Beyond Book Banning: PEN America Warns of ‘Booklash’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

A ‘cancel culture’ in some quarters, review-bombing, and claims of ‘offense’ as harm: PEN sees publishing ‘at a crossroads’ – frequently pressured by demands that come from within the industry itself.

Punishing and at times generational, ‘social-media outrage has impacted the book review process,’ according to PEN America’s ‘booklash report. Image -Getty iStockphoto: Moore Media

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

See also: A ‘Freedom to Read’ Campaign Amid US Censorship

‘Imposing New Moral Litmus Tests on Books and Authors’
Among many stressors affecting publishers in world markets today, the impact of political pressure, often delivered on various social media, can be among the most potent.

PEN America‘s report, issued this morning in New York City (August 7), starts the week off with a stark “warning against canceling books because of outrage.”

PEN uses the term booklash, which isn’t a bad umbrella phrase for the type of demanding and frequently intimidating assaults that “are imposing new moral litmus tests on books and authors; chilling literary expression; and fueling a dangerous trend of self-censorship that’s shrinking writers’ creative freedom and imagination.” The catch: many of these demands come from within the industry.

Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm has an introduction from the current PEN president, Ayad Akhtar, and the organization is making it clear that this is not the book-banning issue being seen at play in so many parts of the post-Trump-administration United States. Instead, this is often about attempts at suppression from within the industry itself.

Ayad Akhtar

“Publishers,” Akhtar writes, “can feel obligated to address these criticisms, through apologetic statements, changes to author tours, or requests for edits. There have been several instances when publishers have responded by doing something far more drastic: canceling a book contract or pulling a book from circulation.”

In a list below, we’ll show you exactly what makes this concept difficult to grasp: the sheer multiplicity and variety of instances.

What makes something “offensive”? Whose prerogative is it to object? When do claims of something “hurtful” mean they’re simply not what someone wants to see in print? And at what point do publishing professionals need to learn to hold the line even against their own dismay (perhaps especially their own dismay) over various points of view, topics, policy positions, societal trends?

In some parlance, this is called “the ACLU moment.” The phrase refers to the work of the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the most formidable nonprofit legal advocacy organizations in the world. The “problem” in wry ACLU-savvy circles is that donors who support the ACLU’s efforts to support civil liberties often display noisy consternation when the ACLU, perforce, must stand up to support the civil liberties of everyone, not just “the people I like.” Freedom of speech, for example, is great—until it’s not what you want to hear.

In all likelihood, the sorts of “booklash” pressures covered in this potentially groundbreaking report, add up to “something for everybody to dislike.” This is a document, in other words, that addresses so multifaceted and nuanced a set of challenges that almost anyone will find an “ACLU moment” of her or his own in reading it.

Just to point to one: Are you one of the publishing-house staffers who didn’t want to see Woody Allen’s memoir published in the spring of 2020 by Hachette USA? You’ll find quite a bit of discussion about that case, including responses for and against the publisher’s self-reversal: a decision to drop the book. The PEN America position during the controversy warned against publishers “shying away from manuscripts that editors think are worthwhile but that are about, or even by, people who may be considered contemptible.”

‘Representation, Harm, and Identity in Literature’

What might surprise many world publishing professionals reading the new report is just how many forms of this bookish cancel culture there are.

On publication not equaling endorsement: “Increasingly, new generations of readers and publishing staff have called this foundational axiom into question.”PEN America, 'Booklash' report

None is new to a discerning book-business player. But each tends to arrive in media reports as distinct from others. That’s no one’s fault. They find their way into headlines, like all news, anecdotally and on their own time, flung across television screens and news-site homepages as proof of “divisive times” and “polar political positions.” Rarely are their interlocking parts and symbiotic connections brought to light as clearly as happens in this report.

This is the first time to our knowledge at Publishing Perspectives that such a comprehensive compendium of this morass of censorious impulses has been created. In that factor alone, the PEN America report on “booklash” is immediately a service to an industry that needs to examine the complete framework of its internal debate, unblinkingly and urgently.

In this report, you’ll find both definitional discussions and real-industry examples of what PEN calls “new debates over representation, harm, and identity in literature,” including:

  • “Toxicity in online literary spaces”
  • The “#OwnVoices” pressure over “who has the authority and credibility to tell what stories”
  • Controversy over representation, as exemplified by the uproar, for example, around Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt
  • The “language of harm” and the presumption, hardly always correct, “that anything that causes offense results in harm”
  • The “dangers of labeling books ‘dangerous'”
  • How “authors may feel compelled to respond to their audiences in real time” with revisions, apologies, even “atonement”
  • Voluntary withdrawals of books by authors, as in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “indefinite delay” of The Snow Forest because of contemporary wartime criticism that the book was set in Russia
  • The controversy around revisions to deceased authors’ work that seems to some to be no longer “acceptable” in current perspectives, as in the relatively recent Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, and Seuss edits controversies
  • Involuntary revision, sometimes insisted on by publishers
  • Efforts at “removing ‘racism'”
  • Publisher withdrawals
  • Contract cancellations
  • Allegations of an author’s “offensive speech”
  • Post-publication withdrawal
  • Book withdrawals “and the reader’s interest”
‘The Reputational Two-Step’

In the penultimate section of the report, “An Industry Divided,” the report looks at an interesting trend in recent years in which publishing is less aligned with a part of the 70-year-old Freedom to Read Statement recently renewed by PEN and its supporters. In that statement, you read, “Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.”

