William S. Burroughs died in 1997, but he's still causing trouble. The Turkish Prime Minister's Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications has accused Burroughs of "incompliance with moral norms" and "hurting people's moral feelings."

In the wake of that report, the Istanbul Prosecutor's Office opened an investigation of Burroughs. At issue is his 1966 novel The Soft Machine, in which bodies melt and transform, and characters appear to travel backwards and forwards in time, visiting the Mayan Empire as well as a post-apocalyptic future. (Here is a pretty good summation of this novel's challenging, surreal approach to narrative and science fictional conceits.)


The Turkish translation of The Soft Machine came out in January, and the Prime Minister's Council accused it of developing "attitudes that were permissive to crime by concentrating on the banal, vulgar and weak attributes of humanity." Not only that, but the book uses "slang and colloquial terms." The Prime Minister's Council was also confounded by Burroughs' use of the "cut-up" technique, accusing the book of "lacking unity in its subject matter," "incompliance with narrative unity," and "the application of a fragmented narrative style." The Council concluded, "The book does not constitute a literary piece of work in its current condition."

When the Prosecutor's Office launched its probe of the book, the publisher, Sel Publishing House, showed up to testify in the book's favor. And Sel Publishing put out a press release including part of its testimony, which included the following:

It is impossible to understand the insistence in sending books written and published for adults to councils that specialize in minors. If we consider things from this perspective, then dozens of such reports could be written about TV channels, newscasts and thousands of books...

Just as no writer is under any special obligation to highlight humanity's fair attributes under every circumstance, the measure of whether a book has any literary value or not, and the judge of what the book may add to the reader's reservoir of knowledge, is not an official state institution, but the reader himself.

Once again, societies comprised of modern, creative and inquisitive individuals are formed by reading and being exposed to literary texts and works of art that can be considered as the most extreme examples of their kind.

The publishers also invited the court to do an internet search on Burroughs and learn more about his background and the time he was writing in, adding that the literary techniques he used in the book were considered avant garde at the time he was writing. They added that "since the aim of the book itself is to push boundaries, it is clearly absurd to search for criminal elements in the book by suggesting that the book does not conform with social norms."


I'd love to find a copy of Sel Publishing's entire statement, which seems both level-headed and a strong defence of the idea that books can have virtues besides promoting official morality. [Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review, via Claire Berlinski on Twitter]