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POLITICS OF PUBLISHING: DEFENDING THE TRIBE

Two episodes in the Indian publishing world have made many local publishers wonder what’s going on, and how much worse things may get if things like these continue going on. The first was the persecution of Penguin (and later Aleph) for publishing an offbeat and accessible view of ‘the Hindus’ by Wendy Doniger of the University of Chicago, internationally reputed for her scholarship on the subject. The second was the cancelling (“both Navayana and Geetha have decided to cancel the agreement signed with D’Cruz and withdraw the book”: http://navayana.org/the-unraveling-of-joe-dcruz/) by Navayana of a book contract with an author who was discovered after signature to harbour a political worldview utterly disagreeable to the publisher, with the publisher thinking the better of it within a couple of days and rethinking the cancellation (publication has been “kept in abeyance”: http://navayana.org/the-storm-in-the-dcruz-ocean/).

The Doniger case raises issues more straightforward than the Navayana. Penguin seems to have spent time and money defending her book in the notoriously slow Indian lower courts for four years. Then, worn out, and with no clear outcome in sight, they threw up their hands and settled matters to the satisfaction of their prosecutors, who wanted the book withdrawn because, in their view, it wilfully and maliciously misrepresented Hinduism. Since the publisher is a multinational, has deep pockets, and is reputed for, among other things, its successful defence in 1960 of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (on the grounds that ‘literary merit’ absolves the use within a book of extreme sexual explicitness and a vocabulary considered obscene), the press has been much criticized for ‘caving in’ instead of refusing to withdraw the book and fighting on. Penguin’s size, wealth, and repute — its own success, in other words — have ironically been part of the reason for much of the hostility it has attracted. There has additionally been some nationalist annoyance about this being a rich Western multinational, which would have fought the just cause to the end in its home territory, but is less energetic when the fight happens to be in a smaller third-world market.

From a publisher’s viewpoint, however, the arguments against Penguin seem weaker than those for it. The decision to settle is one that the publisher resisted for a long time but had to make because of the legal ethos and social circumstances in which it was battling. Penguin supported their book and its author for what would in most countries be thought of as a very long time. Doniger herself seems to have been satisfied that they did really do as much as could reasonably be expected. In private, senior Penguin India personnel have said they were ill advised by their lawyers, there being a strong legal avenue for winning the case by appealing to a higher court to quash the proceedings against them.

The quibble about lawyers aside — and it is difficult to believe that facing such a case Penguin did not get a second and third legal opinion — what really stared Penguin down in a larger sense is the venomous combination, which confronts every Indian writer and publisher, not to mention the citizenry in general — namely, the impossibly slow pace of the Indian judiciary and the spinelessness of the Indian State. A case that stretches without result for four years will at a conservative estimate have cost the publisher Rs 20 lakh in legal fees, professional time diversions, and opportunity costs. The sum is not small, but a rich publisher may well feel it worthwhile to shell out, provided there is a definite timeline in sight for a favourable decision, or even just any decision. A small publisher would have had no option but to cave in much sooner. Fighting such matters through to the Supreme Court sounds good theoretically and ideologically, but financially the costs probably seemed too high even to a corporation as substantial as Penguin. The Indian judicial process is an endless nightmare that every sane person wants to stay clear of. More important, while censorship has over the years come to be recognized in progressive nations as an issue of national magnitude, there is no sign of similar recognition by the Indian state. The Indian history of banned books and censorship episodes shows all too clearly that the censoring fundamentalist is the victor, the silent spectator or complicit actor is the State, and the creative artist comes out the loser. The consequent ethos, the message sent out to the thinking and creative community, is unambiguous: cross the boundary at your own risk.

Far from taking on the burden of such issues as supremely important to the entire social and intellectual edifice of the country, the Indian State is either indifferent or an active betrayer of constitutional guarantee. As regards civil society, its support to the censored artist can be variable. If the case involves ‘undressing the gods’ by a non-Hindu (M.F. Husain), or by an atheistically inclined Western academic (Wendy Doniger, James Laine, Paul Courtright), a large section of civil society is suspicious to the point of silently sympathizing with the hostility of the mob; intellectuals and academic communities look isolated in such instances. When deities and folk heroes are not involved, social support to the oppressed artist is less ambiguous, though the forms of protest are ineffective or insufficient. Nowadays, the convenience-store shopper’s solution is popular: a signature is added to an email protest campaign. This well-intentioned awareness-building alerts people to the problem but alters nothing on the ground. Candlelight vigils, protest marches, and front-page news are much rarer in relation to censorship episodes — as against episodes of severe violence, killing and rape. This suggests that for civil society in general, perhaps understandably, the censorship issue is not big enough.

