pulpit douglas murray

How dare she ‘excuse’ male assaults on women by implying that such things could ever even partially be the fault of women? Hadn’t she got the memo on the only line to take on any male-on-female violence?

Publish & Be Slammed

What excuse is there for Ian McEwan? He may be one of our finest novelists and have won every major award for fiction over the last four decades, yet earlier this year he erred. In April the novelist gave a talk at the Royal Institution on the nature of the self and its evolution throughout history by way of Montaigne, Shakespeare, Pepys and Boswell. Unfortunately for McEwan, he also referred to the ‘troubling’ wave of political correctness and ‘strange sense of victimhood’ currently gripping American university campuses, as well as some of the strange obsessions to which this has given rise. Specifically, he queried the idea that people can ‘choose’ whatever identity they like. Certain things constrain us, he pointed out – biology, for instance.

The novelist’s foot had met the landmine, but the mine had not yet exploded. It took a lone disgruntled audience member to help the detonation along. Sniffing an incorrect view in the Royal Institution night air, this individual asked McEwan to clarify his views on transsexuality. McEwan replied, ‘Call me old-fashioned, but I tend to think of people with penises as men.’ Ka-boom! In the hours that followed, ‘old-fashioned’ was the least of the names McEwan needed to fear. ‘Phobe’, ‘hater’, ‘denier’ and all the rest came flooding in from the online screech mob. The gay rights group Stonewall demanded an immediate apology, as did gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. Within a couple of days they all got their way and McEwan felt obliged to write to the public confessional that is The Guardian’s letters page to explain himself. Imagine what these people could demand he retract if they had ever read one of his novels? It’s enough to make one want to mass-mail The Cement Garden around.

How dare a woman tell the truth in her own memoir?

Since these are the retributions brought down on facts, how could fiction not also expect to suffer? How does imaginative culture respond to such a climate? I wonder if the timorousness of so much British fiction today is not a result of the fear and resultant internalisation of the censorious wider culture. There are already reports of students being censured by their universities for writing stories which contain unsound thoughts. Bristol University recently began disciplinary proceedings against a student for publishing online a short story dealing with the ‘contemporary male psyche’ in a way which the university said risked bringing it ‘into disrepute’. True, there are curiosities here – not least the fact that if you can find a bookshop in Britain today at least one table will be groaning under the weight of sadomasochist pornography marketed for women. But that release valve aside, it is hard to see how a novelist starting off in Britain nowadays could possibly navigate the prim, censorious and unimaginative ethos that our universities and media are drumming into even the most distinguished figures in our culture. Last summer it was Craig Raine’s turn to be turned over as a ‘proto-rapist’ when the internet discovered a poem first printed in the London Review of Books extolling the attractions of a Gatwick airport worker. If people like Raine suffer such assaults and Ian McEwan feels the need to apologise before this hurricane, what chance would a first-time novelist have standing before it?

The new censoriousness which McEwan met that night is now the subject of an amusing short book by Claire Fox called ‘I Find That Offensive!’. Though mainly a tour d ’horizon of the speech-insanity currently affecting British universities, it is also a wise call not to dismiss this as mere lunatic student business as normal. While it is true that students have always behaved idiotically, the current batch, Fox warns, are simply the forward unit of a movement sweeping across the whole of society. From the top to the bottom of our culture we are taking exception to the expression of incorrect words or thoughts in a way that is gradually turning us strangely puritanical about some very specific things. Along the way, the desire to find and chase out the heretic is as persistent as it has ever been. Before this court innocence is no defence, and no facts are permitted by way of mitigation.

Consider the case of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Tim Hunt, who was forced to resign from UCL last year after a selfdeprecating joke made at a conference in Seoul was inflated into a hate-crime against women. Or take the case of rock star Chrissie Hynde, who last year published a memoir in which she expressed regret that she had been ‘off my face’ for much of her youth and that at least one sexual assault had partly resulted from this. Hynde experienced the outrage of what she described as a ‘lynch mob’.

Glancing along the randomly piled occupants of a bookshelf by my desk as I write, I wonder which of them could be written today. Would anyone in this country dare to write a novel like Myra Breckinridge? The subject was full of promise in Gore Vidal’s day, but surely much more so now. Along the shelf sits a late, unremarkable novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Would a writer in this country today get away with publishing ‘British Psycho’? And the less said about that stack of novels by Michel Houellebecq the better.

The truly invidious thing about the society we are creating from the universities up is that it persuades people to conform, lie or censor themselves. Unless they have enough cash or are just missing the part of the brain that cares what other people think, how could novelists starting out today possibly trust their imagination and where it might lead them? We see only the tip of this problem. Because, of course, the books that we read are only those that have won the race for life. Far more books will never make it to the laptop screen, let alone the publisher’s pile, because nobody will dare to write them. Which is a shame, because everything to do with birth, life, love, death, gender, politics and faith has been opened up more in recent years than it has been for decades – perhaps centuries. A fragile, timid and censorious society won’t just miss the show, it’ll miss the opportunity to access the truth, and all the fun that goes along with it. r june 2016 | Literary Review 1