Günter Grass and the free speech moment

A travel ban is still censorship.

Over the past few days, a "free speech moment" has been unfolding. These are the controversies where we get to discuss the first principles of free expression, and they usually begin when someone does something extremely offensive. Think of the public trolling of Anjem Choudry, or the English Defence League.  Think of Liam Stacey, charged with a criminal offence for tweeting. Think of every controversial columnist, paid by the newspapers to be politically incorrect. These moments are frustrating, but at least campaigners like me are asked to make the case for free expression afresh, on sites such as this one.

This week, the "free speech moment" has had both an historical and international flavour. Günter Grass, the Nobel Prize Winning German author, angered the Israeli government after he wrote a poem about their militarism.  Israel, incensed that a former conscript in the Waffen-SS should write such a criticism, responded by placing a travel ban on the author.  In the most recent twist, Grass has escalated the controversy by likening the Israeli government’s actions to those of the East German Stasi.

There are two unresolved issues here.  The first is whether a travel ban (declaring Grass a persona non grata, unwelcome should he wish to visit Israel again) is censorship.  Clearly, such a move is less severe than the formal banning of Grass’s books; and many authors around the world (for example, in Iran, which was cited in the poem) suffer imprisonment for their transgressions. Nevertheless, placing this restriction on a person, purely because of what they have written, is a form of censorship.

It prevents any Israeli citizens who happen to agree with Grass’s poem (and I am sure there are many, from every religion) from inviting him to speak. It precludes the possibility that those in Israel who enjoy Günter Grass’s oeuvre would ever have the chance to meet him at a literary event.  A voice is suppressed. Until recently, the UK Border Agency were in the habit of denying authors and artists entry to the UK because a gallery opening or a book tour was considered a form of "work". English PEN campaigned for reform of the system on the basis that freedom of expression also includes freedom of information, the right to hear dissenting voices. A travel restriction on an author denies this freedom, which makes it undemocratic.

Such bans also have a "chilling effect" on other writers – will authors who regularly visit Israel now self-censor, if they hold opinions that the Israeli government doesn’t want to hear?

The second issue is over Günter Grass’s actual words, including his latest ‘Stasi’ interjection? These "free speech moments" are frustrating because defending someone’s right to say something is usually equated with defending the content of what they say. Those whom the speaker has offended are always ready to conflate the two issues. We should remember that the oft-cited Tallenter quip on free speech (“I hate what you say, but defend to the death your right to say it”) also works perfectly well in reverse: I defend Günter Grass’s right to say things . . . but I hate what he says. The writer Kenan Malik goes further, and makes the point that if one vigorously defends free expression, one also has a moral duty to retort when people say unpleasant things.

I don’t think that Günter Grass is saying abhorrent things, though in my opinion he has been deeply insensitive. His last comment is clearly a doubling-down, and the result is polarising. His poem, despite taking on the form of introspection, has not persuaded anyone that was not already of his point-of-view. For such an accomplished writer, celebrated for his turn of phrase, this is a shame. The great power of poetry and prose is their ability to help the reader empathise with someone of a different culture or history. Personally, I think Grass is capable of this, and should have written a different poem.  But to say this is an act of literary criticism, not a statement of the principles of free speech.

Robert Sharp is head of campaigns & communications at English PEN

Silenced? Günter Grass Photo: Getty Images
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“My words stayed in folders”: life as a fandom lurker

I was listening to the conversations of other fans, but I wasn’t talking. For years—for more than a decade, in fact—I didn’t say a word.

When I was a child, I wrote stories about my favourite characters. Lots of children do this: whether they write it down or act it out, on playgrounds or with a handful of dolls, this kind of storytelling is a natural part of play.

As I entered adolescence, my stories grew elaborate. I took someone else’s characters and gave them massive backstories and a supporting crew of original characters in what I later realised was fanfiction, original stories drawn from someone else’s source material. (In this case, it was a corporate board: I was fixated on self-made millionaires, and told my parents and teachers I was going to grow up to be a “ruthless businesswoman.”) I wasn’t ashamed of my stories, but I didn’t share them with—or even mention them to—anyone else.

I’ve met a lot of people who played with other writers’ characters as a child. “I did that when I was a kid,” they tell me. “As I got older, I grew out of it.” But as I got older, I grew into it—and I went online. By the time the internet was truly accessible to me, past those blisteringly slow dial-up years to the point where, if I stayed up late enough, I could have the big, clunky desktop in my parents’ kitchen all to myself, I was fourteen. And right around then, I fell hard for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The fan sites of the late nineties looked like much of the organic web of the late nineties: garish colours and bad fonts. With Buffy, there was a lot of black. I don’t remember being surprised to find Buffy lovers on the web; after all, many of my friends were as obsessed as I was. (I modelled my Buffy scrapbook, painstakingly cut-out articles about the show and its cast, on one a friend had made, though hers was focussed on Angel, and mine was much more sensibly about Rupert Giles.) Many of the people making and reading these Buffy sites were adults, but that didn’t make a difference to me.

