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Monday, October 25, 2021

Sally Rooney’s ‘cultural boycott’ is a betrayal of literature itself

Among the proudest exhibits on my bookshelves are the Hebrew versions of my three novels. Seeing your words translated into a different language is always a thrill, but there is something extra special when those words are represented in a different alphabet – the square, black, blockish letters of Hebrew’s Ktav Ashuri. Plus, you have to read from right to left, which makes the mind boggle in a good way.

It is extraordinary to think that a book written by an exhausted working mum in a tiny study atop a narrow London house in the first quarter of the 21st century became a bestseller in a script so ancient it might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs. That is the wonder of literature. The kingdom of the imagination has no borders or passports and all are free to travel there.

At least, that’s how it was always supposed to be and how I experienced it personally. On book tours, I would find myself in an auditorium full of Norwegian women or Sri Lankans or Southern belles sipping iced tea or Wall Street go-getters or Indian tech entrepreneurs. I would read aloud to all of these people and there would be these extraordinary moments of shared laughter – about children, love, marriage, career, lost socks, solitary earrings. And there would be shared tears – about children, love, marriage, career, lost socks, solitary earrings – and the difficulties of combining, or finding, all of the above.

We agreed, my readers and I, that on the day we got to Heaven (or whichever celestial destination their particular faith dictated), a footman at the Pearly Gates would proffer a salver on which glittered all the earrings missing from our pairs. We might have different languages, religions and politics, but, believe me, the female desire to be reunited with her missing earrings is universal.

Not that our experiences were all the same. Once, in Tel Aviv, I confessed to a reader that I was worried about my daughter. She said she was worried, too. Her daughter had just received her wings as a jet fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force. The mother fretted if a text message wasn’t swiftly returned. That daughters-not-returning-texts thing bothered me, too, but not because I feared my first born had been shot down over the Sinai desert. I learnt a valuable lesson in perspective that day. I felt humbled. By the way, that same mother told me that, in 2003, 28 Israeli Air Force pilots were accused of mutiny for refusing to attack Palestinian camps. It’s not a story you hear much about, perhaps because it’s a story that introduces a degree of complexity, of nuance, which makes it harder to stereotype an entire people.

That’s what books do. They make it difficult to insist on difference. “I know literature is not as strong as a bullet,” the great Israeli novelist David Grossman said. He’s right, fiction is not a weapon, but if it takes aim at the heart as well as the head, it may broaden human sympathy, and that can be a revolutionary act. I would never claim to be in Grossman’s Booker-Prize-nominated class, not even close, but, sometimes, when I glance up at my shelves and see copies of I Don’t Know How She Does It translated into Cantonese and Russian (32 different languages in all), I like to think that there is a Chinese or Russian woman out there, just an ordinary woman, a mum with a pile of laundry who is laughing at what made me and my friends laugh, moved by what moved us.

Isn’t that the effect Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which charted the relationship between teenagers Marianne and Connell, had on millions of readers and viewers of the BBC drama series? We have all been young, fumbling, infatuated, insecure, convinced that our particular love is the most extraordinary love, a bright stain on the vision blotting out reason, in Robert Graves’s words. From Delhi to Damascus, Dawlish to Doha, people have felt that way, and Rooney built a bridge between them with her lovely words.

So, understandably, there was consternation this week when it was alleged that the 30-year-old Irish writer had refused to allow her new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, to be published in Hebrew, apparently in protest at the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, reported that when the publisher Modan approached Rooney’s agent to sign another deal, the agent refused, saying that her author supported the cultural boycott movement on Israel.

Rooney issued a somewhat disingenuous statement, claiming that the issue was with the specific publisher: “I simply do not feel it would be right for me under the present circumstances to accept a new contract with an Israeli company that does not publicly distance itself from apartheid and support the UN-stipulated rights of the Palestinian people.” The Hebrew-language translation rights were still available, she said, but she would only sell them in a way that was compliant with the Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is calling for an “economic and cultural boycott of complicit Israeli companies and institutions in response to the apartheid system and other grave human rights violations”.

Is there an Israeli publisher that supports the cultural boycott of its own country? I doubt it. Besides, a cultural boycott is such an ugly notion. Art is universal or it is nothing. Why choose to exclude a group of readers on grounds of nationality? The Israelis who came to my readings adored books and were a highly literate, discriminating audience. Does Rooney refuse to be translated into Mandarin because of Chinese repression in Hong Kong and genocide against the Uyghurs? How about avoiding publication in the many countries which deny full rights to women? If she doesn’t baulk at those then she risks the charge of anti-Semitism. It makes her look bigoted, in thrall to a juvenile, simplistic Leftist view of the world which increasingly polices the imagination.

Identity politics is even threatening to put a handbrake on creativity itself. Friends of Sebastian Faulks used to joke that the novelist’s female characters all had “surprisingly full breasts”. Not any more. The Birdsong author told the Cheltenham Literary Festival this week that he will no longer physically describe what his heroines look like after he was criticised for doing so in his 2018 novel Paris Echo. “What makes you think you have the right to write about a woman?” one reader is said to have challenged him. Did Faulks retort: “Well, madam, Flaubert seems to have done a pretty good job bringing Madame Bovary to life, despite being a miserable, white, male, old French sourpuss”?

Sadly, not. “Instead of getting all huffy and puffy and grumpy old man about it,” said Faulks, “I thought about it a lot.”

The result of those ruminations is a curious decision to leave it to his readers to decide what the women in his books look like. Apparently, they can gather that Lena, the protagonist of his new novel, Snow Country, is attractive, “because two men are trying to woo her”. Faulks says he felt “liberated after the decision”. Many readers will feel the opposite; we rather like to have characters described.

On Radio 4’s Today programme, they read an extract from Faulks’s Charlotte Grey in a rather accusatory manner. The novel’s narrator was observing Charlotte as she tried to put her luggage on a rack; the way her jacket rode up, revealing the creases in her blouse, and her attempt to preserve her modesty. Was this an example of the hated “male gaze”, or was it a highly skilled and sympathetic writer perfectly capturing the stirrings of a man’s desire for a woman? Desire, beauty, passion, falling in love, sex; these are literature’s eternal staples and will be until testosterone and oestrogen are banned by the Government. Which could happen sooner than you think if Keir Starmer and his culture-war puritans are ever given power.

What a worrying moment for Western culture. A cultural boycott is the slipperiest of slopes. Fear of causing offence is like book-burning without the fire. How many great novels are not being written because authors hear an inner voice saying: “Stay in your lane”? (I hear that anxious voice myself as I mull over my own next novel.) How many will never start typing because they worry they may say something “inappropriate” and get cancelled? Frankly, a novelist who doesn’t say something inappropriate is not doing the job.

The kingdom of the imagination has always been an exhilarating place because those who travel there are not primarily concerned with politics, race or gender. The novelist’s business is immortal truths, not passing pieties. What bliss it is to lose yourself in a good book, to find consolation in shared human experience. In love or a lost sock or a solitary earring. But the border fences are going up; soon, only those with the right credentials may be let in. What need do we have of censors when authors start to censor themselves?

Listen to Allison Pearson and fellow columnist Liam Halligan on The Telegraph’s Planet Normal podcast, featuring news and views from beyond the bubble, on the audio player below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app

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