The Emotional Liquor of Offence

At some point in (Australian) spring 1996, I boarded an international flight (to Rome, I think). It was completely unremarkable in every way, even efficient. This was before 9/11 and its consequent security theatre. I was reading in my seat, having ignored the safety briefing. Shortly after take-off—the fasten seat belts lights were still illuminated, I remember that—a middle-aged man swam up out of the corner of my eye and called my name. I did not recognise him.


“You wrote that book.”


He then spat at me. It was well aimed, landing right in my left eye.

Cue the usual commotion that happens on airlines in situations like this. I cleaned my face and muttered, jamming my finger on the “call” button. Hostesses and I assume the purser (a man, this being the days where males were still commonly senior cabin crew) shoved and hurried the spitter away. “You’re out of your seat, sir,” I heard among raised voices. Profuse apologies. A visit to the pilot within the flight cabin (yes, this was very much before 9/11). An upgrade. I wondered if the spitting man had fuelled up in the lounge and waited for an announcement that the flight would return to Sydney to offload him. This didn’t happen. I stretched my legs out in First and did some fuelling of my own.

A long-haul flight is an opportune time for rumination. It wasn’t as though I could go anywhere. I then got angrier and angrier at people who fail to understand that offence is taken, not given, and who (coupled with this) blame authors for readers’ responses to their work.

By that point, I’d spent the best part of a year being the bad person for the crime of writing a novel. I had, on a couple of occasions, been likened to Salman Rushdie. I thought this was hyperbole at the time and still do. Apart from the spitting incident, I was deluged with hate mail, stalked (one weird creeper got into the habit of sending me a single red rose every birthday), there were repeated attempts to get me disbarred, and outed. A great deal of straight porn came my way.

No, I hate to break it to you, but you can’t porn the gay away.

This was all unpleasant, but it was not years of cloak and dagger hiding at the behest of the intelligence services in constant fear for my life. And now it has turned out—despite his belief that the worst danger had passed—Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa was still on foot and Rushdie is cut to ribbons. I experienced many threats of violence, but no actual violence. There is an important difference. Yes, I know inchoate offences can transmute themselves into real offences, but any lawyer (including this one) can tell you that is rare.

After Rushdie’s stabbing, I took it upon myself to read Joseph Anton, the memoir of his time under police protection. I regret not reading it when it first came out (in 2012). Like me, Rushdie discovered that disguises do not work. After the spitting incident, I dyed my hair red and stopped straightening it, thereby becoming the only woman in Australia with blonde roots. Rushdie’s minders procured him a wig. “It arrived in a brown cardboard box, looking like a small sleeping animal,” he says. When he tried wearing it in a public place, “every head turned to stare at him” and a man shouted, “there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig.”

More importantly, Joseph Anton illuminates something else: the extent to which Rushdie represents the extreme tip of a very large iceberg of cowed and cowering writers and publishers, and not only because of radical Islam.

Yes, Rushdie and other authors who’ve been killed or driven out of Muslim countries are in the most danger. Joseph Anton provides a grim rollcall of names and narratives. But what was done (and continues to be done) to Rushdie and others like him has also legitimised the blaming of writers for what they write rather than the blaming of readers who take offence at what they read. This is nothing more and nothing less than gross abdication of personal responsibility on the part of readers (and, sadly, non-readers; both Rushdie and I have encountered people proud not to have read a single word of what we’ve written).

So pervasive has writer-blaming become, The Satanic Verses would not be published today. Nor would many other books. My first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, wouldn’t make it out the printer’s gate. Beyond the world of adult literary fiction, one need only peruse the grim rollcall of children’s books pulled before publication in response to online conflagrations. Social media has encouraged many otherwise normal people to behave with the same sort of obsessiveness (if not yet violence) as Islamic extremists. Rushdie is right to observe that, had things like Twitter existed when he wrote The Satanic Verses, his situation would have been “infinitely more dangerous”.

Meanwhile, J. K. Rowling has purchased freedom of speech on the controversy of which she is currently at the global epicentre because her unrelated novels are supremely successful. Her popularity also subsidises the publication of many other books. Relatedly, I never thought I had a right to be a writer, so was happy to work as a lawyer, and lawyers make a good living. In that sense, we now have a situation where the only vaguely normal people with freedom of speech (as distinct from the likes of Rowling or Jordan Peterson) are upper-middle-class Shire Tories who used to work in the City.

Mind you, the shifts on point—who is in, and who is out, who makes a good living—can still be brutally, bewilderingly sudden. I was cancelled, then uncancelled, then had the bizarre experience of being embraced when Russia invaded Ukraine. Kate Clanchy went from being a fêted darling of the left-liberal establishment and Orwell Prize winner to her publisher dropping her like a hot rock, all in roughly six months. As with me, she was also targeted via her professional association.

