You can kill people in droves and it’s expected. But you won’t get away with underage sex or racial discrimination unless you write it strictly from the victim’s point of view. It’s easy to sell a story about a little person who takes on a big organisation. It’s a lot harder to do one in which the organisation turns out to be right and the little person wrong. Pictures from the famine camps should show us starving children, but not the ones who have already died. We don’t want it. We, the consumers, censor both what the story is and how it may be told.
Why shouldn’t we? Some thoughts can be truly dangerous if written down. Even where they aren’t, a bit of censorship can still be a good thing. It challenges our storytellers to use their wits, rather than just telling things the obvious but lazy way. And we do actually expect storytellers (in all their forms) to push a bit beyond what’s normal and accepted. It is their job to take our imaginations to places where it is not safe for our bodies to be. They let us think ourselves into dramatic situations without the risk of getting into them for real. We may even allow a writer who shocks us to be newsworthy, that is, to become a story themselves.
But storytellers have only a very little power. They have to appeal to things that are already in our minds. They can’t make us go where we don’t want to go. Whether they are peddling fact or fiction, they must massage our emotions in pleasing ways. We are ready to weep, so long as we can feel uplifted by the weeping. We want to imagine ourselves coming into power, gaining riches, lying in the arms of another human who is beautiful. We like the little-person-against-the-big-machine story because it lets us see ourselves triumphing against the world that keeps us down. And we love stories about people we all know and whom we can gossip about – celebrities whose success we can somehow share by reading about it, and whose failures and foibles we can spit upon as we pass them humiliated in the gutter. ‘You thought you were better than us, didn’t you?’
So I’m with those who say: you can blame the press, but don’t forget who was buying the newspapers. I’ll go further. Why is political debate so nauseatingly sterile? Because we like ‘pompous ass makes fool of self’ stories much more than we do ‘life is terribly complicated and if you want something to change you’ve got to accept the consequences’. So a politician in front of a microphone simply cannot afford to take risks. And if you ever get depressed about the number of books in which young heroine falls in love with beautiful monster who wants to suck her blood – well, you’ve just got to accept that some stories are stronger than others. They’re the ones that tell us what we want to hear.