The PEN American Center released an interesting report in November 2013 titled Chilling Effects: NSA Surveillance Drives U.S. Writers to Self-Censor, and since Banned Books Week is this month, I thought now would be a good time to highlight the censorship of literature and government monitoring. (For a different approach to this topic, see my post from last year, http://literarylabors.com/2013/09/26/banned-books-week/.)

Without a doubt the name of Edward Snowden incites a number of reactions: some hail him as a hero championing the privacy of American citizens, while others view him as a traitor. Regardless of which stance you take, he has brought into awareness the power of the government to monitor us, and he’s really driven home that no communication is truly private anymore. We have to assume that we are being monitored, if not only by the government then when our works are released into the world and concerned parents petition to have “offending” works removed from reading lists and library shelves.

As far as the fallout from the NSA disclosures on writers, PEN reports that, with alarming frequency, writers are avoiding or have seriously considered avoiding certain topics in their writing or in their discussions. For instance, 16% of writers have not written about a topic of interest due to discomfort stemming from surveillance and another 11% have given serious thought to doing so. 28% self-censor on social media, while 24% do so during phone/email conversations. Writers also avoid even researching certain topics. 16% of writers have not researched something of interest due to fear of surveillance, and another 11% have taken steps to cover their digital tracks when they have done so. (The most frequently reported searches of concern have to do with the Middle East, nuclear weaponry, drugs, and terrorism.) Even if a writer is not actively avoiding writing or researching, a staggering 85% of the surveyed PEN authors are worried about government surveillance. If we extrapolate this data, it can be reasonably assumed that someone of this 85% will eventually curtail their activities.

To me, these are huge numbers. When we consider what authors are not saying out of fear, it seems inevitable that some important piece of literature, some important broader social message, is being lost. The beauty of literature is that it transports us and shines a light onto a world we might not know. And, yes, that light can reveal a disturbing or alarming world, but by being exposed to others and their plights, we grow as a global community.

For a full copy of this research, visit this site: http://pen.org/chilling-effects. Also, remember to support the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week, this year occurring from September 21- September 27. You can find more information about this week by visiting http://www.bannedbooksweek.org.

Cheers,

Julia Blake