Meantime, through the late 1960s and ’70s we read Solzhenitsyn and other Soviet bloc dissidents with a sense of awe. For them writing really was a brave and dangerous thing. We imagined that in reading their books we were playing our part in a great ideological struggle. I remember my father in his unbuttoned, after-lunch ease with a copy of “Cancer Ward” on his lap. We rejoiced when our hero was given the Nobel. It seemed right that the prizes should go to those who took risks for their freedom and their beliefs, those who spoke out: Nadine Gordimer, Gabriel García Márquez, Naguib Mahfouz. Perhaps we even felt a certain naïve envy of artists from countries unhappier than our own. The struggle was so clear for them, the path to glory so obvious.
In the months I have been writing these essays for The Times (of which this is the last), I have been drawn, almost against my will, to notice the intensifying politicization of the literary world and, hand in hand with that, a predilection for melodrama, for prose that stimulates extreme emotions — in good causes of course. The cause justifies the melodrama. The melodrama serves the cause. This past year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize, “The Vegetarian,” by the Korean writer Han Kang, was emblematic. A young woman is abused and victimized when she chooses to stop eating meat. Food is forced down her throat. She is raped. A patriarchal, carnivorous society cannot accept her modern sensibility. It is very hard for readers to get their allegiances wrong in this kind of narrative; hard not to feel that in buying the novel and reading and talking about it, one is doing one’s bit for freedom and emancipation worldwide."