Having spent the weekend in a deep gloom following the obscene attack on Salman Rushdie, I rejoiced to read reports that he had started making jokes from his hospital bed. His “usual feisty and defiant sense of humour remains intact”, his son Zafar has said.
A Rushdie who stopped making jokes would no longer be Rushdie. He is a fundamentally comic writer, whose masters are Laurence Sterne and Charles Dickens, and it was trying to be funny about Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses that brought the world crashing down on his head back in 1989. Rushdie knew well that the only way to understand something, be it an idea or a person, is to find out what is funny about it; to joke about something is to pay it the compliment of taking it seriously.
In the 33 years since The Satanic Verses came out, however, there is an increasing suspicion of satirical comedy as an appropriate means of telling the truth about the world. Thus The Satanic Verses would be never published today, particularly in an industry that is becoming increasingly risk-averse.
Indeed, publishers are terrified of causing offence in any way nowadays, and if their authors are accused of transgressing against today’s orthodoxies by the moral guardians who congregate on social media, the likeliest response is a stream of apologies or, in some cases, the dropping of the author.
When Kate Clanchy’s Orwell-prize-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me was accused of perpetuating racist and ableist tropes, she felt insufficiently supported by her publisher (and one staff member who expressed the same view was forced to publicly apologise). Neither Clanchy’s book nor Rushdie’s are unproblematic, but we seem now to be a long way from the era in which Rushdie’s publisher, Penguin, not only stood by him but refused to bow to pressure to cancel the paperback edition of the novel; Clanchy’s publisher, by contrast, released her from her contract.
This sort of situation seems likely to intensify. It was recently reported that the old guard are now leaving publishing houses such as Picador and Vintage, and the industry is becoming increasingly dominated by a youthful generation with an in-built resistance to work that causes offence. If The Satanic Verses were to be submitted today, it would be assessed by sensitivity readers, the professional scrutineers whose job is to point out to authors unwitting instances of such offence.
Strangely enough, Rushdie’s novel did undergo a sensitivity reading of sorts, in that the writer Khushwant Singh, literary adviser to Penguin India, warned that certain passages could be taken out of context and made to seem offensive by people who wanted to cause trouble, with the result that the book was not published in India. Today, though, a report like that would probably be sufficient cause for a publisher to send the manuscript back to the author post-haste and wash their hands of the whole project.
Perhaps writers and publishers in the 1980s were more bullish because the threats to freedom of expression were more serious. In 1977, Mary Whitehouse (who had waged her own distinct culture war in Britain) had successfully brought a private prosecution for blasphemy against Gay News, after it featured a poem by James Kirkup in which a centurion lusts over the dead body of Christ after the Crucifixion.
It was a badge of honour to offend Mrs Whitehouse’s sensibilities, whereas today equally dogmatic and censorious attitudes are found among the Left-leaning types with whom publishers find themselves sitting at dinner parties, or even working alongside, although their targets may be different. Certainly, there was no shortage of publishers interested in the book at the time. Rupert Murdoch, some years after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa, told an interviewer: “I think you should not give offence to people’s religious beliefs. For instance, I hope that our people would never have published the Salman Rushdie book” – prompting Rushdie to point out that “Murdoch’s people” at HarperCollins had offered him $100,000 (about £82,943) more for the novel than Penguin had.
If Penguin – and the many other publishers who had bid vast sums for the novel when it was first auctioned – did not anticipate that its content would cause offence, this was partly because Rushdie was a distinguished literary author, a winner of the Booker Prize (for the superb magical-realist novel Midnight’s Children in 1981). The novel was aimed at an audience who would realise that the book was no more crudely mocking of religion than Lady Chatterley’s Lover was crudely pornographic – because Rushdie, like DH Lawrence, wrote with a serious purpose.
After Khomeini issued the fatwa, Rushdie received a huge amount of support from his fellow writers, even those who did not much care for him or his work. Anthony Powell observed in his Journals, after agreeing to sign a letter in Rushdie’s defence, that “Rushdie is a tedious writer, publicity-seeking in a distasteful manner, but this seems going too far on the Ayatollah’s part.”
But then this was a time when the publishing industry seemed confident in the value of high art. These days, the notion of high art is viewed with suspicion by publishers, with literary fiction now defined as “immersive page-turners” – and the idea that an artistic purpose might justify writing something offensive is dismissed as “special pleading”.
Certainly, writers without Rushdie’s cachet have had to struggle on in their fight against censorship without much in the way of support from literary lions. For example, nobody from the literary establishment stepped in to defend Irvine Welsh when the police started tearing down promotional posters of his book Filth in 1998 (these posters depicted a pig in a policeman’s helmet).
In 1991, David Britton, a publisher and pornographic bookseller from Manchester, had the distinction of seeing his novel Lord Horror proscribed by a magistrate – the last novel to be banned in Britain. The London literary elite were conspicuous by their absence at Britton’s (successful) appeal, although the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock did testify on his behalf.
Britton’s novel was a jet-black satire on anti-Semitism, accused of anti-Semitism itself: but then people who deem themselves worthy of deciding whether or not books should be banned are probably not the sort of people who are good at spotting irony or nuance.
Writers who want to use humour are often told by those who seek to censor them that they must “punch up”, not down, and only make fun of those higher in life’s pecking order than they are. Was the atheist Salman Rushdie punching down when he made jokes about things that Muslims, so many of whom face prejudice and persecution, hold dear? Or was he trying to give readers an awareness of the possibility of a different perspective on religion?
The answer may not be clear-cut: but the world will not be a wiser and happier place if writers are forced to shy away from anything that might, in someone’s eyes, cause offence.