Should authors be free to write about everything?

freedomof expressionIn the midst of the last week’s celebration of the freedom to read, in the form of the annual Banned Book Week  came a challenge to the freedom to write.

What lit the touch paper was a collection of short stories by Hilary Mantel which is due for publication next week. Or to be precise it’s the title story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher August 6, 1983, which attracted the ire of British politicians and Conservative party supporters and a few media commentators.

The story portrays an affluent woman who accidentally allows an IRA sniper into her flat from where he plans to shoot the Prime Minister when she leaves hospital after eye surgery. In the dialogue between these two characters they describe their view of her as ‘cruel’ and ‘wicked’, and ‘rejoice’ in her death.

Some of the most vocal critics of this work declared that Mantel’s imagined account was offensive to victims of the IRA. Others that it was in bad  taste because Mrs Thatcher’s children are still alive.  Still others labelled it ‘sick and perverse’ given that only a year after this date of this fictional attempt, there was a real IRA attempt (which almost succeeded), to kill the Prime Minister at the Conservative Party Conference. Tim Bell, the former advertising guru and advisor to Mrs Thatcher, even suggested police should intervene when Mantel said she personally felt “boiling detestation” towards the politician and said her story was inspired when she looked out of her apartment window and realised how easy it would be to pull a gun on Mrs Thatcher as she stroll through the hospital garden thanking the staff who nursed her though the surgery.

Whatever my views are towards the former premiere, and the political views she espoused, what astonishes me is that the one thing all these critical voices seem to have lost sight of is the fact that this is a work of fiction. Mantel was clearly not plotting to kill a leading politician nor was she inciting anyone else to do the same. Just as Robert Harris imagined an alternative outcome to World War 2 in Fatherland and H. G Wells’ War of the Worlds imagined what would happen if an alien spacecraft landed on Earth, Mantel also asks What if……and Why?

Forced to defend her story, she said her interest was not in fact n the assassination itself, but in examining why the figure of Britain’s first female Prime Minister  “aroused such visceral passion in so many people”. She added: “The two people [in the story] who are looking down at her from the window both agree on the desirability and propriety of the desirability of shooting her there and then, but they have to argue about the reason for doing it ….”

In essence Mantel is doing what generation after generation of fiction writers have sought to do; applying their imagination and creativity to raise questions about our society and the way we live; to force us to think about our own attitudes. If we don’t like the subject matter upon which they write, or the point of view they express does that mean they shouldn’t be allowed to publish?  Or are we mature enough to recognise that to live in a mature society means we accept people have different opinions and allow them to express those ideas in a fictional format providing they are not advocating or inciting actions to cause harm.  The eroticism of Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t be a comfortable subject for many people yet five million people found it acceptable enough to at least buy a copy.  Were all these people wrong to do so – should someone have stepped in and said the book was not suitable and should never be published? If you banned that, then would you allow Dan Brown to portray the Catholic Church as the manipulative and corrupt entity it is in the Da Vinci Code? Would you be ok with Salman Rushdie’s alleged blasphemous references in The Satanic Verses which incensed many Muslims?

Does that mean that every subject is fair game for a writer? Society has to have some framework surely but the problem is that once you start raising questions about the appropriateness of individual topics, its hard to see where it would all end. Shudder the thought that we would have to impose strict rules on what is acceptable and what is not. Impossible to formulate and fraught with difficulties in ensuring people adhere to them.

These are not easy questions and the answers are not easy either.  But surely something that we should be discussing?

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on September 28, 2014, in Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I am in the middle of reading the collection right now. I haven’t gotten to this particular story yet but so far I can say the collection is excellent. I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and even if I don’t like what someone else might say, I will still defend their right to say it, or write it as the case may be!

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  2. Yes, I agree with you, bookertalk. I think fiction is the perfect place to encourage discussion of difficult topics, and frequently feel frustrated when people assess/react to fiction as though it were fact/”real”. You know, as in “I didn’t like the characters so I didn’t like the book”. Well, in life you can avoid, not make friends with, people you don’t like, but fiction is about understanding them. What makes them tick, might there be another story behind what they do, will that change my attitude, what could their behaviour lead to?

