The recent “cancellation” of my children’s book about an Indian man and his cats—with the sole reason given that I couldn’t write about India because I was white—has made me extra sensitive to the absurdity of a lot of cancellations based on such claims of “cultural appropropriation.” Now of course it’s possible to write an ignorant and demeaning book about another culture, and publishers don’t have to put out every book they get; but I plead not guilty to cultural appropriation, and, indeed, most of the examples given by Cathy Young below are cultural appropriation of the right type: the enrichment of cultures by incorporating material from other cultures.
The “sin” of cultural appropriation goes only one way, of course: you are not allowed to “write down.” That is, members of nonminority groups (read: white people, especially men) are not allowed to write about minority groups, even if those groups are not oppressed or the subject isn’t oppression. But the reverse action—members of minority groups writing about dominant groups—seems perfectly fine. This I don’t understand. If members of one culture supposedly can’t understand members of another, or treat their issues with sensitivity, then the ban should go both ways. Why is it okay if someone from India writes about an American man who owns sweet shops and takes in stray cats?
Thus the new post by the estimable Cathy Young (click the screenshot below to read, but subscribe if you read regularly)—about a new PEN America report on freedom to write and publish—struck home. The theme, according to Young (I haven’t read the PEN report) is the suppression of literature deemed harmful (often because of “cultural appropriation”), an action taken mostly by the Left. The Right gets rid of books they find offensive by simply banning them from libraries or removing them, but what the Left does, preventing publication of books in the first place, can be seen as more harmful. For in the latter case, the book simply isn’t available to anyone.
Many of these campaigns are fueled by social-media pile-ons, often by people who haven’t read the book they damn. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll give quotes from Young about the tactics of the Left and some chilling examples of how they’ve worked.
First, what’s going on (Young’s text is indented).
WHETHER THERE EXISTS in American culture a left-wing illiberalism that threatens freedom of thought and expression under the cover of social justice has been a subject of heated debate in the past decade. At a time when right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise, many people have viewed warnings about illiberal progressivism as a distraction. Liberal and centrist critiques of leftist intolerance, from the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in the summer of 2020 to prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic essay on “the new Puritans” the following year, have been met with purported debunkings and derided as moral panic or whining from people who don’t like to be criticized.
Now, a major liberal institution that has championed freedom of expression for over a century—PEN America, formerly PEN American Center and part of PEN International, the writers’ association whose notable figures have included John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood—has issued a lengthy report that strongly comes down on the side of taking illiberal progressivism seriously.
Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, written by the PEN America research team with a trenchant introduction by playwright Ayad Akhtar titled “In Defense of the Literary Imagination,” is a thorough examination of the chilly climate in publishing and the issues and controversies that have created it. Booklash is particularly valuable because PEN America really cannot be accused of having a right-leaning or even centrist bias: the organization enthusiastically champions racial and gender diversity and has strongly denounced censorship moves from the right, such as red-state policies facilitating school library book removals.
Indeed, the report acknowledges the context of rising right-wing authoritarianism but unabashedly, and correctly, stresses that this context makes it more important to acknowledge troubling illiberal trends on the left. . .
Booklash isn’t too long, and should be read, as should its appendix or companion piece, the famous and short “Freedom to Read” statement adopted in 1953 by the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. (It’s been amended in the version Young gives, but I’ve linked to the original.) It’s a passionate endorsement of the duty of publishers to put out books espousing all viewpoints, even if many people find them offensive, and the duty of organizations to avoid censoring or banning as taboo those views they don’t like.
But back to Young. Here are only a few of the examples she and the PEN report give of attempts to ban “offensive” views:
*Online hate campaigns directed at books deemed “problematic” for one reason or another have resulted in books being killed when already in the final stages of publication. A prominent recent example, from this past spring, comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. After she announced on June 6 that her next book, The Snow Forest, would come out early next year, it was strafed with one-star review bombs. Its attackers were outraged that a book set in Russia was coming out at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Never mind that it’s not a present-day story: The novel is a partly fact-based tale of a Soviet-era family fleeing into the woods to escape religious persecution. By June 12, Gilbert had had enough: She released a video saying that she was indefinitely “removing the book from its publication schedule.”
*. . . OTHER BOOKS, AS BOOKLASH DETAILS, were not literally canceled but endured some degree of suppression. Initial positive reviews in key industry outlets such as Kirkus Reviews have been downgraded; books have been rewritten under pressure; book tours have been canceled, as in the case of Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling 2020 novel American Dirt, a sympathetic treatment of Mexican migrants that was savaged as exploitative “trauma porn.” Aside from the impact on the targeted authors (Cummins seems to have completely withdrawn from public life), there is also the larger chilling effect on publishing. In the case of American Dirt, the report said, “Despite the book’s commercial success, the episode left many within the literary world with the impression that books perceived to trespass across racial or cultural lines could be risky and undesirable.” Indeed, the report cites conversations with authors and editors who would speak only on conditions of anonymity to describe this overall climate of intimidation as well specific incidents in which books were canceled or revised.
