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Is there a community of writers?

15 November 2004

The American crime writer Sara Paretsky made a powerful appeal to the community of writers last week in a statement read out by her publisher when he collected the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Blacklist on her behalf. Her words raise important issues about the treatment and role of the writer.

'The last week has brought little of joy and much of worry and fear about the future of our most cherished freedoms in the United States - including the freedom to express ideas fully and openly. An artist in upstate New York has been arrested and held without charge for an installation piece questioning the bio-terror threat in Washington during the fall of 2001. A library patron in New Jersey was arrested and held for three days for looking at foreign-language pages in the Web in his library. In San Francisco, the FBI pulled in a man for questioning after he made comments against Mr Bush in a public place. All of these acts, and the fear of their repetition, create an atmosphere of fear, and are used deliberately to silence dissent.

'In this climate of fear, the only way I can find the courage to continue speaking is from the knowledge that I belong to a community of writers - to know that, all around the world, people are supporting my voice as I struggle to speak - just as I will try to support the voices of other writers. As Donald Barthelme wrote in one of his short stories, "we must huddle and cling".'

Paretsky's words raise important issues about the role of the writer, writers' demand for the right of free speech and the role of the community of writers. Firstly, does this community exist at all or are writers more distinguished by their competitive approach to other writers? Are these freedoms worth fighting for? And, how can writers get together to exercise their potential power, which is that of a vociferous and therefore potentially highly influential international group?