Bret Stephens on Woody Allen’s new book, and Hachette’s cancellation of it

March 18, 2020 • 11:30 am

I’ve posted twice on the story of the publisher Hachette canceling publication of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing (see here and here). In short, Hachette was committed to publishing the book, but then Hachette author Ronan Farrow protested, on the grounds that he believed Allen had molested his step-sister Dylan Farrow when she was seven. (Two investigations failed to produce any evidence that Allen was guilty.) Farrow broke his relations with Hachette, and then a number of Hachette employees walked out for a day, on the grounds that they believed the accusations against Allen.

The next day, Hachette “caved”, as Bret Stephens puts it in the op-ed below, and canceled publication of the memoirs. So far as I know, nobody has picked up the book, but I may be wrong.  And, according to Stephens, they should, as he’s read the book and liked it. Having read Allen’s essays, I think he’s a clever and hilarious writer, and I would have liked to have read the memoir, too.

My own view is that Hachette committed a reprehensible act of cancellation: of annulling a contract with no real reason to do so. (Hachette knew about Allen’s history when they took on the book, and nothing had happened to change that save that the #MeToo movement arose, and with it a tendency to conflate accusations with criminality. Further, author Ronan Farrow parted ways with the publisher.)

Stephens is one of the few people to have actually read Allen’s book, and gives his take on the book, and on Hachette’s action, below.

Stephens’s words are indented:

My own bias runs strongly in favor of publication, both as a matter of principle and public interest. (Full disclosure: I have a slight social acquaintance with Allen; we are not friends but have friends in common. Further full disclosure: I am a member of a jury that awarded Ronan a journalism prize for his investigation of Harvey Weinstein.) But just to be sure the critics didn’t have a point, I decided to ask for a copy of the book and read it.

Turns out, it’s pretty good.

Allen writes well. There’s humor on nearly every page. He’s been a major creative presence on the stage of American arts for 60 years, so his cast of characters is large. The background is peopled with the likes of Ed Sullivan, Dick Cavett, Johnny Carson, Pauline Kael, Scarlett Johansson and Timothée Chalamet; the foreground by Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow.

The story of how Allen made it in show business in the 1950s and ’60s was mostly new to me, and wholly engrossing. So were details about movies that remain cultural touchstones for millions of people, from “Bananas” to “Annie Hall” to “Husbands and Wives” to “Match Point.”

Still, the chief interest of the book lies in Allen’s account of his relationship with Mia Farrow — and, much more so, in the destruction of the relationship.

As Stephens argues, this isn’t really censorship, since presumably Hachette had in the contract a clause enabling it to cancel publication of the book, and Allen can still get it published. But there is, to my mind, an irrefutable First Amendment reason for Hachette to publish it: the right to be heard, even if your opinion is unpopular:

That is what fairness in a free society requires: giving both sides their say; listening to each with an open mind; and extending the presumption of innocence to those being tried, whether it’s in a courtroom or in the court of public opinion. To do otherwise isn’t to show respect for the feelings of the victim. It’s to prejudge, based on incomplete information, who the real victim is.

This goes both ways, by the way. Allen’s book alleges that Mia Farrow not only brainwashed Dylan into believing she had been molested but also that she victimized some of her adopted children physically and psychologically, claims Moses and Soon-Yi fully corroborate. In one instance, according to Moses, Mia once locked up her adopted paraplegic son Thaddeus in “an outdoor shed overnight over a minor transgression.”

If Mia, Dylan or Ronan Farrow were to write a book rebutting Allen’s charges — only for the publisher to buy the book and then quash it at the last minute — there would surely be an outcry. Rightly so.

And why should we worry about this when the world has bigger problems? Because the virus will abate, but the censorious climate will remain. As Stephens says:

It matters because cancel culture threatens our collective well-being in multiple and fundamental ways: The banishment of unpopular people; the unwillingness to examine contrary threads of evidence and entertain opposing points of view; the automatic conflation of accusation with guilt; the failure of nerve by people entrusted with preserving the institutions of liberal culture; the growing power of digital mobs; the fear these mobs instill in any would-be contrarian or gadfly who thinks to venture a heterodox view. These threats go to the heart of what it means to sustain the habits of a free society.

