Updated: Mar 8, 2021
"Authors, full of evil thoughts,
lock up your typewriters."
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
"I fear for the younger generation of writers," said Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, in a recent interview with the BBC. "I think I’m in a privileged and relatively protected position because I’m a very established author. I’m the age I am. I have a reputation. Perhaps it’s an illusion but I think I’m protected."
This past week the Dr. Suess estate pulled six books from publication, for images they supposedly deemed "racist" and "offensive." Some are lauding the decision. Others are wary. Still others are angry. I've seen some of the images in question and can say that yes, some could easily fit the definitions of at least the latter term. There are a handful that might make R. Crumb blush. Most could be lumped under the "culturally insensitive" umbrella—not quite racist (at least not under the dictionary definition), but definitely offensive. Some, like the alleged "Inuit fish," are a bit of a stretch.
It's entirely possible the estate thought this was the right decision for 2021. These books were written for impressionable children, and some of the images—not the ideas, I don't think—that are presented in these books are questionable for a modern audience, at the very least. But it's also not outside the realm of possibility that this was a cynical marketing ploy, cashing in on the zeitgeist à la a certain white-gloved cartoon mouse. A friend pointed out that it's likely not a coincidence the "recall" of these six books occurred on Seuss's birthday—thereby elevating the decision to a worldwide phenomenon, launching many of his still-available books to the top of the Amazon charts in protest and counter-protest.
(In a bizarre addition to this convoluted story, eBay has allegedly pulled down any listings of these books. Fortunately they still have copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf and Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" available for the truly discerning reader!)
This post isn't directly applicable to the Seuss situation as the "doctor" has been dead for quite some time. But in reference to it I've seen a lot of people bemoaning "cancel culture," and others—mostly writers, who seem to be the most ardent voices arguing against whether or not it exists, perhaps sincerely, perhaps out of fear themselves—responding that the books in question haven't been "cancelled." Whether "cancel culture" is a real thing or yet another media-manufactured bogeyman is maybe best saved for another post. The definition seems to change with whoever you ask. Frankly, I'm hesitant to call anything a "culture." I find the term as overused as "gate" is a suffix. I would say though, and George Orwell's beliefs and work seem to back me up here, that self-censoring due to external pressure (or perceived pressure) could easily be deemed a form of censorship.
Orwell once said: "The chief danger to freedom of thought and speech... is not the direct interference of any official body. Intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face.… The sinister fact about literary censorship... is that it is largely voluntary."
I've rarely felt the urge to self-censor in my writing (I'll sketch a few examples where I have later on), but I can see why some people would. There are many examples of internet call-outs, dogpiling, cancelled contracts and cut ties, particularly in the YA "community," where it seems as though an Ingsoc mentality of conformity is omnipresent and all-powerful. Where going against the "Party" lines of proscribed thought could, if not get you "cancelled," see your art and your character tarnished all over the internet and effectively banished from the "community."
"Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark,
without the need for any official ban." - Orwell
An example often brought up in defense of self-censorship, at least in the circles I run in, is Stephen King's early novel Rage. As a response to discovering a school shooter had possibly used his book as a manual in 1997, King decided to pull the book from the shelves. That's obviously his prerogative. It's his book, after all. But what if King hadn't already been a multimillionaire? Imagine this was King's first and only novel. Would he have been so quick to pull it? Could his career have survived if he had?
He said of Rage in his 2007 novel Blaze that it is, "Now out of print, and a good thing." But he must have thought the story was worthy of publication, at least until 1997 when he let it lapse. He certainly didn't need the money in 1985 when it was republished as part of The Bachman Books. So what is "good" about the book no longer in publication? Are his words so dangerous they needed to be self-censored? I read the book as a teen and I certainly didn't go on a killing spree. So did hundreds of thousands of others, no doubt. Is it not possible he instead set a bad—if well-intended—precedent by kowtowing to public pressure (or his own conscience)?
