Book bans are suddenly coming from inside the house
“A censorial spirit is at work in the United States, and for the past year or so it has focused more and more on books.” So went the lede of a New York Times story in December 1981. But it could just as easily apply to literary life today.
Back then, the censoring was coming from where you might have expected, small-town school boards and prudish parents worried about the corruptibility of youth. They targeted books like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris, and a Langston Hughes anthology of stories by “Negro Writers.”
It was part of an endless assault that’s as old as the history of American letters. People tried to ban Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Scolds were deriding The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn as racist from day one, as they continue to do today. The works of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsberg, and Vladimir Nabokov have been battling censorship attempts for the last 100 years. Even today, near-universally-beloved writers like J.K. Rowling and John Green face fresh potential book bans every year for crimes like “offensive language” and “promoting witchcraft.”
The “censorial spirit” is baked into the American DNA. No one makes small-town idiots quite as idiotic as we do. But our robust First Amendment and the greatest publishing industry in the history of the world has always beaten back that spirit. Of all the American virtues, freedom of expression is number one. Philip Roth had the God-given right to pen a scene of a kid beating off into a piece of liver behind a billboard on his way to Bar Mitzvah lessons. They tried to ban that book, but they didn’t succeed.
Come, big boy! Come, America!
The Censorial Spirit Returns
So I find it depressing that the censorial spirit has risen in a new form. But this time, the censorship is coming from inside the house. When Hachette announced the cancellation of Woody Allen’s memoir on Friday, much of the literary world, apart from Stephen King, rejoiced. Junior staff of the publishing company marched into the streets in protest, joined by employees of other publishing companies. And the company caved quickly. Literary Hub, the de facto voice of the lit elite, cheered, “the walk out worked!”
I can understand why Ronan Farrow, a direct party to the Woody Allen saga, wanted to pull his book from Hachette. It was a clumsy business decision, at best, to place those two authors on the same label. But what justification did the junior staff have for their walkout? And why did Hachette cave instead of firing the lot of them? A new generation of literary gatekeepers found something repulsive. They pitched a snit. And the publishing industry buckled in fear. The mob won. The morality of Woody Allen aside, this is a recent, and dangerous, trend. Let’s review these hallmarks of the new censorship.
A Catalog of Modern Shame
–In December 2016, Simon & Schuster announced that it would publish a book by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, widely derided as a Nazi even though he claimed to have Jewish ancestry, was openly gay, and extolled the virtues of interracial sex. Nonetheless, at the dawn of the Trump Era, people found statements like “feminism is cancer” frightening. The Chicago Review of Books said that it would cease to cover Simon & Schuster products “in response to this disgusting validation of hate.” Author Roxane Gay pulled her book of essays “How To Be Heard” from an S&S imprint. And other writers on Twitter threatened to boycott the publishing company. S&S heard them loud and clear and sent Milo to the dustbin of literary history, canceling his book and essentially ending his career. No one really felt sorry for Yiannopoulos, a vile, self-promoting troll, but his canceling proved the first salvo in a successful war on speech.
–Last February, young-adult author Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her debut novel, Blood Heir, from the shelves in the ultimate act of literary self-deportation. Other writers had attacked Zhao online for her depiction of race and slavery in this book, described as a dark retelling of the Anastasia saga. The attacks largely came from Twitter and Goodreads, with readers and critics attacking Zhao of “anti-blackness.” Zhao wrote a mea culpa: “It was never my intention to bring harm to any reader of this valued community, particularly those for whom I seek to write and empower … I don’t wish to clarify, defend or have anyone defend me. This is not that; this is an apology.” She said she was “grateful to those who have raised questions around representation, coding, and themes in my book.”
–Later that month, Kosoko Jackson, a gay black young-adult author pulled his novel, A Place for Wolves, described as “an adventure-romance between two young men set against the backdrop of the Kosovo War.” People dragged it online for diminishing the genocide of Albanian Muslims. He replaced the text on his website with an apology to “those who I hurt with my words, especially the Muslim readers, teens, and community members.” This was especially ironic because Jackson had been part of the online literary community’s censorship police himself, saying, among other things, that only black people should be allowed to tell the story of the civil-rights movement.
The new censorial era entered a heightened phase earlier this year with the eruption of the American Dirt controversy. Author Jeanne Cummins, a white woman, dared to write a novel about immigration. More significantly, she received a seven-figure advance and an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Another author derided American Dirt as “pity porn.” Later, nearly 100 prominent authors signing a letter that read, in part, “But good intentions do not make good literature, particularly not when the execution is so faulty, and the outcome so harmful.” Flatiron Books, having invested way too much money into American Dirt’s success, kept it on the shelves, but canceled Cummins’ book tour out of fear for her safety.
–For this year’s Black History Month, Barnes and Noble partnered with an ad agency and Penguin Books to reimagine public-domain classic with “diverse” covers, including a black Frankenstein’s monster, a brown Long John Silver and Romeo & Juliet, and a Chinese Alice In Wonderland, among many others. The online outrage ran so deep and so thick that B&N pulled the books before they even appeared and sent them to the pulper.
–Oprah’s Book Club dropped Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa, widely praised as a groundbreaking novel about sexual exploitation and trauma, as its pick for March after a writer online dropped specious claims that Russell had plagiarized her own poorly-selling indie novel with a similar theme. This incidence was particularly egregious since the literary world pretty much uniformly jumped to Russell’s defense, and the book has received universally rave reviews.
The People Do Not Approve
So what’s the common denominator here? This new “censorial spirit” is dangerous because there doesn’t seem to be one. Hachette pulled Woody Allen’s memoir because of pedophilia allegations that have been floating around for 20 years. Young-adult authors lose their shot because they’re insufficiently sensitive about slavery and genocide. A white woman isn’t allowed to write about immigration, and another white woman isn’t allowed to write about a professor having sex with his students because a Latina woman did it first. The only common denominator? The people do not approve. But which people?
The new censorship is a moving target of offensiveness. If anyone is upset for any reason, a book, or books, or even an entire imprint, vanishes from view. And good chunks of the literary world seem to celebrate this impulse. It’s not censorship, they say, because it was a “business decision.” But it is censorship. Just because the government isn’t trying to negate My Dark Vanessa doesn’t make that attempt, and the animus behind it, any less dangerous. Literary people should understand that. Writers like Kosoko Jackson learn the hard way that if you don’t stand up for free expression for everyone, no matter how annoying, eventually the bell will toll for thee.
Banned Books Week is coming this fall. The American Library Association, last year, stood up for The Captain Underpants Series, The Hate U Give, and other books that were challenged for reasons ranging from “depicting stereotypes in Mexican-American culture” and “including a transgender character.” And rightly so. I wonder if they’ll stand up for American Dirt, Woody Allen, and Amelie Zhao?
But they probably won’t. Apparently, when writers and publishing employees pre-ban books, the censorial spirit is just fine. The walk out always works until the walkers decide to walk out on you. But by then, it’s too late.