Where novels were once seen as a way to bring journalism to a larger audience, Sir Ahmad Salman Rushdie explained that it has since become more challenging to determine their role in an environment in which readers are less trusting of the news.
“We face the crisis of an administration that is very determined to control and rewrite the narrative of this country,” said Rushdie, in a talk about the current state of public affairs and the role of artists within them. “We as writers and artists must know how to respond to this.”
Rushdie, a British Indian novelist, won the 1981 Booker Prize with his second novel Midnight’s Children. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to literature and is an elected fellow of the United Kingdom's Royal Society of
In his talk, Rushdie addressed the question of what role literature can play in a society in which there are more ways to get news, but in which we are simultaneously growing “more suspicious of the news we are getting.”
In the past, Rushdie explained, social impact was one of literature’s main functions.
“People saw the novel as a way to bring news,” he said. He cited the example of Charles Dickens, whose writing brought attention to the poor treatment of orphans during the Victorian era. However, Rushdie said, novels are not currently seen as bearers of news. He added that people are also ceasing to believe in journalism as a news source, a trend which he said poses a grave danger to our understanding of what is true. He noted that this mounting skepticism of journalism grants power to authorities to control the narrative instead.
“Should we be writing fiction when the world is so full of lies?” Rushdie asked the room.
“One of the things power wants to do is to control the narrative, and the more authoritarian the power, the more control they have over the narrative,” he explained. Writers, he said, should not accept attempts to control the narrative and should instead use their abilities to create their own.
“Art is trying to increase by some small measure the total of what is possible for us to perceive, understand, and learn,” Rushdie said. For our development as a society, he noted, is it imperative to continuously push the boundaries and expand our limits, especially in the face of “very powerful forces pushing back.”
“If we are prevented from doing this,” Rushdie said, “it is an attack on human beings.”
Rushdie spoke in McCosh 50 at 6 p.m., and he addressed a filled room. An overflow room with a live stream was also set up for the event. The event was sponsored by the Spencer Trask Lecture Series and was part of the Princeton University Public Lectures.