The New Censorship: Sara Paretsky on the Chilling Climate in America, Where a Visit to a Foreign-Language Website Can Get You Arrested, and the FBI Can Search Library Records for Dissenting Books

By Paretsky, Sara | New Statesman (1996), June 2, 2003 | Go to article overview

The New Censorship: Sara Paretsky on the Chilling Climate in America, Where a Visit to a Foreign-Language Website Can Get You Arrested, and the FBI Can Search Library Records for Dissenting Books


Paretsky, Sara, New Statesman (1996)


John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, once commented that "the shelf life of a modern ... writer is some where between the milk and the yoghurt". If you want to know why that's the case, you can ask that astute social commentator Sylvester Stallone. Broke and down on his luck, Stallone reportedly wrote the script for Rocky in three days. "Yo," he said, adding, "I'm astounded by people who take 18 years to write something. That's how long it took that guy to write Madame Bovary. And was that even on the bestseller list? No. It was a lousy book, and it made a lousy movie."

In his inimitable way, Sly has spoken up for the industry. Although he often portrays the loner hero succeeding against all odds, Stallone has become one of the richest people in America by being a star who is bankrolled by the conglomerates he fights on-screen. As a country, we Americans are an odd mix, one that Stallone exactly mirrors: we believe we are rugged individualists, but we take refuge in enormous corporations -- Weyerhaeuser, Enron, Disney -- whom we trust to look after our forests, heat our homes, and give us accurate and carefully researched news.

In publishing, as in most other parts of the economy, the move over the past decade has been to megacorporations. I recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of my first novel's publication. My agent worked for nearly a year before he found a publisher willing to take a chance on a female private eye in America's heartland, but he kept on plugging because he had dozens of publishers to try. They had names to conjure with: Knopf, Scribner, Harper & Row. When you said those names, you thought of books. You thought of Wharton or Hammett or Faulkner. Today there are essentially seven publishers, with names like Gulf & Western, Disney, Time Warner. You say those names, and you think of -- Mickey Mouse.

My agent found me a publisher, but it was libraries that launched my career. My first hook, Indemnity Only, sold 4,500 copies; 2,500 of those were to libraries. The sales were enough for my publisher to request a second book.

Everything is harder for new authors now, including the steep drop in book sales to libraries. In the past two decades, we have repeatedly cut library budgets, until today libraries have about a third of the money to buy hooks that they had 20 years ago.

Just as libraries have been heavy losers in the budget wars, so they are on the front lines of today's assaults on our liberties. I am concerned about these issues of speech and silence, and I respond to them as a writer, a reader and an American.

Every writer's difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech. We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a vision and a voice -- and we must bring our work to an outside world where the market, or public outrage, or even government censorship can destroy our voice.

This is not a new problem in America. When Melville published Moby Dick in 1851, its reception was so hostile that it sold only a handful of copies.

Kate Chopin's The A wakening roused such public outrage that Scribner actually halted publication of her next book, which was on press at the time. The story of a woman's attempt to liberate herself from a stifling marriage by having an affair was too much for 1899 sensibilities. Chopin herself died five years later, at the age of 54, without seeing her work come back into print.

Silence does not mean consent. Silence means death. When we have something to say and we are afraid to speak, or forbidden to speak, we feel as though we've been walled into a closet.

Silence can come from the market, as it did for Melville. It can come from public hysteria, as it did for Kate Chopin. It can come from the government as outright censorship. Today in America we are finding pressure to silence coming from all three sources.

About a decade ago, I was on the fringe of an exciting Chicago drama. …

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