We don’t burn books anymore in America. And while some Kansas school school committee might ban “To Kill A Mockingbird” or another classic for some preposterous reason, our books are largely safe from the thought police.
Or are they?
We’re seeing a worrisome trend in which publishers are pressured to either pull books from publication or cancel book contracts because of accusations made against the authors. And publishers are caving in.
Historically, when books have been attacked, the assault has come from right-wing scolds. But this time the attacks are largely coming from the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, launched by people who would never imagine themselves as threats to free speech.
Their actions, however, are no less troubling than those that come from the extreme right.
W.W. Norton recently suspended publication of Blake Bailey’s much-ballyhooed biography of Philip Roth, the celebrated author of “Portnoy’s Complaint,” “The Human Stain” and “Goodbye Columbus,” among other works. The publisher also pulled a memoir by the literary biographer.
The action by W.W. Norton came in the wake of a string of accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior made by women who were students of Bailey when he was a teacher in New Orleans in the 1990s. Bailey denies the allegations and has not as yet been formally charged with any crimes. This story will play itself out in some fashion, but W. W. Norton has decided to pulp the “Philip Roth: The Biography” books, if it hasn’t already. That’s less inflammatory, so to speak, than building a bonfire with them, but the result is the same.
Over at Simon & Schuster, roughly 200 employees sent a petition to management demanding it cancel its two-book contract with former Vice President Mike Pence, accusing the publisher of legitimizing white supremacy and perpetuating racism. Mr. Pence, said the petition, “literally and figuratively has blood on its hands.”
The overwrought petition ignores the reality that the vice president was largely a cypher and in his favor did at least validate the election of Joe Biden on the evening of the Trump-inspired riot and insurrection. And regardless of the claims against Pence, he deserves his say. The petitioners further advocated prior censorship in demanding that the publisher not sign any book contracts with other Trump administration officials.
Those putting the heat on the publishers undoubtedly see themselves on the side of the angels, but they risk triggering a backlash that could impact their icons. Evidence, along with the statements of members of his inner circle, strongly indicates that the great civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was an adulterer. Does anyone want to witness a campaign by the morality cops to pressure weak-willed publishers into banning his writings? Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is seen as a socialist instigator by the political right. Anyone comfortable with both her biography and autobiography getting pulped as a result?
Publishers should publish and the marketplace should determine the fate of books. Readers uncomfortable with the allegations against Bailey or the politics of Pence can make themselves heard by keeping their wallets closed.
Book critics have weighed in with their belief that Bailey was too forgiving of Roth’s callous treatment of women in his book before it was pulled. Critics would call out any evidence of racism found in Pence’s books.
Columnists like The New York Times’ Gail Collins (frequently seen on The Eagle’s op-ed page), who regularly suffers through political books so we don’t have to, would skewer Pence if needed. Talk-show hosts and cable TV pundits are always eager to call out authors in need of a calling out.
The hasty shaming of authors and the prior censorship of authors whose views may be offensive to some are forms of a virus that could sicken the publishing world and deprive us of the insights and historical perspective a healthy society needs.
The nation won’t be hurt by publishing political propaganda or the words of a writer suspected of deviant behavior. It will be hurt by a self-righteous ideological war that clears bookshelves of anything that fails to pass a purity test.