Hallelujah! Yet another anti-woke op-ed from the NYT, damning the Cancel Culture

June 13, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Is the NYT really starting to publish more and more material that could be considered anti-woke? It seems so.

I submit for your approval this op-ed by Pamela Paul, named as an opinion columnist just this year. But she has a long history at the paper:

Pamela Paul became an Opinion columnist for The New York Times in 2022. She was previously the editor of The New York Times Book Review for nine years, where she oversaw book coverage and hosted the Book Review podcast. She is the author of eight books: “100 Things We’ve Lost to the Internet” (named a best book of 2021 by The Chicago Tribune), “My Life With Bob,” “How to Raise a Reader,” “By the Book,” “Parenting, Inc.,” “Pornified” (a best book of 2005 by The San Francisco Chronicle), “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony” (a best book of 2002 by The Washington Post) and “Rectangle Time,” a book for children.

Now, on to the fracas that Paul considers. She describes the usual Woke attempt to cancel a book on ideological grounds before it’s even out or has been read, and then recommends that you read the book and decide for yourself. It also damns the culture that promotes attempts to “deplatform” books before they reach the public. That in itself is anti-woke, for although you may not like the book, Paul recommends that you read it, which means thinking for yourself (not a trait associated with wokeness). Buying it also slightly enriches the author via royalties.

Click to read Paul’s short op-ed:

The book at hand is The Men, by Sandra Newman, which you can order by clicking on the screenshot at the bottom. It comes out just this week, and already the number of stars it’s gotten reflects I think, the attempt to “cancel” it, i.e., persuade people not to buy it. Did these people read the book?

The book’s premise (Paul’s prose):

Imagine a world in which all the men disappear from the planet in a single moment: Planes they were piloting are left unmanned (literally), their female passengers abandoned in midair; men in bed with their girlfriends mysteriously vanish; boys in the playground dematerialize before their mothers’ eyes. The girls and women left behind are given no apparent reason for the sudden absence of half the world’s population.

The result of publishing it:

Now imagine another world — one in which an author proudly announces her forthcoming novel only to be attacked online for its fantastical premise. Months before the book comes out, it is described on Goodreads as a “transphobic, racist, ableist, misogynist nightmare of a book.” On Twitter, people who have yet to read the novel declare that it’s their responsibility to “deplatform” it. When one of the author’s friends, herself a writer, defends the book, she is similarly attacked, and a prominent literary organization withdraws her nomination for a prize for her own book.

Only one of these nightmare scenarios is real.

The first describes the premise of a novel that comes out this week: “The Men” by Sandra Newman. The second is what actually happened when the premise of Newman’s book was revealed.

I was in fact surprised to learn why this book was so viciously attacked, especially because it involves the disappearance of men—the lowest group on the wokeish totem pole. But it’s not that idea that caused the trouble: it’s the idea that there is a real sex binary that allows men to disappear!

And Paul, to her immense credit, defends the book and the author’s right to imagine a world in which there is a sex binary!:

For all the outlandishness of its conceits, science fiction can allow writers and readers access to deeper truths about very real aspects of society, politics and power in creative ways. But apparently Newman got too creative — or too real — for some. That a fictional world would assert the salience of biological sex, however fanciful the context, was enough to upset a vocal number of transgender activists online. They would argue that “men” is a cultural category to which anyone can choose to belong, as opposed to “maleness,” which is defined by genetics and biology.

In this case, we can set aside contentious questions around gender identity and transgender politics. Even if you don’t believe the sex binary is as fundamental to human beings as it is to all other mammals, a fiction writer ought to be free to imagine her own universe, whether as utopian ideal, dystopian horror or some complicated vision in between.

Should the reader dare enter the fictional universe of “The Men,” one thing becomes immediately clear: This is in no way a transphobic novel. It neither denies the existence of transgender people, who are woven into the narrative in several places, nor maligns them. The world Newman creates is as scrupulously diverse as a Marvel franchise movie, populated by gay, lesbian and bisexual characters as well as by straight ones of various ethnicities.

In this fictional world, where the presence of a Y-chromosome dictates who disappears, a strictly biological definition of “man” is viewed as a moral wrong. The main characters are horrified by the fate of the transgender women who get swept up (“unjustly condemned”) and sympathetic to the plight of the transgender men who remain (one character is “paralyzed by the idea that transgender people were still here”).

Note that the book is woke in the sense that a transgender woman is regarded by The Transphobic Force—that which makes “men” disappear—as a biological man. That’s right in with trans-activist philosophy. But that still didn’t appease The Offended, because the Force saw the woman as a biological man.

I can’t help but reproduce a lot of Paul’s prose, as it’s so deliciously rare in the NYT to read stuff like this:

What a sour irony that a dystopian fantasy brought a dark reality one step closer. In this frightful new world, books are maligned in hasty tweets, without even having been read, because of perceived thought crimes on the part of the author. Small but determined interest groups can gather gale force online and unleash scurrilous attacks on ideas they disapprove of or fear, and condemn as too dangerous even to explore.

“I wanted to create a parable of exclusion,” Newman, who describes herself as nonbinary, said in a phone interview. “It’s a book about ‘othering,’ the human tendency to divide people into categories or groups and to think of our group as the real people and other groups as threats to the real people.”

Newman said she tends to favor fiction that explores difficult ideas in bold ways: “People shouldn’t always write nice books.” Where better than literature to examine ideas that may unsettle or challenge?

Most people don’t want to live in a world in which books are vilified without being read and their authors attacked ad hominem for the temerity of having written them.

There’s an answer to attacks like these: Read the book.

