Literary Lynching - Dorothy Bryant

Holt Uncensored
Holt Uncensored
Pat Holt's columns
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About Chapter 7
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About Chapter 6
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About Chapter 5
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About Chapter 4
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About Chapter 3
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About Chapter 2
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About Dorothy Bryant
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Why the term "lynching"?
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"Literary Lynching"

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS A LITERARY LYNCHING?
"Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice."
Henry Louis Gates, Chair, African American Studies, Harvard University

When we talk about censorship, we usually mean the silencing of writers by ruling powers, religious or secular: Galileo's life and Salmon Rushdie's life threatened by religious authorities; Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Allen Ginzberg, etc. dragged into court for "indecency"; a whole generation of writers terrorized or killed by Stalin or Hitler or Mao or dozens of lesser dictators. These are the most serious threats to writers, but not the only ones, and not the only ways to suppress a book.
        William Styron said, "There have been very few writers of any stature who have not been subjected to a great deal of abuse." Any serious writer endures mean-spirited reviews, angry family and friends, irrational misreaders, and assorted cranks with personal agendas. These are all normal hazards of the job. "If you can't take the heat..." as the politicians say. Nobody forces us writers to publish our thoughts. But when the abuse goes beyond the expected heat, it can become an unofficial attempt at censorship resembling the spontaneous, irrational gathering of a lynch mob.
        Literary lynching often begins with a furiously irresponsible attack by a reviewer. So far, situation normal — the attack should just sputter out or become a controversy — that is, a heated exchange of differing opinions. But it doesn't. Instead, the reaction against the author spreads, sparking attacks that distort or reinvent the contents of the book and throw whatever nasty labels are current ("traitor," "racist," "pornographer") at the author. These labels are then spread by people who have never read the book (and may even make statements vowing not to). Unofficial blacklisting by bookstores and libraries may follow. All these attacks are abetted by silence or even by half-hearted agreement from respected people who know the accusations are lies. Even worse can be the silent withdrawal of friends, acquaintances, and even family. This silence can be more shocking to the author (and more lonely) than official government suppression. "Not what our enemies did," as Hannah Arendt put it, "but what our friends did." Worst of all — especially for us readers — may be the effect on the injured author's work. She or he may be unable to write for a time or may be knocked off course by emotions, and write something that detours from the real strength of his or her talent.
        Why would a book trigger, not an argument, but a widespread, spontaneous effort to obliterate it, and sometimes even the author? Sometimes the author has written a truth that many people know but are unwilling to see revealed. But sometimes the book exposes nothing — it simply happens to come out at a moment in history when widespread fear and anger are seeking release, and the book becomes a target — a scapegoat in the most primitive sense of the word.
       
       Often these reasons — denial of facts, anger, fear — coexist, as they did in 1982, when my seventh novel provoked an attack on me. At the time I realized that my experience was far from unique, in fact was mild compared to some I had heard of. Why hadn't I read more about such attacks? Probably for several reasons. Since the attack isn't government censorship, no First Amendment watchdogs step forward to defend the writer. Since it is not a court prosecution, there is no weighing of testimony for or against the author, no evidence presented, no verdict handed down. Since the attack takes on some aspects of a witch-hunt, those in agreement with the writer are often frightened into silence, lest they be accused of the same thought-crimes. With lack of debate and lack of any authoritative judgment for or against the author, lies about the book and the author may simply float in the air, like a vaguely unpleasant odor, throughout the author's life and even beyond. Like an actual lynching, once it's over, people want to forget how and why it ever happened.
        To better understand what had happened to me, I decided to read and write about some of my literary betters who suffered similar attacks. I chose six renowned authors who suffered attacks severe enough and sustained enough (two of them still ongoing) to be well documented in English: Ivan Turgenev, Thomas Hardy, Kate Chopin, George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, and William Styron. Since an attack on any one book cannot be considered in isolation, I tried to sketch in an overview of each writer's life and work, against the background or context for the attack — historical, social, political, and psychological. Finally I touch on the effects of the attack on the author, on literature, on us. Discussion of each book in terms of all these elements makes it clear, I think, that the practice of literary lynching is not confined to one political, religious, national, or ethnic group but, unfortunately, can occur at any point along the political and social spectrum.
        In the New York Times of June 10, 1999, Margot Jefferson described a PEN-sponsored panel discussion by prominent writers: "Blasphemy: What You Can't Say Today in America." Jefferson wrote, "Trouble comes when you offend someone with the legal, financial, or cultural power to censor and ostracize you." But, according to Jefferson, the panelists did not talk about being ostrasized for something they had written. They talked about the FEAR of being ostracized — about "what happens when one is left alone with the constraints the psyche imposes, and with anxieties about how one's audience will respond."
        The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have had two opposing effects. On the one hand, by reminding us that we are all Americans, they put a damper on the Identity Politics and Culture Wars creating the anxiety Jefferson describes. On the other hand, grief and fear have made some readers confuse dissent with disloyalty, causing them to lash out with name-calling and demands for boycotts on writers critical of government policy. So far, these attacks have sputtered out instead of spreading into concerted attempts at unofficial censorship. But publishers are notoriously timid; fear of offending — especially in time of war — is part of bottom-line concern. This fear could silence some voices we need, more than ever, to hear. I hope that looking back on a few cooled-off cases of unofficial censorship will help us to understand the psychology of literary lynching, and to resist it — not only in others but in ourselves.


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