The nature of literature

An interesting and frightening thing has popped up in Turkey.

Some of you have probably heard of Orhan Pamuk, the best known turkish author. He was hauled to court some time ago for his writing dealing with the mass murders of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915, a spot of shame in Turkey’s history. Well, the lawyer who prosecuted Pamuk, Kemal Kerincsiz, has now locked his eyes on Elif Shafak and her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. In the novel, Shafak has written some passages about the Ottoman murders and Kerincsiz has now prosecuted her for some of the comments of the fictional characters in the book. Shafak is aware of the seriousness of her situation, and hopes that the same violent behaviour that protestors showed toward Pamuk will not be shown toward her, especielly as she has birthed her first child some days ago.

There have been many cases in history where authors have been prosecuted and judged for some of their writings, and Pamuk most recently. Still it is rather shocking that people in 21st century Europe can face jail time for a few lines in a work of fiction. It makes me wonder about the nature of literature, and how the perception of literature differs from culture to culture.

Jean-Paul Sartre thought that authors should try to change the world with their writings, and if your works do not lead up to some kind of change to the better, there’s really no point to it. According to Sartre. That’s why he liked prose more than poetry, because prose relates to the reality of human kind, whereas poetry is an end in itself. So in this sense, I can understand the controversy in Turkey. In this country, literature of Shafak’s kind really can change something. Attitudes, prejudices, irrational ethnic beliefs. So I understand that people react strongly to The Bastard of Istanbul, even to the extent that they are ready to proseute authors of fictional works.

But is literature only an interpretation of reality, or could it be said to be a direct representation of it? If we say yes to the earlier, and no to the latter, it would be impossible to prosecute anyone for writing something, because interpretations are merely subjective expressions of opinions. But if we say yes to the latter, prosecution and judging an author for what they have written would be possible, at least in countries where speaking about controversial aspects of reality are punishable. Let’s see what view the Turkish courts have on literature.

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