What is the most dangerous book you have ever read?
If you look at books that are banned around the world typically it is because of their sexual content, anti-religious sentiment, depiction of drug use, championing of violence or revelations concerning state secrets.
Such books, arguably, are not dangerous, except as they bring to light behaviour that those in power find morally reprehensible or threaten to expose internal corruption. More recently, hate crime has given cause for issuing bans.
A dangerous book threatens to bring about a widespread alteration of consciousness. A dangerous book threatens the status quo.
Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ simply poked fun at Islam, and was banned for that reason. As a book, it was only really dangerous for the author, who was threatened with death and violence by religionists. The text itself was not dangerous in that it did not promote social change or intellectual enlightenment. In reality, its content remains effective only at the adolescent level.
Nearly all dangerous books are non-fiction in the accepted sense of the word.
An exception to this is a work of fiction which probably is best-fitted to be referred to as the most dangerous novel ever written: ‘What is to be done?’ by Nikolai Chernyshevsky.
This tale of ‘new’ men and women set in mid-nineteenth century Russia was the book Vladimir Lenin carried around with him at all times, reading and re-reading it over and over again. This is a novel that inspired a whole cultural and political revolution, started precisely one hundred years ago, thereby affecting the whole world.
Closed societies, of course, are notorious for shutting down serious intellectual debate or any depiction of their cultural inadequacies.
This latter reason for trying to ban a work of fictional literature is exemplified in the Czech government’s attempt to ban the work of Bohumil Hrabal, and his 1974 novel ‘The Little Town Where Time Stood Still’, in particular. During that period, only Socialist Realism was being permitted as an art form in the Soviet Union. Hrabal’s life-affirming narrative showing the vivacious behaviour of characters set in and around a Czech brewery town was considered extremely provocative. They tried to censor the writer himself, but were unable to do so because his spirit would not be thwarted.
Although they may overlap, banning and censorship are not necessarily the same thing. The former is more overt than the latter, so that to ban a piece of work is to make it physically inaccessible, whereas censorship subverts the intellectual process in many different forms, with banning as just one example.
So, you can use censorship to decide what class of person may be able to access certain material (as with film categories, for example) or, in a more refined form, by what is or isn’t made available in the first instance, on celluloid, on the stage, in the gallery or between covers (with digital representation being an extension of the same). As a writer, it is with the last example that I am concerned.
Let’s take a simple example, not from fiction where the lines may become a little more blurred and subjective. Take modern history and a series of events that many people still alive went through: one writer offers their view of what happened during a given period, another writer proffers their own, each backing up their arguments, supposedly, with relevant facts. Let’s be even more specific. Oxbridge educated/connected Dominic Sandbrook puts together an account of British politics in the mid-seventies which is published by long-established publishing house Allen Lane, while Queen Mary College educated / Trade Union connected John Medhurst covers the same period in a book published by newly-formed Zero. Which book do you think is available for free from the local Public Lending library? Which version of the same time-period is chosen by the BBC as the basis for its own history? You already know the answers. The Establishment view is reinforced over and over, and, in this way, a form of censorship is exercised over the alternative – if actually more credible – assessment. One of these accounts is dangerous, the other is more soft-soap. And only one is made readily available to the public.
One of my own books, ‘Question’ – a veritable ‘What is to be done?’ novel – took thirty years to write, and mine and its own history are a reflection of this apparently benign yet irksome and effective method of censorship.
Go back to 1981 and a manuscript written in a fortnight satirizing Maggie Thatcher and current society (sound familiar?) is seized upon by an established literary agency. They want to see what else I have in my locker and when they are provided with non-derivative examples which fail to meet their identikit picture of the author-as-young-man all interest is quelled. So be it. I am young. Fearless. The first part of ‘Question’ finds its way to a young, up-and-coming agent at another agency. Like me, she is fearless. But not as fearless. This project is also dropped. And so on. I should add this fiction is not a satire but a full-on assault of British neoliberal culture. Part two takes another ten years to write, partly written in the old Soviet Union and partly in the West, and again there no takers. Part three is completed in an Al Quds hotel room as Jewish settlers cavort in the streets outside, and the manuscript finds its way back to that same fearless literary agent. Except a look at her roster now reveals a whole host of Establishment writers. A piece of work which had aroused so much excitement in her fearless mind thirty years prior – a piece of work that is now more exciting and relevant than back then even – is not actually considered worthy of perusal by the aged agent. She has, instead, become the censor between the work, the publishers, and the public. And that is true of all the literary agencies and mainstream publishers, whether it be A.M. Heath, Curtis Brown, A.P. Watt or others.
As for the Lending Library service. The 2004 novel ‘A Sort of Symphony Piece’ was made available nationwide in paperback form and, locally at least, was positioned on the fiction shelves amongst the humungous brick-sized hardback bestsellers published by the likes of Allen Lane (surveys had revealed that people were buying books according to size rather than content at that time). The library had its own censoring policy of choosing which books would be displayed at the check-out under their ‘reads on the go’ scheme. These books were of the usual well-advertised, soft-soap variety. As an experiment, I plucked my relatively slim paperback volume of ‘A Sort of Symphony Piece’ from out of the obscurity of the brick-sized hardbacks and placed it on the ‘reads on the go’ rack. Within a few minutes it had been checked out.
Both ‘Question’ and ‘A Sort of Symphony Piece’ are dangerous novels in the sense that each has the capacity to fulfil the qualification of that which ‘threatens to bring about a widespread alteration of consciousness’.
Whereas something like ‘Death and the Dead’ and ‘Life is a Feeling’ proffers the kind of upliftment of the spirit that the Soviet authorities found so reprehensible in Hrabal’s work. An upliftment that many people with influence in the neoliberal world would also like to see quashed.
You do not have to ban a book to make it inaccessible to the broader public – on the contrary, this tends to make the artefact yet more desirable and sought after. Far more effective is it to deny the work any credence whatsoever in the first place.
QUESTION and A SORT OF SYMPHONY PIECE by Glyn F. Ridgley, published by Valley Independent Publishing, are available to order at bookstores and online either between covers or in Kindle format. As are DEATH AND THE DEAD and LIFE IS A FEELING.