Older generations argue that young peoples insistence on equality in all things including books threatens to stifle free speech. But is that always true?
I wouldnt normally air my dirty literary linen in public, but here goes. When I finished writing my novel Putney, about a 13-year-old girl who has a love affair in the 1970s with an older man and realises decades later that it was actually abuse, my previous editor at Jonathan Cape chose not to publish it. The reasons emerged this year when he was interviewed in the Spectator. If Lolita was offered to me today, Dan Franklin said, Id never be able to get it past the acquisition team a committee of 30-year-olds, whod say: If you publish this book we will all resign. He pointed to #MeToo and social media as fundamental factors: You can organise outrage at the drop of a hat.
Fortunately, Bloomsburys acquisition team overwhelmingly female and mixed aged were brave enough to take on Putney, which was described in the Observer as a Lolita for the era of #MeToo. Whether there was any truth in his words or not, Franklins position reveals how much fear now exists in publishing.
The balance of power between the sexes is famously a battlefield, in both life and literature, and right now were caught in the crossfire between generations. Historically, the old imposed their traditions and moral codes on the young, but now the young are frequently calling the shots, particularly over issues of gender, sex and power. Over the last decade or so, weve witnessed revolutionary change. Many older men and celebrities who thought they had got away with child abuse are now in prison. We used to accept and even laugh at underage groupies sleeping with pop stars; now, they are unmistakably victims. We are also reappraising what the burgeoning sexual freedoms of the 1960s and 70s achieved for women, as discussed so interestingly in Virginia Nicholsons recent How Was it For You? And with every subsequent revelation of the #MeToo movement, my 80s youth has begun to look more grotesque and unintelligible to my daughters generation, which is versed in notions of gender equality and consent.
It is younger people who are clearest about consent, what constitutes abuse, what may be said and by whom. Their seniors, who lived through the sexual revolution, are the ones who claim its complicated. This generational disconnect is about more than the Gallic storm of outrage at #MeToo from Catherine Deneuve and others, who stood up for seduction as opposed to what they saw as irritatingly puritanical, Anglo-Saxon political correctness. In a recent interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that despite being a fanatic supporter of #MeToo, the focus on consent had made the role of women very passive, their input only to either concede or to deny. Since Aristophanes Lysistrata, sexuality has been used as a bargaining chip, but as Gilbert asked, what about predatory female desire, out on the prowl?
When I asked my 23-year-old daughter whether there was sometimes too much emphasis on consent, she retorted: You cant debate the importance of consent when rape is still such a big issue. Its confusing priorities.
I tried again with my 26-year-old daughter. It must sometimes be hard these days for sensitive, intelligent, young men, I said. They have to be so careful about what they can say and do.
Its only about not being an arsehole, she replied curtly. Thats not so difficult. Its just speaking and behaving with respect.
Millennials are frequently nonplussed by their parents generations murkier approach to everything from sex to the environment. Were going through a complete moral earthquake, said Andrew Marr, when I found myself sitting next to him at a dinner recently. Were being judged by our children as morally corrupt.
Any policing performed by young people is surely part of a wider fight, against the horrifying extremes of the far right, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and pornography. These are worrying and challenging times. But while my daughters think it is obvious where the boundary lines are drawn, in my middle-aged and older friends I regularly detect bewilderment and even nervousness about navigating the newly drawn-up terrain. There is a sense that one might cross a linguistic or philosophical boundary by mistake, and that even with the best intentions, the border patrol might be heavily armed.
Are young people merely more vocal and influential in their criticism, because of factors like social media, or are they actually trying to censor what is being said? I have to be very careful what I say, admitted a university lecturer and writer friend. I now think about the books I choose to teach, both in the context of their literary value and in the context of what might cause offence or upset. She added, Im always aware that a morning classroom conversation can become an afternoon Twitter storm.
John Sutherland, author of Offensive Literature: Decensorship in Britain, 1960-1982, suggested to me that what we are now witnessing is re-censorship. Its like Anthony Burgesss idea that Pelagian liberalism alternates historically with Augustinian conservatism, he said. We move between these poles and are now heading towards the latter, at least in terms of literature. As emeritus professor at UCL, he blames part of it on university fees: Its a struggle for power. Students now have power because they pay: the customer is always right. He claims that there are many texts, such as Bret Easton Elliss American Psycho, that cannot now be taught because lecturers are fearful about their students reactions.
But is this censorship, if older generations are freely choosing to remove books, or not publish them, based on a reaction they only anticipate from the young? The list of truly banned books is long and sometimes glorious, from Radclyffe Halls 1928 lesbian revelations in The Well of Loneliness to Edna OBriens The Country Girls, outlawed in Ireland in 1960. The US has forbidden all sorts of things from Ulysses to The Catcher in the Rye. And its not just prudishness; the Soviet Union censored many masterpieces for political reasons, including Pasternaks Dr Zhivago, Solzhenitsyns The Gulag Archipelago and Orwells Animal Farm. In Britain, many controversial books were decriminalised after the 1959 Obscene Publications Act was kicked into submission by the Lady Chatterleys Lover trial and the publication of Nabokovs Lolita. All this censorship allowed for the flood of successful, previously unpublishable novels, that we saw in the 60s and 70s, such as Erica Jongs Fear of Flying and Philip Roths Portnoys Complaint.
While it has always been a majority of old, white males who draw up societys moral codes,they are now being back-footed by the young those they deride as snowflakes. This is interesting and exciting and after all, the young have always changed language and opinions. It would certainly be a pity if this generation took us back to banning books like Lolita, but Im not convinced this will happen. My own experiences with Putney leave me feeling there are plenty of young people ready to embrace controversial books, with no trigger warnings or censorship.
Sofka Zinovieffs novel Putney (Bloomsbury) is out in paperback.