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Communication, Censorship, Corruption and Courage

How to create an atmosphere where writing is dangerous: censorship. How to suppress the creative spirit: censorship.How to build a following despite censorship: online.

Even in an authoritarian state that wields enormous economic muscle and instills fear in free markets, the writer Murong Xuecun (a pseudonym for the writer Hao Qunhas) managed to build a name for himself. His subject: government corruption and political hypocrisy. His sales: in the millions. His nemesis: state-sponsored censorship. His solution: building a fan base online.

Although he lives in a country, China, that routinely and sometimes violently suppresses the creative voices of its artists (the artist Ai Weiwei, often censured or even tormented by the Chiense government, was given a $2.4 million tax bill, in the latest attempt to punish him for his work), Murong is the very picture of a contemporary writer. He uses the remarkable power of online tools to disseminate his work and to build his platform. In an excellent article in The New York Times about him, this stood out, among many passages that speak to writing and the need to express oneself:

He addresses political issues on both a blog and a microblog account that resembles Twitter, which has nearly 1.1 million followers. He posts his novels chapter by chapter or in sections online under different pseudonyms as he writes. This Dickens-style serialization generates buzz, and the writing evolves with reader feedback. Once the book is finished or nearly so, Mr. Murong signs with a publisher. The censored print editions make money, but the Internet versions are more complete.

— from “Pushing China’s Limits on Web, if Not on Paper,” by Edward Wong, The New York Times, November 7, 2011

Sound familiar? For most of us, though, getting the word out, getting our words out, isn’t something that could lead to imprisonment or worse.

The article also says something that speaks to today’s publishing landscape in our own society. One Chinese publisher is quoted as saying that while he supports Murong, “He has one problem: his writings are too dark.” Now, how many writers, aspiring or otherwise, have heard something similar from U.S. publishers, that what they offer won’t appeal to the market because it doesn’t conform to whatever is selling at bookstores (though, as with movies, no one knows anything about what will appeal to the public). Fear leads to censorship of a sort. How many writers have been told by their agents to rewrite something because it doesn’t “conform”?

The worst thing about censorship is the effect it has on writing and on writers good or bad. Writers start to self-censor, which is different from editing themselves as they write, and they lose an essential part of themselves. While the North American publishing landscape is not like that in China, and artists have much more freedom, of course, there is a certain amount of fearful totalitarianism among traditional publishers here as a result of today’s new communication tools. They fear the shifting market, the unknown. They fear writers who have too much control.

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