Joanna Rossiter Joanna Rossiter

Kazuo Ishiguro is right about cancel culture

Kazuo Ishiguro (Getty images)

When the Kuwaiti authorities banned nearly 1,000 books from the Kuwait International Literature festival including Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the move was rightly met with outrage from the Western literary community. The press was full of talk about the perils of artistic censorship. That was twelve years ago, but this grand-standing was on display again last year during the Abu Dhabi literature festival. Stephen Fry and Noam Chomsky signed a letter to the United Arab Emirates government, castigating them for ‘promoting a platform for freedom of expression, while keeping behind bars Emirati citizens and residents who shared their own views and opinions.’

What would have struck us as dystopian a decade ago now seems not that far removed from the cultural climate we find ourselves in today. Step forward Nobel prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who has spoken out about the ‘climate of fear’ that is causing young writers to self-censor. As online culture tightens its grip on the stories that a writer is allowed to tell, it’s hard not to feel that we are heading in an increasingly hostile direction.

Western censorship may not be coming from overbearing governments. Indeed, if it was, perhaps authors would find it easier to rebel against it. Instead, it is coming from readers and publishers. That the ‘online lynch mob’ described by Ishiguro is emerging from the grass roots is really quite concerning: its seemingly democratic, populist guise means it’s both harder to criticise and harder to spot.

For new writers it’s increasingly unlikely that a book that has the potential to court controversy will make it on to bookshelves in the first place

Established writers like JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood know all too well the online furore that can greet an author who contravenes one of the presiding social orthodoxies of the day. In Rowling’s case, it was her outspoken remarks about the trans debate; in Atwood’s, it was her temerity to question the MeToo movement.

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