Political Books: PEN America’s Suzanne Nossel ‘Dares To Speak’

In News by Porter Anderson

From the leadership of PEN America, a forthcoming HarperCollins release enters the summer’s fray of free-speech debates amid charges of suppression and ‘cancel culture.’

Image – iStockphoto: Inside Creative House

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘The Rules That Will Govern Speech’
With a release date Tuesday (July 28), Dare To Speak: Defending Free Speech for All (HarperCollins/Dey Street Books) is by Suzanne Nossel—currently the CEO of PEN America and a previous COO of Human Rights Watch and executive director of Amnesty International USA.

A Harvard Law School graduate who held State Department posts in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, Nossel enters this politically charged summer’s lineup in the right sector: nonfiction, and focused on the underlying issue behind “cancel culture.”

If you’ve mentioned the wearing of masks in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic to someone of particularly strong feelings on the matter, you may have experienced one hot-button route to a little “cancellation.”

In essence on the broader scale, however, much of the debate of the day revolves around what some perceive to be an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” as it was described in the July 7 open letter published by Harper’s Magazine. Many leading authors including Margaret Atwood, Anne Applebaum, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Khaled Kalifa signed the letter, which was led by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

While praising the recent “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” the letter warned against letting “resistance harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting.” Those who signed the piece pointed to “greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.” And that’s self-censorship, a real and present danger.

Another letter then followed at The Objective, this time from writers who cast the first piece’s signatories as a kind of establishment class of well-paid pundits who risk little in expressing their views with elite authority. “Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas,” reads the second letter about the first, “the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.

“There are only so many outlets, and while these individuals have the ability to write in them, they have no intention of sharing that space or acknowledging their role in perpetuating a culture of fear and silence among writers who, for the most part, do not look like the majority of the signatories.”

It’s a thorny discussion, with “cancel culture” veering close to “political correctness” for some—and not for others—and one that Nossel seems to approach in her book, described as being about “a time when free speech is often pitted against other progressive axioms—namely diversity and equality.”

Needless to say, the speed and force with which social media polarization can gather around any comment, image, or concept is its own dilemma, one that often hustles engaged users past what should have been a period of review, thought, assessment, and decision and depositing everyone in a heap of knee-jerk responses to only partially understood points.

If anything, the industry and culture of books is in a good position to demonstrate through its own output the values of the indispensable requirement of the freedom to publish. And however important it is to speed up traditional publishing amid the pace of contemporary debate, the inherent requirements of book preparation lie on the side of clearer thought and patient retort.

‘Those Who Remain Silent’

In her forthcoming book, Nossel, according to Harper’s promotional material, “warns against the increasingly fashionable embrace of expanded government and corporate controls over speech, warning that such strictures can reinforce the marginalization of lesser-heard voices. She argues that creating an open market of ideas demands aggressive steps to remedy exclusion and ensure equal participation.”

This, for people of the book publishing world is simply axiomatic, and there have been multiple if unwanted chances for the US industry in particular to demonstrate this during the several years of Donald Trump’s efforts to block publication titles that aren’t flattering to him, most recently, Mary Trump’s book, the record-selling Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.

And when it comes to authoritarianism and its dangers, Anne Applebaum’s just-released (July 21) Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism (Penguin Random House / Doubleday) is so clear in its picture of a fast evolution of otherwise liberal thinkers into “closet authoritarians” that she’s able to look at federal police actions during protests in cities like Portland and describe them as “performative authoritarianism”—a kind of pageant of tyrannical intervention, staged to gain favor with a political base.

What Applebaum wants to tell you is, “Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy.”

And in a copy provided to Publishing Perspectives of Nossel’s book, the urgency of the moment seems to be a point of agreement between her and Applebaum, as you can see in this passage from Dare To Speak:

Suzanne Nossel

“The rules that will govern speech in the 21st century are being written right now, formally and informally. European countries are experimenting with new constraints on speech, some of which would be unconstitutional in the United States, and others of which may warrant close scrutiny.

“Almost daily, social media companies roll out new guidelines and rule changes governing their platforms. Young people are forging new norms for discussing race, sex, and gender identity.

“Those who remain silent in the face of these debates cede the ground to those with the most extreme views and most self-serving motivations.”

Nossel organizes her conceptualization of the issue around 20 principles in four key areas:

  • When speaking
  • When listening
  • When debating free speech questions
  • When considering free speech-related policies

In a sense, Nossel has the instructional context to Applebaum’s analysis, and at a time when the market is buying nonfiction because a major election cycle and issue-driven dynamics are fueling free expression debate. The sheer density of chatter—as in dueling letters about commentary and intolerance—is sending consumers looking for guidance.

As more political releases line up in coronavirus-delayed release dates this year, watch for more sales action among them—and watch for the question of how comfortably they and their authors and publishers share the shelves of late summer. These questions of free expression and actual tolerance of it are headed for more stress tests, and soon.

Image – iStockphoto: Chaz Bharj

More from Publishing Perspectives on PEN America is here, more on political books is here, and more from us on nonfiction is here.

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.