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This item is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

In Jerusalem the Irish singer Sinéad O'Connor and the New Testament so riled Jewish fundamentalists that the singer withdrew from a peace concert after anonymous death threats were received at the Irish and British embassies. A bill is going through the Knesset banning 'the possession, printing, distribution and import of any literature aiming to persuade people to change their religion.' The object of the legislation is to put obstacles in the way of evangelical groups such as the Jehova's Witnesses, but legislation so deliberately general in drafting - the Vatican itself suggested - might lead to a ban on the possession not only of New Testament recordings but of the New Testament itself. Palestinian Israelis may feel that the Koran is in some peril too.

In Cairo Naguib Mahfouz's 1959 novel Awlad Haratina, branded 'heretical' by Egypt's Islamic University, and the grounds of the 1989 fatwa against the Nobel-Prize winning author, remains unavailable. Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman, spiritual leader of the Gamaat Islamia sect, declared when the fatwa was issued: 'If we had punished Naguib Mahfouz when he wrote Awlad Haratina, Salman Rushdie would never have dared to write his book.' In 1994 there was an attempt on Mahfouz's life.

In Poland Carl Bernstein's warts-and-all biography of the Pope, His Holiness, has been published in a translation which is doctored so as not to offend Polish Roman Catholics, or (it is alleged) the Pope himself. A representative of the American publisher Doubleday suggests the cuts are redolent of old-style censorship. References to Polish history, and especially to Auschwitz, have been toned down or removed.

In the United States groups like Family Friendly Libraries have accelerated their campaign against the American Library Association for its 'pro-gay, anti-family radical agenda'. Keen not to be presented as 'censors', the pressure groups generally campaign for restricted access to 'dubious' books and not, as in the past, for their removal and incineration.

In London Peter Theroux's new translation of Naguib Mahfouz's Awlad will not be published by Doubleday's 'British arm'. The book is out of print in Britain as in Egypt. The British publisher adduces 'commercial interests' which could be taken to mean that the book, one of Mahfouz's most celebrated, would not sell in sufficient numbers, or that it might cause severe repercussions among British Muslim groups, or that its publication could damage the export market for other books by the same publisher. The discipline not imposed upon Mahfouz in 1959 was certainly imposed on Rushdie and his publishers, and as well as its impact on the writer and his work it has made his publishers more cautious than they were in exercising their freedoms.

Even without - as yet - a global literary culture, publishing is conducted by multi-national companies and conglomerates. Events in Cairo, Jerusalem, Teheran or Louisiana can affect editorial choice on the other side of the world. Editorial decision used to consist of two calculations: has a proposed project got merit and, if published, will people buy it? Additional calculations which have little to do with the intrinsic worth of the product or the nature of the immediate markets must now be made. The religious and democratic pressures that weigh upon an editor are more insidious than the constraints of copyright and libel legislation, which at least are partly defined in law. Like a Soviet editor in the 1950s, the modern employee of a large publishing house or conglomerate needs to weigh pressure groups against one another, consider various levels and densities of 'correctness', and make decisions which are political in a complex and often numinous sense. Edward Lucie-Smith outlined some of these considerations, for the art critic, in his Letter in PN Review 112.

The balancing act is a delicate one. Southern Baptist groups in the United States have persuaded the International Bible Society to desist from publishing a gender-neutral translation of the Good Book in which 'men' becomes 'people', presumably because pressure from Baptist groups is still stronger than pressure from Feminist groups. The spectacle of national and international censorship, when power is no longer vested in a 'responsible' government department to which texts are referred but is diffused through a fragmented and interest-riven body politic, will be instructive, revealing over time the fluctuations in influence and ascendancy of different groups, religions, nations and interests, and most tellingly the levels of compliance of an industry upon whose courage and independence the health and future of literature and 'informed democracy' depend.

It is time to evolve a new critical discipline which considers not the death of the author, the instability of the text, or the unfolding fascinations of theory in relation to language, but concentrates its attention on the editorial and manufacturing history of publishing, monitoring the progress of texts through the various mangles and filters that bring them, at last, to the library shelf, the bookshop or the electronic media. Such a discipline will entail the study of specific texts in their stages of composition, editing and 'packaging', the ways in which translation, abbreviation and expansion work, revealing year by year how the industry that gives us books regards and treats it writers as producers, us as readers, and the world market as a censoring factor. Such a discipline is pre-textural and will help define cultural moments and the ever-shifting boundaries of our freedom as authors and readers.

This item is taken from PN Review 117, Volume 24 Number 1, September - October 1997.

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