‘Not undesirable’: South Africa’s Nobel laureates and the censors

Thursday 14 February 2019, 6.00PM to 7.30pm

Speaker(s): David Attwell (Department of English and Related Literature, University of York)

One of the standard responses to the censorship of literature is to invoke a version of aesthetic autonomy: the censor, so the argument goes, is misguided at best, but probably just boorish, because the game being played in the text is more nuanced, complex, and sophisticated than the game the censor thinks is the one being played. This was, for example, the defense most widely aired following the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie, not least by Rushdie himself. But as Peter McDonald shows in his remarkable book The Literature Police, in the South African case the apartheid censors, many of whom were literature professors, were motivated in part by aesthetic universalism. Their task, as they saw it and as T.S. Eliot put it, was ‘to purify the language of the tribe.’ When it came to making decisions about whether to ban a work of fiction, their decisions therefore frequently turned on the work’s aesthetic standing. As we now know from the censors’ archives, the results involve contradictions that speak tellingly of the seriousness of literary communication under a censorious regime. This paper looks into the experience of South Africa's Nobel laureates, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee, faced with apartheid-era censorship.

“Historicising Fictionality” is a strand of the 2019 ICNS programme, Limit Narratology: Cognition and Culture, which juxtaposes the most basic form of narrative sense-making as a cognitive faculty with the cultural role of highly elaborate fictional narratives. The seminars are organised around two centres of interest: “Narrative and the Senses” considers the evocation of the senses in narrative texts as a figure or mediation of narrative sense, and the grounding of narrative cognition in embodiment and sensory experience; “Historicising Fictionality” concerns fiction as an evolving communicative and rhetorical resource, with a traceable cultural history and a principle of development located in the recursively reflexive logic of narrative discourse.


Location: Seminar Room BS/007, Berrick Saul Building, University of York Heslington West Campus