Attacks on freedom of thought and expression in publishing: a piece by George Packer

August 9, 2023 • 10:30 am

This article from The Atlantic is probably paywalled, but appears to be freely accessible on the site below. Author George Packer is a journalist and novelist, and Wikipedia gives this description:

George Packer (born ca. 1960) is a US journalist, novelist, and playwright. He is best known for his writings for The New Yorker and The Atlantic about U.S. foreign policy and for his book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. Packer also wrote The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, covering the history of the US from 1978 to 2012. In November 2013, The Unwinding received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His award-winning biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, was released in May 2019. His latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal was released in June 2021.

Click screenshot to read, and then click “continue reading” to see the whole article.

Packer begins by extolling a 1953 statement, “The Freedom to Read,” issued by the American Library Association and the Association of Book Publishers Council at the height of the McCarthy era of censorship and Red-baiting. Do read it at the link: it’s an eloquent defense of publishing and reading even offensive materials, allowing the public to judge for themselves. That 70-year-old statement should be mandatory reading for all college freshman in what I envision as a short unit on “freedom of expression and academic freedom.” An except from the 1953 statement.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials. [Sound familiar?]

Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.

On its 70th anniversary in June, the whole statement was re-issued by the same organizations (see link above), but Packer finds that a wee bit ironic:

This past June, the library and publishers’ associations reissued “The Freedom to Read” on its 70th anniversary. Scores of publishers, libraries, literary groups, civil-liberty organizations, and authors signed on to endorse its principles. And yet many of those institutional signatories—including the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates—often violate its propositions, perhaps not even aware that they’re doing so. Few of them, if any, could produce as unapologetic a defense of intellectual freedom as the one made at a time when inquisitors were destroying careers and lives. It’s worth asking why the American literary world in 2023 is less able to uphold the principles of “The Freedom to Read” than its authors in 1953.

Here are the three attacks on intellectual freedom that are circumventing or eroding these principles. The first isn’t the fault of publishers. (Packer’s quotes are indented, heading are mine.)

1.) Attacks from state governments and schools.

First—and likely the main concern of the signatories—is an official campaign by governors, state legislatures, local governments, and school boards to weed out books and ideas they don’t like. Most of the targets are politically on the left; most present facts or express views about race, gender, and sexuality that the censors consider dangerous, divisive, obscene, or simply wrong. The effort began in Texas as early as 2020, before public hysteria and political opportunism spread the campaign to Florida and other states, and to every level of education, removing from library shelves and class reading lists several thousand books by writers such as Toni Morrison and Malala Yousafzai.

Given that states and school districts have a responsibility to set public-school curricula, not all of this can be called government censorship. But laws and policies to prevent students from encountering controversial, unpopular, even offensive writers and ideas amount to a powerfully repressive campaign of book banning, some of it probably unconstitutional.

2.) Attacks and censorship from “inside the house”—by editors and publishers themselves. We all know that some publishers are malleable to social-media campaigns that try to stop books from being published because the authors have done something considered immoral, because they are not of the right gender or ethnicity to tackle a book’s topic, or because the plot isn’t ideologically correct. I’m sure you remember some of these incidents:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

More are given, but you can see them at the site.

As Packer notes, these incidents may be few, but they create a chilling atmosphere that inhibits authors from writing about what they want:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

Not all publishers are susceptible to this kind of pressure, invariably coming from Twitter, and often by people who have never read the book. My own publisher, Penguin Random House, has a firm policy of publishing what it considers good, not what is ideologically correct. Sadly, as Packer reports, that publisher is bleeding senior editors because book sales are down.

Packer also levels some criticism at PEN and PEN America, too, literary organizations that promote free expression. PEN America has issued a new report, “Reading between the lines: Race, equity, and book publishing.”  And while Packer praises the courage of this report in today’s publishing climate, he also notes a contradiction. And that’s the contradiction—one we’ve discussed before—between promoting equity and promoting merit—literary merit in this case.

In “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing,” PEN examined in detail how the American book business has always been and, despite recent improvements, remains a clubby world of the white, well connected, and well-off. It presented a damning picture, backed by data, of “the white lens through which writers, editors, and publishers curate America’s literature.” It called for publishers to hire and promote more staff of color, publish more books by writers of color, pay them higher advances, and sell their books more intelligently and vigorously.

The two reports are related, but the relation is fraught. The first showed the need for an intensified campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry. The second argues for greater freedom to defy the literary strictures of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is there a contradiction between the two?

While PEN labors to show that there is no contradiction, of course there is. Any pressure to be ideologically correct (and DEI initiatives often cross the line between “color blind standards of merit” and “a specific ideological take on DEI), is going to also constitute pressure against publishing certain kinds of things. Here’s what Packer says:

In our world, where DEI has hardened into an ideological litmus test, the effort to place social justice at the center of publishing almost inevitably leads to controversies over “representation” and “harm” that result in banned books. The first report presented DEI in publishing as an urgent moral cause. The second report takes issue with “employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists.” But those employees no doubt believe that they are carrying out the vision of the first report.

