Evelyn Beatrice Hall once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In spite of stepping into the twenty-first century with aplomb, we as a human race have not progressed to a point where all written word is cherished and published. Censorship is very much a reality and books are routinely suppressed and banned.
The censorship debate is age-old and has often been used to suppress the voices of those who are either perceived as dissenters by some political groups or whose ideas are regarded as immoral when viewed with the subjective lens of some community. The statute books all across the world, in one form or another, still contain an arbitration provision of censorship which has led to some of the infamous trials in the literary history of the world.
Published in 1969, Wallace’s The Seven Minutes still remains relevant. Dealing with the subject of censorship, the plot revolves around the trial of a controversial fictitious book, The Seven Minutes written by J J Jadway, which is banned for obscenity. Opening with the arrest of the bookseller charged for selling the obscene material, the narrative takes a turn when a boy charged with rape reveals that Jadway’s book drove him to commit such a heinous act. And suddenly, the boy becomes the victim of Jadway’s book and the book becomes the actual culprit. It becomes the rallying point of the State, “Protect the public from those lust-provoking books that lead to terror.”
The battle lines are drawn – on one side of the prism is the trifecta between the State, the money and the religion represented by Elmo Duncan, the District Attorney, and on the other side is the publisher, Philip Sanford represented by Michael Barrett – the young and idealistic attorney. What unfolds behind the scenes is political manipulation – the trial publicised by the district attorney and his benefactor for political gain.
Drawing on the vast material, the author presents both sides of the debate. For the censors, the book is “a vulgar, dirty little piece of trash, indescribably filthy and thoroughly dishonest” and “the fiendish hordes of lust and decadence had to be stopped…if civilization, meaning law and order and morality, were to preserved.”
For the defendants of the free speech, it’s a beautiful book, “a milestone of enlightenment in our understanding of the relationship between the sexes and of sex itself.”
However, in the midst of all the hullabaloo, the author asks the most pertinent question, “Who shall stand guard to the guards themselves?” and who decides what is obscene, what is socially desirable, who set the standards?
Even though, both sides present convincing arguments, citing authorities, it is the free speech ultimately that wins the day as “The Constitution protects coarse expression as well as refined, and vulgarity no less than elegance” and ultimately “it is for each to choose for himself.”
While the first half of the novel revolves around the preparation of the trial, it is the second half of the book which is fast-paced. The debates and arguments surrounding what freedom entails and to what extent it can be curtailed by the state, are not just gripping and interesting but also provides ample food for thought for the reader.
As significant as it was first published, the book holds a mirror to those who act as self-appointed custodians of morality as “What is truly obscene is clubbing or persecuting a man because he is different from you or has different ideas…”
The Seven Minutes is a celebration of freedom and provides hope for a better world where everyone has a choice to choose for themselves.