In 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?