Social justice and intellectual freedom are not inherently opposed—often, each requires the other—but they are not the same thing, either. “The Freedom to Read” makes this clear: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers and librarians] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.” That statement was written at a time when the cause of intellectual freedom was non- or even anti-ideological. Its authors advocated no other goal than the widest and highest-quality expression of views. But in PEN’s new report you can feel a struggle to reconcile the thinking of its earlier one, in which every calculation comes down to identity, with the discriminating judgment and openness to new and disturbing ideas that are essential to producing literature. As one editor told me, “There’s no equity in talent.”

Packer has a lot more to say, but in the end he makes a good case for publishers promoting the “widest and highest-quality expression of views.” That statement says nothing about ideology, gender, or race, just quality and viewpoint diversity. If viewpoint diversity of literary merit is promoted by publishing more authors of minority status, then that’s fine—no contradiction there. But, as publishing books becomes a more fraught endeavor, and fewer people buy books, it’s imperative that the industry stick to its guns of promoting quality and viewpoint diversity.  For when books have to hew to an ideological line to be acceptable, publishing is dead.

h/t: Leo

On the trend to “depublish” books

June 8, 2021 • 9:15 am

A new article in the Guardian provides a useful summary—though not much new information—about how publishing companies are beginning to refuse to publish books, or are pressured to refuse them, that are written by the Unsavory, with that group generally determined not by the older editors but by younger workers at publishing houses. Click on the screenshot to read:


Here are some canceled books, books published over staff objection, or authors who refused to publish with companies that put out books by the Unsavory.  I don’t by any means agree that all these books should have been published, but in general I think that a good publisher will put out a range of topics and views, some of which they don’t agree with. There is no right of “free speech” when it comes to publishing manuscripts, but in general if a book is interesting and will stimulate discussion, and will sell at least reasonably well, it should be published. Many publishers put out books they know won’t recoup the advances as a public service, hoping that the big best sellers will compensate for the losses.

  • Milo Yiannopoulos’s book dropped by Simon & Schuster
  • Simon & Schuster agree to publish Mike Pence’s book over staff objections
  • Ronan Farrow stopped publishing with Hachette when the company announced it would publish Woody Allen’s memoirs (they were later picked up by another company)
  • Hachette’s impritng Little, Brown canceled a contract with Julie Burchill (the cause: her “Islamophobic tweets”)

Here are a few quotes from the article that I found intriguing:

First, how the system usually works, as described by an anonymous junior editor:

“Editors have the privilege of predominantly working on books that they have chosen – if they’re doing their job properly, they should feel confident in their acquisition. Assistant editors and editorial assistants don’t often have that privilege,” she says. “There’s a difference between working on a book that you think is a bit rubbish and working on a book that you find repulsive, that makes you angry, or genuinely upsets you. This framing of ‘young people should work on books that they hate’ seems so stupid and reductive to me. Do we just have to wait for all the people making dodgy editorial decisions with no integrity to retire?”

Another junior staffer said they were “slightly bemused by the fact that freedom of speech is so often being equated with the right to a book contract”, adding: “Those in senior positions are forgetting that there is surely a duty of care to their staff that must be considered when asking them to work on books by authors with views that might potentially directly oppose their identity and existence”.

My response would be that, as a junior editor, you always have the right to point out what you consider offensive to your boss. But your boss makes the decision, and if you are so hurt by the “violence” of a proposed book, you should work for another publisher.

And some changes about what is considered offensive:

The truth is, publishers have always walked this tightrope. “Publishers, while knowing that controversy sells, have always exercised the right to reject problematic books,” says Rupert Heath of Dean Street Press, pointing to “innumerable cases of publishers refusing to publish a book, from Schuster with Sheer, to HarperCollins cancelling Chris Patten’s contract over his book’s anti-China line in 1998, at a time when Murdoch was seeking a deal in China. In a recent episode of her podcast, founder Suzanne Collier recalled working in a junior sales role on David Hamilton’s 1995 controversial photography book, The Age of Innocence. Collier and other staff raised concerns with management over the age of girls included in the book, but the book was still published.

But social media means concerned voices can be louder, and can find strength in numbers through petitions and open letters. “This has always been around, but I believe it’s grown in visibility,” Collier says.

Heath agrees: “The big difference we see now is in publishing staff, in many cases relatively junior staff, trying to dictate company policy, using their influence to block the publication of books already commissioned by their own firms – this is something, as far as I know, without long-term precedent in publishing history.”

The Pence memoir, Heath believes, “will be an important test case – if it is withdrawn, it could open the floodgates for similar action. And in the wake of BLM, #MeToo and other recent, empowering social movements, publishing executives may increasingly feel it behoves them to fall into line with the wishes of their staff.”

