Thoughts on freedom to publish

A standout moment of the Nibbies was the presentation of the Freedom to Publish Award, which is supported by Index on Censorship and is given to authors, publishers or booksellers who make an exceptional contribution to the principle of free expression. Presenting the 2023 award to the celebrated novelist Sir Salman Rushdie, the writer Monica Ali said no other author had been ‘more courageous [or] steadfast’ in the pursuit of truth and artistic freedom. ‘Now, more than ever, we have to hold fast to the absolute centrality of freedom of thought and the freedom to express that thought,’ she said.

Speaking from his home in New York, Rushdie said, ‘Obviously, there are parts of the world where censorship has been prevalent for a long-time … Russia, China, in some ways India … But in … the West, until recently, there was a fair measure of freedom in … publishing. Now … in the US, I… look at the extraordinary attack on libraries, and books for children in schools … It is quite remarkabl[e], and we need … to fight against it very hard.’ He went on to express his alarm at the ‘bowdlerising’ the work of such people as Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. ‘… books have to come to us from their time and be of their time, and if that’s difficult to take, don’t read them. Read another book, but don’t try and remake yesterday’s work in the light of today’s attitudes …’

Philip Jones echoed Rushdie’s sentiments. ‘Freedom to Publish is about the right to read, write, speak and hear without interference, and without the dire consequences so often now threatened by those who would restrict, censor and circumscribe,’ he said. ‘More than most, Rushdie has lived his defiance, and continues to pay a huge price for it.’

As an admirer of John Stuart Mill’s approach to freedom of expression, I found both Ali’s and Rushdie’s speeches compelling, and I contemplated these themes on the long train journey back home to the Highlands. As a small, dynamic publisher we’re perhaps able to take a nimbler, more bespoke approach than some of the larger publishing houses, but we’re nevertheless bound by the same need to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. We don’t want people to read another book—we want them to read ours.

Publishing historical narratives accurately while recognising that cultural perspectives change over time can be tricky, and there are genuine questions about how stories from another era can remain relevant for each new generation. This is especially important for us as, like our parent company the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, one of our primary aims is to help remove barriers to participation in the outdoors.

As in all walks of life, celebrated figures in the field of mountaineering are not beyond reproach and suggesting otherwise by stripping out controversial themes or opinions from our publications would be not only a betrayal of their legacy, but patronising to our readers. Trust is one of the most important commodities we have as a publisher: by offering truthful representations, we trust our readers to engage with our books in good faith and understand that publishers don’t necessarily endorse the opinions of their authors.

But it’s something that we wrestle with continually in our editorial processes, when we’re considering how text brings value to the story. We can’t rewrite history, but we can acknowledge that social mores can and do evolve. Rather than condemning historical perspectives that might not resonate with a modern audience, we’ll often contextualise them by, for example, adding a short preface or footnotes, acknowledging that some words or phrases may seem dated, but that we’ve chosen to retain them to accurately represent the author’s style of writing and the cultural norms of the era in which they operated. There’s also a clear distinction between publishing potentially controversial historical quotes and contemporary views held by the authors themselves. In the case of the latter, having thoughtful conversations about how to frame or express things in the most accessible, inclusive way does not, to my mind, constitute censorship in the way that sanitising a quote made by a long-dead author does. Likewise, electing not to include some words or opinions is a natural part of any editorial process.

So, how do we decide what to amplify, what to discard and what, if anything, to rephrase? The first question I ask as an editor is whether something seems gratuitously crude or offensive. Although some terms now considered derogatory may not have been intended as such at the time, others very clearly were, and we see little value in printing these. However, sometimes it’s necessary to ask whether quotes and dialogue reveal an aspect of an individual’s character or culture in a way that is essential for understanding the text and the overall story. In the case of our biographies, the author’s voice should remain neutral even if the subject’s is not. In other words, potentially derogatory statements have different impact depending on who’s saying them and why.

I’d like to think that, so far, we’ve found the right balance here at the press, but as a small, committed team of professionals we’re always willing to reflect upon and interrogate our own preconceptions through thoughtful and respectful conversation with our colleagues, authors and readers.