DUBAI // What do you get when you mix some of the most controversial of contemporary authors, the slippery topic of free speech and a whiff of PR mischief? A temperate and even-handed symposium, as it turns out, in which censorship is acknowledged to be inevitable in some degree, desirable to a smaller one, and hard to pin down in any case. In the words of the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood: "Whose sensibility are we talking about here? ... It's very stretchy."
Comments by Ms Atwood in the run-up to the Dubai International Festival of Literature had been barbed. After a row over the alleged banning of a novel by the British author Geraldine Bedell - the book had never actually been scheduled for the festival - Ms Atwood posted a letter of protest on her website and refused to attend the event. But given the chance to speak at a debate in Dubai yesterday via a video link from her native Toronto, Ms Atwood conceded that there was room for censorship, albeit self-censorship, in any society.
When Nelofer Pazira, her colleague from the anticensorship organisation PEN, joined her on camera and suggested that the most dangerous sort of censorship might be self-censorship, Ms Atwood disagreed. "If we all lived in a world in which we said what we were thinking all the time," she said, "first of all we wouldn't have any friends." Second, she said, "we would probably be in quite a lot of trouble. So we are always to some extent tailoring what we are saying to the social occasion in which we are saying it."
Ms Atwood and Ms Pazira discussed the effect that state patronage, or the lack of it, had on culture in the West. By receiving government funding, she said, arts institutions could feel obliged to not bite the hand that feeds them. She lamented that Canada was reducing funding for school libraries. "Governments have this weird idea that you can have people who are smart at business, but somehow can't read," she said. "Governments in western countries try to control the arts through money, through withholding money or giving money to things they favour."
The line-up of the debate alone made it newsworthy: Ms Atwood, vilified by conservative groups since the 1980s for her satirical novel The Handmaid's Tale, was joined by the Saudi author Rajaa Alsanea, the writer and habitual book-prize judge Rachel Billington, the Ukrainian humorist and one-time writer of samizdat literature Andrey Kurkov and Ibrahim Nasrallah, a Jordanian-Palestinian writer shortlisted for the Arab Booker prize.
PEN put up Mr Pazira, the president of its Canadian chapter, and Eugene Schoulgin, the secretary of the international umbrella group, who chaired the discussion. Mohammed al Murr, the vice-chairman of the Dubai Cultural and Arts Authority, was host. Not bad for a few days' worth of frantic phone calls. But, as is often the case, it was the context that made the prospect of the talk seem especially delicious.
Earlier in February Ms Bedell claimed that her novel The Gulf Between Us had been banned by the festival on sexual and political grounds. Ms Atwood, invoking her sentinel status - she is vice-president of International PEN - leapt into action. She withdrew from the event in protest and, in so doing, won Ms Bedell's book a good deal of pre-release publicity. It was only after the words "ban" and "censorship" had zapped their way around the world that Ms Atwood spoke to the event's organisers. They convinced her that, so far as they knew, the book had neither been banned nor censored. It simply had not been deemed a good fit for the festival.
This, they added, had been decided in September. The Bedell story broke in late February; her book is due to be published in April. An ulterior motive suggested itself. Cue an extraordinary show of rue from Ms Atwood in The Guardian: "Having leapt into this dog's breakfast," she wrote, "I have it all over my face." The contrite novelist reinstated herself in the festival programme, albeit in virtual form. She would take part via video link from Canada in a symposium on freedom of speech.
As things turned out, the only person who appeared to have any burning will to speak was Ibrahim Nasrallah. His passionate appeals to the West to recognise the situation in Gaza were only tenuously on topic, however salient they might have been in a moral sense. Ms Atwood's remarks were tentative and philosophical: "We have a separation between our acts of writing and the acts of people reading," she said, "and we sometimes feel that gives us a certain safety, a certain immunity from the effects of that reading."
Ms Alsanea, whose controversial novel The Girls of Riyadh was published in Saudi Arabia only after it had enjoyed wide success internationally, took a more decisive line. "With the internet, I have to say, it had a huge impact on freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia," she said. "Censorship now is a myth." Though she had been threatened over her book, she said, she wanted to play down this side of her experience so as not to discourage other novelists from tackling controversial issues.
"The year after my book was published," she said, "about 60 novels were published in Saudi Arabia about social matters that are discussed in my book. Half of them are written by female authors. I'm very proud of that." Andrey Kurkov, best known in English for his comic novel Death and the Penguin, noted that different topics were taboo in different parts of the world. His book The Case of the General's Thumb was cut for British audiences, he said, because a scene in which a fox is cooked and eaten was thought to offend local sensibilities. He also professed to miss reading and working under Soviet censorship.
"If a book was banned," he said, "it meant a sign of quality. Now that we have no censorship, writers have no incentive to be clever, to go straight to the reader's minds. So they want only to entertain." The debate's chairman, Eugene Schoulgin, suggested some societies use censorship to protect themselves as a community. Yet he noted that "change in societies is the norm" and pointed to the universal acceptance of women drivers in the UAE today after their controversial introduction in the 1960s.
Ms Billington raised the subject of political correctness and related an argument she had with her publisher over whether she could include a fat villain in one of her novels. "There's nothing wrong with being fat," she was told. firstname.lastname@example.org