Many of those, too, are First-Amendment arguments: the argument of Mill, Hitchens, and others that it is the most contrarian and offensive views that must be heard. I agree. Is there anyone among the readers who thinks that Allen’s book simply should not be published at all?

24 thoughts on “Bret Stephens on Woody Allen’s new book, and Hachette’s cancellation of it

  1. Having read Allen’s essays, I think he’s a clever and hilarious writer, and I would have liked to have read the memoir, too.

    He wrote some pretty goddam funny short stories, too, many of them for The New Yorker, some of which were collected in the book Getting Even.

    I recall in particular “The Schmeed Memoirs,” a story narrated by the barber for the top Nazis of the Third Reich — the one who told the Nuremberg tribunal that, “Once, toward the end of the war,” after he’d finally learned of Hitler’s atrocities, “I did contemplate
    loosening the Fuhrer’s neck-napkin and allowing some tiny hairs to
    get down his back, but at the last minute my nerve failed me.”

    1. Woody’s sketches in “Without Feathers” and “Side Effects” contain some of the insanely funniest writing since S.J. Perelman. I particularly remember one in which Van Gogh was a dentist rather than painter, and he and his pal Gaugin take up open air dentistry. Then there is the one in which a guy has a a magic cabinet which enables him periodically to join the plot of “Madame Bovary”—until one day Emma Bovary comes through the cabinet in order to join him in his real world of upper West Side Manhattan.

  2. While I agree that the world should be able to read this book, I think Hatchette has to consider its business interests, assuming that was the basis for their decision. Nothing wrong with slamming Hatchette for their priorities though. They probably realized they couldn’t make everyone happy regardless of which way they went. As you and Stephens say, it isn’t at all censorship. It seems likely that it will be available soon.

    1. … Hatchette has to consider its business interests …

      Of course it does. “[I]ts business interests” was the reason cited by Woolworths (and so many other places of public accommodation) for refusing to serve black folk at its lunch counters in the Jim Crow south, too.

      It’s a leading reason cited to justify any number of acts of public cowardice. Ranks right up there with “I didn’t want to get involved” and “my friends and family wouldn’t understand.”

        1. Thought I made it reasonably clear that what I’m comparing here is moral courage and moral cowardice and how a business’s financial interests are frequently cited as an excuse to abandon one and embrace the other.

          1. You did but what seems to be missing is any kind of accusation that Hachette suppressed publication for some nefarious reason. We all think we know the real reason for the Woolworth decision and are against it. Do you really think Hachette is run by social justice warriors or their polar opposite? I am only a casual observer but I haven’t heard that. I assume Hachette made their decision purely along business lines, attempting to optimize revenue and reputation. That’s what I’m defending.

            1. The timing of the publisher’s decision — that the book was cancelled only after Ronan Farrow’s complaint and an employee walkout, not following the disclosure of any new evidence or any other change in the status of the underlying allegations since the book deal was signed — is what convinces me that Hatchette turned chickenshit.

              And, FYI, there were PLENTY of people at the time who thought that Woolworths was well within its property rights and its “right of private association” to segregate its lunch counters. That’s why it took 100 years from the Civil War’s conclusion, and an act of congress, finally to end Jim Crow.

              Hell, there are STILL plenty of people who think the “right of private association” should trump enforcement of our civil-rights laws. Just ask the gay couple in Colorado who tried to buy a wedding cake at Masterpiece Cakeshop.

              1. “…Hatchette turned chickenshit”

                I think that’s an ok description of Hatchette’s behavior. The issue really lies elsewhere. It’s really about what Hatchette was afraid of. I have no reason to think that they were simply made a business calculation so their fear was of losing money or customers, which are pretty much the same thing. If, on the other hand, they simply agreed with those calling for publication to be halted, then that’s a different kettle of fish. I doubt that for the simple reason that they had already chosen to publish Allen’s book and the controversy was already public knowledge. It isn’t like new evidence against Allen has been discovered since they bought the rights to his book.