Much as I don’t want to read Pence’s memoirs, and won’t, I think they should be published for the historical record. After all, they’re still publishing Mein Kampf, even in Germany, for similar reasons. It would be sad if senior editors started capitulating to their offended or woke staff, for that would lead to the homogenization of literature ( most publishing staff are liberals).


h/t: Ginger K.

Pence book deal opposed by Simon & Schuster employees, company tells protestors to get stuffed

May 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

There are three reasons for publishing companies to put out books by political or public figures who are widely disliked. The first is that these figures may have something to say that illuminates history or other areas, regardless of who they are. Mein Kampf is such an example, for it pretty much laid out the political agenda that Hitler later enacted.

Second, these books are often big sellers, bringing in profits that allow companies to publish substantial books that may not sell as well. Many companies are committed to publishing books that they know won’t turn a profit, because they’re proud of bringing out good work. One of these companies is my own publisher, Viking/Penguin/Random House.

And not least important is freedom of the press. People should be allowed access to books written by people who are widely hated. How else can we see what they really believe (or say they believe)?  While rejection of a book by a publisher doesn’t violate the First Amendment, many publishers are deeply committed to free discussion, and enact that view by publishing books on a wide and diverse range of topics.

All of these reasons apply to Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish the two-voume memoirs of former VP Mike Pence. The reaction, which is more or less what you might expect, is described in this Wall Street Journal Article (click on screenshot).

I mentioned this in April, but there’s more now.

Of course there was an immediate petition, signed by over 200 members of the staff (14% of the total) along with 3,500 other outraged people, all demanding that the memoir deal be canceled.  An earlier WSJ article gave some content of the petition:

The petition accused Mr. Pence of advocating for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory toward LGBT people, among other criticisms of his tenure as a public official. The petition also calls on Simon & Schuster to cut off a distribution relationship with Post Hill Press, a publisher of conservative books as well as business and pop culture titles.

And this article adds a bit more:

Publishing the book, some staffers said at the session, would be a betrayal of the company’s promises to oppose bigotry and make minority employees feel safe.

It is the familiar argument that publishing memoirs like this makes employees feel “unsafe” that make me think those employees are, well, lying. It is surely, at least in large part, pretend harm and pretend “unsafeness.” Seriously, can you imagine any employee coming to work the day after Pence’s memoirs come out, crying and shaking at their desks? Unsafe? Unsafe how, exactly.

There’s a bit more.

It said Mr. Pence advocated for policies that were racist, sexist and discriminatory, and that publishing the book would be “legitimizing bigotry.”

No, because publication of a book by a reputable press does not equate to endorsement of what’s in the book (and at any rate this book will be fact-checked).

To the credit of the company, its CEO, Jonathan Karp, pushed back and refused to cancel the deal:

In an interview, Mr. Karp said he respects that some employees have a moral objection to the memoir deal, but that the company is committed to publishing a broad range of views. “We don’t want to be a niche publisher,” he said. “The former vice president who got 74 million votes is representative of a broad range of people.”

He said Mr. Pence’s role in one of the most tumultuous periods of U.S. history will make for compelling reading. More broadly, he said, the publisher can treat its employees with respect and also publish authors with views they find anathema. “Those two realities don’t have to be in conflict,” he said.

And that is true, but the protesting chowderheads seem to be oblivious to the point. What they want, pure and simple, is censorship: they want NOBODY to publish Pence’s memoirs because they supposedly “legitimize” his views. This is what I mean when I call such people the Authoritarian Left.

Thank Ceiling Cat for publishers like Karp who have principles (and of course there’s also a bottom line to consider), and who refuse to cave in to employees on the specious grounds that a publisher tacitly agrees with the content of all the books it publishes. I have news for you: most publishers want quality books and books that sell, and aren’t trying to propagandize the public.

h/t: Ginger K.

Christopher Hitchens’s widow and agent ask friends and associates not to cooperate in a new biography of Christopher

February 6, 2021 • 1:15 pm

According to the NYT article below (click on screenshot), both Christopher Hitchens’s widow Carol Blue-Hitchens, as well as his literary agent Steve Wasserman, are urging their friends and family not to cooperate with Stephen Phillips in his new project: a biography of Christopher Hitchens.

The biography, not yet written but snapped up by W. W. Norton, is tentatively called Pamphleteer: The Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens. Now I object to the title “Pamphleteer”, as Hitchens was far more than that (it’s even a bit pejorative), as well as “The Life and Times” of Christopher Hitchens, for the “Times” are relevant only in terms of the “Life”. In other words, the subtitle is trite.

But I have no objections to people doing biographies of Hitchens. Carol Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman do, however—apparently because they read the book’s prospectus.

