A low, dishonest year

Philip Jones invites Bookseller readers to nominate their heroes and villains of book publishing – because that’s what we’re missing this year, another meaningless list.

Still, it’s a good theme for a year that has seen few heroes but an abundance of villains. There has been actual and attempted censorship of writers by a variety of competing orthodoxies, including corporate and religious movements.

And there are still more lesser villains who’d never be seen near a book bonfire but nevertheless give practical and intellectual aid to the censors. From the Google execs who grassed up dissident journalist Shin Tao to the Chinese dictatorship to the pseudo-left attention seekers who scream ‘Islamophobia’ at anyone who dares to criticise religion. ‘Free speech martyrs’ … ‘I’m sure it’s good publicity’… ‘she lied on her asylum application, you know’ … ‘can’t we talk about the credit crunch instead?’…

When I first got into books and reading the idea that someone would try to get a book banned or kill someone for writing a work of fiction was surreal. I knew little of Salman Rushdie although my parents had his books lying around the house. I was aware of the big cases regarding D H Lawrence and James Joyce but these controversies seemed archaic and laughable. We surely lived in more enlightened times… but as they say, those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

2002 saw an early intimation of what was to come when Michel Houellebecq was put on trial for his alleged incitement to racial and religious hatred in his novel Platform – a charge carrying a potential twelve months’ imprisonment. When I started this blog in 2007 I didn’t think there would be many incidences like this. Now, I find it hard to keep up with them – the latest involves several leftwing bloggers being sued for libel by a Tory activist.

Of course we in the West are lucky because the government isn’t actually throwing people in jail for reading the online Guardian (although, if the Tories get back in, who knows?) Many millions around the world are not so fortunate.

Still, our country suffers from its ludicrous libel laws, so heavily weighted in favour of the plaintiff that the term ‘libel tourism’ has been coined to describe ‘the cynical and aggressive use of claimant-friendly libel laws in foreign jurisdictions’ – i.e. any crook or fascist who doesn’t like what people publish about him can use our libel laws to crush writers in cases that would be laughed out of court in Europe or America. There are people about whom it is very dangerous to write anything at all.

Of course the recession will change things. Jonathan Jones argues that culture is authonomous from economics and that writing won’t be killed by the crunch – it may even thrive. But in publishing, less cash means less risk. Directors will not want to risk a libel suit, even for the next Ulysses. On the plus side, there is going to be an inquiry into our libel laws. On the minus side, the UN has organised what amounts to an international blasphemy law.

You can nominate your own heroes at the Index on Censorship blog.


(Image courtesy Librarians Against Sarah Palin)


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