The publisher facing censorship is, in short, looking at a situation of crippling costs, judicial sloth, the State’s abrogation of responsibility, and ambiguous or insufficient civil-society support.

This means that when freedom of expression is at stake, the publisher — even the big publisher — is small fry. Freedom of expression is a battle that has to be fought swiftly and unequivocally on behalf of publishers and citizens by the State, backed by decisive judicial activism and unepisodic support from the media and civil society. The solitary publisher, like the isolated individual even when he is wealthy (as M.F. Husain was), doesn’t have the required resources and cannot be faulted once he has honestly tried and failed. It is easy for the country to blame the publisher. It cloaks the fact that the country is much to blame.

The Navayana case throws up many more issues. Cancelling a book contract for the reasons Navayana gave is delicate, as the publisher, a highly regarded intellectual, seems quickly to have realized: S. Anand’s initial blog on the issue said he would not publish the book, a subsequent filing said the book was in abeyance. There is, first, the issue that the personal political positions of authors are usually not unchanging through their lives. Marxism and radicalism attracted the young in the 1960s and 1970s, at which time the majority of the college-going would have said they were Marxists of some kind. A decade on, a lot of these people had joined the bureaucracy or were well-paid employees of business corporations. Some Naxalites, Trotskyites, and feminists of that time are now radicals of the opposite kind — articulate and ardent advocates of semi-fascist Hindutva. Would a publisher who had taken on, say, an early radical work by such an author pulp it or remainder it the moment the author moved away from his early radicalism or joined a corporation? What if some months later this author changed his mind and reverted to Marxism, denounced Hindutva, gave up his job, and became a Gandhian? Would the publisher then be embarrassed into reissuing the book? The point is that an author’s personal political positions can be unstable and unreliable. Several European Left-liberal writers in Europe were abused as renegades when they moved to the US with the approach of the World War II. Their works, once admired, were reviled. But what if such writers had subsequently recanted and denounced the US? Would we then have felt obliged to revert to admiration?

Another thought may have occurred to Navayana’s Anand from the storm of criticism that fell upon him: for a publisher what must decide the issue is the intellectual value of the tract or the book or the body of poems he is asked to publish, regardless of the possibly chameleon nature of the person submitting it. If the publisher feels there is sufficient merit in what he has been asked to read, it should seem, in the end, the only thing that matters. Newspapers and magazines publish columns by people who hold views that are often poles apart. With many of these views the newspaper editor perhaps not only disagrees but disagrees violently. The good newspaper is in a sense inherently liberal because it allows diverse voices, the core criterion for publishing such voices being what the editor perceives as the expression of high intelligence, perceptive analysis, and related virtues. If the publisher is genuinely liberal and broad-minded, his role is not dissimilar to the newspaper editor’s.

Publishers driven by specific ideologies (Marxism, feminism, Dalitism, etc.) — there is a small handful of admirable examples of these in India, Navayana included — are unlikely to agree with this view of the publisher’s function. The liberal enabling of diverse voices is, in their view, often the guise under which the existing hierarchies are sustained: let a hundred dogs bark, it’s only a lot of barking. It creates much noise and gives the impression that there is diversity and freedom of speech, but ultimately this cacophony drowns out the fact that the ground realities of oppression remain unaltered. For this school of thought, the battle-lines are sharp and clear: either you’re with them all the way, or you don’t enter their lists. If you’re not with them, it won’t do to profess the virtue of your liberalism, because your liberalism is really a sham, a thin veil covering a deep conservatism or some variant of sterile Fabianism. Therefore, if you outline a political preference that is anathema to their view of an improved society, your literary work is tainted by association and rendered unacceptable. This may strike the liberal publisher as illogical, but there are at least two things to be said in favour of the ideologically-driven publisher. First, he has thought through his publishing agenda with care and positioned himself in a difficult, dissenting niche. Academic publishing is, in India, a particularly tricky business because sales of such books are very small and profit margins weak. The specialized focus of the ideologically driven press works as an additional constraint by limiting the catchment area from which such a press can acquisition new books. In such a scenario of difficulty, it stands to reason that the cancellation of a contract is neither whimsical nor frivolous but an action carefully thought through. Second, the ideological publisher’s commitment to a specific form of politics is in certain circumstances much more courageous than the eclectic publishing programme of a liberal press. In the present circumstances, when state dominance of hardline Hindutva seems imminent, it takes real guts to come out so openly, all guns blazing, against the ruling ideology. Rescinding a contract for the reasons Anand gave may seem excessive, but that original excessiveness, which the publisher regretted, also showed the unusual courage of the authentic partisan.