“We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher,” they wrote in an email, which The New York Times reviewed. “We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton.”

It is not uncommon for family members to feel protective of a loved one’s memory, particularly when approached by a biographer. But circulating a letter encouraging others to rebuff the writer has struck some in literary and publishing circles as unusual, especially given Hitchens’s confrontational stance on topics such as atheismthe Iraq war and whether women are funny.

Here’s the email they sent, reproduced in The Nation‘s piece mentioned below:

Now I have no way of knowing what was in the prospectus, but it must have struck the two as a some kind of hit job. To me, that notion is substantiated by the reaction of Christopher’s brother:

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, and a journalist and author himself, said that he has spoken with Phillips for the project. He said that he received an email from Wasserman about it but saw no harm in cooperating.

“My view has been for a long time that there ought to be a biography,” he said. “And as far as I can tell, this guy seems to be a straightforward person with a good record as a writer, intelligent, knowledgeable. Why not him?”

The two brothers didn’t like each other at all (the NYT might have noted that!), and the rush to approbation by Peter makes me suspicious.

Still, there should be a biography. The only existing one, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by Larry Alex Taunton, which I read, was simply a slimy attempt to claim that Hitchens was growing soft on religion and in fact thinking of converting to Christianity on his deathbed (see here, here, and here for some people’s takes). Perhaps Taunton’s pabulum made Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman wary of yet another attempt at a biography. But Phillips is not Taunton, who was a believer.

Nevertheless, there may be facts about Hitchens that his wife and agent aren’t keen to have come to light. Hitchens had a big-time libido, and had affairs with both men and women; perhaps they’re worried about that. I wouldn’t, but I met the man only once and was never part of his inner circle, much less his family.

Hitchens’s family and agent have every right to object to a proposed biography, and every right to proselytize Hitchens’s friends against cooperating with its author. And those friends can make their own decisions. Still, I like to think that Hitchens, contrarian and dirt-digger that he was (viz., Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger), would bridle at the desire to have his biography vetted by his family. I’d like to think that he’d say, “Let a hundred biographies flower.” But it’s true that non-cooperation by the people who knew Hitchens best, like Martin Amis, would make for a much poorer biography. One thing is for sure: there won’t be many biographies, so we need assurance that this one will be a decent one, and won’t be written with an agenda.

Over at The Nation, David Nasow argues that there should be no prior restraint like that given in the email above (click on screenshot):

Nasaw admits that any biography will show but a few facets of someone’s life, particularly someone as multifaceted as Hitchens. But he argues that the email above is akin to censorship:

What we can infer from [Blue-Hitchens’s and Wasserman’s] refusal to cooperate with or respond to the “entreaties” of this “self-appointed” biographer and his publisher, W.W. Norton, is that they prefer a biographer who has been appointed, no doubt by them. In publicly discouraging the publication of a book that has not yet been written because they do not think much of the proposal, they are playing a zero-sum game. Either they will succeed in dissuading Phillips and Norton from moving forward or, more likely, the biography will be published and the publicity generated by their opposition will create the sort of buzz that marketers dream of.

The larger question is not whether they are acting judiciously, but whether their actions—and similar ones by other executors—do a disservice to those of us who wish the historical record to be as close to complete, as complex, as stirred-up and muddied as possible.

. . .Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

Now I don’t infer, as does Nasaw, that the family and agent want an “approved” biography.  Before I’d conclude that, I’d like to see the book’s prospectus. And I can’t find out much about what Phillips himself has written.  To me, the whole tempest rests on what was in the proposal that put off Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman. And we’ll never know about that.

Publishers’ and authors’ manifesto: We won’t publish books by people who were in the Trump administration

January 19, 2021 • 9:00 am

Regardless of what you think about canceling book deals with those Republicans who urged an audit of the election—as Simon and Schuster did with Josh Hawley’s book (now picked up by Regnery)— surely most readers can’t agree with the letter below, which says that no publisher should put out books by anyone considered part of the Trump administration. (That also holds for those who stormed the capitol, whether or not they were arrested.)

At least that’s the way I interpret the letter, which is genuine and appeared on the website of Barry Lyga, an author of books for young adults(click on screenshot). Lyga, who did not sign the letter, titled his post “No book deals for traitors“, and I presume is opposed to the letter. But it’s already been signed by more than 500 authors, agents, and people who work in publishing; and miscreants are still signing on here. (Click on screenshot to enlarge.)

As I’ve said repeatedly, while publishers have the right to publish whatever books they want, and can reject books based on not just their content but their authors, this is completely unwarranted censorship of authors based on their politics. It means, of course, that not only do the signers oppose publishes accepting Trump’s memoirs, but books by anyone who was part of his administration, including Robert Mueller, Nikki Haley, Anthony Fauci (who did not “scoff at science”), Ben Carson, James Mattis, and so on.And not just books about Trump—books about anything.  (Don’t forget that Obama’s administration also “caged children” as well as killing civilians with drones.)

