Literary Freedom: What Is The Limit?

It could be argued that, above all other forms of art, literature is the medium that allows for the most freedom with regards to the relationship between the author and the reader. Take, for example, the film The Silence Of The Lambs. In the confinement of the big screen, the viewer is required to see Clarice Starling in no other form than in the guise of Jodie Foster, to see Hannibal Lector as nobody else but Anthony Hopkins. However, when reading Thomas Harris’ words in their original novel form, the reader is able to form many different and varied images, perhaps vastly different from the reader sat next to them on the train. This is what makes literature the truest free art form.

Of course, literary freedom not only alludes to the freedom of imagination, but also to the freedom of what content is recorded on the page. In many countries around the world, some topics are simply forbidden to be written about and published, and it would be fair to assume that no one of sound liberal and modern thinking mind would agree that this is a just law. The issue of censorship is one that is prevalent across all forms of media, but there is something about literature and the way it can spread ideas and capture imaginations and minds that makes it a truly worrying prospect for those powers who would rather the flow of ideas and information be controlled in their respective countries, town, households, in fact, any form of soceity.

The conundrum of literary freedom culminates with some of these complicated ideas. If one believes that freedom of speech is important for all, and that censorship is a detrimental practise to the education and imagination of the wider world, what happens if the literature being published is filled with hate and bile, racism, sexism, any other kind of negative theme one can think of?

This begs the question, is there a limit to literary freedom? It is a tough question to answer, as some of the greatest literature ever produced has been about subjects possibly deemed worthy of censorship. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for instance, is a novel telling a paedophilic love story, a novel that challenges the reader’s logical assumptions about the kind of dynamic that such a ‘relationship’ might entail. Controversial, no doubt, but also a book that is studied by colleges across the world and adored by millions of literature lovers for its problematic yet intriguing premise.

Ultimately, when it comes to the question of literary freedom and its limits, it could be argued that the laws of censorship should only come in to play when literature has crossed some sort of legal line. Hate speech, for example, a pamphlet issued with the sole purpose of abusing people of the Jewish race and faith. There are legal grounds for those words to be removed from public consumption. A novel, however, containing a character who expresses those very same views in a fictional universe, would face no such sanctions. It’s a complex, fine line, and perhaps one which will never be truly defined.