PEN Survey: US Writers Censor Themselves on Military, Middle East

A newly released PEN report finds that a large — and perhaps growing — number of US writers avoid or are considering avoiding red-line topics, which include criticism of the US military and the whole of the Middle East and North Africa:

1in6This finding is not particularly surprising, but important, as N. American writers’ self-censorship is rarely treated. The study, conducted last month by the PEN American Center and the FDR Group, surveyed 528 PEN members. The majority identified themselves as novelists or short-story writers, followed by nonfiction writers/essayists, poets, journalists, memoirists, then other sorts of writers.

Most writers — 73% — reported that they “have never been as worried about privacy rights and freedom of the press as they are today.” Also, a good chunk, 16 percent, reported that they have avoided writing or speaking on a particular topic. A further 11 percent said they “have seriously considered it.”

Those are already large numbers, and we can predict — or at least I would — that there are others who don’t think they self-censor, but do. In its report, NPR notes that, “PEN is an organization that promotes free speech and whose members may be generally more concerned about censorship issues than other writers,” but I’m not sure it’s true, or what effect it would have on respondents’ answers.

In any case, the report concludes:

“Writers are self-censoring their work and their online activity due to their fears that commenting on, researching, or writing about certain issues will cause them harm. Writers reported self-censoring on subjects including military affairs, the Middle East North Africa region, mass incarceration, drug policies, pornography, the Occupy movement, the study of certain languages, and criticism of the U.S. government.”

From the comments in the report:

“In my limited experience, the writers who feel most chilled, who are being most cautious, are friends and colleagues who write about the Middle East.”

“I would hesitate to express in writing understanding for anti-American sentiments abroad, as I suspect that expressing such understanding might make me suspect in the eyes of the American security apparatus.”

“As a person interested in foreign languages (including at least one that’s politically sensitive), I’ve been quite disturbed by the extent of surveillance evident regarding anyone with such interests in the United States. A couple of friends with similar interests have also had troubling surveillance experiences (both here and abroad). This may well prove a great detriment to the study of foreign cultures, especially in this country, with a subsequent loss of international understanding.”

If we can assume that Arabic is one of these “politically sensitive” languages — and a major American publisher apparently told Edward Said as much when he was first trying to promote the work of Edward Said — do these fears impact the review of Arabic literature in English? Is that a sort of “writing” about the MENA that US writers find it easier to avoid? And if writers find this a red line, mightn’t readers as well?

You can read the whole report online.


  1. Another great post. This is something I hadn’t thought about. I’ve just pitched my novel ‘Dreams of Yasmeen’ (set in the UAE with Muslim Arabs as main characters) to a US literary agent who was interested in the project. I wait with baited breath …

    1. Good luck with it! I hope this agent is the right one who will respect & shepherd your work.

  2. A thought-provoking post. As if the cozy (if not downright corrupt) relationship of the Corporate Media to the government weren’t a powerful enough check on debate in American politics these days. As the targeting of Glenn Greenwald by the US government even before the Snowden affair shows (see, writers have ample reason to fear reprisals should they question the wrong sacred cow in Washington.

    Unless this happened twice, I think you might have gotten the anecdote about Edward Said a little wrong. My recollection from a talk during which Said recounted this incident is that a journalist with The New York Times contacted him during the 1980s for suggestions of notable Third World writers, as opposed to in connection with any attempt to celebrate or discuss Said himself. At Said’s suggestion of Naguib Mahfouz, if memory serves, the journalist demurred, observing absurdly that Arabic was a “controversial language.” Which makes the story even worse.

    1. Hmm, I’ll have to track down that anecdote. I think I have it in a book foreword somewhere.

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