Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Writers In A Surveillance Society . . .

I wrote about an auction PEN American Center was having of hand-annotated books by famous authors but didn’t stress the reason…

PEN, which is international, “…has two distinct yet complementary aims: to promote a literary culture and to protect freedom of expression.”

A recent article in The New York TimesWriters Say They Feel Censored by Surveillance, begins with:

“A survey of writers around the world by the PEN American Center has found that a significant majority said they were deeply concerned with government surveillance, with many reporting that they have avoided, or have considered avoiding, controversial topics in their work or in personal communications as a result.”

PEN surveyed “…fiction and nonfiction writers and related professionals, including translators and editors, in 50 countries.”

The executive director of the PEN American Center said, “Writers are the ones who experience encroachments on freedom of expression most acutely, or first….The idea that we are seeing some similar patterns in free countries to those we’ve traditionally associated with unfree countries is pretty distressing.”

“The survey found that mass surveillance by the United States government had damaged its reputation as a defender of free expression, with some 36 percent in other ‘free’ countries and 32 percent in ‘less free’ countries saying freedom of expression had less protection in the United States than in their nations.”

Naturally, the results of the survey were roundly criticized and painted as “overblown”

Yet, writers may be serving as the canaries in the mine of surveillance activities

The executive director of PEN also said:

“Just the fact that so many writers say they are deeply concerned and are actually changing their behavior is significant….Whether we consider it justified or not, it isn’t something that should be ignored.”

Perhaps writers’ fertile imaginations see the obvious attacks on their counterparts in totalitarian countries and imagine the “free” countries are watching them

Perhaps most of the world’s governments are watching writers—history shows how dangerous writers can be

What are your thoughts and feelings?

Are writers dangerous to governments?

Is that such a bad thing?

If you live in a relativity “free” country, do you think writers are under surveillance?

If you do think this is happening, do you think all writers respond the same?

Do you have any stories to share about writers who didn’t let surveillance shut them up?

Think there could be more subtle damage to a writer’s life, even if the surveillance hasn’t led to writers being arrested—pulling back on writing about certain topics—writing to please the masters?

You can read PEN’s survey results

You can also watch the trailer of an award-winning movie about surveillance of a writer

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6 responses to “Writers In A Surveillance Society . . .

  1. authorshonique January 6, 2015 at 11:53 am

    Agree, all of the intrusion or suppression of creative expression can be over whelming. Perhaps we need to just not consider it until they show up at our door to arrest us and continue doing what we were born to do….. write what our creative heart says MUST be written? Then once they show up, make sure we have lots of writer friends to blog about it? Protection for each other? As a writer, we must write or a part of our soul is left unexpressed. Just do what you were born to do and trust… it is all we can do.


  2. Alexander M Zoltai January 6, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    I completely agree with you.

    I especially agree with, “…once they show up, make sure we have lots of writer friends to blog about it…” ;-)


  3. Martina Sevecke-Pohlen January 7, 2015 at 2:39 am

    Surveillance works with infiltration. This creates a climate where friends and family spy on each other. Soon after the end of the GDR, the government implemented an office where historians sort through the files of the GDR surveillance STASI. Towards the end of Life of Others the male Protagonist applies to see his STASI file. His credit with the other applicants in the reading room rises when a cart full of boxes is wheeled in. The former GDR author Christa Wolf describes in Stadt der Engel (Town of Angels, about her stay in Los Angeles in the early 1990s) her experiences when she applied for her own file. She was given a slim file, felt relieved and then discoveres that one of her best friends had spied on her. She also found out that her file was obviously incomplete. When she asked for the rest of her file she was told that she was not allowed to see it because it referred to her own activities as an informal surveiller. She writtes that at that moment, suddenly, she remembered a converation in the 1960s when she was asked to talk about some other authors. As she hadn’t known them well she didn’t have a lot to say. She wasn’t contacted again … Soon after, the German tabloid press made her involvement with the STASI public. Christa Wolf had been a well known and respected author in West Germany, too. It was generally known that she had some problems with the STASI because of her contacts to western journalists and cultural institutions. In 1989, she belonged to a group of artists and intellectuals who spoke up for reforms and freedom. She never recovered from the slur on her name, and was deeply disappointed by the friends who had spied on her.


    • Alexander M Zoltai January 7, 2015 at 8:23 am


      When you say “She never recovered from the slur on her name” do you mean personally (psychologically) or in her professional life?


      • Martina Sevecke-Pohlen January 7, 2015 at 9:30 am

        I think both. After everything cooled down she became “the grand dame” of GDR-literature, mostly remebered for some romantic novels (in the 1960s she had had to defend these “subjective” novels) and her diary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. All her political activities in 1989 and 1990 were forgotten. Last November, when the media was looking back at the fall of the wall, she was never mentioned although she had been a prominent figure at the time. She died in 2011 with 82 years.


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