The new censorship

Sara Paretsky on the chilling climate in America, where a visit to a foreign-language website can ge

John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, once commented that "the shelf life of a modern . . . writer is somewhere 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 book, 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 books 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 Awakening 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. A couple of men - call them Ben and Jerry - owned a business together in Chicago. Ben, who was having an affair with Jerry's wife, Lucy, got greedy. Ben wanted Lucy and the business all to himself. Lucy agreed, and she helped Ben find a hitman to kill her husband. Once Jerry was dead, they could collect his life insurance and live agreeably ever after.

But then Lucy got cold feet and ratted to the cops, who stopped the murder moments before it happened. When the cops arrested the hitman, they found a stack of index cards next to him on the car seat. The top card read, "Killing Orders - Sara Paretsky".

The cops were excited; they thought they'd found the mastermind behind the hit. They raced off to the state's attorney for an emergency warrant. Fortunately for me, the assistant state's attorney catching night duty was a mystery reader. He explained that Killing Orders was the title of one of my novels. The hitman had a list of books that he wanted to read while he hid out after the job. The cops never did try to arrest me.

Nowadays, that story has the potential to play out rather differently. Under the Patriot Act, the police would not have to explain why they wanted a warrant - they could claim that they thought my work was related to a criminal investigation with a possible connection to terror without saying one word more to the state's attorney. To get a warrant, they do not have to offer proof of any kind. They could take me away and make me account for myself without allowing me to talk to a lawyer. They could hold me indefinitely without charging me. They could keep me from telling my family where I was.

Even if they never arrested me, they could come into my house, search and seize my files, confiscate my books, and download data from my computer - all without telling me, without showing me a warrant. They can do that to any individual in America. They can do that in our libraries.

With these powers, the government can identify everyone reading any book, whether they're checking it out of the library or buying it in a store.

We like to think in America that we are all like Rocky: four-square for individualism and for individual expression, and that only in totalitarian states do people cave in to threats. I'm not so hopeful. Perhaps this is because I grew up in an idyllic Midwestern town in the 1950s. In Law- rence, Kansas, people felt the cold war as something real and very close. In the first grade, my teacher pointed to a giant orange blob on the map. That was Russia, Mrs Postma announced. They were bigger than we were, and they were out to destroy us.

Protecting Lawrence, and America, against communism was an obsession with the town. The daily newspaper was vigilant in inciting action against Lawrence's godless elements. When my parents protested a religious revival in the town high school - at which student attendance was mandatory - the paper printed their names and phone number and urged citizens to tell them how little use America had for communist-loving atheists. For some weeks, my parents got hate calls in the middle of the night.

The year I turned four, Dashiell Hammett went to prison for two crimes: he gave money to a bail fund for labour figures whom Congress thought were communists, and he refused to name other people who contributed to the fund. The State Department saw that Hammett's books were removed from every library supported by federal money. Knopf, his long-time publisher, suspended publication of The Maltese Falcon in deference to the House Un-American Activities Committee blacklist.

Today we are once again allowing fear to silence our speech. This past October, a man looking at foreign-language pages on the web in a New Jersey library was taken into custody as he left the building. Another patron, without enough to read on his own, had become alarmed at seeing non-English text on his neighbour's screen and had called the cops; they held the man for two days without charging him, without letting him call his lawyer or call home. They finally released him without any comment.

I am not sanguine about the near-term survival of dissenting speech in America. These days, when we are all in the grip of fear, when the public is longing for action against our enemies - whether these enemies are real or phantasms from the mind of John Ashcroft, the Attorney General - and when we have not just fear, but a law allowing wide-ranging, secret action by the government, then my own level of anxiety becomes acute.

We have today a government that mixes silence with lies. We have a government that has by fiat sealed presidential papers from public view. We have a government that will not reveal the names of the people who created America's energy policy because they claim that naming their advisers will undermine national security. We have a government that is trying to set up a Soviet-style system of citizens spying and reporting on each other. We have a government that recently tapped the home phones and e-mails of UN delegates from Chile, Mexico, Pakistan and Cameroon.

A chill wind is blowing today. Some people say, oh, our freedoms have been assaulted before, but we've always recovered them. But civil liberties are not like the tide: they do not roll in automatically once they have receded. We have never recovered our liberties without fighting very hard for them, and it is hard to fight for freedom when you can go to prison or face ostracism for being "unpatriotic", or face firing.

According to the Connecticut Law Tribune, the FBI or local police seized or searched library records at least 546 times in the Patriot Act's first year. These are only the numbers that have been reported; we don't know which libraries were involved because if librarians report that their library has been involved in a search of records, they face arrest.

What is the appropriate response of a writer at times like this? At the most basic level, it's my job to continue to write stories that - I hope - people will want to read. But I don't write in a vacuum, and the public climate affects both what I want to say and what I feel free to say.

