Book Review - Literary Freedom

Heather Katharine McRobie’s political-philosophical exploration of “literary freedom” is a worthwhile addition to a lively debate. McRobie begins by framing literary freedom as a cultural right that “entails a conceptual shift away from the classical liberal, negative liberty approach…[and] the rights of the individual”. The main thrust of her argument is that civil and political rights cannot be adequately protected without economic, social and cultural rights.

McRobie writes about International PEN’s commitment to free speech sitting uncomfortably with Slovakia PEN’s condemnation (in April 2009) of the publication of Serbian ultranationalist Radovan Karadzic’s poetry. She suggests that “the incident – in which an organisation that campaigns for literary freedom called for, in effect, censorship – opens up the conundrums and unresolved tensions latent in the concept of ‘freedom of literary expression’.”  The solution, McRobie argues, is to adopt the capablilites approach developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. This outcome-oriented view determines that “substantive freedoms”, such as education, the ability to live to old age, and participate in political activities, can only be secured “by enabling true access and participation, not merely through state abstention from persecution and the denial of civil and political rights”.

Literary Freedom emerged from McRobie’s research into Karadzic's poetry and hate speech literature at the University of Sarajevo. As well as the capabilities approach, McRobie draws on the work of Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, among others, and analyses various theoretical strands, from the importance of culture to the state funding of “high art”. She makes a good case for substituting censorship of hate speech with a “contextualisation” of it and fostering a culture of “speaking back” in order to neutralize its affects.

Although her book is diligently researched and insightful, some of the threats to literary freedom that McRobie examines have been overtaken by new, more pressing issues for writers. For example, many Mexican journalists now self-censor for fear of being murdered by members of a drug cartel while citizen journalists in Syria are at risk of being silenced by terrorist agents. Nonetheless, the author’s central thesis is sound: by safeguarding the freedom of the writer we ensure freedom for wider society.

Originally published in the TLS