On Salman Rushdie: An endangered art

Chloe Hansen, Opinion Columnist

Illustration by Holly VanVoorhis.

On Aug. 12, 2022, novelist Salman Rushdie was stabbed 15 times on stage prior to giving a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Why aren’t we protecting our writers? Why, unprotected, open to attack and scorn, do they continue to write?

To be a writer in the public eye means making a series of proclamations. Even if one is the most non-controversial writer there can be, there is no way to write and publish without making some statement. The entirety of social thought and existence is based on the eternal truth that someone will say things and that someone else will read it. If there is no circulation of thought, there is no collective; this is the basis of the possibility of constructive discourse, without which the generation of ideas would greatly suffer.

So why, when an author like Rushdie publishes a controversial work like “Satanic Verses,” are they forced not only to go through life in hiding for multiple decades, but continue to be hunted down for their publication to this day? Why do they often continue to publish?

The attack on Rushdie outlined in clear terms the unfortunate, but unsurprising, placidity with which news outlets discuss these kinds of assaults. Portrayal of the event was of course grim and emotional, but it almost never addressed the true flaw at the root of the attack, opting almost always to describe rather than to dissect. This is because, in a society where novelists cannot even give a lecture on American soil (notable, of course, because of our alleged—albeit often violated—belief that free speech is a right), all writers, including our journalists, are growing afraid. An attack on any writer is an attack on all writers.

What, then, is the danger of making writers afraid to write? Other than the obvious ethical concerns surrounding the internal division of abandoning, in fear, one’s chosen passion or prerogative, the writer may begin to produce half-honest writing. A free society relies on the circulation of true writing. I define artistic trueness to mean art that is not censored by others against the will of the artist. True writing matters because it comes from the minds of the people inside our society, rather than from any elevated power, and is therefore representative of the people themselves.

Without this representation, a society is at risk of veering into intellectual totalitarianism. What the attack on Rushdie highlights most of all is that anyone who speaks truth is always in danger, and when truth is silenced in fear, the pillars of social structure crumble and dissipate.

So why, in a world where writers are under constant threat of attack, censorship and repression, are there writers? I would argue that writers are an immutable and essential characteristic of a languaged society—that, as a human being, the desire to create is so overwhelming in some that it overcomes the threat of danger.

Writers exist not predominantly through an intentionally elected bravery, but through a kind of passion-blindness that whispers irrepressibly, “write or die.” The risks that come from such oppressive conditions that this internal mantra becomes “write and die” are as severe to the soul of the writer as blindness would be to an optometrist.

More so than even the passion, every time there is an attack on a writer it is clear that the writing worked. If a publication is so frightening to a group of people that they are willing to attempt to kill the author of it, it has achieved the ideal for any written piece: to be heard. Even through fear, the knowledge that there is impact in their work is the motivation that stops a writer from abandoning their pen.

The lukewarm journalism surrounding the attack on Rushdie, the mass national emphasis on STEM fields with the corresponding lack of funding for the humanities in school systems and the feeling that people simply read for pleasure less than they once did all add to the rising notion that the world has grown away from novelists.

This is a reality we should all be afraid of fostering; it is not only erroneous to think we can live without writers, but for the aforementioned reasons, it is highly dangerous. This troubling thought manifests itself not only in extreme acts of violence, like the attack on Salman Rushdie, but also in the subtlety with which writers are socially received.

The pre-judgement that writers are not as important to a functioning society as someone in a “less creative” field diminishes the fact that the imagination is an essential human attribute, without which the ability for us to seek pleasure in our lives would begin to rapidly diminish. Imagining a world without writers is a bleak and troubling endeavor. Our world is one which harbors a very literally knife-sharp hostility for anything we fear may speak so loudly it will ignite the sparks of tension that exist in the fabric of our society.

So what is to be done? The solution to all this, or at least the way in which we will carry on the battle, is for readers to read with as much bravery and boldness as writers are continuing to write. If readers cease to hear the works being written, they will kill the writer in a way that is much more profound and discouraging than anyone wielding a conventional weapon could dream of. The readers, of course, do not have the power that our government has to protect the citizens within it, but our greatest power is to consume literature (especially controversial literature) as widely and as publicly as we can. If you’re a writer, keep writing.