                A similar way of thinking could be applied to the Woolworth’s case. If white people had claimed that they would boycott Woolworth’s if they allowed black people to eat at their lunch counters, then they could justify their behavior on purely business reasons. It doesn’t necessarily mean the decision makers are racists. In fact, they may have hated what they had to do but felt that it was not within their power to change the world. On the other hand, they could have been racists and just looking for an excuse. Motive is important in these things. This is also why we need laws against racial discrimination.

              2. Are you saying that discrimination on the basis of race, sex, national origin, or sexual orientation if motivated by economic concerns rather than prejudice simpliciter is moral and ought to be legal?

                Because that was indeed the justification cited by many businesses during Jim Crow (and today). That’s precisely what redlining and “blockbusting” and restrictive covenants in land deeds are all about — maintaining property values.

                Thankfully, that is NOT the law.

  3. On a related note, I watched the other day the latest Roman Polanski film “An Officer and a Spy” covering the Dreyfus affair. It is magnificently filmed and very historically accurate, shedding light on the unfortunately still widespread antisemitism as it existed then, 120 years ago in France. I highly recommend it to all the readers of this website.

    Note that this film is not distributed in the US because US distribution companies have “canceled” Polanski. Furthermore, when Polanski won the Cesar award for best director (French Oscar equivalent) there was a walkout at the awards ceremony in protest.

    1. That’s why I draw a strict church/state-style wall-of-separation between politics and aesthetics. If you care deeply about both yet let them overlap — well, in that direction lies the liquor cabinet and psychiatrist’s couch.

  4. Allen’s Italian publisher didn’t stop and I think it’s perfectly right. The book will be available from April 9th on.
    As even judges decided, there is no proof Mia Farrow’s accusations are more than a particularly nasty revenge. But in any case I do not believe you should stop anyone writing or publishing books (why Main Kampf can be read and Woody can’t?). Buying or reading is up to the readers

  5. Regarding the “digital mob” and other extremely disturbing aspects of the internet, I watched (March 17th on PBS) all three episodes of “Niall Ferguson’s Networld – 1) Disruption, 2) Winner Take All, 3) Network War. It was three hours of captivating education.

  6. I think the book should be published. Period. Of course, if you don’t want to spend money on buying it or time in reading it, that’s your prerogative.

  7. Another aspect of this that shouldn’t be ignored is that Ronan Farrow is a known pusher of false allegations, who knowingly publishes false information.

    He simply isn’t trustworthy.

  8. Just wanted to mention that I still have my paperback editions of “Without Feathers” and “Getting Even” that I bought when I was young teen around 40 years ago. Price $1.95 and $1.75 respectively. “Without…” contains “The Whore of Mensa”. I asked my parents “what’s a wa-hore? Needless to say I am NOT a member of MENSA.

  9. there is, to my mind, an irrefutable First Amendment reason for Hachette to publish it: the right to be heard, even if your opinion is unpopular:

    Allen can be heard, any time he wants. He could download his book to the internet, right now, with a few keystrokes if he wanted.

    I respect your consistent stand on objecting to dis-invitation and cancel culture. I agree with you that Hatchette acted poorly, in a very similar way that Universities who cancel right-wing speakers under student pressure are acting poorly.

    But none of these cases are first amendment issues. You yourself have pointed this out in the case of right wing campus speakers. They have outlets they can use; it’s not a first amendment issue if Berkeley cancels Anne Coulter’s speech. It’s an issue of illiberal, close-minded, bad behavior, yes – but not constitutional freedom of speech. This is exactly the same. Allen, like Coulter, has many available ways to communicate his story.

    1. It’s an issue to do with maintaining a liberal society – in the general sense of “liberal” where it refers to allowing people as much liberty as possible, not just from government action but also from social pressures to conform. A liberal society requires a general ethos that we don’t try to suppress each others’ speech, even locally, don’t mobilise to try to harm private individuals (if they’ve committed some unlawful action, that’s for the courts to deal with), don’t judge guilt through trial by media (again, that’s for the courts, with procedural due process in place). It requires an ethic of public discussion in which we don’t try to shut people down by claiming they are bad people and therefore don’t deserve a hearing.