Take the case of Amélie Wen, who pulled her debut novel Blood Heir from publication due to overwhelming pressure from the YA crowd. Her novel was accused of "cultural appropriation" among other things, and targeted by a campaign of personal attacks under the guise of critique and abuse on Twitter and Goodreads.
Hers is not the only story like it. Kosoko Jackson, an author who'd been employed as a "sensitivity reader" for Big Five publishers, was on the firing end of Twitter mobbing before his own debut was taken to task by the same people he'd once aligned himself with. Because of the outrage, Jackson asked to have his book unpublished (apparently he was not required to pay back the advance he received, which seems odd). From the New York Times, no less: "(This) echoes previous scandals that have erupted in recent years over representation in children’s and young adult books, as publishers have had to delay, cancel and even withdraw and pulp books that became lightning rods for online criticism."
These books were both promoted as #ownvoices novels, a hashtag "attached approvingly to books in which the author shares a particular marginalized identity with his subject." (Slate, 2019) This is a recent trend in the publishing community, ostensibly to "improve diversity in writing." (Though not in the publishing houses, which still employ predominantly white women.) But if their books really were "own voices," as advertised, how could they be deemed inappropriate?
Wen's book was accused of being "anti-black" because it dared to depict slavery in an imaginary world—not because slavery is a taboo topic (as evidenced by many of last year's crop of acclaimed novels), but because it didn't depict it with an America-centric view. (A bright side to Wen's story is that she did eventually publish it, and now it's marketed as a trilogy.) In Jackson's case, he wrote a romance about two gay American boys (his own "marginalized identity"), but made the apparent offense of setting it against the backdrop of the Kosovo War, which was outside of his "lived experience." It had been said that he'd lived and died by the sword. Surely, as a former sensitivity reader, he could have heeded his own "stay in your lane" advice. His book remains unpublished.
"Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views," said Ishiguro.
"Right from an early age, I’ve written from the point of view of people very different from myself. My first novel was written from the point of view of a woman.” In the same interview he called for “a more open discussion” about "cancel culture" and freedom of speech, a concept which has been unfairly maligned in recent years after being co-opted by people whose intent seemed more to be the desire to spout nonsense than voice uncomfortable truths.
I wrote my most recent standalone novel, The Midwives, from multiple perspectives. Women and men of varying ages and different backgrounds. I never felt that I shouldn't write from a different perspective than mine: if we all had to write from our own perspectives all we'd have are autobiographies. But I will admit I was a tad worried about the novel's reception. Especially after a handful of reviews from some prior books alternately accusing me of being an "SJW cultist" and a member of the "alt-right." Empathy, imagination and research should suffice, in most cases. Where it doesn't, sensitivity readers can be employed. Though, as we see in Jackson and Wen's cases, even that might not be enough for the angry social media mob.
I was worried when I released my extremely transgressive novella Woom that I would face some sort of online backlash. I could easily have, if I'd written it in an exploitative fashion. The various repellent subjects, topics, taboos and variety of "voices" were certainly enough to label it as "one of the most offensive books ever," a summary I take as the compliment it's often meant to be, even when it's not. It was only my fourth published book and if it had been the focus of a concentrated online attack I'm not sure whether I would have defended it or run away with my tail between my legs. I can understand why Wen and Jackson decided to pull their books from publication. Though I do stand by my work.
Just because it was ostensibly their decision to pull the books, as it was in King's case, does that make the decision more palatable? Just because a company "owns" a piece of intellectual property and has the right to decide whether or not it's still worthy of publication, based on the content of the book or the creator's character (or the creator's past, which might be very different from their present), should the decision sit well with us? Should moral clauses be standard practice? Or should we look at them with distrust—particularly from major corporations whose own morality, past or present, might do well to be put under the microscope?
There's no doubt that a reckoning of a sort is at hand in the arts and entertainment industry. Some of it is clearly for the betterment of society. But with the good comes the bad, and just because some good is being done, doesn't mean we should feel afraid to call out the bad.
