A recent insight in Publishers Weekly into the state of free speech in the industry noted: “Many long-time booksellers have said what makes the present unprecedented is a new push for censorship – and self-censorship – coming from the left.” When the reporter asked half a dozen influencers from top publishing houses to comment, only one agreed to speak – and only on condition of anonymity. “It is the censorship which, as the expression says, does not dare to say its name”, wrote the journalist.
Caution is born of recent experience. No publisher wants another “American Dirt” imbroglio, in which a highly anticipated novel was accused of capitalizing on the migrant experience, no matter how good the book. No publisher wants the kind of staff walkout that took place in 2020 at Hachette Book Group when journalist Ronan Farrow protested his plan to publish a memoir by his father, Woody Allen.
It is certainly true that not all books are worth publishing. But those decisions should be based on the quality of a book as judged by editors and publishers, not in response to a threatened, perceived or actual political litmus test. The heart of publishing is about taking risks, not avoiding them.
You can understand why the publishing world gets nervous. Consider what happened to books that got on the wrong side of illiberal reprimands. On Goodreads, for example, vicious campaigns have circulated against authors for inadvertent misdeeds in novels that haven’t even been published yet. Sometimes the outcry doesn’t happen until after a book goes on sale. Last year, a rabbit in a children’s picture book got soot on its face by sticking its head in an oven to clean it – and the book was deemed racially insensitive by just one blogger . It has been reprinted with the illustration redrawn. All this after the book received rave reviews and a New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award.
In another case, a white academic was exposed for cultural appropriation because trap feminism, the subject of her book “Bad and Boujee,” was outside of her own racial experience. The publisher later withdrew the book. PEN America rightly denounced the publisher’s decision, noting that it “undermines public discourse and fuels a climate where authors, editors, and publishers are discouraged from taking risks.”
The books have always contained delicate and challenging elements that clash with some readers’ sensibilities or deep beliefs. But what material bothers what people changes over time; many stories about interracial cooperation that were once hailed for their progressive values (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Help”) are now being criticized as “white savior” tales. Yet these books can still be read, enjoyed and debated – not only despite but also due to the offending material. If only to better understand where we started and how far we have come.