Salman Rushdie on literature and politics in the modern world

On Thursday, Feb. 18, author Salman Rushdie received a standing ovation from the 3,000 in attendance for his lecture, “Private Lives: Literature + Politics in the Modern World.” Parts history lesson, literary survey and modern-day critique, Rushdie’s 45-minute talk at at UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena examined the role and evolution of the novel over the last four centuries.

The British-Indian writer, whose work The Satanic Verses famously provoked death threats from the Ayatollah Khomeini, began by highlighting the novel’s early impact on social change. He used Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and its subsequent influence in improving the educational institutions for the poor, as his initial example. He then went on to remind the audience of the famous meeting between President Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, where Lincoln allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] that started this great war.”

The crux of Rushdie’s lecture focused on the modern writer and the role of the present-day novel. With the advent of the Internet and the emergence of the information age, does the novel still play as vital a part in informing and shaping the public, or has its influence dwindled?

“The Internet is not a place for information,” Rushdie told the audience, “but a place for trolling, paranoia and ranting.” He went on to say that with the shrinking of the newspaper industry, correspondents are being replaced by more and more opinion columnists, substituting truth for truthiness.

“The world is becoming fictionalized,” Rushdie said. “The real has become a problem. That’s where the work of the novelist begins.”

In Rushdie’s view, the modern writer is obliged to move away from the private lives of characters and toward the public arena. This, Rushdie conceded, raises a problem, in that the novel as a form likes to be private. The idea that a man’s character determines his destiny — the essence of the novel — risks getting lost to the larger issues, if not properly handled.

And yet, Rushdie said, writers can no longer ignore these larger issues due to the very nature of the modern world. “We live in a time of identity politics where we are asked to define ourselves as this or that,” he said. The novel knows better. It understands the contradictory nature of man. And this, Rushdie said, helps people better understand each other.

The job of the modern writer, Rushdie went on to conclude, is to try and open up the universe to show people all of its possibilities, and to push boundaries, like the writers of old. Of course, writers will get push-back. Just as Ovid’s words landed him in exile, today’s writers also risk many dangers in their pursuit of truth. And yet, as Rushdie pointed out, the Roman Empire has since collapsed, while Ovid’s words live on.


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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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15 thoughts on “Salman Rushdie on literature and politics in the modern world

  1. Jess

    “Literature brings us the truth of the lived experiences in the world.” It was a privilege to hear Salman Rushdie’s lecture last night at UNCA. An incredible speaker with thoughtful insights on the role media plays in our lives.

    What stood out to me was when Rushdie spoke to censorship on campus and the concept of ‘Safe Space’. He referenced student groups working to ban literature containing ideas that are foreign or go against personal beliefs with the argument it’s not allowing them a “Safe Space” on campus. Rushdie emphasized campus should be, “safe for ideas and not from.” The point of university is to be challenged with what you think.

    Rushdie, “Some students are starting to believe silencing certain speech is worth doing, even though we live in the land of the free. … Safety physically, yes. Don’t be protected from ideas that are new or confusing.”

    • Big Al

      The Religious Right and the Nazis burn books and the Left assigns the moniker of Evil Censor to all conservatives.

      But educators and academics fall strangely silent when the Left drafts campus Speech Codes or assigns the term “trigger” opinions that are unpopular and need to be suppressed.

      Too bad it takes a NOVELIST to point out the hypocrisy of the Left in what speech is acceptable. The point would be so much stronger if it was made by a non-fiction writer. But they all owe their success to academia, the source of the hypocrisy.

      • Peter Robbins

        Rushdie has written non-fiction, has himself been a writer-in-residence at Emory University, and is on the left politically. He just spoke without being censored at a university. Plenty of academics on the left have publicly opposed speech codes, using, I might add, their last names. On the other hand, all of your criticism of the right is valid, Big Al.