YES! READ THE DAMN BOOK! Perhaps under the new leadership at the paper it really is getting saner. The first paragraph above, which damns a Cancel Culture that tries to suppress ideas that aren’t ideologically correct, would have been unthinkable in the NYT two years ago.

If I met Paul I’d give her a big hug of appreciation, but that might be considered harassment.

18 thoughts on “Hallelujah! Yet another anti-woke op-ed from the NYT, damning the Cancel Culture

  1. “I wanted to create a parable of exclusion,” Newman, who describes herself as nonbinary, said in a phone interview.

    Instead, she created a morality play about extremism and, possibly, the Leopards Eating Peoples Faces Party. She’s non-binary (“not like other girls”) but it didn’t save her. Another trans supporter wrote a deliberately pro-trans science fiction short story titled “I Sexually Identify As an Attack Helicopter” and the title alone brought on the outrage brigade. She removed it. Trans activism seems to be caught in a purity spiral.

    People keep looking for a compromise position. “You can play women’s sports if your testosterone is below this level” or “bathrooms but not rape crisis centers” or “women and other pregnant people” or some other point midway between Trans Women Are Women; Trans Men Are Men and No You’re Not. It’s not going to work. It’s all or nothing.

    If Newman apologizes, it won’t make up for all the existences she destroyed.

  2. We saw a dry run with the graphic novel and TV adaptation Y The Last Man. In the original graphic novel (2002-2008) – and the TV show (2021), every mammal with XY chromosomes died graphically. The TV adaptation had more trans representation (still, anyone trans without XY chromosomes survived), but I think it provided a backdrop for people to protest the next work that introduced the same theme.


    1. (Whoops, sorry, I screwed up my closing tag above. I only wanted to highlight Y The Last Man. I didn’t mean to shout.)

  3. I’ll read it just on the basis of the negative reaction alone.

    Or at least I’ll buy it on that basis, out of solidarity with the author. Not sure I’ll actually read it. Speculative futuristic fiction isn’t really in my wheelhouse. Plus, the part about “men in bed with their girlfriends mysteriously vanish[ing]” is a little too close for comfort to what someone I know once heard a girlfriend of his wish for. 🙂

  4. This premise was already used in the highly praised comic series Y the Last Man. Funny that it’s suddenly a problem in prose

  5. She describes the usual Woke attempt to cancel a book on ideological grounds before it’s even out or has been read, and then recommends that you read the book and decide for yourself. It also damns the culture that promotes attempts to “deplatform” books before they reach the public. That in itself is anti-woke… It is, although the bar is very low. Still, it’s great news that the NYT is s-l-o-w-l-y becoming less woke.

  6. Did these people read the book? I don’t see how Amazon has accepted customer reviews for a book that it says isn’t available yet. In general, it’s useful to look at which reviews have the “Verified purchase” tag. It’s very noticeable, at least on the UK version of Amazon’s website, that Helen Joyce’s excellent book Trans: When Ideology meets Reality has vastly more 5 star reviews than 1 star ones, and the 5 star reviews mostly do have the Verified purchase marker suggesting a genuine review, whilst the 1 star reviews appear to be written by trolls who didn’t buy the book. (In fact, I don’t understand why Amazon even allows reviews where the purchase can’t be verified. It is hardly informative for prospective buyers.)

  7. Coincidentally I have just finished rereading for the first time in many years the 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this ground breaking novel humans have spread throughout the galaxy but have been out of touch with each other for millennia. A lone (male) envoy has been sent learn more about a world that has developed in a very different way, On this world humans are essentially asexual most of the time but each person contains both male and female reproductive organs. On a cyclic basis each person passes through a process whereby they become sexually attracted to another person. When this happens one of the partner’s male organs become active and the female organs do likewise. As you would expect this had tremendous effects on how their society developed.
    I highly recommend the book.
    The ebook version that I have now contains an Author’s Note, an Introduction by David Mitchell and an Afterword by Charlie Jane Anders all of which provide valuable insights about the author and the book.

  8. Prof CC asks “Is the NYT really starting to publish more and more material that could be considered anti-woke?”
    Opinion columnist Paul Krugman, on June 9, 2022, in a column entitled “Crime and Political Punishment”:
    “defund the police” was a stupid (and politically destructive) slogan.

  9. You had previously commented on an opinion piece by Ms. Paul – “Let Actors Act”. She is a refreshing voice at the times.

    I also ordered the book and intend to read it. I enjoy the idea of sticking a finger in the eye of the mob and I loves me some dystopian fiction.

    1. I know of at least two fiction authors who commented on the whole ‘Only X Should Write About X’ thing. Larry Niven mentioned the idea in an authors note about one of his non-SF stories that readers had thought was biographical. The other was Transgendered author Caitlin R. Kiernan. Both pointed just how limiting it was. As for ‘Lived Experience’ the correct term is ‘Anecdotal Evidence’.

  10. I wonder if anyone remembers a book published in 1951 entitled The Disappearance, written by Philip Wylie ,which has the same theme. Wylie created a broad Cold War social satire which was controversial then and would be totally unacceptable today. In Womansworld society almost collapses because none of the women know how to do anything. The Western women solve the Cold War by taking the Russian women shopping! In Mansworld homosexuality is actively encouraged by the government. Interestingly the book is still in print. Someone should inform Ms Newman lest the Wylie estate lawyers come upon her unawares.

  11. When The Satanic Verses was published I was so angered by the attempts to prevent me reading the book that, unable to find a copy on the bookshelves, I ordered a copy from two different sellers. The book is wonderful. I’ve read it a half-dozen times and enjoyed every reading. I think I’ll get a copy of this book and make up my own mind.

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