David Cronenberg on literary freedom

“Any artist who self-censors has killed himself as an artist.”

- David Cronenberg, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row

Cronenberg, the acclaimed film director, has been around London this past week promoting his latest movie Eastern Promises. The quote is a response to a question from interviewer Mark Lawson, who asked if he keeps in mind the repercussions of any planned violence on the rating or certification his film will be given. The answer is no – Cronenberg thinks only of the story he wants to tell, and every other consideration is secondary.

This issue pertains not only to violence in film, but any to aspect of a fictional work that a writer might be tempted to alter to find favor with an audience or a publisher. With the lab lit genre in particular, this issue can have particular resonance. A writer who wants to include scientific detail or nomenclature in the story runs the risk of alienating the people who need to decide whether they will take the story on, be it a literary agent or an editor. The temptation will always be to ‘dumb down’ the science in favor of a smoother ride – or any ride at all. But this simplification will run the risk of diluting to banality the technical details that might have made the story particularly sharp or original. Clearly a balance between truth and entertainment is always going to be important to garner an audience for your novel, but if the publishing world is particularly hostile towards science, one cannot blame writers for surrendering against their better judgement.

With the advent, however, of print-on-demand publishers which allow authors, for no fee, to sell directly to their target audience without passing the filter of an agent or editor, the time may be coming when lab lit authors are free to write unfettered about the scientific themes and manipulations that they wish to convey, safe in the knowledge that their niche audience will be able to find them. In an atmosphere like this, self-censoring, for everyone, is no longer a prerequisite to get your work read. This revolution may lead to a renaissance of original fiction that doesn’t conform to one standard ‘best-seller’ formula.