        • Big Al

          “The Right” is far bigger than just Nazis and Religious Fundamentalists. You would be surprised how much agreement there COULD be with the Left if they would stop all of the name-calling on campus. When I left the Army in 1991, the kids at ASU where still calling me a jack-booted, baby-killing thug. They drove me straight into the arms of Rush Limbaugh and the like. I know better now, but it still keeps me from being able to make any common cause when people I agree with on issues cannot keep from broad-brushing everyone on THEIR right (which often includes the middle-of-the-road majority) as fascists and fanatics, which is kind of “pot meet kettle”. If the Left truly wants to be taken seriously, they need to stop acting like entitled, oppressed toddlers and earnestly seek the consensus and dialogue that they are always CLAIMING to want.

          • The Real World

            Big Al – very well said but, as you stated, it will likely fall on closed, intolerant ears and minds.

            I’m an independent moderate, always have been, which allows me to talk to and hear what friends of both parties are thinking. The extreme, nasty, very narrow screed I’ve heard coming from the Left everywhere in the last few years is very scary. They truly seem unaware of the astonishing hypocrisy of their thinking and behavior relative to what they claim to stand for.

            Out of sheer frustration with a Democrat friend recently who had gone down that ugly, irrational road, I included this in an email: It still doesn’t cease to amaze me that the “party of open-mindedness” is as narrow and hypocritical as they come. They have a Messiah complex, I think…..believing they have the Holy Grail. Yea, it’s like a religion….purely emotional and lacking in grounded reasoning. (and for the evangelical percentage of the Repub party, I say the same thing)

            Now, reading that again, a week after I wrote it, I stand by my observation. And I believe it is no coincidence that the nasty extremes coming from that wing have increased very noticeably in the last 5 to 6 years. Reminds me of a saying I’ve had for a long time is: “in companies it is the same as in families, the tone gets set at the top”.

  2. The Real World

    I wanted to attend and am now sorry I didn’t get myself there.

    “The world is becoming fictionalized,” Rushdie said. “The real has become a problem.” Holy sh*t that is completely true.
    “Safe for ideas and not from them”. Yes!! But those days are mostly gone in America. We have allowed this country to be utterly sanitized, dumbed-down, placating, enabling, divisive and viscous to any viewpoint that is ‘different’ from our own. It’s insane.

    There is a PRIME example of this idiocy this week. I have no affinity for any Supreme Court Justice — if they do their job responsibly and intelligently, then that’s all I want. If ANY of them had had their death handled in the way Justice Scalia’s was, I would be outraged and so should you. The story is totally full of holes!! And all of the mainstream media has been less than worthless. They have played the public for fools by instantly attributing ”ooohh, conspiracy theories everywhere” the fact that some people want better answers than the BS they and officials served up. And plenty of people who are politically on a different side of the fence than Scalia was bought that approach. Slam dunk! Critical thinking non-existent.

    Actually, it’s way worse — they are so biased, their brains so hijacked they were spewing the most God-awful venom online on LOTS of websites. From the party of “open-mindedness, tolerance and diversity” this is what you get. Let me summarize; as the commenters made it abundantly clear – if you are old or over-weight or have a different viewpoint than the “tolerant party” they are glad you’re dead. Good riddance.

    It’s bothered me all week realizing that I live in a country with so many nasty, foolish people (and there are plenty of them in both parties).Rushdie is totally right. Folks, we are letting it slip away and every one of us is responsible for that.

    • Peter Robbins

      You should have attended the speech, Real World. Rushdie ridiculed the Scalia-death conspiracy theorists and used them — particularly Donald Trump — as an example of the degeneration of culture the Internet age. You could have stood up in the audience and volunteered to be a prop.

      • Peter Robbins

        That should be “in the Internet age.” Rushdie didn’t mention the way the Internet age has degraded the quality of life by demanding absurdly high typing skills.

      • NFB

        ” Rushdie ridiculed the Scalia-death conspiracy theorists ”

        So has Scalia’s family.