    I’ve had fascinating discussions with other readers on the “what if” issue. Roth’s The plot against America is a good example. In it, Roth supposes that the right-wing Charles Lindberg did become President of the USA. She (my reader friend) said “but it didn’t happen” and “but it couldn’t have happened” and I said “but Roth is exploring what if it had happened” and she said “but it didn’t happen” … you get the drift.

    But, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Like Guy, I think there are times when restraint might be called for, when sensitivity to others wouldn’t be a bad thing, but I don’t think there should be rules about this. Fiction/the creative arts are where ideas, pleasant and unpleasant ones, should be explored, tested, by writers and their readers.

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    • That conversation is a gem – you know you are onto a loser when you get the same answer twice. Agree with you about sensitivity. We want authors not to feel afraid to challenge accepted thinking and to be willing to take things to the edge since its at the fringes that you get real creativity and innovation. The question is always going to be ‘where is that edge’. I suppose also that it moves according to the times. What incensed the generation who were confronted with Lady Chatterly’s Lover would be considered extremely mild now

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      • Yes, that’s the challenge isn’t it? It moves with the times … It’s about pushing the line a little further, to be fresh, to challenge received wisdom, whatever, but not do far that you alienate too much. And I think as Guy suggests there can be an issue of timing around certain events, like 9-11 for example. Some things need to settle before you can confront them, otherwise again you risk alienating.

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  3. I can’t see how it would ever be possible to frame a law in relation to this because every case would have to be explored in terms of the intent behind the writing and even then any outcome would be dependent on the subjectivity of the person tasked with making each individual decision. I can imagine scenarios that I don’t think should be able to make their way into print, but why should my sensibilities be allowed to rule what others read. It is a very thorny question.

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    • Exactly, this is a very thorny question or as Sherlock Holmes might say a four pipe problem. You bring up a good issue Alex when you say you need to look at the intent of the writing. The Rushdie book is a good example. He wasnt writing Satanic Verses to be deliberately provocative towards people who follow the Muslim faith but the very fact he mentions certain things was taken to be deliberately offensive.

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  4. Every time there are controversies like this I actually feel elated — to know that books still are causing debate, excitement and passion. To me, it means the likes of Wal Mart, McDonalds, and all the forces that are working to wreck our educational system have not yet succeeded. Yay!!!

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  5. I go crazy when people go crazy about a book. It’s a book, people.

    Here’s my Sunday Salon!

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  6. I’m looking forward to Mantel’ s collection and have broken my book buying ban to order it. I was bemused by all the fuss about it earlier in the week. I think any subject probably is fair game in this day and age but that doesn’t mean everyone will like it.

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    • Which prompts a question of whether it matters if everyone likes it – obviously it does in the sense it makes money for the author and after all they do need to eat. But that’s not the purpose of writing for many of them is it?

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  7. I want to say that I do believe that writers should have the freedom to explore difficult issues from a fictional perspective, but challenge comes in assuming the intelligence of the reader. Then again fictionalizing the fate of public figures goes back at least to Dante.

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    • Featuring a public figure certainly takes it more into the risky category particularly when you choose someone who attracted such polar views but you’re right there is nothing new in that is there. Where would Shakespeare be without all those kings …..

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  8. Yes I think writers artist singers are free to do what they want within reason was a similar storm about morrisey a longtime ago when he had Magaret on the guillotine on his first solo album sure the mantel title was pick to cause debate more than anything

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  9. I saw the title of the Mantel book without knowing its content and thought it would be certain to draw fire (pun intended). I think that Mantel makes an interesting argument for her reasons behind the subject matter.
    But to continue the argument re: the right to write about anything… well, yes, but there is such a thing as restraint and moral responsibility. Not thinking here of the Mantel book, but of books written in poor taste that fictionalize recent murder cases. Family feelings are still raw…

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    • That situation is one where you’d have to walk very carefully Guy. If someone tried now to write a fictionalised story about the two girls from Soham who were murdered I’m sure the public would be incensed – give it ten years or so and maybe the distance of time would reduce that feeling but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t ever go away entirely

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