Why Salman Rushdie should pause before condemning Mo Yan on censorship

The Nobel laureate's political choices are deplorable, but why don't we expose western novelists to the same scrutiny?

Mo Yan
Mo Yan: no dissident. Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images

Mo Yan, China's first Nobel laureate for literature, has been greeted with some extraordinary hostility in the west. This week Salman Rushdie described him as a "patsy" for the Chinese government. According to the distinguished sinologist Perry Link, "Chinese writers today, whether 'inside the system' or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country's authoritarian government." And, clearly, Mo Yan has not made the right choice, which is to range himself as an outspoken "dissident" against his country's authoritarian regime.

But doesn't the "writer's imagination" also conflict with the "imagination of the state" in a liberal capitalist democracy? This was broadly the subject that John Updike was asked to speak on at a PEN conference in New York in 1986. Updike delivered – to what Rushdie, also in attendance, described as a "considerably bewildered audience of world writers" – a paean to the blue mailboxes of the US Postal Service, which, he marvelled, took away his writings with miraculous regularity and brought him cheques and prizes in return.
EL Doctorow was irritated enough by this gush to suggest to Updike that if "he goes around the corner" from his mailbox, "he'll find a missile silo buried in the next lot". Rushdie himself went on to accuse American writers, much to Saul Bellow's exasperation, of having "abdicated the task of taking on the subject of America's immense power in the world".

Both Rushdie and Doctorow were trying to point out that the American writer held an uninformed and complacent view of his heavily militarised – indeed, insanely nuclearised – state. Updike himself had unconsciously endorsed his imperial state's natural tasks – regular identification and extermination of enemies through awe-inspiring violence – when he supported the US bombing of Vietnam.

But then in many ways Updike was the representative writer of the cold war – the primary literary beneficiary of an artificial situation in which, as Reinhold Niebuhr once described it, the "paradise of our domestic security is suspended in a hell of global insecurity". Updike's sumptuous portraits of suburban adultery actually depended on a profound indifference to the consequences of America's immense power in the world— just as Jane Austen's elegantly self-enclosed world of country houses could not have been woven with full knowledge of the Caribbean's hellish slavery plantations that had made the Georgian English gentry so prosperous.

Full piece at The Guardian