Today’s report, however, moves the ball farther down the field:

“Increasingly, new generations of readers and publishing staff have called this foundational axiom into question.

“The act of publishing involves more than ensuring that a particular author’s voice is heard; it represents a heavy investment of funds and labor, an expedited channel to wide audiences, and in many cases a corresponding implication that this writer’s perspective is one worth hearing.

“In recent years, the consolidation of the publishing industry has meant that most books published in the United States carry the imprimatur of respectability from being associated with one of the country’s Big Five publishers. As a result, the choice of whom a publisher contracts with can seem all the more loaded. Yet the people making such choices can be myopic.”

This is likely the most contentious part of the report. It’s Section IV, following the introduction from Akhtar, should you need to move quickly to some of the weightier components of the argument today.

Here, for instance, is a reminder of the line from a 2021 letter written by writers and others in the business: “We believe in the power of words and we are tired of the industry we love enriching the monsters among us, and we will do whatever is in our power to stop it.”

The flashbacks that follow in today’s report include Simon & Schuster’s decision to stand by its plan to publish two books by former Trump vice-president Mike Pence despite very public internal staff objections. It also notes that in January 2021, S&S rescinded its publication agreement with Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, in light of Hawley’s “role in the events leading up to the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and his actions on the day of the insurrection.”

A part of Section IV deals with what it calls “the reputational two-step” that publishers can find themselves performing when unsavory news attaches itself to a project, and PEN questions—respectfully—whether one house or another’s decisions in these thorny cases always represent “the reader’s interest” as well as the company’s.

‘The Publisher’s Balancing Act’

It comes down, in this section, to “The Publisher’s Balancing Act,” as a sub-headline has it.

“To hold to publishing’s historic commitment to offer a broad range of views and perspectives, both executives and staffers at all levels must buy into that vision.”PEN America, 'Booklash' report

“Today,” the text reads, “publishers are taking on a widening array of societal obligations—making broader commitments to advance justice and representation and to redress inequities within and outside the industry.”

The report advises, “Publishers must clearly and affirmatively communicate their positions and principles to their employees and the public alike. Where employees perceive a mismatch between a publisher’s words and its actions, it falls upon their leaders to explain how they reconcile their various obligations in their decision-making across all imprints.

“Foremost among these various obligations,’ PEN America’s report asserts, “is a strong commitment to the social utility of a diversity of voices and a maximalist approach to reader access. It is vital that publishers highlight how an expansive conception and protection of free expression is the bedrock for a more broadly free society. This is particularly the case given how, in recent years, free speech has increasingly been perceived—especially among a rising generation of progressive Americans—as inadequate for protecting certain marginalized groups.

“To hold to publishing’s historic commitment to offer a broad range of views and perspectives, both executives and staffers at all levels must buy into that vision. This does not negate the role of dissent and disagreement within the industry.  But it does call for a high standard of care for staff making such objections to a specific book or author. In our conversations with publishing executives and editors who had participated in the decision to withdraw a book in response to criticism, many expressed continuing uncertainty.”

‘Without Resorting to Denying Readers’

The report includes outright recommendations.

“As a society we need to be able to engage in free debate about books without resorting to denying readers the opportunity to read them and come to their own conclusions.”PEN America, 'Booklash' report

For publishers, for example, these include:

  • “Publishers should make formal statements of principles, including their commitment to freedom of expression and the freedom to publish widely.
  • “Publishing houses should rarely, if ever, withdraw books from circulation.
  • “Publishers should include authors in conversations where pre- or post-publication withdrawals are being considered.”

There’s a recommendation here, as well, for the Amazon-owned Goodreads site that reads:

  • “Goodreads should establish clear policies to encourage authentic reviews and curb practices, like review-bombing, that can have the effect of suppressing ideas and open discourse in the literary space.”

The new report from PEN is a big one, coming in at almost 30,000 words. And it basically is an extensive narrative about a “PEN America moment.” The organization is counseling caution in an era of ricocheting societal concerns and fervently invested civil liberty pronouncements. Causes today soar into view, percolate in the feeds of various social media, thunder across cultures, and—as represented in so many examples cited here—can send publishers, their staffers, and their authors scrambling. We’re seeing, as recorded here, many demonstrations of how hard it is to stay on-mission, to surface the voices of an era, even the ugly ones and maybe especially the ugly ones.

What any reader of the PEN America report needs to understand is concisely stated in this sentence from the report’s conclusion: “We are calling not just for institutional shifts but also for a broader tonal shift in the country’s literary discourse, one that seeks to prevent subjective notions of offense and even harm from serving as grounds to attack or deny the very availability of books.”

And here it is one more way, in a particularly well-turned line: “As a society we need to be able to engage in free debate about books without resorting to denying readers the opportunity to read them and come to their own conclusions.”

That’s difficult. And this report will no doubt trigger booklash against PEN from some who find it hard to quiet their own most fervently held positions enough to look, along with others, for the genuinely broadest forum the industry promises to its readers and their societies.

Image: PEN America


More from Publishing Perspectives on the freedom of expression and freedom to publish is here, more on the United States market is here, more on politics is here, and more on censorship is here. More from us on the international PEN system of organizations is here and more on the PEN America program is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson 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.