The people have cancelled… there’s a new kind of censorship in town –

Covid-19 is playing havoc with the publishing schedule - Roddy Doyle, Ottessa Moshfegh and David Mitchell are just some of the bestselling writers whose book launches have been pushed back from spring to late summer or autumn. Online book sales have gone up during lockdown, but without tours, readings, signings and festivals, it's hard to get attention for new books. Come September, we'll be facing a glut of new titles in what is already the busiest publishing month in the calendar. Unless we're back in lockdown and the new releases are pushed back till next year...

The vista is gloomy for publishers and authors, unless you have a controversy on your hands. Turns out this is the perfect time to publish a 'cancelled' book, as independent US publisher, Arcade, demonstrated when they fast-tracked Woody Allen's memoir, Apropos of Nothing, for release on March 23. That memoir came with more baggage than a jet-setter. On March 2, Hachette announced that it had acquired the book and would be publishing in April. Cue a Twitter storm fuelled by two of Allen's children - Dylan Farrow, who accuses Allen of molesting her when she was a child; and Ronan Farrow, scourge of Harvey Weinstein, and stout defender of his sister's right to be believed. Farrow is also an Hachette author for his bestselling Weinstein expose, Catch and Kill.

Since the Farrows' position on Allen is long-established, Hachette had presumably factored in the backlash and decided to weather it. What they didn't factor in was a hundred or so of their employees striking in solidarity with Dylan and Ronan. This caused Hachette to cancel the memoir, just four days after they'd announced its acquisition. Stephen King tweeted that this made him "very uneasy. I don't give a damn about Woody Allen. It's who gets muzzled next that worries me".

Arcade, who have published Beckett, Tolstoy and Octavio Paz, spotted the chance to pick up a household name while standing up for freedom of speech, with founder Jeannette Seaver emphasising: "We as publishers prefer to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him." And they were lucky with timing - the memoir appeared the day after New York went into lockdown over coronavirus. No bookshops, signings, book tours or festivals, and no gatherings of more than four people, means no opportunities for protests and placards. The Twitter trolls who love to insult and threaten publishers and bookshops into cancelling tours and signings lost traction. Preventing a book being ordered online appears to be beyond their powers.


The religious right in the US tried to get JK Rowling's 'Harry Potter' series banned from libraries because of Satanism

Samir Hussein/WireImage

Flatiron, an imprint of Macmillan, may have looked on enviously. In January, they published Jeanine Cummins's migrant novel, American Dirt, initially to rave reviews and entry into Oprah's Book Club; then a savage online review by Mexican-American writer Myriam Gurba, entitled 'Pendeja [Bitch], You ain't no Steinbeck' went viral; the hashtag #culturalappropriation started trending; bookstores started cancelling signings and on January 29, Flatiron cancelled Cummins's national book tour and admitted "we made serious mistakes in the way we rolled out this book".

Cancel or gaslight? Censorship, in today's democracies, isn't a state instrument. It doesn't depend on a national censorship board like those that operated in Ireland and the USSR through the 20th Century. Now it's about particular groups coordinating protests to get books 'cancelled'. The 'no-platforming millenials' are one particularly vocal group. Another - diametrically opposed in their world view, and employing different methods, but identical in their aim, eg to stop us reading the books we might want to - are the religious right.

Every year since 2001, the American Library Association (ALA) has published its list of frequently challenged books - the ones that individuals, schools or churches try, with varying degrees of success, to get removed or restricted from libraries. The list demonstrates that millennials have no interest in influencing library reads, but it's the battleground for the religious right. Across the past two decades, almost all the challenged books are children's and YA (young adult) books.

At the start of the millennium, Harry Potter (reason: satanism/occult) and Catcher in the Rye (offensive language) were in the top 10 most challenged, but they've since been edged out by And Tango Makes Three (a picture book featuring a same-sex relationship), David Levithan's Two Boys Kissing (self-explanatory for some) and Alex Gino's George (includes a transgender character).

Since most schools and libraries resist removing the books, these efforts of parents and churches aren't greatly successful and are easy to mock as illiberal and anti-First Amendment rights. The same goes for millennials no-platforming, cancelling and trolling. Using death threats to get Cummins's book tour cancelled (Gurba also received death threats following her review) isn't a good look, and Farrow's show of muscle was a mistake. The accusation against Allen was investigated at the time. New York State child-welfare investigators found "no credible evidence" to support the allegation (although Justice Wilk refused to grant Allen custody), and the Farrow-Allen family rift predates the alleged incident.