This is a very different way of doing publishing, and there may be much to be said in its favour, specially by those who agree with it. Not everyone can agree, though. In part, this could be because, as Anand himself seems to have realized, to cancel a contract for a book you consider excellent because its author expresses a political opinion that seems reprehensible is not a good idea. The point is that the author may, in this area of his personal life, be wrong-headed, asinine, retrograde. His book, on the other hand, may be very far from any or all of these things. In the entirely hypothetical situation of Shakespeare’s publisher signing on Hamlet but cancelling the contract because he disagreed with the bard’s view of Elizabeth I, most audiences in the pit of the Globe Theatre may have felt the publisher was going overboard by denying them a good play. Shakespeare’s personal opinions were probably dramatically unstable; whereas, as his audiences may have put it, “The play’s the thing …”

The related issue to which this leads is that an author’s work can be ideologically at odds with his stated political position. Psychoanalytic and literary critical tools show that the purposiveness of a book is independent of the author’s views on politics. The consensus on a novel can be that it is deeply sympathetic to the underprivileged, the disprivileged, the working class, etc, while its author’s lifestyle and professed opinions might suggest that in his everyday life he harbours no such sympathies — in fact, quite the contrary. Authors can be simpletons when expressing personal opinions, but extremely sophisticated and intellectually complex when creating a literary or intellectual work. One view of the matter is that the author is only biologically singular, but creatively and psychologically multiple. He is several people inside one body. From this position we need to rethink the creative writer inside the body of the politically reprehensible person — he’s in there, but he has no real connection with the wicked person in the body he’s cohabiting with. A publisher should recognize this unusual form of diversity in unity and not refuse to take on what seems a great book by a man who in his daily life does not sound sane. They’re really two different people. So, Dali, a cent per cent Fascist, can (as Orwell pointed out) paint very good pictures. And Enoch Powell, a racist, can write a first-class biographical study of Joseph Chamberlain that we shouldn’t remove from libraries.

An even more contentious issue: what prevents publishers from wanting all their authors to be not just politically acceptable but also personally decent? Larkin is often facetious in his personal correspondence in ways that are so politically incorrect that they make even the most broad-minded squirm. The fact of the matter is that when some of his nasty sentiments were expressed their vulgarity was deliberate because they were addressed to a single correspondent and not the general public. People often feel free to say politically hideous things to close friends because they know their friends will never interpret them as monstrous on account of their larger and longer knowledge of the speaker; if the speaker felt there was a decent risk of his being interpreted as monstrous by close friends, it is unlikely that he would phrase his opinions in that way. Larkin’s poems, as against his sometimes extreme personal insularity, seem the expression of a powerfully disenchanted, cynically humane, and insanely brilliant wit. A publisher might be justified in thinking twice about an anthology of Larkin’s political opinions (though the case for them as black humour would be strong), but it would make no sense to refuse the poems.

The degree of political offence committed or thought to be committed by an author must have a strong bearing on the publisher’s view of a contract he has signed on. A publisher who has, hypothetically, signed on an autobiography titled Mein Kampf by a man he later discovers to have been a mass murderer will obviously provoke immediate cancellation. We are here reaching the limits of the notion that work and author are separable: proceeding purely logically via examining Mein Kampf as autonomous and separable from its writer, the publisher might arrive at a form of aestheticism so extreme that it would kill him another way — a mob of incensed liberals might finish him off.

Writer and work seem fairly separable when making these arguments because the reader’s central interest is in reading the work, not meeting the author or wanting his biography. But the publisher may find it less easy to separate writer and work because he has to deal with both. This raises another issue: the author of a fine work may be personally unpleasant, or difficult to deal with, and the publisher may be justified in not wanting his work because he does not wish to deal with such an author. There are even some publishers who retreat into the woods because they’d rather not deal with any author at all, whether good or bad: their motto, which seems sane to them, is that the only good author is a dead author.