Yesterday, Canadian author Margaret Atwood and Indian author Amitav Ghosh accepted the one million dollar Dan David Prize, funded by a wealthy Zionist philanthropist. Palestinian civil society urged them not to accept the prize. They did. They crossed the picket line, arguing that novelists and authors have a unique right to cross picket lines under conditions of their own choosing, as opposed to Naomi Klein, who worked through the Boycott National Committee when The Shock Doctrine was translated into Hebrew. Atwood explains that to have rejected the prize would have been tantamount to “throwing overboard the thousands of writers around the world who are in prison, censored, exiled and murdered for what they have published.” As Atwood adds,
Artists don’t have armies. What they do is nuanced, by which I mean it is about human beings, not about propaganda positions. They are going to offend someone no matter what they do. They are easy targets. They have names but no armies…The minute you open your mouth as a writer you are going to get in trouble from somebody. I’m thinking of putting up on my Web site some of the worst things that have been said about me, just to encourage other writers and let them know it doesn’t only happen to them.
Atwood does not deal with the texture of the conflict she is alluding to. But she is being more than a little self-regarding, and more than a little incoherent. Armies, too, are about “human beings”: the human beings who are not lucky enough to be paid to be artists. Artists may “offend” but the question of offending the slave or the slaveholder is not much of a choice. Or it is a political choice, and so an ethical choice, and a clear ethical choice, made even clearer when some of the more enlightened slaveholders—Israeli anti-Zionist Jews—have taken a stand with the slaves.
Anyway, here is (unbelievably) the text of their acceptance speech. The point is not to demonize. Not too much. Next year, or the year after, in five years, I think that Ghosh and Atwood will be on the other side of the line. For now, let that money shame them.
MARGARET: When we said that we were very sympathetic but we felt the urgent necessity of keeping doors open — as do several organizations we work with – we were informed that we were deluded, and worse.
But would Atwood and Ghosh accept the categorical principle that doors must be kept open? I won’t bother with the cheapest analogy, but I think they’d agree that there are conditions in which doors must be closed. 90 percent of Israelis supported the winter massacre. There are ways of keeping doors open, a la Klein’s method, that don’t involve accepting blood-money from a Zionist who with one hand finances cultural prizes and with the other supports state crimes.
MARGARET: Propaganda deals in absolutes: in Yes and No. But the novel is a creature of nuance: of perhaps, of maybe. It concerns itself, not with gods and demons, but with mortal people, with their flawed characters, their unsatisfactory bodies, their sufferings, their limited and often wrong choices; with the dubiousness of their own actions and the unfairness of their fates.
The corollary is that the Palestine-Israel conflict, as represented through Palestinian propaganda and Hebrew hasbara, is shown as opposing absolutes: on one side, Palestinian terrorism vs. Jewish justice, on the other, Jewish dispossession against Palestinian dispossessed. I take it that those are the Manichean world-views Ghosh and Atwood attack here. By contrast the novel, and by analogy, the situation, is nuanced. Because the novel, as opposed to propaganda, does not deal with demons, nor does the novelist, as opposed to the propagandist, engage in creating demons. Novelists deal with nuance. They deal with real people making the “wrong” choices or carrying out “dubious” actions.
Two points. One is that any honest picture of the conflict looks far more like nearly any Palestinian depiction than it does to the Zionist depiction. Two is that reality and history, like the novel that represents them, is multifaceted and conflicted. This does not render them above judgment. In any case, even if a novel is supposed to be empathetic or require projection, empathy, and sympathy, it does not necessarily, in turn, abjure judgment or taking a moral stand.
Atwood and Ghosh screw-up by pretending that because they craft made-up worlds that don’t need to contain a moral judgment, worlds that might, if shoddily done, reek of propaganda if they had too many overt moral judgments, the burden and responsibility of the novel is also the burden and responsibility—or lack thereof—of the novelist. Because the novel is fantasy, the novelist can live in a fantasy-world. Because the novel is pure cultural communication, the novelists’ cultural communications are inherently pure.
I am sorry but that is fucking ridiculous.
AMITAV: Writing a novel often requires you to see life through the eyes of those you may not agree with. It is a polyphonic form. It pleads for the complex humanity of all human beings.
Does Ghosh plead for the complex humanity of the human being who takes a gun to Ghosh’s children’s heads and blows their brains out, or the man who causes Ghosh’s wife to miscarry because she inhales white phosphorus? Would Atwood “see through the eyes” of the person planning bombing raids on schools and burning down hospitals, of holding political prisoners for decades for daring to resist colonial dispossession? Would they see through the eyes of such people not only while depicting them, but in the real world, where seeing through their eyes and withholding judgment amounts to tacit support for their actions?
I do not think so. I did not think so. I didn’t think so until yesterday. But now I do. It would be cheap to make this about the prize-money, although it would be pious and disingenuous to suggest that it didn’t play a part. This is about Ghosh and Atwood asserting their right to cross a picket line, about them asserting a right as artists to be bereft of social responsibility:
MARGARET: The public territory the novelist defends is very small, even in a democracy. It’s the space of free invention, of possibility. It’s a space that allows the remembrance of what has been forgotten, the digging up of what has been buried.
Including the right to freely invent ornately constructed non-sense.