E.L. Doctorow has been writing about spies for a long time. In 1971, he published The Book of Daniel, a fictionalized account of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans who had been accused of passing information about the atomic bomb to the Soviets. More than 40 years and many novels later, Doctorow is focused on a different kind of spy: the government. He worries that government surveillance programs, like those revealed this summer by Edward Snowden, aren’t being kept in check by the president, the press, or the American public.
“Writers who censor themselves are canaries in the coal mine,” Doctorow argues in the above video interview with National Journal's James Oliphant. He’s referring to a recent study released by PEN America, which found that 16 percent of writers have avoided writing or speaking about certain topics for fear of surveillance. Although writers have a responsibility to speak out against the government, he said, regular citizens ultimately have to hold their elected officials accountable. “There hasn’t been as much outcry as I would have expected from the American public,” he said.