And it assumes that anybody who worked for the Trump administration agreed with all its policies, which is simply a lie.

This is an attempt to censor works by people who have political opinions different from yours. It is an attempt to silence those who disagree with you and to suppress their views. Beside that, it’s an attempt to punish people for being on the “wrong” side politically. Yet think of all the people who worked in the Trump administration and weren’t big fans of his. Some of these people, or even the “criminals” more closely aligned with Trump, may have worthwhile things to say and to hear.

The 500+ signers of the letter don’t want to hear them, though—indeed, they don’t want anybody to hear them!

This is an example of Woke Fascism: the worst behavior of the Authoritarian Left. They call anyone associated with the Trump administration a criminal, for those who were part of the administration are accused of “enabling, promulgating, and covering up crimes.” Talk about hyperbole!

I won’t reproduce the list of signers (I don’t recognize any of them), but here are some of the houses with Pecksniffian editors and employees. I’ll stop at the J’s:

Jessica Awad (Media Assistant Editor, W. W. Norton & Company)
Kat Bennett (Senior Cartographer, Hachette Book Group)
Rachel Blaifeder (Editor, Cambridge University Press)
Sam Brody (Editorial Assistant at Hachette Book Group)
Megan Carr (Senior Sales Support Associate, HarperCollins Publishers)
Henna Cho (Digital Sales Associate (SImon & Schuster))
Angelica Chong (Editorial Assistant, Macmillan
Mia Council (Assistant editor, Penguin Random House)—MY PUBLISHER!
Michella Domenici (Springer Nature)Rachel Dugan (Publicity Assistant, Penguin Random House)  ANOTHER!
Carl Engle-Laird (Editor, Macmillan)
Leah Gordon (Senior editor, Avalon Travel, an imprint of Hachette Book Group)
Sarah Grill (Associate Editor, Macmillan)
Stephanie Guerdan (Assistant Editor, HarperCollins)
Sarah Homer (Assistant Editor, HarperCollins Publishers)
Madeline Houpt (Editorial Assistant, Macmillan)

I’ll stop now, but have to add that these people do not deserve their jobs in publishing—not when they decide to reject in advance books by anyone who was in the Trump administration. This bodes ill for the future of publishing, for these are reputable houses, and they control a lot of books who go to the public. It’s a metastasis of the cancer of Wokeism.

And if you respond, “Tough. These editors and authors did the right thing in trying to silence Republicans,” then I have no use for you. And I have only marginally more use for those who say, “Nobody’s entitled to a book deal; publishers are doing the right thing by ruling out a priori books by any of these people.” That is an extraordinarily punitive and close-minded point of view.

h/t: cesar

Book by election-questioning Republican Josh Hawley canceled by Simon & Schuster

January 8, 2021 • 9:30 am

Which is worse, a Democrat accused of pedophilia or a Republican Senator questioning Biden’s victory? I ask because those of you who thought that Hachette’s cancelation of the book deal it made for Woody Allen’s memoirs—a cancelation I thought was bad form, as the publisher caved to its employees, and of course there was no evidence for the accusations against Allen—might ask yourself the same question about Simon & Schuster’s new cancelation of an upcoming book by Josh Hawley.

Yes, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) was one of those morons who was going to officially call for an audit of the election this week.  That was unconscionable, and made doubly bad by this report, taken from Wikipedia:

Before the counting of the votes, to which Hawley had publicly announced he would object, he saluted the protestors and rioters with a fist pump as he walked outside the Capitol.

Nevertheless, does he bear responsibility for what happened at the Capitol two days ago? I would be reluctant to ascribe to him responsibility for those attacks, for I hold Trump (and the protestors themselves) responsible. Trump incited the violence, not Hawley or the other 12 misguided Senators. You can say, well, their actions helped fire up the protestors, but so did a lot of other Republican actions. This was a long time in the making, and the fomenting of Republican ire was done by many.

Nevertheless, Simon & Schuster, clearly objecting to Hawley’s actions and his politics, have canceled plans for his new book, which wasn’t really about politics but the tech industry. The New York Times has an article about the cancelation (click on screenshot):

Just a few quotes and I’ll sum up:

Simon & Schuster said on Thursday that it would cancel the publication of an upcoming book by Senator Josh Hawley, one of several members of Congress who tried to overturn the results of the presidential election.

Mr. Hawley, a Missouri Republican and Trump ally, has been criticized for challenging the results and accused of helping incite the mob that stormed the Capitol on Wednesday. His book, “The Tyranny of Big Tech,” was scheduled to be published in June.

“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Simon & Schuster said in a statement. “As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: At the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat.”