I finished writing my most recently published novel, Total Recall, in February 2001. In that book, I had sent Morrell, V I Warshawski's lover, to Afghanistan. I sent him there partly because it was far away and partly because I was concerned about the Taliban - not as a threat to the US back in early 2001, but as a threat to the life and well-being of Afghan women. As a grim footnote, Total Recall was published on 4 September 2001. On 9 September, I had an e-mail from a reader wanting to know what the Taliban were and why was I always filling my books with stuff no one had ever heard of.

I have the notes I made in July 2001 as I started imagining story lines for the next project. I had been reading Ahmed Rashid's book on the Taliban. Rashid describes how Unocal and the Argentinian petroleum cartel were helping support the Taliban through bribes paid to Mullah Omar - both Unocal and Argentina wanted the rights to build an oil pipeline through Afghanistan, and Mullah Omar was courting both parties. I began imagining a story involving large oil companies and bribes. My next set of notes, dated 8 August 2001, dealt with someone who worked for a large agricultural company that secretly produced weapons-grade anthrax.

After 11 September, these ideas seemed untouchable. Like everyone in America, I was shaken to my core by the attacks. I felt fragile, fearful, uncertain. I shied away from exploiting any of the events of that tense autumn in my writing.

Eventually I started work on a novel that wasn't concerned with 11 September or its aftermath. In the past 18 months, as events unfolded, as my anxieties became divided between fears of overseas extremists and those of our own extremists here at home, I have felt disconnected from my work because my writing isn't where my waking thoughts are. But current events are so very current these days - each day brings a new issue, a new threat - that it would be stupid to try to write a book set in these times.

Books are our guides, our supports: they show us that we are not alone in our belief in liberty and freedom. The Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who spent three years in a prison camp for her writing, put on a little play when she was a college student in the 1970s. Twenty people stood on a dark stage. As a spotlight shone on each in turn, the person said, "What can one person do alone, anyway?"

My own stories come to me from the events around me, but the events around me defy my ability to turn them into stories. I have often written about corporate corruption and the cynical indifference of large institutions to the well-being of ordinary citizens. But Enron and Harken Energy defy my imagination.

My detective solves her cases with grit and hard work, but she can't rely on institutions of justice to punish the well-connected criminal. Once again, nature outstrips my art by placing an Enron insider in charge of the army; an oil industry lobbyist as deputy secretary of the interior; the chairman of Halliburton Company, which led the world in sales of equipment to Iraq from 1998 to 2000, as vice-president of the United States.

My detective turns to her friend Murray Ryerson, a reporter, who can publicise what's happened and make it hard for the criminals to hold on to their jobs, even if they get to keep their stock portfolios. But all over America, newspapers like Murray's have been bought by media conglomerates, which cut staffs of reporters in half because every time they lay off a lot of people, their stock prices jump. So papers don't have the resources to investigate corporate or government scandals. Many times, the newspaper or TV station is itself part of a conglomerate that either is actively participating in similar crimes, or won't reveal crimes by government officials because it seeks political favours.

I often feel these days that I am walking under a toxic cloud, not of germs or radiation, but of lies. When the government says we will fight Aids in Africa but also says no one can distribute or even mention condoms, I know I'm in the Orwellian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. When the government tells me there's a code orange alert, to wrap myself in duct tape and plastic but to go shopping because it's good for the economy, I become speechless from the disconnect between truth, lies, and . . . well, duct tape.

I hate being powerless. I hate my detective to be powerless. But I can't have her act like a Robert Ludlum superhero, forcing the CIA and Disney to their knees and walking off unimpaired, because my stories rely too much on the world of the real. My heroes have to take their lumps the way we all do in the world of the real. I just won't subject VI to the ultimate lumps that some heroes have to take. She won't die for her beliefs, she won't be silenced, she won't sell out her friends. That is the best I can offer her and my readers in the world of today.

Because my own great comfort comes from other writers' words, my hope is that my stories may also bring readers some solace in the night, provide some lamplight on a darkened path. More than 2,500 years ago, the poet Sappho, who saw the goddess descend from the heavens in a chariot drawn by sparrows, wrote:

Although they are

Only breath, words

Which I command

Are immortal.

As a child, in the world of books I sought refuge from an unfriendly world, I longed for magic, longed for the passage to Narnia or other fairylands. As an adult, I watch the sparrows outside my window closely: I still yearn enough for magic to hope they'll bring me the goddess, but ultimately I have to realise that these are hardscrabbling urban birds, trying to stay alive in a world that's rough on small creatures, and on poets.

When I enter the world of books, I feel the ghosts of the past on my shoulders, urging me to courage. It is my only hope, that against those forces which seek to silence us, to rob us of our voices and our precious freedoms, that my words, Sappho's words, indeed, our constitution's words, all these words which are only breath, will not only endure, but triumph.

c Sara Paretsky, 2003

Blacklist, Sara Paretsky's 11th V I Warshawski novel, will be published by Hamish Hamilton in November 2003

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