Rushdie has consistently argued that people should not be harmed for the words they write. But, as Graham Williamson points out, this is not the same thing as believing words are harmless.

In Salman Rushdie’s 2012 memoir Joseph Anton, the author makes it very clear what grounds he would like his work to be defended upon.

“Rabelais too had been condemned by religious authority; the Catholic Church had been unable to stomach his satirical hyperabundance,” he writes. “But he had been defended by the king, François I, on the grounds that his genius could not be suppressed. Those were the days, when artists could be defended by kings because they were good at what they did. These were lesser times.”

Rushdie admits elsewhere in the book that he yearned for “the quality defence” – for someone to defend The Satanic Verses not because of some blanket principle regarding freedom of speech, but because they thought the novel was a masterpiece.

These passages formed the core of Zoe Heller’s famous panning of Joseph Anton in the New York Review of Books, and there was a time when I found it disagreeable too. It is, unquestionably, an elitist argument, both in its only partly ironic monarchism and its demand to be seen as exceptional. Yet, looking at the British press’s reaction to Rushdie’s stabbing at a literary event in New York, I find myself agreeing with him.

“This is the book”, tweeted Matthew d’Ancona alongside a picture of The Satanic Verses. “It’s fantastic. Read it tonight. Defend its author’s freedom to write and publish it without apology or compromise”.

Over at The Times, Matthew Syed struck a similar tone, squeezing out a brief acknowledgement that the book was “beautifully written” before segueing to his main point that “Western liberals” were complicit in Rushdie’s stabbing.

Over at the Guardian, Hadley Freeman wrote about Rushdie’s courage and beliefs before broadening out to wider points about offence and censorship. She ends by decrying a culture where “comedians such as Chris Rock… are physically attacked on stage because someone was offended”.

The Identity TrapRace, Representation and theRise of Conservative Diversity

Hardeep Matharu

Over and over, the same points are reinforced: Rushdie is an admirable man, therefore his book is admirable, and the most admirable thing about both is that they gave offence. This is not an unfamiliar refrain in the British media.

Earlier this month, The Times ran a front-page story with the headline ‘Universities Blacklist “Harmful” Literature’. The story, based on 300 Freedom of Information Act requests to various universities, found just one instance of a book being taken off a syllabus because of concerns over harm. Nevertheless, it made the front page, and the conservative media machine began churning out columns about how if those students got over their silly offence and actually read the books, they’d be a lot better off. Studying books, particularly offensive books, enriches the mind.

Or does it? The other major university-related story of the moment, after all, concerns the free-fall collapse of the English degree. The same columnists who championed literature’s right to offend Islamic fundamentalists and students were mostly quiet when Sheffield Hallam dropped its English Literature degree.

Indeed, The Times‘ preferred party of government is eager to accelerate the process, with Rishi Sunak promising a purge of academic departments – mostly in the humanities – that don’t result in enough paid jobs. Was anyone from the conservative press concerned about all those students who will no longer be able to read offensive books? If they were, they kept quiet.

All this exists in the context of a wider discourse about “offence”, where pointing out that someone has taken offence is treated as the cheat code to win any argument. Yet everyone is offended by something. The columnists I mentioned above were all clearly offended by the attack on Rushdie, as we all should be. More embarrassingly, shortly after the op-ed classes finished denouncing imaginary students for refusing to read controversial books, they started fulminating about an Edinburgh Fringe play depicting Joan of Arc as non-binary. The idea that good art is art that offends was conveniently forgotten about in that case.

Judging a book by its controversy has a strong appeal for market fundamentalists, because it means reducing the value of a text to its effect on other people. Just as To Kill a Mockingbird is good because lots of people read it, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is good because lots of people were offended by it. The idea that both those books may have intrinsic merits, ones that would still exist even if they never sold a copy, is too much for a hurried hack to consider. 

Pluralism versus PopulismThe Battle Rages On

Peter Jukes

The problem is that it’s impossible to talk about art – really talk about it – without revealing something of yourself. I could explain why Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is my favourite novel, but I would have to mention the months I spent absorbed in it, the aphorisms it gave me, how it both reflected and reshaped my opinions on society, on nationality, on life. (Musil’s General von Bordwehr, who believes libraries should be streamlined by compiling the best ideas from all their books into one volume, would doubtless be a Sunak supporter) Modern columnists won’t do this because it means exposing your principles, and anyone with principles is capable of being offended by having those principles traduced. 

Instead, we are told that you shouldn’t be offended by literature because literature is just words, and words can’t hurt you. This is an acceptable piece of advice to give to a child, but it’s bizarre coming from writers. If words don’t matter, why not get a different job? Why waste your time doing something insignificant and harmless?

Rushdie has consistently argued that people should not be harmed for the words they write. This is not the same thing as believing words are harmless. He crafted a beautiful parable about free speech in Haroun and the Sea of Stories; he also wrote a stinging attack on imperialist literature in Outside the Whale. This is not a contradiction. He wrote both because he takes writing extremely seriously. Those who have written about him recently could learn a lot from that.

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