Patrick Ness Slams Bad Sex Awards

Day Four of the Writer’s Conference brought the debate on censorship, the proceedings of which I painstakingly recorded in my notebook – which I then lost somewhere between Charlotte Square and my hotel. Censorship by circumstance, perhaps, (it’s cheap and tatty with loud stripes and the label from a VW parts order stuck on the front; if anybody finds it, I’d love to have it back).

So this brief account is from memory, (a highly reliable source as we all know) and summarized in the extreme. My apologies for any omissions.

What seemed to emerge was a view that there are two main types of censorship: that imposed by the state or by repressive religious cultures, and the kind of self-censorship writers impose upon themselves, either because they fear the possible repercussions, or because they do not wish to offend. Often, this latter impulse could be considered praiseworthy, arising as it does from respect for the views of others, or the inherent possibilities of grace in a culture – but all were agreed that we do not need that principle enshrined in law. It would be a mistake to allow the state to tell writers what they could and could not write – unless, in the belief of some present, such writing set out to promote violence or cause direct harm to others.

The idea emerged that writing was, or could be, a process of negotiation – with an editor, with a specific audience, and with one’s own reservations about what ought to be said.

The conference heard stories from around the world about the ways in which censorship operated in a number of countries; during this discussion, Junot Diaz drew our attention to the case of Arizona, where Latino literature has effectively been banned from schools, because the teaching of Latino studies was claimed by the state authorities to be ‘divisive’.  This account of a clearly racist policy provoked general anger and disbelief in those present, and the conference resolved to prepare and issue a statement in opposition to this policy.

Online feedback to the discussion raised the question of how and how well new technologies might help to work around and subvert censorship – it would have been interesting to see this aspect of the debate go further but time was running out and it was clear that the conference would have to leave some key issues to future discussions and the wider debate being conducted on the web. I imagine some of the comments in that sphere will point out that this summary is woefully incomplete (and I would be the first to admit this) but the key points of this debate – questions of free expression, responsibility, graciousness and the power of language to inspire, but also to inflame – will run and run. As one of those present remarked “Words are not innocent” and the day’s debate, as vital now as it was in 1962, was a fine reminder of the potentialities of language, for both good and ill.

Finally, in response to the repeated cry that, with its focus on fiction writing, the conference was forgetting the work of the poets present to express ideas and clamour for freedom, a clumsy attempt at a haiku for them:

Even a haiku

Can be self-censored.

I leave out the autumn moon.

John Burnside


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