Why would a newspaper as famous as The Guardian risk losing its reputation as a champion of freedom and open debate?
Why, within the last month, did it refuse to give any reasons for surreptitiously censoring posts on its books blog condemning the ‘dumbing down’ and degradation of literature by a publishing industry that now cares far more about maximising profits than anything else? Why would it mention protests about these developments by Margaret Drabble, one of Britain’s most distinguished novelists, and do so more than once — without actually putting its strong shoulder behind her?
Bloggers’ furious posts about being deleted also vanished from the site more than once, and the newspaper’s literary editors met several requests for an explanation for their disappearance with a cold silence.
Some of those deleted comments were mine, and in my remarks about the way they were removed without any indication of their ever having been made, I found myself drawing a parallel to the Chinese government’s alarming restraints on cultural freedom.
Both my education and profession have made caution and self-doubt reflexive, which means that there’s a continuous whirl of ‘Is-saying-that-justified?’, ‘But-can-you-prove-it?’ and ‘Who-says-so?’ in the back of my head.
So of course I nearly jumped out of my skin when, a day or two ago, I came across this sentence in a riveting collection of essays, My Unwritten Books, by our most brilliant living literary scholar, George Steiner:
The censorship which profit imposes on the media is as destructive, perhaps more so than that of political despotism.
That’s near the end of a passage that reads in part,
The coercion which the police state exercises on thought and art is indeed appalling. Yet the damage done may, in the final analysis, be no greater than that caused by the absolutism of the mass market.
Apparently replying indirectly to bloggers’ criticisms, the Guardian published two additional articles referring to Margaret Drabble’s complaint.
But each of these trivialised it to the point of insult. For instance, Aida Edemariam’s asked readers to compete in a silly contest to redesign the covers of well-known novels
A few days later, Alison Flood, who (commendably) wrote the original report about Drabble’s disgust with publishing’s drift, asked bloggers for our thoughts on product merchandising tied to best-selling books.
But that’s beside the point. It’s like running pieces on whether white mice, rats or lizards make better pets for children during an outbreak of the plague — instead of addressing the devastation the disease is wreaking. The real damage being done by commercialising literature is that marketing departments rather than editors now decide what books will be put in readers’ way.
They ask for plots and nonfiction book proposals to be changed not from concern about literary quality or facts, but solely to suit their ideas about what will sell in the highest numbers.
This is nothing less than tragic.