This page is about how far a writer can go in terms of freedom and speech without provoking unnecessary or gratuitous harm in people who’d rather not get involved in that sort of artistic ding-dong.
I mention this because I’m in the middle of a delicate period of narrative risk. There are big issues to be tackled and I’m not one to shirk them. However, I also realise most writers self-censor all the time and, there is an argument to say, that there is no ultimate freedom of speech or expression. It’s simply a matter of read, assess, edit and, then and only then, publish and be damned.
Let me give you an example. This is the first line of a manuscript called In A Rushdie Winter, which I’ll be covering in more detail in a later post. But for the time being, this is what I’ve written:
“Salman Rushdie started it, my brother Maj would always say, but Allah would end it.”
Could this line be interpreted as offensive, not least to an author who suffered from a death sentence and years in hiding? I don’t think so because, to get into the head of the character called Maj, I’ve had to say exactly what he was thinking; namely that Allah will be the ultimate judge of Salman Rushdie, not anyone from this earth.
This novel is full of those judgement calls. There’s a scene that covers the book-burning event in Bradford in 1989. How much of that could I show? Am I inciting trouble by bringing that scene to life? Again, I feel it’s something that had to be explored otherwise the novel becomes an exercise in timidity which is something the whole Rushdie affair never was.
Let’s take another line in another of my novels. This time Season of Sid. On page 146, I write, in relation to Old Trafford
‘Look, I know the history of this sacred place: Munich 58, Fred the Red, United 93…’
The original line went on to talk about ‘how planes went down’ and I felt, even though this was a comic novel, that joke went too far. Did it? I think it did because of the correlation of 9/11 and the Munich disaster. So I took the line out. In the published version, nothing about planes is mentioned at all. This is how a writer constantly works – self-policing and editing. There is only a tiny gap between freedom of speech and freedom to offend.
On the subject of planes, there is a scene in Wacko Hacko (you can read the first chapter in Extracts) where our protagonist Jamie Parkes is watching the 9/11 attacks on a TV screen. He’s a tabloid reporter in a newsroom but as this horror unfolds – and the editor tells everyone they’ve got to change their journalistic ethics in light of the event – Jamie merely laughs it off and storms off to do a spot of phone hacking in the pub. Offensive or just in bad taste? I thought it was bad taste. Most tabloid journalists are in the business of pompous exaggeration – and I wanted to get some of that across. There was also the desire to show that hacking celebrity phones mattered more than an event that killed thousands of people.
So what I’m trying to illustrate here is that freedom of speech is a sticky concept – even for writers. We feel that we are totally free but, actually, we are constantly watching our step (particularly writers like me who seemed to be drawn to challenging subjects; this era is full of those kind of issues).
But on the flip side, nothing is going to stop me from tackling stuff like terrorism and phone hacking head on because a limp-wristed, wishy-washy response to these subjects is like no response at all. You might as well play darts and have a picnic. No-one wants to get caught up in a ruck where they get threats about what they write – and I hope I never will – but you have be true to your material and, that means, leaving it all on the page. Well, almost all.