But his role, misguided as it was, was legal, and within the bounds of the Constitution. This leads to the question, which the Times poses, of the role of publishers in an America sharply divided along political lines. Books by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Donald Trump Jr. (Hachette author), Sean Hannity (and you could argue that he helped work up Republicans), and Tucker Carlson (ditto) have been published by major houses, and ten to one somebody will snap up Trump’s ghostwritten memoirs, Triumphs of the Ill, after he leaves office. (Yes, I made up the title.)

The Times reports as well that “the escalation of the rhetoric from the president and some of his supporters in recent weeks has likely changed the calculus for editors and publishers who are wary of provoking a backlash from readers and employees.” In other words, they lack spine. But the job of all good publishers—except for religious and explicitly political ones—is not just to make money or push a favored ideology, for most of them know that most of their books won’t turn a profit. Many publishers and editors simply love books because they love speech, discussion, and ideas. Further, as I said, Hawley’s book wasn’t about politics, so he’s being punished for his political beliefs and actions:

The subject of Mr. Hawley’s book, which was already available for preorder on Amazon and other retailers, is not about the election or Mr. Trump, but about technology corporations like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Does what Hawley think still deserve to be heard after what he did? Yes, I think so, though I won’t read his book—the subject doesn’t interest me.

Of course Simon & Schuster have a right, or so I think, to cancel the book (it depends on what was in the book contract), but I don’t think they should have. Although convicted criminals can still publish books, even about their crimes, sometimes the law forbids them to profit from their crimes. That’s what happened with this book, written by O. J. Simpson (notice the small “if” in the title), who wasn’t convicted of murder but lost a civil suit (the $600,000 Simpson was reportedly paid went to the Goldman family).

So, much as I dislike Republicans and despise those who sought to overturn an already-certified election, I don’t call for all of their books to be canceled or rejected from now on. Publishers have the right to reject them—there’s no First Amendment right to have your book published—but it’s arrant cowardness, and against the unwritten code of good publishers, to cancel a book simply because you don’t like the politics of the authors.

If this is truly to be a time of healing, as Joe Biden emphasizes so often, we can’t continue to dehumanize our political opponents. Perhaps (and this may be likely) our reaching out may be sufficiently rebuffed that we can leave them alone completely. But we shouldn’t cancel their books, accost them in restaurants, or insult them in public. I think we should be better than that.

Abigail Shrier, whose book about overly hasty gender reassignment, Irreversible Damage, was also temporarily canceled by chain stores, had this to say:

Now I’m not sure about the legality of refusing these services to people whose politics you don’t like; it seems to me like illegal discrimination.  Lawyers should weigh in here. And, as I said, a publisher is under no obligation to publish a book by someone the editors don’t like. But if they deem the book worth publishing initially, which is decided when a contract is issued, then short of stuff like plagiarism or similar circumstances, the book still deserves to be published.

I’m sure others might object, but I don’t need a second; my own opinion is enough for me. (You know the rest. . .)

Is publishing Jordan Peterson an act of bigotry?

December 4, 2020 • 11:00 am

On November 25 I reported on a fracas at the publisher Penguin Random House Canada, where employees were outraged at the company’s decision to publish a sequel to Jordan Peterson’s 2018 best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosthe sequel being Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.  As I said, “It looks pretty much like what it purports to be: more self-help, more rules. It will be published in March of next year.”

The objection to the new book isn’t based on its contents but on Peterson’s published or spoken opinions on other subjects. From my previous post:

Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.

“He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him,” a junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who attended the town hall told VICE World News.

On Wednesday a writer in the Guardian came out justifying the employees’ beefs, and similar sentiments were echoed by bloggers like P. Z. Myers. Unfortunately, the article, like the critiques of Myers and the employees themselves, fails to distinguish between Peterson’s (supposed) bigotry expressed outside of the book, and what’s in the book itself.

The column is written by Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian writer (click on screenshot to see it):

First, we get an indictment of Peterson’s views. As I have stayed away from his writings and talks, for I think he’s weird and I haven’t been able to muster up interest in reading him, readers who know more about Peterson can judge these claims:

It’s not reasonable to claim that employees who object to publishing Peterson are “censorious”. A publisher is not a Kinkos. Penguin Random House rejects far more books than it accepts, and it does not treat all points of view equally. It does not publish works of Holocaust denial or phrenology. It has standards, and it’s reasonable for employees to argue that Peterson does not meet those standards. After all, he has suggested that gay marriage might be a plot by cultural Marxists, that women wearing makeup in the workplace is “sexually provocative”, that trans women aren’t women because they’re not “capable of having babies”, that women cannot handle truth, and that transgender activists are comparable to mass-murdering Maoists. He peddles debunked scientific theories and dangerously dodgy diets. I have gone through his work myself and shown that he is a crackpot, whose writing is devoid of basic reasoning and full of wild unsubstantiated claims. When Pankaj Mishra wrote a critical review of Peterson’s work in the New York Review of Books, Peterson called Mishra a “prick” and said he’d “slap [Mishra] happily”. The things he says are often false, prejudiced and dangerous. What possible obligation does a publisher have to publish the ravings of bigots?

