In this collection of addresses delivered at Oxford University, six novelists speak to aspects of political dissent. Just when these speeches were delivered is unclear; André Brink's penetrating remarks on the apartheid regime of his native South Africa, for example, suggest that he spoke well before the election of Nelson Mandela, reducing somewhat the volume's urgency and timeliness. For all that, the speeches carry much moral authority, underscoring the necessity of writers speaking out against injustice in a time when they seem not to have much sway; as Brink says, writing is a kind of sorcery, and "the writer and the witch, in refusing to be commanded, will continue to conjure up new images and possibilities of life, each more potent than the rest." Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka ponders the rising incidence of ethnic genocide, not least in Nigeria itself, and the growing suppression of free speech throughout the world; Edmund White considers the shifting fortunes of gay fiction in the aftermath of the Stonewall incident; Gore Vidal elegantly skewers, as always, American electoral politics, remarking on the 1994 election that "produced a congressional majority for the duller half of the American single-party system"; and the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, condemned to death for "insulting Islam," ponders the future of free speech in a Third World in which fundamentalism holds ever-increasing power.
Most of the addresses have considerable interest, but the editor, a member of the board of directors of the lecture series, does not do much to tie them thematically beyond approvingly citing Shelley's formulation that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of humankind. He fails to add, as W.H. Auden did, that this describes not poets but the secret police.