The differences between world superpowers the United States and China are vast, and they touch levels of society ranging from economics to art. These differences were on display last week as China’s Mo Yan spoke about winning the Nobel Prize award.
Mo Yan, a pen name meaning “Don’t speak,” will be awarded the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature tonight in Stockholm. In a press conference earlier this week, he said:
“I’ve never given any compliments or praised the system of censorship but I also believe that in every country of the world, censorship exists. The only difference is in the degree and way of censorship. Without censorship, then any person could on television or online vilify others. This would not be allowed in any country. As long as it is not contrary to the true facts, it should not be censored. Any disinformation, vilification, rumors or insults should be censored.”
It’s hard to picture an American author offering anything near a defense of censorship, as Yan has, but nuanced consideration suggests his comments can be seen in a more forgiving light.
After all, while stopping far shy of censorship, outrage over art rang out earlier this year when comedian Daniel Tosh joked about an audience member: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl (in reference to an audience member who “heckled” him about rape jokes not being funny earlier in his show) got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”
Few thought it would be funny. Criticism over Tosh’s remarks sprang from all corners of the American commentariat. In a way, the outcry over Tosh’s joke coincides with Yan’s belief that “disinformation, vilification, rumors or insults should be censored.”
In Tosh’s case, though, other comedians defended his right to make the joke. It’s often the general position among artists: debate over it’s humor or worth is welcome, while placing limitations on comedy, fiction, or music is not.
Yan is unique as an artist of note to take a stance seemingly in defense of censorship. It’s hard to picture Jonathan Franzen or Dave Eggers using the Nobel Prize-winner’s platform to make any stance but this: Art must be subject to no limitations.
One writer thought by many to have long deserved a Novel Prize for Literature is Salman Rushdie. The Satanic Verses author was forced into hiding after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran called for his death for allegedly being blasphemous toward the Prophet Muhammad.
An interesting statement is made by the Nobel committee now that Yan has been honored while Rushdie has not. Yan, whose style is heavy on folklore and magical realism, offered another, almost artistically purist, defense of censorship by saying it forces writers to “conform to the aesthetics of literature.”
That may be true. But literature is about more than just writing. It’s about telling stories and sharing ideas. It’s about pushing past limitations. It’s about going wherever the story must.
In Yan’s defense, though, I’d offer this: we don’t know that this was his unfiltered opinion.