I looked up only one of these accusations, the claim that Peterson thinks that “trans women aren’t women.” It goes to a YouTube video, and his views given there are distorted by Robinson, for Peterson’s careful to distinguish between biological women on the one hand and biological men who assume a woman’s gender identity (he avers that the latter must be treated with respect). But I can’t be arsed to investigate all of the other claims, as to me they’re irrelevant to his new book of advice.

A publisher has no obligation to publish anyone, but none of these opinions have anything to do, I suspect, with Peterson’s new book—likely, and like its antecedent, a combination of the anodyne and the clever.  Repeatedly throughout Robinson’s article, he conflates Peterson’s views listed above (if they’re fairly represented, which I doubt) with what’s actually in his new book. The implication is that if a Bad Person publishes a Potentially Good Book, that book should be rejected. Here’s what Robinson says:

Believing that a prestigious publisher should not give such a person a contract is not the same as believing that they should be punished for speaking, or that they should not have access to the internet, a printer, or the marketplace. It’s important to make this distinction clear, because many conservative claims about being “censored” actually just amount to demands that their opinions be elevated far beyond their worth – that evidence-free, bigoted speech be given any prestigious platform it demands, with criticism seen as proof that the critics are intolerant.

As I said, I highly doubt that the upcoming book “elevated Peterson’s [other] opinions far beyond their worth”. Robinson’s argument, similar to that of other Pecksniffian censors, is that a book that doesn’t contain the author’s noxious opinions somehow, by virtue of being published, gives the publisher’s imprimatur—and additional status—to the bad stuff expressed elsewhere. Robinson goes on:

There is no problem, then, with staff arguing that Peterson’s work is not worth the company’s imprimatur. The real problem is that this doesn’t happen enough, that publishers are amoral and bring out books on the basis of whether they will sell rather than whether they have social value. The staff revolt against Peterson is a very rare instance of a publishing company being criticized on moral grounds for its choices.

Granted, publishing is a company, and profit is one aim. And one has to admit that Peterson’s new book, like the last, is liable to make the company a substantial amount of money. But quality counts as well, for many publishers, like Penguin Random House (my own publisher) take pride in pushing good products. You would not, I suspect, find Penguin Random House publishing a Peterson book about how to use personal pronouns. Did the company lose any cachet by publishing Peterson’s first book? Not to sensible folks, and already in 2018 he was been typed by many as a Nonperson.  But wait! There’s more!

If book contracts are canceled, rightwingers will claim that they are being silenced for expressing “disagreement”, when the truth is that private parties are simply declining to financially reward noxious views.

No, the contract for Peterson’s book is not a financial reward for his noxious views; it is a financial advance for a self-help book that the publishers think is okay, that its ideas tempt an editor to engage with them, and, sometimes (not always) might sell well.

According to Robinson, canceling this book by refusing to publish it shouldn’t represent just a decision based on views in the book, but a punishment for views he expressed elsewhere. This is what Cancel Culture excels at: ruining every aspect of someone’s life if they don’t like that person’s views—even if the views have nothing to do with the object being censored. In fact, Robinson analogizes Peterson’s book with Henry Kissinger’s books, for Robinson (like Hitchens) sees Kissinger as a war criminal. I haven’t yet read Hitchens’s book, but I suspect that Kissinger truly was guilty of deeply immoral actions during his tenure as Secretary of State. But does that make his memoirs not worth reading? I don’t think so: one can gain some insight into the inside baseball of statesmanship (and into Kissinger’s own actions), and one important person’s view of history. It would be a loss to history, regardless of any of Kissinger’s distortions or self-aggrandizement, if his view of history were not to be published. He was a major player in his time.

The final conflation: Robinson brings up his own journal, Current Affairs:

If Jordan Peterson or Henry Kissinger submitted an essay, it would be rejected. And yes, it would be because we “disagreed” with the opinion – we don’t publish arguments we find morally debased and poorly reasoned, by people whose views we do not wish to promote as sensible and worth listening to. I’ll fight for the free speech rights of both men, but nobody has a human right to a lucrative book contract without regard for whether their opinions are sound or valuable.

Note that Robinson says he would reject the essay because he disagreed with the opinion, but then adds, as an afterthought, that another consideration should be that the publisher, by virtue of publishing a book, implicitly promotes all the author’s other views. But they wouldn’t be doing that: an essay is an essay, and the opinions in the essay can be judged on their own merit.

Publishing a book by people whose views you don’t like, but views that aren’t in the book, is no different from putting out a movie starring an actor who also has odious views. There are plenty of those! And there are plenty of books written by people whose views you may abhor. Christian fundamentalists or even middle-of-the-road religionists may find my book on evolution, or the one on the incompatibility of science and religion, offensive and disagreeable. Should Penguin Random House then not publish any of my books? I also criticize the Woke and the far Left on this site. Does that render me offensive and not worthy of being published?

