Nobel Prize-winning author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro has revealed concerns that young writers are “self-censoring” to avoid an “anonymous lynch mob that turns up online and makes their lives a misery”.
Speaking with the BBC on Monday (1st March) a day ahead of the publication of his eagerly awaited novel Klara and the Sun (Faber), Ishiguro spoke of how social media trolling is making new authors fearful of taking risks.
When asked by BBC arts correspondent Rebecca Jones if there were any subjects he felt he now couldn’t write about, the 66-year-old said: “I’m in a relatively protected, privileged position because I’m an established author and I’m the age I am. I very much fear for the younger generation of writers. What I’m concerned about is that there is not self-censorship going on, that they will not produce the works that they really want to produce or would have produced – which we would really value — because there is a fear that they are going to get trolled or cancelled or there is going to be some anonymous lynch mob that turns up online and makes their lives a misery.”
The Nagasaki-born author claims there is no issue he would "shrink back from" in the interview, a section of which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s “The Today Programme”. He said: "Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views. Right from an early age I've written from the point of view of people very different from myself. My first novel was written from the point of view of a woman." A Pale View of Hills, published by Faber in 1982, follows a Japanese woman trying to deal with the suicide of her daughter.
"I think there are very valid parts of this argument about appropriation of voice," Ishiguro added, saying he believes "we do have the obligation to teach ourselves and to do research and to treat people with respect if we're going to have them feature in our work".
He said there must be "decency towards people outside of one's own immediate experience" and called for "a more open discussion" about cancel culture and freedom of speech. He added: "If I shrink back from something it's because I would doubt my ability to be to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it. But, you know, I tend to be quite arrogant about my ability to learn about things, if I put my mind to it."
The Booker winner is concerned that authors are limiting themselves to their own direct experience. "I think that is a dangerous state of affairs.” He said he was particularly troubled about young writers "who rightly perhaps feel that their careers are more fragile, their reputations are more fragile and they don't want to take risks".
His comments come following a year of much debate in this area: in January 2020 US author Jeanine Cummins’ book tour was cancelled following claims of stereotyping and inaccuracy in Cummins' depictions of Mexico in American Dirt (published by Flatiron in the US and Headline in the UK). And in June staff at Hachette UK working on J K Rowling's children's book The Ickabog threatened to down tools over the author's comments affecting the transgender community.
Ishiguro also discussed how technology could change the world in other ways. Of his AI-inspired new novel, he said he has mixed feelings about the emerging use of robots.“I haven’t written one of these stories about one of those treacherous robots that take over the family or the world. I think AI will bring enormous benefits but I do have great worries as well. What do we do about the employment situation when the majority of us are not working any more?”
When asked if he could envisage robots putting writers out of a job, he said: “Yes I can. Yes I will be worried about my job but that’s not the big worry. I think the point when an AI programme, not a robot, can write a novel that can make me cry, that shows that AI can understand human emotions and has the capacity for empathy. And in fact AI could come up with the next big idea, an idea like communism or Nazism or capitalism… and what troubles me about that is that it is very difficult for humans to keep control of that situation."
When asked about the pressure to publish lis latest book, the first since he won the Nobel Prize in 2017, he replied: “To be honest I don’t feel any pressure at all, maybe I should... it’s like a parallel universe. It doesn’t have much to do with my study or the paper on my desk. I’m just a guy who got where he did because he could tell stories quite well.” Ishiguro also won the Booker Prize in 1989 and received a knighthood in 2019.
Klara and the Sun comes 16 years after another of Ishiguro’s dystopian novels, Never Let Me Go (both published by Faber), about human clones. “I read that book and thought it’s so sad, why doesn’t the author cheer up a bit. As I got older I wanted to write something a bit more jolly and wanted to write something with a bit of faith in it.”
The book has already garnered celebratory reviews with Alex Preston in the Observer declaring it “another masterpiece” which is particularly resonant in today’s pandemic life. “Ishiguro had apparently almost finished the novel when the pandemic hit, yet on almost every page there’s a passage that feels eerily prescient of our locked-down, stressed-out, mysophobic times,” Preston writes. “What’s beyond doubt is that Ishiguro has written another masterpiece, a work that makes us feel afresh the beauty and fragility of our humanity.” Meanwhile John Self in the Times agreed. “This is a novel for fans of Never Let Me Go, with which it shares a DNA of emotional openness, the quality of letting us see ourselves from the outside, and a vision of humanity that — while not exactly optimistic — is tender, touching and true.” However the Telegraph was more muted in its praise, offering only three out of five. James Walton wrote: “Despite its memorable main character, Klara and the Sun feels in the end like a novel that’s rather too full of unfired guns.”
Earlier this month it was revealed that the author would appear at an event with his writer daughter for the first time at the Southbank Centre on 5th April. Naomi Ishiguro's debut novel Common Ground (Tinder Press) will be published on 25th March, featuring a coming-of-age story about Stan and Charlie, two teenagers who inhabit very different worlds yet form a friendship over afternoons spent on the local common.