Having taken sides so publicly (his mother's), Farrow, as a good journalist and lawyer, should have known to recuse himself. Censorship is never a good look. Whether it's the State operating a draconian censorship board, or the religious right trying to strong-arm libraries, or millennials taking to Twitter to 'cancel' and 'no-platform', the methods seem crude, and the aim ('we get to say what you read') offensive.


Stephen King has voiced his concern about 'cancel culture'

NY Daily News via Getty Images

Woke millenials are at their sophisticated best when they move away from no-platforming and start gaslighting. If you want to cancel a book, it's much smarter to undermine, than ban it. The aim is to pull off the trick of the tailors in the Emperor's New Clothes - eg make the reader doubt their own taste and opinions. The insults deployed in the Cummins row - 'cultural appropriation' and 'check your privilege' - are the perfect weapons to discombobulate the average novel-reader, so liberal, so middle-class and so desperate to be right-on (by the way, the furore didn't harm Cummins's sales - American Dirt is a bestseller in the US and Ireland - but her critics successfully changed the discourse so that the next person writing outside their cultural experience will find it harder to get published). In the same spirit, Ronan Farrow would have done better to give Woody enough rope - reviews are resoundingly hanging the memoir on its tone-deaf attitude to women.

Home fires

In Ireland, we don't need persuading that cancelling and no-platforming are counter-productive. Irish libraries don't publish lists of challenged books, but the memory of 20th Century State censorship has left us with little appetite for book banning. Liberals have a knee-jerk reaction and conservatives fear the backlash when the censor goes in too hard. It's now almost impossible to get a book banned in Ireland (the only one since 1998 is Jean Martin's astonishingly titled The Raped Little Runaway in 2016).

The books that have been most likely to stir controversy in Ireland in recent years are memoirs. In 2006, Kathy O'Beirne's siblings called a press conference to dispute her account of her upbringing in the bestselling Kathy's Story, in which she alleges an abusive home life, followed by further abuse in religious institutions. (The press conference was a familiar scenario, recalling Limerick DJ, Gerry Hannan's attack on the veracity of Frank McCourt's memoirs, Angela's Ashes, in two ripostes, Ashes and Tis In Me Ass). A journalist, Hermann Kelly, wrote a riposte, Kathy's Real Story, rejecting O'Beirne's version of events. However, O'Beirne's original publishers, Mainstream Publishing, stood by her robustly, as did her ghost-writer, Michael Sheridan. Her first (and only) book is still available on Amazon, without a disclaimer.

Can you 'cancel' memory? In 2005, Augusten Burroughs and his publisher, St Martin's Press, were sued in Massachusetts by the Turcotte family for "defamation, invasion of privacy and emotional distress" over their depiction in Burroughs' bestselling memoir, Running with Scissors. The case was settled for an undisclosed sum and Burroughs agreeing to recognise on the acknowledgements page that the Turcottes' "memories of the events described in this book are different than my own".

Also in 2005, there was uproar - played out on Oprah, of course - when James Frey was found to have fabricated sections of his bestselling addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces. His publishers, Random House, offered a refund to readers who had bought the book. The controversy put the onus on future US publishers to comprehensively fact-check all memoirs (a surely impossible task, recalling Lloyd's George's description of arguing with De Valera: like trying to pick up mercury with a fork).

Underlying neuroses

If you want to know what a society fears, look at what it seeks to restrict, ban or cancel. In the 20th Century, Soviet Russia banned, inter alia, Orwell's Animal Farm and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago; Ireland banned Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls and Marie Stopes's Married Love; Pakistan, India and most of the Middle East banned Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It's clear what each feared: politics, sex, and religion, respectively.

So what does the current situation with regard to cancelling/challenging books tell us about what our contemporary societies most fear? The answer is quite surprising - we seem to fear ambiguity and to crave absolute certainty. The religious right fears sexual and gender ambiguity and craves biological certainty; the woke no-platformers fear narrative ambiguity (only write what you know) and crave moral certainty (the Great Artist has to be a Good Person); and every reader who dishes out 15 for a memoir wants legal reassurance that it happened in just the way the author says it did.

But boys will be girls, great writers will be assholes, and memory will always play us false. Now that the world has gone so spectacularly beyond our control, we may as well relinquish the illusion that we have any control over the narrative. And if you're a publisher with a book that offends against absolute certainty and seems likely to provoke dissent, now is a good time to get it out. Coronavirus has cancelled the cancellers.

Sunday Indo Life Magazine

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