OPINION - Tomiwa Owolade: Salman Rushdie’s warning rings true – ignore the Twitter outrage


The last five years have not been good for anyone that believes literature should be free from censorship. The most extreme recent example of a novelist punished for writing a book came last year when Salman Rushdie was attacked in the upstate New York town of Chautauqua by a young man. Rushdie was badly injured but survived the attack.

And he has been surviving ever since the death sentence (or fatwa) was imposed on his life by the gruesome theocracy of Iran in February 1989 for writing his allegedly blasphemous novel: The Satanic Verses.

I was in the audience when Rushdie was given the Freedom to Publish award at the British Book Awards last May. And in his acceptance speech, which was recorded in his New York home, he emphasised that we shouldn’t only care about freedom of speech when it is threatened by those willing to murder.

Publishers think they are coming from a good place, but what they are doing is toxic

Rushdie also warned against subtler forms of censorship. In particular, the creeping tendency to bowdlerise books from the past. The publishers who do this think they are coming from a good place, but what they are doing is toxic: they are trying to impose moral and political orthodoxy on art.

“We live in a moment,” Rushdie said, “at which freedom of expression and freedom to publish has not in my lifetime been under such threat in the countries of the west.” The examples he gave are instructive. He mentions Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. But he could have mentioned Enid Blyton too. Increasingly, contemporary editors are trying to “update” classic books from the past by removing or replacing offensive words or phrases. Rushdie argued that “the idea that James Bond could be made politically correct is almost comical.”

Another aspect of contemporary literary censorship concerns the baleful influence of online mobs. In September 2021 Carmen Callil, the founding editor of Virago, quit her membership of the Society of Authors, the main trade union for writers in Britain, after decades as a member. She left because she felt the organisation did not show enough support for the teacher and author Kate Clanchy after Clanchy’s book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, was denounced on Twitter for racism and ableism. “Why do they care about Twitter: why don’t they care about their authors?” Callil asked me this in exasperation when I interviewed her in April 2022.

This also means that many in publishing are now less inclined to publish controversial books. The Newsnight journalist Hannah Barnes is one clear example of this. Her book Time to Think, an exploration into the Tavistock gender clinic, became a Sunday Times bestseller and was critically acclaimed when it was published this year. But more than 20 different publishing houses rejected the book when the proposal was submitted to them.

They thought it was transphobic or used by transphobes to vindicate a bigoted point of view. It was only accepted by Swift Press, a small independent publishing company that was founded in June 2020, and which also re-published Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me after her relationship with her initial publisher Picador broke down.

Picador tried to subject Clanchy’s book to sensitivity readers, another attempt by some publishers to make their books safe from being denounced in the future. Sensitivity readers are freelance editors who go through a manuscript to ensure it’s not offensive to marginalised communities. Say a white author is writing a novel that features a black protagonist. This author, it is argued, doesn’t have the lived experience to fully depict the life of his black protagonist. She thus needs a black sensitivity reader to improve her work. The problem with this is the assumption that an individual person from a marginalised or oppressed background can speak on behalf of the whole group; but a young working-class black person from Peckham doesn’t necessarily have the same “lived experience” as a rich middle-aged black person from Putney. One could say they may have a shared experience of racism, but if a black character is defined exclusively by their experience of racism, an author is not doing her job properly: she is not making her character as varied or distinctive as possible.

All these issues speak to an obsession with sensitivity and an anxiety over provocation. In a 2018 speech, Marina Warner, the former president of the Royal Society of Literature, warned about the rising presence of something called morality clauses in publishing contracts. This allows a publisher to drop a writer for what a publisher deems to be unacceptable behaviour. Warner argued that being “a good person” was increasingly conflated with “good writing”, and that there is “a growing pressure” on writers “to be a personality and perform in public”.

Tolerance is not something that can be simply expressed; it needs to be practised

This culture has worsened over the past five years. We need to stop being swayed by social media outrage. Publishers need to stop being seduced by the temptation to cleanse classic works of literature or employ sensitivity-readers to neuter contemporary ones. Morality clauses are an offence against the principle that what ultimately matters is not the moral probity of its author but whether the book stands up to artistic scrutiny.

Violence and intimidation constitute the most severe threats to free speech, and should be the most vociferously condemned. This does not mean that the more insidious threats should be treated with indifference. Tolerance is not something that can be simply expressed; it needs to be practised. We need to start practising more of it now.

We want to draw on the experiences of a wide variety of individuals in our free speech inquiry. If you have a story to tell please email: freedomofspeech@standard.co.uk