      I agree that it’s not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment merely places a limit on the power of the US federal Congress, in a context, back in the 1780s and 1790s, where there was much fear that this new body would exercise vast and oppressive powers if not reined in somehow. There’s then a complicated history as to how this ultimately became a limit on all branches and levels of government in the US, but it’s still a limit on the power of the government, as is clear from its wording.

      An issue like this goes far beyond the US, and it’s no less important because it does not involve government power. The lobbying efforts to get this book canceled were highly illiberal, and the decision by Hachette to cave in was cowardly at best. In these situations, the duty of a publisher is to defend the author and publish the book. What looks like a good commercial decision on any particular occasion cumulatively leads to a situation where publishers are at the mercy of illiberal mobs.

      Hachette deserves severe criticism for this, and the people who pressured it even more so. They have abandoned – and set themselves in opposition to – the ideals of a liberal society, and those of them who are employed in publishing belong in a particularly nasty hall of shame. Where they don’t belong is in jobs within the publishing industry.

      1. Hatchette deserves criticism for flip-flopping under mob pressure. But I don’t think this is a freedom of speech issue, even in the broader social, non-legal sense you mean.

        If someone says “I want you to hear my side of the story,” it is liberal to listen. If someone says “I want you to hear my side of the story…which I will only provide to you after you’ve paid me $9.99”, liberalness does not require you to buy. Allen can do the former any time he wants. He chooses not to. He’s holding out for the latter. That’s his choice, and I’m fine with it. I see absolutely nothing wrong with an author wanting to make money off of his hard work and labor, especially since, yes, what he’s done in producing it is hard work and labor (not to mention good artistic talent). But because he’s holding out for the latter, to me, that removes any claim to this being a limitation on his freedom of expression, even in in the more general sense of “maintaining a liberal society”.

        If I refuse to contemplate your Piss Christ artwork, the main person preventing your artistic expression from reaching people like me, is me. When you keep it out of circulation until you can find a gallery that will charge me $20 to go see it, the main person preventing your artistic expression from reaching people like me, is you.

        1. I don’t see that. The way thoughts and ideas are communicated to the public is via, among other things, commercial book publication. If you try to prevent a particular person from being able to access commercial book publication, you are imposing an extra burden on that person, the same as if you try to prevent a particular person having access to speaking gigs. Of course, you don’t have to attend gigs that you don’t want to attend, and you don’t have to buy a book that you don’t want to buy. But if you’re mobilising collectively with others to try to create a social ban on certain individuals being able to sell their writing or their presentations to audiences, that is highly illiberal. And it’s obvious here that the people who protested about the publication of Allen’s book do, in fact, want to prevent Allen, as far as they can, from being able to publish commercially. It’s not specific to Hachette. (Btw, I wish people would stop calling it “Hatchette” as if it manufactured axes.)

          Yes, he could simply put it on his website, but if someone is being prevented in this way from publishing with commercial publishers of course it’s going to discourage them from writing in the first place, and of course it will make it harder for them to reach a wide audience. That’s surely the whole point of this sort of mobilisation against individuals.

          1. it’s obvious here that the people who protested about the publication of Allen’s book do, in fact, want to prevent Allen, as far as they can, from being able to publish commercially.

            This is not obvious to me. Consider:
            1. Allen previously shopped this very memoir to Penguin. Nobody protested. In fact, it didn’t even make the news. That deal fell through only because they offered him $3million and he thought that offer was too low. This is very clearly NOT a case of Allen being “prevented” by outside forces from accessing commercial book publication. His memoir is not published right now, because he turned Penguin’s $3million offer down. How could that ever be considered censorship?

            2. Ronan and Dylan Farrow’s initial complaints are clearly focused on the hypocrisy or mercenary nature they see, of Hachette secretly negotiating to publish Allen’s work while at the same time publishing Farrow’s work regarding powerful men and sexual assault. Their initial complaint was about Hachette, in particular, “double dealing” as it were, by seeking to profit off of both Allen’s and Farrow’s opposite takes on a sensitive issue. Supplying arms to both sides, as it were. And, again, either Farrow made no complaint when Penguin offered Allen a book deal, or it didn’t make the news or affect their decision to make Allen an offer.

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