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.’

At the level of ‘freedom of speech’, the amount of traction a relatively small number of social media Savonarola’s have achieved is striking. And how cowed those who are themselves deeply invested in the social media have become. One contributor to PN Review was subjected to orchestrated social media abuse but, not being a subscriber to Instagram or Facebook, despite the volume and virulence of the action, did not react. The effect was like a military attack waged on a deserted city.

Ishiguro declared, ‘If I shrink back from something it’s because I would doubt my ability to be able to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it. But, you know, I tend to be quite arrogant about my ability to learn about things, if I put my mind to it.’ Such arrogance is earned, not given. ‘To learn enough about it, to write fairly about it’ is an empowering phrase, a sufficient constraint on the writer who is creating, or essaying, or satirising.

On 9 February, Brian Ferguson reported in the Scotsman that Scottish PEN has spoken out against the ‘culture of fear’ that has developed among Scottish writers as a result of the anti-social perversion of social media, and the ‘chilling effect’ this has had on Scottish writing. There is ‘a need for action to “stem the perpetuation of hatred online” and ensure writers can “express themselves without fear of harassment or violence”.’

It is heartening that PEN has taken up the theme unambiguously, speaking of the ‘sustained online smearing and harassment’ of a Scottish poet. Scotland risked ‘the loss of supportive and welcoming communities and the alienation of writers from readers and each other’. There is certainly wariness among writers to engage with supposedly controversial themes for fear of poking an always primed hornets’ nest. There is safety from impending collective rage only in right-think and silence. Shaming, cancellation, trolling, exorcism and sanctioned slandering-by-sound-bite are part of the current curtailment of liberty. The techniques are those of extreme orthodoxy disguised as moral alertness and radical correctness. This orthodoxy has somehow rendered itself impregnable to irony.

Ferguson says that Scottish PEN was slow off the mark: a full year passed between the Scottish Poetry Library first raising a particular case and PEN’s concerns about ‘an escalation, particularly on social media, of disharmony, which is creating fractures that aren’t sustainable or healthy in a small country like Scotland’. The delay is part of the ‘culture of fear’ that has had even institutions dedicated to freedom of expression being worse than cautious in speaking out for individuals who need support. Jenny Lindsay outlined her experience in a memoir, ‘Anatomy of a Hounding’, published in the The Dark Horse in September. Scottish PEN said, ‘Jenny’s experience speaks to a wider issue in online communities, where a culture of fear leads writers to worry about being abandoned by their peers or implicated by association with others, many second-guessing how their work or even historic online posts could be misconstrued. Writers should feel confident in their ability to express themselves without fear of harassment or violence. We believe harassment in online spaces has a chilling effect on our literary culture.’ The question must be, why did it take so long to reach such an obvious conclusion? Where are the other cultural institutions that might be expected to weigh up the evidence and realise that there are many individuals in need of support?

The February issue of Poetry magazine, the legendary Chicago institution which was recently editorially transformed by protest into a showcase for diversity, was devoted to publishing work by current and former prisoners. One such prisoner was detained for trafficking in child pornography. He had accumulated so vast a library of obscene material that the police themselves were shocked: ‘more than half a million images and films of child sexual abuse,’ the Guardian reported.

When the magazine was called out, the editors declared, ‘it is not our role to further judge or punish [people] as a result of their criminal convictions’. Fair enough: but is it their job to showcase such individuals indiscriminately? The poem was not exceptional; the poet was. Kirk Nesset had been a professor of English literature. He served six years in prison for his offences. The guest editors, said Poetry, ‘didn’t have knowledge of contributors’ backgrounds’. ‘[T]he editorial principle for this issue was to widen access to publication for writers inside prison and to expand access to poetry, bearing in mind biases against and barriers for incarcerated people.’ One of the guest editors had herself suffered abuse as a child and was deeply troubled when Professor Nesset’s offence was revealed.

The magazine’s editors took a high moral tone. They understood the harm sexual offences of this kind did, they said reassuringly, but nonetheless felt justified because the paedophile had served his time. ‘As editors, our role is to read poems and facilitate conversations around contemporary poetry.’ They want to encourage ‘deep and empathetic reading’. Thus the guest editors are exonerated (but also, as it happens, harmed) because they had not been told the contributing poets’ crimes; and the editorial hosts are exonerated because they had created a scenario in which anything goes.  No room in Chicago for Ishiguro’s conscientious pre-requisite, the boringly dutiful necessity ‘to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it.’

At the University of Leicester, if you are a medievalist, everything goes. The decision to scrap Beowulf, Chaucer, Gower, Gawain, Langland and much else puts paid to a once distinguished department and to a subject which has, unexpectedly in some cases, enriched readers’ – and writers‘ – lives. A spokeswoman for the University described the new curriculum as ‘decolonised’ and ‘inclusive’.

It was less an ideological than a commercial decision (‘a drop in demand from undergraduate and postgraduate students’), approved by engineering specialist Professor Nishan Canagarajah, Chancellor of the University. Medieval literature and English language are dropped because those making decisions are unaware of the depth of English studies, of what constitutes a University discipline. Sixty posts will be cut in ‘restructuring’ which will offer instead ‘excitingly innovative’ modules. The spokeswoman insisted that under the current curriculum, ‘many reading lists are dominated by white authors. This ignores many great BAME scholars and also means that BAME students do not see themselves reflected in what they are being taught’. But BAME scholars are already doing distinguished innovative work in traditional areas, and BAME writers are already taught on the existing curriculum, and more are added each year. 

This item is taken from PN Review 258, Volume 47 Number 4, March - April 2021.

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