In Harper’s Magazine this past week over 150 prominent intellectuals and bestselling authors, such as Malcolm Gladwell, J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky and others signed a letter that read in part,
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes….As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
The movement to silence authors who push back against the cancel culture orthodoxy gained steam about five years ago. The major bone of contention of the would-be censors was that authors were not staying in their lanes: a catchphrase that implies that authors should only write about their own cultures. Authors who disagreed inadvertently stumbled onto a landmine and were labeled as having white fragility. Gone are the days of imagination, creativity and—most importantly—understanding. Librarians agreed not to share these authors’ books. Agents agreed not to represent them. The most recent controversy involved Jeanine Cummins, author of American Dirt. The book’s publication triggered outrage and threats and Cummins’ book tour was cancelled. The publisher then issued an apology: “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.” One hundred and forty-two writers signed a petition, demanding that Oprah remove American Dirt from her book club. It stated:
As you might know by now, there has been a widespread outcry from many writers—including Mexican American and other Latinx writers and thinkers—about the lack of complexity of this immigration story, and the harm this book can and will do … This is not a letter calling for silencing, nor censoring … We are asking only that you remove the influential imprimatur of Oprah’s Book Club.
But how can an author tell where the boundaries of her lane are when that line keeps moving? Eventually, authors will be afraid to discuss anything publicly for fear that what is acceptable now won’t be acceptable tomorrow. Step out of line and you may be bullied into submission. Some authors might be brave enough to break ranks and speak up. But, unfortunately, publishing companies play a crucial role in silencing their authors. Many of the largest publishing companies have now inserted a morality clause into their contracts. This new clause all but guarantees that authors will dutifully parrot the thinking of the day. Variations of the morality clause popped up about several years ago, right after the Milo Yiannopoulos debacle, when his book Dangerous was withdrawn by Simon & Schuster. Publishers Weekly commented:
Until recently, the term ‘moral turpitude’ is not one that crossed the lips of too many people in book publishing. But Bill O’Reilly, Milo Yiannopoulos, Sherman Alexie, Jay Asher, and James Dashner changed all that…. A legal term that refers to behavior generally considered unacceptable in a given community, moral turpitude is something publishers rarely worried themselves about. No longer.
Here is an excerpt of a morality clause:
In the event that Author is publicly accused … of libel, slander, or defamatory conduct, or any other conduct that subjects, or could be reasonably anticipated to subject Author or Publisher to ridicule, contempt, scorn, hatred, or censure by the general public or which is likely to materially diminish the sales of the Work, Publisher shall have the option … to give the Author a notice in writing terminating this Agreement, and in such event the Publisher may then recover and the Author shall repay on demand all unrecouped amounts advanced to the Author.
This means that, if an author is bullied online—even if there’s no proof that the bullies’ claims are true, the publisher can drop the author and the author must repay the advance, which by that time has probably already been spent. These clauses place a rather snug muzzle on authors. Where were the bestselling authors when these clauses were written into book contracts? It would have been easy to force publishers to remove the clause if every bestselling author and top literary agency had simply said No. We’re not signing. If an author has enough clout, he or she could pressure the publisher’s attorney to modify the clause or remove it completely. Most midlist authors do not have that power. So why didn’t agents push back? Possibly because it in their best interests to let the clause remain. Just as it can be politically expedient for a publisher to drop an author, the same is true of an agency. Without an agent, a writer can’t get published since unsolicited manuscripts are very rarely accepted nowadays. This desire to rid the world of toxic authors has already affected some, like Jay Asher, author of 13 Reasons Why (now a popular Netflix series), whose agent and Netflix both dropped him like a hot potato. Junot Díaz, James Dashner, Sherman Alexie and many others were condemned during the height of the #MeToo movement—not in a court of law but in the court of public opinion. For more on this, read the comments section of this article in the School Library Journal, called “Children’s Publishing Reckons with Sexual Harassment in Its Ranks.”
Most authors have simply dutifully stayed in their lanes, but some have even participated in campaigns to shut other people up. Some of the biggest bullies are also the biggest hypocrites. Authors have clearly noticed that this tactic works and begun shaming campaigns in an effort to detract attention from their own cultural appropriation sins. Over this past year, the shaming has decreased—but only because most authors, editors and agents have shut up and done as they’re told. The new rule is that if a white author pitches a story with an Asian, black or Latino main character, the agent and editor are to give it a hard pass.
Self-made billionaire J. K. Rowling recently spoke her mind in an open letter about transgender activism and has now been labeled transphobic in response. Obviously, Rowling’s wealth gives her the freedom to speak out, though the psychological toll of having become one of the most hated women in Britain must be high.
Soon after Rowling’s letter was posted, Harper’s Magazine published their article opposing cancel culture. One might have thought that this letter could have signalled a return to freedom of expression. Unfortunately, several of those who signed have already scrambled to apologize.
I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.
The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
The Objective has since published a response: “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by 164 people, almost entirely media journalists from outlets like NBC, NPR, the Hill, the New York Times, the Huffington Post and Vice. It argues:
The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country … The letter [in Harper’s Magazine] reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry—one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry.
This misses the point. The privileged individuals in the Harper’s letter were attempting to speak for the rest of us, who are far less privileged and are most definitely being silenced. Thanks to the recent censorship tactics, we may not have literature that allows authors to explore other cultures, perspectives and ideas for a long time into the future. As Orwell has written: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” I think most of us know that we’re losing our liberties, losing what makes us human: the freedom to make mistakes and to empathize with others. As result, we are likely to become more divided than ever.
Image by Fred Kearney