Frankfurt Book Fair is known worldwide in the publishing industry to be one of the most important events of the year. This year however, controversy was sparked over the appearance of Salman Rushdie giving the opening speech.
Following its release in 1988, Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses has caused outcry within the Islamic community with many Muslims accusing Rushdie of blasphemy. In 1989 the Iranian government backed a fatwa against Rushdie, ordering Muslims to kill him.
Inviting Rushdie to be a guest speaker at the Book Fair resulted in Iran boycotting the fair, causing the 282 Iranian publishers who held stalls last year to miss this year’s event. The Iranian Ministry suggested it was a political slight again the Guest of Honour Country this year being Indonesia, which has the highest population of Muslims in the world.
So where does this leave publishing in regard to freedom of speech? The Director of the Frankfurt Book Fair released in a statement that “freedom of expression is non-negotiable”; for me, it is a shame that what is essentially a trade event to build relationships and encourage global business should be the focus of a political and human rights related dispute. Rushdie in his speech however was more at ease to discuss these matters: “Publishers and writers are not warriors, we have not tanks. But it falls to us to hold the line”.
Perhaps in a way publishers do control elements of freedom of speech in editing and deciding on the content commissioned and published – controversy can be both a kill and a cure for a book and it could be argued that the extent of ‘freedom of speech’ that is exercised is dependent on the editor and publishing house.
Aside from this, a focus on products at the Book Fair this year was content on refugees and the Middle East. I suppose it is unsurprising due to the media coverage of the refugee crisis that it is an area coming up in many people’s radars, and will continue to be in the coming months, fuelling translations and new works being promoted by the exhibiting publishers.
And this was further demonstrated on Sunday, when author Navid Kermani was presented with the 2015 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and discussed the relationship between Europe and the war in Syria in his acceptance speech: “Only three hours’ flight from Frankfurt, entire ethnic groups are being exterminated or expelled, girls are being enslaved, many of humanity’s most important cultural monuments are being blown up by barbarians … but we only assemble and stand up when one of the bombs of this war strikes us…”
In many ways I think publishing comes hand in hand with these matters. The art of publishing is not censorship but editing in such a way that a controversial matters are handled with deft clarity, and reach the right audience. I think the industry should not shy away from controversy but aid discussion through informed and reasoned work.