On Twitter, in particular, people have been given a "platform" in the "conversation" who might not have otherwise had their voices heard. This sort of power can be tantalizing—especially for young people, who've likely not had much experience wielding it—and easily abused. Tweets are presented as "truths" with very little if any scrutiny, even by the media, who often seem more eager to get the scoop and shape the narrative than report, you know, the news. It does seem in many cases that a "pick your battles" mentality should be followed.
In a world where careers live and die by the 24-hour news cycle, it can be difficult to know which opinion might violate taboo, what subject might be deemed "triggering," which line is uncrossable. The general consensus is "treat people with respect," which is a fine stance. But at what point does one person's respect violate another's? Do we then judge respect on a sliding scale of value? On which brand of moral superiority is currently trending?
What's worse? A society that censors? Or a society that pressures each other to self-censor, as corporations pit us against one another for their own gain? Is the latter not just as eerily similar to the "Thought Police" Orwell warned us of in Nineteen-Eighty-Four? Is a community policing one another's thoughts not insidious enough? Obviously state-sanctioned censorship is a more immediately threatening concept, but do we need to see a literal "boot stamping on a human face" before people recognize this trend toward censoring ourselves and each other as a dangerous and very—to use a phrase as unfairly besmirched as "free speech"—slippery slope?
"It didn't come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation and minority* pressure carried the trick, thank God." - Fahrenheit 451
(*"Minority" in the case of this book is explained to encompass "the dog lovers, the cat lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Broolkynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon and Mexico." No need to run to Twitter for an angry tirade against Bradbury, in other words.)
Look, I'm not personally fearful of this stuff for the moment. And maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill. But we have seen that this does happen, and at a frequent enough rate. People are losing their careers over nonsense. It's been happening for years. It's happening on both sides of the ideological divide, and it's furthering that divide on a daily basis. We shouldn't turn a blind eye to it just because it's not happening to us personally. You don't ignore a festering wound on the off chance it'll heal on its own.
A friend said to me recently: "Imagine there are a hundred people. Ninety-nine of the hundred are completely fine with something and only one person is offended. What do we do? Well, modern culture would dictate that absolutely we still have to respect the feelings and perspective of that one person. That that should never be diminished in importance just because they are outnumbered. And I’m fine with that. I would never try and 'talk someone out of' being offended and it pisses me off when I see people basically rolling their eyes and saying, 'Stop being so sensitive, you pussy.' But I’m also a firm believer of the notion that if there’s something in the room that bothers you, it’s your responsibility to remove yourself from the room, not to expect every room you walk into to change to suit your sensibilities. Imagine that scenario reversed. What if ninety-nine people are offended by something and there’s only one person who doesn’t care? Why, in that scenario do we squash that one person, flick them off the table and tell them to shut up?"
Even if one out of five dentists disagrees with the efficacy of a chewing gum, they still sell the gum. They leave it up to the consumer to decide whether or not that gum is right for them.
As for letting corporations decide what we can and can't read, watch or listen to, I'm very hesitant to let that argument slide. Whoopi Goldberg has been lobbying for some time for Disney to bring back its controversial film Song of the South, “So we can talk about what it was and where it came from and why it came out.” Essentially, to confront these issues rather than sweep them under the rug. Whether these pieces are being "canceled" or "recalled," they are effectively being flushed down the Memory Hole, erased from culture.
Like Ishiguro, I believe we need to be able to have frank dialogues about censorship and self-censorship without resorting to whataboutisms, name-calling and hiding behind respective ideologies. It's a topic that deserves nuanced conversation and one I've been meaning to ramble about for some time now. But to be honest, I'm more nervous about publishing this for fear of the comments it may receive than I've been in publishing any of my fiction. Have I deflated my own argument by admitting this? Maybe. Am I calling for an end to honest critique? Am I not taking it seriously enough? Have I aligned myself with "SJW cultists" or the "alt-right," or have I tread too fine a line, middle-grounding myself out of "intellectual cowardice"? You tell me.
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
"The Hollow Men," T.S. Eliot
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