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Francine Prose reminds us why so many novelists are so very, very stupid

28 April 2015

5:55 PM

28 April 2015

5:55 PM

I asked yesterday why so many novelists are so often so stupid. The answer, I suppose, is that we should expect no more from novelists than we do from plumbers. (Though I apologise to plumbers for comparing them with novelists).

Helpfully, however, Francine Prose pops-up in the Guardian (where else?) to validate most of what I wrote about the protest, of which Ms Prose is part, against awarding the staff of Charlie Hebdo an award for their courage in defending free speech under, literally, fire.

You can tell that Ms Prose is a simpering ninny straightaway because she frets that Charlie Hebdo is an ‘inappropriate’ recipient of such an award. Inappropriate! Nevermind the facts, madam, judge the appropriateness. These days, you must understand, something may be right and inappropriate and therefore, on account of the offence caused, right things may actually be wrong things.

Charitably, Ms Prose says Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish whatever it wants. However, that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honour.

I may be wrong about this but in this instance the bestowing of an award seems to be a recognition that 12 of your colleagues were murdered for the ‘crime’ of producing journalism. And yet, despite that, Charlie Hebdo still lives.

I should think it takes a degree of courage to respond to these murders as though the assassinations had never taken place at all. If Charlie Hebdo was courageous in December, it must be doubly so since January. The kind of courage that might even, whisper it, be worth an award or two. (For whatever such baubles may be worth.)


Meanwhile, if Charlie Hebdo are not neo-Nazis then the comparison with said neo-Nazis in deepest Illinois is irrelevant and if they are comparable to neo-Nazis then Ms Prose outs herself as a ninny on steroids. Something worse than that, in fact.

Even so, this is a telling frame of reference because it becomes quite clear that the problem with giving the staff of Charlie Hebdo an award is that Francine Prose disagrees with the views promulgated by the magazine. The magazine confronts her with certain truths many people prefer to shirk.

Why, for-fucking-sooth, they are not literary enough are they? Alas, we are not informed what kind of literary bar Ms Prose sets for the honouring of murdered journalists. If only they had been better cartoonists! 

This, I submit, is a revolting pose. There’s nothing liberal about it. Rather it is simply craven. Undaunted, however, Ms Prose tunnels further into a cave of witlessness. Apparently, you see,I also don’t feel that it is the mission of PEN to fight the war on terrorism; that is the role of our government. Our job, in presenting an award, is to honor writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live. That is important work that requires perseverance and courage. And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.’

Again, you will notice, with the dying-for-your-right-to-work-is-not-enough nonsense. No-one, meanwhile, is asking PEN to ‘fight the war on terrorism’. All anyone proposes is that PEN might honour some of the journalistic victims of that war.

You might dispute that Charlie Hebdo’s journalism told us ‘the truth about the world in which we live’ but I think you’ll find their staffers’ deaths told us rather a lot and that most of it, all too appallingly, was all too true. And clear, at least to them that will open their eyes.

And, actually, I do think it needs to be said that while you are free to be offended you have no right to murder people for the made-up crime of offending you. Now, more than ever, that needs to be said. Now, more than ever, it is clear – in the most terrible fashion – that Charlie Hebdo has illuminated some awful truths.

For that matter, I also think Charlie Hebdo’s indomitable decision to continue after all that has happened counts as ‘important work that requires perseverance and courage’ . More courage and perhaps even, dare I say it, more perseverance than Ms Prose’s latest project. In this particular instance and at this particular time, this is exactly the same thing as mocking religion and drawing cartoons. (Would Ms Prose be happier, by the way, if these cartoons were more refined? Alas, she does not say.)

Ms Prose’s utterly lamentable article concludes thus: ‘The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East. And the idea that one is either “for us or against us” in such matters not only precludes rational and careful thinking, but also has a chilling effect on the exercise of our right to free expression and free speech that all of us – and all the people at PEN – are working so tirelessly to guarantee.’

Ah, yes, the narrative or, as you and I might put it, the facts. Note too that, of course, ‘rational and careful thinking’ means we must be very careful not to ascribe guilt or responsibility to the perpetrators of this massacre. In some inchoate sense they, uniquely, do not have responsibility for their actions even as, just as unusually, the writers and cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo do bear some responsibility – somehow! – for what was done to them.

Speaking for myself, the idea that one is either ‘for us or against us’ when the subject being discussed is the brutal machine-gunning of innocent journalists seems pretty straightforward. I am for us and against those who are against us. I am for those with the courage to write and draw what they think, no matter the risks. I am for those who make a stand for real liberalism and freedom of expression. I am for the dead.

And I am against Francine Prose and all who think like her. Shame on them. Shame on them all.


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