'An Ethically Charged Event': Styron, Rushdie and the Right to Speak
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
In Derek Attridge's J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading (2004), the novel is referred to as "an ethically charged event, one that befalls individual readers and, at the same time, the culture within which, and through which, they read" (xii). The ethical positions of individuals, communities and cultures are addressed through one of the most explosive issues in imaginative fiction: "the right to speak." What happens when a novelist not only encroaches on the values of an ethnic group or religion but also speaks on their behalf, as if from within that community or belief? This question has become especially charged with the emergence since the 1960s of "cultural politics": the identification of a political viewpoint within each discrete community in a multicultural society, and the resolute claim by each community to represent its history and values in its own terms. I consider this question by way of the responses to two novels: William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses (1988). Both of these novels were highly controversial when they were released, inciting anger among minority groups because they transgressed the limits of representation. Styron's novel challenged the right to speak because, as a White man, he attempted to portray the consciousness of a Black slave. The African-American community, during a time of upheaval, radicalism and assertion of their power, responded with vitriol, arguing that Styron's novel was a racist, stereotypical, appropriation of Black history. The allegedly blasphemous portrayal of Islam in Rushdie's Satanic Verses created even greater controversy throughout the Islamic world and British Muslim community - their anger amplified by a feeling of betrayal by one of their own. These novels illustrate the ethical dilemmas of the representations of minority groups and make urgent the question of whom has the right to speak for them in literature. Increasingly the tensions between individualistic White liberal ideology and communitarian sensitivities about the representation of their cultures, religions, histories and identities are being contested through the site of the novel. Satanic Verses and Nat Turner demonstrate the challenges faced by multicultural societies when liberals and communitarians force themselves into a manufactured binary through which no effective debate can take place. While the novelist's right to speak should be defended precisely because of the ethical dilemmas that can be presented by literature, freedom of speech is never absolute. The "ethical event" of the novel requires a more nuanced response, which recognises both the valuable and the potentially destructive nature of literature.