        • The Real World

          NFB – and you bought that, as intended. You took as fact, a headline. Score!

          I’ve found nothing of the kind online, in any media source, that supports your statement. Rather, he was found dead last Sat morning and his family uttered not one syllable to the press. (Very unusual to not make a written statement about mourning his passing, he was a great father/husband, public servant….blah, blah. within 12-24 hours, typically).

          Oddly, the first contact with the media was finally on Wed afternoon, the eldest son appears on the Laura Ingraham radio show (apparently she’s an old friend) and they chat for 15 minutes. The print headline related to that conversation declared that he “rejects conspiracy theories related to his fathers death”. I suspected BS so, I scrolled to the spot in the audio where they addressed this topic to hear for myself. He does nothing of the kind! He refuted nothing. Like the seasoned lawyer that he is, he danced around the whole topic and parsed his words. He does say that the family believes he died of natural causes…which can mean anything b/c we all ultimately die when our heart stops beating. (Remember we had a Prez have to ask the meaning of the word: IS. Lawyers love to be cagey with language).

          Note: I thought my below comment would drop above this. So, below in referring to a comment below, I meant this one. Got that? ;o)

      • The Real World

        Peter – No offense intended but, clearly my observations flew right over your head.

        Anyone, Rushdie or otherwise, who is operating on a few bits of info related to that death sounds an utter fool for dismissing the questions about the many irregularities. There is an alarmingly naive contingent who seem to believe that conspiracies don’t exist, period. (Hello….why does the word exist?) Given that line of thinking then there should have been no bother pursuing the goings-on at the Watergate complex. Oh gee, nothing to find because people don’t conspire. Here are two words to keep firmly embedded in mind should anyone decide to lazily devolve into a kumbaya cloud whenever lots of sloppiness, vagueness and unanswered questions surround any relevant event: Lance Armstrong! There were conspiracy theories for years about what that guy was up to. Guess what? For good reason because it was a massive conspiracy! And it was far worse than thought even by those who suspected an ugly, ongoing scheme. Shall we talk about Hitler? How about whomever was behind the WTC event? Naw, accidents, all of those.

        Rushie’s comment about the internet is only partly true. He neglects to acknowledge that we live in an era where voices other than those kowtowing the Fed/FTC line can be heard, and in real time. Yes, there will be nutters in the mix and any person with a brain can discard those. But, the reason I brought up this Scalia thing is b/c it is just such a perfect example of the duping of America. (And the dupers thank all the naive ones who are fighting their fight for them.) I’m referring to the mainstream media (MSM) providing nothing worthwhile related to the irregularities and capitalizing on the emotional reactionary behavior of their non-thinking audience.

        But, mostly I blame the population for being so dense. However, it isn’t entirely surprising. College kids want a “safe space” to not have their ideas/views challenged? OMG. And Peter states the audience didn’t respond much to the comments both Jess and I highlighted? It’s because they don’t understand the importance of not stifling thought and speech. Sheep to slaughter — all.

        The MSM is the most profound and useful propaganda tool ever created and, largely, works beautifully. Somehow I knew some of the comments here would provide ample examples of this. See my next comment below.

        • Peter Robbins

          Over my head? Don’t be so modest. Beyond the stratosphere is more like it.

  3. TNM

    Rushdie’s lecture was laugh-out-loud funny. I’m saddened that this review did not capture any of that feeling. Nor did it, as another commenter pointed out, highlight Rushdie’s scathing review of the current college climate and the evils of censorship.

    • Peter Robbins

      I disagree. I think the story captured the speech beautifully. Rushdie did try to tell a few jokes, but he tended to step on the punch lines. And the stuff about political correctness was a side comment. The interesting thing there was that his observations drew only about half the applause as other applause lines. The thrust of the speech was about the place of the novel in today’s society, and this story pointed out some things that I had overlooked. It was very well done.

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