*In 2018, the Nation issued an abject apology for publishing a white poet writing in the voice of a black homeless woman. The poem was allowed to stay up, but underneath a contrite statement that read, remarked Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, “like a letter from re-education camp.”
*In June 2020, the young adult novel Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan was at the center of a bizarre drama with two layers of cancellation. First, the novel was withdrawn at Duncan’s request because of complaints about chapters written from the perspective of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (African Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). Then, Publishers’ Weekly removed its story about the book’s withdrawal because of complaints that the story had led to “online abuse” toward Duncan’s chief critic, novelist Bethany Morrow, and replaced it with an apology and a pledge to ensure that “our articles will not cause harm in the future.” Obviously, the PEN America report couldn’t cover every such episode without massive sprawl, but these examples seem remarkable enough to merit a mention.
*Novelist, journalist, and Bulwark contributor Richard North Patterson recently wrote about the dispiriting experience of having his novel Trial “rejected by roughly 20 imprints of major New York publishers” despite having 16 New York Times bestsellers to his name. According to Patterson, many of the rejections came with glowing compliments but bluntly stated that the problem was race: the novel deals with racial injustice, and Patterson is white. (Trial was eventually published by a small press.)
There are many more examples, but you get the gist, and I bet you’ve heard of some of these before, like the American Dirt fracas described by Young in greater detail.
Now Young notes that the PEN America report, while conveying a strong message, is somewhat diluted by its occasional tendency to “balance their defense of intellectual freedom with their commitment to the values of social justice, bending over backwards to accommodate the latter.” While it’s okay to give a nod towards social justice, the “Freedom to read” mantra should extend to defending publication of all viewpoints, including those inimical to current versions of social justice.
Here’s Young’s indictment of the greater harm done by the Left than by the Right in censoring books. First, a quote from Jonah Winter, a children’s-book author who has been censored:
Book-banning, the “cancel culture” of the right, doesn’t hurt a book or an author.
What hurts a book or an author is the far more effective cancel culture of the left, by which I mean the small but vocal subsection of illiberal ideologues who’ve commandeered both liberalism in general and the publishing world specifically, often using their power to attack well-meaning authors in the form of social media pile-ons and the resulting cancellations, both of which I’ve experienced.
And I’ll add this since it hits home: one of Winter’s books that was banned was a respectful biography of the great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (I saw him play at Forbes Field), who died at 38 in the crash of a plane bringing relief to earthquake-devastated Managua, Nicaragua. Winter says this:
I’ve had two book contracts canceled because of my identity in relation to the subject matter. I am a white man. The irony of the big to-do being made over the banning of my Clemente book by conservative activists is that, were I to try and publish that exact same book today, I would not be able to get it published because of progressive activists.
And from Young:
There is another factor as well. When attacks on literary works come from the right, they are typically counteracted not only by progressive activists but by institutions that act as guardians of culture: public schools and teachers’ unions, libraries, universities, publishers, the mainstream media. When the attacks are from the left, the same institutions typically offer no objections, or even collude.
So what’s the solution? First, we have to recognize that if you’re on the Left like me, you have to indict your own side for this kind of ludicrous and harmful censorship. The cure begins with recognition, and that’s what PEN America has done. Young also notes that Booklash has recommendations like preventing book-review websites like Goodreads from going after books that haven’t been read, or damning them on flimsy grounds. And publishers should issue “formal statements of principles.” (This is desperately needed.)
Young closes by arguing correctly that being on the Left does not conflict with arguing for free expression in books, nor does condemnation of censorship trivialize the arguments of social-justice advocates. It’s merely a way to enact the First Amendment through publication, for books are one of the most effective ways to make and to vet arguments:
Such a shift [in the present Leftist illiberalism about publishing] must also include much greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stand up to pressures, particularly when it’s a matter of just a few voices denouncing alleged bigotry and “harm” in works the vast majority of people from the supposedly injured group do not see as offensive. But this would also require challenging a key tenet of social justice progressivism: the belief that even to dispute a claim of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is in itself “problematic,” and in most cases actively harmful. Such claims must be examined skeptically, especially when suppression of speech or other expression is at stake.
Pushing back against left-wing illiberalism in publishing need not entail a general dismissiveness toward the existence of racial or gender-based injustice and prejudice in American culture, particularly given the recent rise of overt white supremacism, misogyny, and homophobia on the far right and their seepage into more mainstream right-wing discourse. What it does mean, though, is understanding that “canceling” books and authors for transgressing progressive moral codes does nothing to counteract injustice and prejudice. Instead, it inhibits and silences important conversations and trivializes the very evils it supposedly protests.