American Publishing in Censorship Mode

Publishers keep pulling books from shelves, for all kinds of reasons

Last month, Jonathan Karp, the head of Simon & Schuster, did something that qualifies as courageous in today’s publishing environment: He refused to not publish a book. More than 200 S&S staffers had submitted a petition to management, demanding that they cancel a scheduled memoir from former Vice President Mike Pence. They claimed that the Trump Administration was not “normal,” and therefore normal publishing rules didn’t apply. The censorship mode in American publishing had activated again.

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“When S&S chose to sign Mike Pence, we broke the public’s trust in our editorial process,” the petition said, adding that it “blatantly contradicted previous public claims in support of Black and other lives made vulnerable by structural oppression.” More than 3500 people, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, signed the petition. Though S&S did agree to pull a book by Jonathan Mattingly, one of the police officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s killing, Karp said that the Pence book would go forward.

Jonathan Karp

“As a publisher in this polarized era,” he wrote, “we have experienced outrage from both sides of the political divide and from different constituencies and groups. But we come to work each day to publish, not cancel, which is the most extreme decision a publisher can make, and one that runs counter to the very core of our mission to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives. We will, therefore, proceed in our publishing agreement with Vice President Mike Pence.”

This was so obviously the right decision that we shouldn’t even question it. And yet in the current climate, Karp’s decision was vaguely controversial. Imagine the opposite, if unlikely, scenario. In a publishing world that mostly hires conservatives, former Vice President Kamala Harris signs a deal to publish a book with Simon & Schuster. More than 200 employees sign a petition saying that Harris isn’t “normal” because she is hyper-woke and promotes critical race theory. Preposterous, right? Whether you agree with Harris’s politics or not, she’s a significant historical figure whose book would be of interest to many people. Any other attitude would be akin to censorship.

The same goes for Mike Pence. He’s the most boring man alive. I can’t think of one thing he could say that would be of any interest to me. I would rather read the fine print on my iPhone upgrade agreement than read one word of his memoir. But he was the Vice President during the weirdest Administration in American history. His book has merit, just because of that.

Jonathan Karp, one of Book and Film Globe’s Publishing Power 30, held the line against cancellation, and he isn’t going away anytime soon. But eventually, he won’t be in charge of S&S any more. Who will replace him, and what will they value? Two hundred employees is no small number. The desire to censor is very strong in the American publishing industry. It wasn’t the first petition this year, and it’s not the last such petition we’ll see.

Biography no more

The last year has seen publishers pull a number of prominent books from circulation, for a variety of reasons. Young adult book deals get scotched continually because of problems with representation. The estate of Dr. Seuss decided to erase several “problematic” works. Dav Pilkey, author of the Captain Underpants series, self-deported a spinoff book because of its depiction of Asian-Americans.

Most prominently, and most recently, W.W. Norton & Company pulled an 880-page authorized biography of Philip Roth completely from circulation. Numerous women had accused Roth’s chosen biographer, Blake Bailey, of sexual assault and misconduct. But why did they remove the book? Maybe they know something that we don’t, though given the crazy amount of coverage the media has given this story, that seems highly unlikely at this point.

Censorship

As President Obama would have said: Let me be clear. No one is condoning the acts of which people are accusing Bailey. If true, then he’s a Harvey Weinstein-like figure. Multiple accusers have emerged through the press (though not the legal system). If Norton wants to donate an amount equivalent to Bailey’s advance to groups that assist victims of sexual abuse, then good for them. But pulling a book from circulation isn’t the right response for any reason, unless that book contains multiple outright falsehoods and calls to violence. Even then, maybe not.

Last year, Woody Allen’s memoir disappeared, suddenly and without warning. Allen quickly found another publisher and sold many copies. Both his book and Bailey’s biography had already gone through the editing and vetting process. In Bailey’s case, it was already on shelves. People had reviewed it widely. And now the original editions of both books are contraband. In what moral universe is this a good thing?

There was no Jonathan Karp around to save the Philip Roth biography. Maybe given the unique circumstances surrounding that book and its author, he would have reached the same decision. It’s possible. I can see why no publisher wants to be in the Blake Bailey business. But the decision to pull his book was still an act of censorship.

If publishers don’t want to hand out book deals to problematic figures, that’s their prerogative. The Constitution guarantees no one a right to have big corporations publish their books. And if they want to stop a book in the midst of production, for any number of reasons, that’s also their right. Movies and TV shows fall apart all the time before they get to the editing bay. But it’s a dangerous trend to erase a book after it exists. This is a bad impulse. It’s a censorship impulse.

The decision to pull any book from circulation, however noble the justification, qualifies as censorship. And we’re against censorship, right? Those of us who love the written word should be. Even if, or especially if, Mike Pence is involved.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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