It would—to some editors. But has Robinson considered that there may be some editors out there who like some of Peterson’s opinions that offend other people? Are his views on not wanting to be coerced to use preferred pronouns (though he uses them voluntarily), or on trans women being biological men with a woman’s gender identity, objectively immoral?  Publishers may have standards, but they don’t all have values or missions that conform to Robinson’s. That’s the way publishing works. And his essay shows the modus operandus of Cancel Culture: if someone’s ideological views don’t align perfectly with your own, try to destroy those people in every way possible. For the Woke, it is the person—and not just their ideas—who must be taken down and “erased”.

Woody Allen memoir finally published

March 23, 2020 • 12:45 pm

After Woody Allen and his memoir, Apropos of Nothing, were cast adrift by Hachette Publishing after an employee walkout and the loss of their author Ronan Farrow, the memoir has been acquired and will be published by Arcade Publishing, according to this announcement by Publisher’s Weekly (click on screenshot). In fact, the book was released today:

A bit of the PW report (I’ve left out the bit about accused sexual misconduct that I’ve discussed before):

After the acquisition of filmmaker Woody Allen’s memoir by Grand Central Publishing led to protests at the imprint as well as at parent company Hachette Book Group, the book has a new home. Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, announced that it has acquired world rights to the title, Apropos of Nothing, and has released it in the U.S. today.

Speaking to the title, Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, said it is “a candid and comprehensive personal account by Woody Allen of his life, ranging from his childhood in Brooklyn through his acclaimed career in film, theater, television, print and standup comedy, as well as exploring his relationships with family and friends.”

From Vox:

As part of that cancellation, Hachette reverted all rights over the book to Allen. That meant he was free to sell the book to any other publisher, and now he has. Apropos of Nothing has gone to Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

Unlike Hachette, Skyhorse is not one of the so-called “Big Five” houses that dominate US trade publishing. It’s a smaller independent house that has published plenty of legitimate authors, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, but also has a history of publishing conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination and vaccines. Skyhorse has also worked with Allen before: In 2011, he wrote the introduction to director Ingmar Bergman’s memoir, published through Skyhorse.

In a statement to the AP, Arcade editor Jeannette Seaver said: “In this strange time, when truth is too often dismissed as ‘fake news,’ we as publishers prefer to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him.”

The AP appears to be the only outlet that has been able to see a copy of Allen’s memoir thus far. In the book, the AP reports, Allen continues to deny ever harming Dylan Farrow. He writes that he “never laid a finger on Dylan, never did anything to her that could be even misconstrued as abusing her; it was a total fabrication from start to finish.”

And there’s a bit more about the contents from (ugh) HuffPo, which is the only place I’ve found this (I didn’t look hard):

“Apropos of Nothing” begins in the wry tone of such literary heroes as J.D. Salinger and George S. Kaufman, describing his New York City upbringing and love affairs with Diane Keaton and others with a sense of nostalgia and angst that also mirrors Allen movies ranging from “Radio Days” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” to “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” But it darkens and becomes defensive, not surprisingly, as he recalls his relationship with Mia Farrow and the allegations he abused daughter Dylan Farrow that for many have come to define his public image in recent years.

He was with Mia Farrow for more than a decade, and recalls happy times with the “very, very beautiful” actress that would cool over the years, especially after the 1987 birth of their one biological child, Ronan (named Satchel at birth). As he has alleged before, he and Farrow were essentially apart by the time he began dating her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, more than 30 years younger than him, in the early 1990s. “At the very early stages of our new relationship, when lust reigns supreme … we couldn’t keep our hands off each other,” he writes of Previn, whom he married in 1997 and to whom he dedicates the book.

Recalling the day Farrow learned of the affair, after discovering erotic photographs of her twenty-something daughter at Allen’s apartment, Allen writes: “Of course I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything. It was the correct reaction.” But he also expresses no regret over he and Previn becoming lovers.

“Sometimes, when the going got rough and I was maligned everywhere, I was asked if I had known the outcome, do I ever wish I never took up with Soon-Yi?” he writes. “I always answered I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

I’ve found the Arcade version on Amazon, but only in the large-print edition (it costs $40). There’s an extract on the Amazon site as well.

As I’ve said several times before, Allen deserves to have his say, and Hachette acted badly by first acquiring the book, defending Allen against his critics, and then instantly caving in to social-media and mob pressure. It was, in effect, an act of censorship. At least it will be available now (I’m betting that some woke bookstores won’t carry it), and the market can vote, though I wouldn’t trust the Amazon reviews, which will be highly conditioned by whether people think Allen is innocent or guilty of sexual misconduct.