Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate for literature, has been greeted with some extraordinary hostility in the west. This week Salman Rushdie described him as a “patsy” for the Chinese government. According to the distinguished sinologist Perry Link, “Chinese writers today, whether ‘inside the system’ or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government.” And, clearly, Mo Yan has not made the right choice, which is to range himself as an outspoken “dissident” against his country’s authoritarian regime.
But doesn’t the “writer’s imagination” also conflict with the “imagination of the state” in a liberal capitalist democracy? This was broadly the subject that John Updike was asked to speak on at a PEN conference in New York in 1986. Updike delivered – to what Rushdie, also in attendance, described as a “considerably bewildered audience of world writers” – a paean to the blue mailboxes of the US Postal Service, which, he marvelled, took away his writings with miraculous regularity and brought him cheques and prizes in return.
EL Doctorow was irritated enough by this gush to suggest to Updike that if “he goes around the corner” from his mailbox, “he’ll find a missile silo buried in the next lot”. Rushdie himself went on to accuse American writers, much to Saul Bellow’s exasperation, of having “abdicated the task of taking on the subject of America’s immense power in the world”.