Literature and the creative arts are now hemmed in on all sides by hectoring misanthropes who would choke us on our own pens while mandating we portray them only as they wish to be portrayed. Note, here, I’m not talking of campaigns to include more women and minorities in literature or the arts or the “canon” (if the latter can even be said to exist anymore). While I think this wrongheaded—I don’t care about representation for the simple reason that literature isn’t a democracy—my concern in my own cause (and Rushdie’s and Clanchy’s and others like them) is for writers to be able to choose their words.

It’s time for writers to remind readers and their “allies” that offence is like alcohol—intoxicating only if you drink it. Writers cannot be responsible for their readers’ emotions; this requires the ability to mindread. The attempt to make us so stands behind all the sensitivity and authenticity readers, people who seem furiously, emotionally labile quite apart from evincing an inability to appreciate good writing. Readers, meanwhile, are not a monolith. Believing that The Satanic Verses offends all Muslims or The Hand that Signed the Paper offends all Jews is an insult to those millions of both groups who are not offended at all, not to mention those among them who would be insulted by the assumption that they should be offended.

You can’t make people love you for what you are. You can’t make people love your books. This is beyond your power. This is beyond everyone’s power.

A close analogy (and one which keeps the writer-reader dyad intact) is with writers who attempt to control how their work is reviewed, a phenomenon Rushdie calls “the trap of wanting to be loved.” Neither this nor making writers responsible for reader responses is possible; both require entering other people’s minds to control their thoughts, “opening windows into men’s souls”.

If you are offended, this is your problem. No-one is forcing you at gunpoint to buy The Satanic Verses or The Hand that Signed the Paper or Some Kids I Taught or My Body is Me! or whatever book is the subject of this week’s Two Minutes Hate.

Much of this desire to control writers’ words, to control the way people—and especially minorities—are portrayed, or to avoid offence, is borne of an attempt to be kind and loving, to be nice. What happened on August 12 was, in part, revenge on Rushdie for not writing a story about his own religious tradition in a kindly way.

“We’ve trained ourselves to be ‘compassionate’ and sometimes it means not saying things we should say,” Helen Joyce, Economist journalist and author of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality, observed to me this week:

If a woman sees a man in the women’s changing rooms, for example, she should be able to say: you don’t belong here. But what if that man identifies as a woman, and thinks he “passes”? She’d be regarded as “mean” and “insulting”—even though it’s a neutral statement of fact—because it’s the thing he least wants to hear. A generally good impulse to treat everyone with the same degree of respect can accidentally morph, or indeed be deliberately manipulated, to make justified, accurate and perhaps necessary criticism taboo. It’s a form of weaponised compassion.

In response, the point is often made that great art is not nice: if you want nice, go to Hallmark and leave Homer alone.

However, this claim is also misconceived. Kindness and love can be a mask for hate, too. The Inquisitor who uses torture to bring his victim to a loving relationship with God (or Big Brother) is common enough to be a trope. Rushdie, in The Satanic Verses, turns this insight on Islam.

In quoting a famous passage from his novel, I insert the usual caveats. The extremes of a great and conquering religion are always going to be worse and more violent than the petty activists who have pursued me, or Rowling, or Clanchy, or any number of other writers who have offended against loving-kindness.

Gibreel, with the Imam riding him like a carpet, swoops lower, and in the steaming night it looks as if the streets are alive, they seem to be writhing, like snakes; while in front of the palace of the Empress’s defeat a new hill seems to be growing, while we watch, baba, what’s going on here?

The Imam’s voice hangs in the sky: “Come down. I will show you Love.”

They are at rooftop-level when Gibreel realises that the streets are swarming with people. Human beings, packed so densely into those snaking paths that they have blended into a larger, composite entity, relentless, serpentine. The people move slowly, at an even pace, down alleys into lanes, down lanes into side streets, down side streets into highways, all of them converging upon the grand avenue, twelve lanes wide and lined with giant eucalyptus trees, that leads to the palace gates. The avenue is packed with humanity; it is the central organ of the new, many-headed being.

Seventy abreast, the people walk gravely towards the Empress’s gates. In front of which her household guards are waiting in three ranks, lying, kneeling and standing, with machine-guns at the ready. The people are walking up the slope towards the guns; seventy at a time, they come into range; the guns babble, and they die, and then the next seventy climb over the bodies of the dead, the guns giggle once again, and the hill of the dead grows higher. Those behind it commence, in their turn, to climb. In the dark doorways of the city there are mothers with covered heads, pushing their beloved sons into the parade, go, be a martyr, do the needful, die. “You see how they love me,” says the disembodied voice. “No tyranny on earth can withstand the power of this slow, walking love.”

“This isn’t love,” Gibreel, weeping, replies. “It’s hate.”

You can’t make people love you for what you are. You can’t make people love your books. This is beyond your power. This is beyond everyone’s power.