Does literary imagination need a defence? To state that a writer’s imagination should be the most free and borderless of places would appear uncontroversial.

Yet, over the first four months of 2021, writers around the world have faced extraordinary pressures, caught between increasingly fierce culture wars and grappling with a more repressive political landscape than even five years ago. That a 2019 manifesto from PEN International, the writers’ advocacy group, titled “The Democracy of the Imagination” continues to spark discussion, only goes to show how nuanced this debate has become.

The manifesto, which was introduced by writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Nayantara Sahgal, and passed with unanimity by PEN International delegates, lists a set of principles including: “We defend the imagination and believe it to be as free as dreams” and “We know attempts to control the imagination may lead to xenophobia, hatred and division.” But last month, it was reported that PEN America — the organisation’s US wing — stopped short of a full, formal endorsement of the manifesto, despite the fact that two of its delegates were involved in the drafting process.

This decision hints at some of the recent tensions around cultural appropriation: is a writer’s freedom to imagine absolute or do they have a responsibility to consider questions of identity, race and power before voicing characters from oppressed minority groups? More generally, it reopens a discussion around the extent to which writers should be policed for their views on these subjects.

At last month’s FT Weekend Digital Festival, I stepped into this mud-wrestling arena with the novelist Lionel Shriver. Our subject for discussion was “cancel culture” and whether the no-platforming of public figures because of perceived wrongs represents a creeping form of censorship or necessary accountability.

On the face of it, while she is a fellow FT contributor, Shriver and I seem to share little common ground. Aside from her fame as the author of 16 novels, including We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Mandibles, Shriver has practically made a second career out of her contrarianism. She has inveighed against the “brand new taboo” of cultural appropriation, she is a vocal opponent of lockdown and has described cancel culture as “a quasi-Soviet phenomenon”. But there is no doubt that she brings her own fierce, stubborn intelligence to every debate.

As our discussion progressed, I found myself in unexpected agreement with Shriver. “[Free speech] has tragically been taken over as a cause of the right, but it used to be a cause of the left,” she said. “Illiberalism is not just an issue for liberals; it is an issue for everyone.” It is true that “cancel culture” is generally associated with the political left but these tactics are increasingly being deployed by the political right in countries such as China, India, the Philippines and elsewhere, as a way of curbing free speech or muzzling critics of the government or ruling party.

Living and writing in New Delhi, as I do, one is never far away from threats to the creative imagination. Authors from Hong Kong to the Philippines and India have been silenced or often jailed, faced the viciousness of online mobs or the pressure of sedition, defamation and offence laws that sharply restrict what they can write. Only last month, as Myanmar plunged into the chaos of a military coup, two poets — K Za Win and Daw Myint Myint Zin — were shot dead by the army; the country’s most popular comedian, Zarganar, is now in jail, together with more than a dozen poets and writers. It’s a shocking reminder that men with guns are far more brutal in their cancellations than any proponent of “cancel culture”, as it is conceived in the west.

Among my disagreements with Shriver is that she is too quick to caricature attempts to diversify the books world as publishers “drunk on virtue”. But I found myself nodding again when she said: “When did we stop giving people the benefit of the doubt? It’s not just about rules, it’s about our attitude to other people, whether we are willing to extend a certain kindness or understanding.” Liberals do need to continue to demand more inclusiveness, more diversity, in all creative industries — but the challenge is to keep pushing for change without falling into the trap of policing the imagination.

In 2019, another report published by PEN, “The Freedom to Write Index”, noted presciently: “Writers and intellectuals are often among the canaries in the coal mine who, alongside journalists and human rights activists, are first targeted when a country takes a more authoritarian turn.” The rise of the far right in my part of the world has ushered in a time of deliberate brutality and suppression, a time of many failures of kindness. Writers must place their own particular gifts — not least, the ability to step into a stranger’s skin — up there alongside the pursuit of justice, if both democracy and the imagination are to thrive.

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Letter in response to this article:

Revolutionary political labels no longer stick / From Roger Owens, Dublin, Ireland