Cancel Culture: The Lit-World Year In Review

Most of 2020’s ‘canceled’ books are actually doing quite well, thank you

As I’ve chronicled the minutiae of the literary world online this year, I’ve seen a lot of cancellations. I’ve collected the biggest hits below, and updated some stories to see how the authors fared after facing the Internet’s fury. The experience has left me a little confused; I’m wondering just what “cancel culture” really means anymore.

The now-infamous letter in Harper’s Bazaar decried “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity” and called for argument over criticism. Many critics, especially in reaction to a hot story, have legitimate concerns about censorship, and may conflate that with cancellation.

As we’ll see below, calling out a racist book or an unsavory author online doesn’t always hurt sales; if anything, it probably helps them. All press is good press, as they say. At best, some folks argue, the cancellation opens up some space for conversations around the very white publishing industry.

“When critics on social media ‘cancel’ a […] writer or book, it’s really about ongoing frustrations with an overwhelmingly white publishing industry,” writes Molly Templeton about cancelled YA authors for Buzzfeed News. “[A]nd if we step back and consider that the power to publish or cancel a book lies not with internet critics but with publishers and authors—then there’s another aspect of these stories that’s often ignored in mainstream discussions: What if these critics, with their focus on representation and diversity, have a point? And what change might happen if more people listened to them?”

It’s been a transformational year for sure, in more ways than one. I’m grateful for all the juicy literary gossip out there to keep me entertained mid-pandemic, and hopeful for where it may take the industry. Until then, let’s take a look back at the year in cancel culture, and see how our authors are doing.

Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt

American Dirt

Though not the year’s first cancellation, American Dirt was probably the biggest. Cummins’ Oprah-stamped novel about the immigrant experience was problematic for a number of reasons: the writing was tropey and unoriginal; the writer is a white woman who dug up a Puerto Rican grandparent to sound more legit; and, largely, the novel raised the question of whose stories get big advances and publishing power and whose don’t. American Dirt is currently #17 on Amazon’s list of most read books this week, and was a New York Times best seller. A film adaptation is in the works.

Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing

Allen made the cancel culture rounds once again in March after publisher Hachette pulled the filmmaker’s forthcoming memoir after publishing industry employees staged a protest amid continued allegations of Allen’s sexual abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in the 1990s. The book landed at Arcade Publishing, which released it a few weeks later. Its first printing sold out almost immediately, and every major publication, including this one, reviewed it.

A number of literary agents and agencies

In response to a racist comment about the death of George Floyd, Marisa Corvisiero, founder and agent at Corvisiero Literary Agency, didn’t just step down; she fired her whole staff. It was a confusing move that certainly escalated things for Corvisiero. I doubt I’d be writing about her here if she’d quietly left or apologized. At the time of this writing, the Corvisiero website is back up and running, and lists the founder as accepting new queries. The agency’s staff page also reflects some new hires, leading me to wonder if Corvisiero or her staff were really the ones to suffer.

Tobias Literary Agency (TLA), a full-service agency that is explicitly looking for non-white and marginalized voices to publish, fired former assistant agent Sasha White for anti-trans comments on her personal Twitter. White is now an interview host at Plebity, a California-based free speech nonprofit. Her Twitter bio reads, “Interested in giving a platform to people who’ve been punished for their speech,” and her interviewees are mostly fellow victims of cancel culture.

J.K. Rowling
Cover of Apropos of Nothing by Woody Allen

The billionaire author rattled off some anti-trans tweets that drew her TERF-y opinions into the public view. Since then, she has definitely doubled down on those opinions. I think the Harry Potter series is so large as to be above cancellation at this point—Amazon lists them all as having spent the last 188 weeks on their most read books of the week—and her newest children’s book, The Ickabog, is currently #17 on Amazon’s list of most sold books this week.

Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage

Target pulled Shrier’s book on the “trans epidemic”  from its shelves last month after a Twitter user accused the writer of transphobia. Since then, the Economist named it one of its Books of the Year, and The New York Times dubbed it one of the Best Books of 2021.

Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order

The world has cancelled Jordan Peterson since 2016 for decrying gender-neutral bathrooms, but most recently, publishing staff protested the release and support of his upcoming book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. As of this writing, Simon & Schuster is still slating Peterson’s book for publication in March 2021.

Julie Burchill’s Welcome to the Woke Trials

Burchill is a last-minute entry into this consortium of cancellation. Publisher Little, Brown nixed her forthcoming book about, ahem, cancel culture after the author was accused of making Islamophobic comments toward journalist Ash Sarkar. “I just wonder if there’s some…code of conduct at the Sunday Telegraph which would mean that outright racism–for instance, falsely accusing me of ‘worshipping a paedophile’–was a bit of a no no,” she tweeted in part. As is my duty, I will await Burchill’s response and see where her book lands. (Is Arcade currently taking new queries?)

Joseph Epstein

Though Epstein earned the Internet’s ire for a misguided editorial about the First Lady-elect, I prefer his earlier work. About a week before, he published an essay in the National Review that decries the modern literary landscape’s lack of “literature.”

“[T]hat we are in a less-than-rich period for literature today, cannot be doubted. Ask yourself whose next novel among living novelists you are eagerly awaiting. Name your three favorite living poets. Which contemporary critics do you most rely upon?” he writes. “If you feel you need more time to answer these questions—a long, slow fiscal quarter, say not to worry, for I don’t have any impressive answers to these questions either. Recent years have been lean pickings for literature.”

He obviously doesn’t read Book & Film Globe, where trenchant criticism of serious literature, from across a vast spectrum of genres and creators, abounds.

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

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