Self-censoring: time to fight back against the culture police

“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).

(Post by Manick Govinda.) Western civil society prides itself on freedom of speech and free expression, particularly in the creative arts. Writers and artists are free to make work on any subject, theme or idea that they choose. Or are they?

There have been some alarming trends in the arts, not so much state censorship, but external pressure on artists by their peers, curators, programmers, publishers and activists on social media platforms who bully and intimidate artists and writers to withdraw work or desist from making art about areas that are deemed to be ‘problematic’.

The latest incident is the case Amélie Wen Zhao, a rising star in the Young Adult Fantasy (YAF) fiction genre, who was born in Paris, raised in a multicultural community in Beijing, and now lives in New York City. She describes herself as having “a bone-deep love for traveling and immersing herself in new worlds and cultures…working as a full-time financial professional by day, and writer at night”.

Imagine her joy when it was announced that she would be receiving a six-figure sum agreement from her publishers and that her debut novel Blood Heir, part one of a trilogy, would be out this summer. She announced in the new year on Instagram that “I’ve waited almost my entire life to say this: ‘My book is coming out this year!!!’ And my dream is coming true. What could be better?”

Blood Heir could have been an international success in the YAF scene, with agreed sold publishing rights in the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania. Yet this young author posted on her Twitter account four weeks later that “I have decided to ask my publisher not to publish Blood Heir at this time….I don’t wish to clarify, defend, or have anyone defend me. This is not that; this is an apology. With the feedback of the community, I feel this is the right decision.”

“With the feedback of the community”…who are these people? It turns out to be a group of bloggers who are themselves YA writers and ‘critics’ and many of them holler out loud on social media platforms, denouncing writers who have stepped out of their lane for any depictions don’t fit into the politically correct norms of identity politics.

What was there to object to about a rising female Asian-American talent in YAF fiction genre? The book is a re-imagining of the Russian story of Anastasia (made famous by the Disney animation film of the same name), with more racially diverse characters and a lot of magic. Where Zhaos, according to the politically correct YA bloggers, stepped out of her lane, was allegedly in her depiction of an evil empire where “Affinites are reviled and enslaved”. Cue the red alert, trigger warning: there are slaves in the book.

In the apology made by Zhao, she explains how she emigrated from China at 18 years old and drew from her own multicultural upbringing:

“I wrote Blood Heir from my immediate cultural perspective. The issues around Affinite indenturement in the story represent a specific critique of the epidemic of indentured labour and human trafficking prevalent in many industries across Asia, including my own home country. The narrative and history of slavery in the United States is not something I can, would or intended to write, but I recognise that I am not writing merely my own cultural context. I am so sorry for the pain this has caused.”

The offended SJW bloggerati accused Zhao of racism. The comments on the book’s Goodread page are good examples of the censorious social media mob in action, who find “anti-blackness and blatant bigotry” in the book:

“This book is about slavery, a false oppression narrative that equates having legitimately dangerous magical powers that kill people with being an oppressed minority, like a person of color. This whole story is absolutely repulsive. There is a slave auction in which the black slave girl dies for Ana and she sings her a lullaby as the dies.”

Let’s remind ourselves for a moment that this is fantasy fiction for teenagers, not a history text book. Are non-black writers never allowed to write about black characters that die? Are other forms of slavery secondary to the African-American experience?

This intersectional competition of who is the most oppressed in history is divisive and is a clear warning to writers and artists: stay in your lane, you are not allowed to create an imaginary world that doesn’t conform to the politically correct formula of character, plot, history or place. Many of Zhao’s critics were delighted to hear that she had pulled her book from publication, that she would go back to her laptop and re-write the offending pages and then, only then, should the book be considered for publication.

This social media jury has crept into the world of publishing and curating. In publishing they are employed as ‘sensitivity readers’ who now dominate the world of YA fiction. One writer said: “my sensitivity readers made [my book] objectively better. By pointing out places where I’d unwittingly succumbed to stereotypes, they helped me create richer, more nuanced characters.” So, while they are not censoring work, they are suggesting parts of a novel be re-written. Surely that should be a dialogue between the editor and author, not a pool of politically correct readers, who will call into question your characters and themes of your novel. This means that an arbitrary ad-hoc group of people will nudge writers and artists to write politically acceptable fiction.

The author Anthony Horowitz, who wrote the Alex Ryder novels, was told that he couldn’t create a new black character for a novel as it could be deemed ‘inappropriate’. In Museums and Galleries we are witnessing the increase in community committees or representatives who will have a say in the selection of artists, commissions and exhibitions. The likelihood is that they could steer a work away from controversy or risk.

In my encounters as an artists’ mentor and advisor, I have met some artists who have been told that some works they are exploring may be ‘problematic’ because the subject matter may cause offence on account of cultural identity issues.

The decision by Amélie Wen Zhao to cancel the publication of her novel is part of a wider trend by a vocal group of social media activists who are out to vilify and silence artists. The writer Zadie Smith sums it up well when she recently voiced concerns about policing by social media: “Identity is a pain in the arse”.

Artists, curators, arts professionals and the general public must take a stance against these self-appointed arbiters of cultural content. While Amélie Wen Zhao has said that she isn’t seeking defence, we must defend and argue for the right of artists and writers to create literary or artistic work about any subject they wish. The policing and censuring of the imagination is a dangerous path to go down, and a practice shared with authoritarian regimes of historical Stalinism and current repressive regimes in other parts of the world.

Zadie Smith is again correct when she said that novelists (and by extension artists) had not only a right, but a duty to be free. We must defend unfettered artistic freedom.

Manick Govinda is an independent arts consultant, artists’ mentor, adviser and arts producer. He runs arts campaigns for the Manifesto Club.