What did make a difference was the night I discovered that other people wrote fanfiction. I’ve written before about the utter dissonance of that moment of discovery, about how confused I was by the first story I encountered. Even though I loved writing this stuff, it never occurred to me that other people would want to spend their time rearranging beloved characters on the page.

There were whole archives built around it, I soon learned, and prolific authors who posted work on individual sites. (This was 1999, early days for future fanfic juggernauts like fanfiction.net and LiveJournal.) There was so much to read. People sorted work by character, by romantic pairing, by genre, by trope. They were using fiction to talk back to the show—and to each other.

I dipped a toe into online fanfiction waters, slowly at first, until suddenly, I was drowning in it. I left one fandom and entered another: within a few years, I was wholly consumed by Harry Potter, where I’d stick around for close to a decade (and where now, weirdly, I have returned). As I read, I kept writing - other peoples’ fanfic only gave me more ideas. My drafts migrated from notebooks to word processors and my desktop folders were full of outlines and half-finished fics.

But my words stayed put in those folders: they were as private as they’d ever been. Online fandom was a world where people were having conversations about the things they loved. For more than a decade, I was listening to the conversations, but I didn’t say a word. I was a lurker.

In fact, most people in online communities are lurkers. What was once relatively easy to define—there were people who posted things on or moderated message boards, for example, and people who didn’t—has grown murkier with the rise of social media. But the prevailing wisdom still favours the 90-10-1 rule, which argues that 90 per cent of the people on the web are largely passive readers, 10 per cent are actively engaging with content, and just one per cent create that content. I, like the majority of my fellow fans, have spent most of my fandom life in the broad base of that pyramid.

Loving something with that deep, fannish love, can be a complicated thing. It’s different for everyone, I suppose, but for me, lurking has always sprung from a weird duality: I simultaneously want to talk about the objects of my fandom while also wanting to keep them incredibly private. In my lurking years, I felt like I loved this stuff just as much as everyone who was posting and creating and sharing, but then, I didn’t have proof  beyond my thousands of words of fanfiction, sitting in endless folders on my desktop.

For me, online fanfiction has always been a very private space that paradoxically exists in the public sphere. Over the years I’ve encountered stories that I hold as close to my heart as the source material they were based upon. Cloistered in my fanfiction-reading world, cut off from a lot of other fannish discussion, I missed interpersonal dramas and ship wars and, as arguments are colloquially known in many fan communities, wank. Even when fanfic writers and readers moved en masse to LiveJournal, I steered clear of the personal posts and diary entries: the most I’d see of authors I was reading were little notes at the beginning of chapters: “Sorry this is going up late! Life got in the way.” Fanfiction writers were, for me, their writing alone.

Lurkers occupy a difficult space in fan communities, which are usually built on unpaid labour. For many fic writers, part of the reward of writing lies in communicating with their readers, who are fellow fans. For most of my lurking life, I read in spaces where the only way to interact with writers was to leave a comment, but in recent years, I’ve done most of my fic reading at the Archive of Our Own, where a “kudos,” a little heart button, can be used instead. I regularly see Tumblr posts about the vast gulf between the number of people who leave kudos versus comments. Fandom, many argue, is powered on dialogue and verbal encouragement, and writers need more than a little “like.” And who can blame them?

But after years lurking, of revelling in fanfiction communities while staying resolutely silent, how do I learn to speak up? Social media has helped: I’ve made fandom friends on Twitter and Tumblr, aided by my pivot into writing about fan culture as a journalist. (I’m not going to pretend this doesn’t make my story fairly unusual amongst fanfic lurkers, but still!) I’ve floated little pieces of my personal fannishness out into the world. Now, people know what I ship, what characters I relate to, even some of the stories I love, as I shyly recommend the stuff that’s left me flailing or smacking the couch in glee or saying aloud to literally no one, “This is so good,” as I read it.

My natural instinct remains to lurk. I pepper the web with little hearts and favourites and kudos, but I rarely go in deep on public forums about the things I really love. It’s a curious position for someone who writes and talks a lot about fan culture: I am the perpetual observer, and the incredibly reluctant participant. But as the web has evolved, so have I: I’m inching closer to participatory culture, not just creating, but sharing what I create. And I’ve got thousands of words of new fanfiction, sitting in a folder in my desktop. Perhaps it’s time to finally speak up.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.