Monday, July 25, 2022

Book Banning

One cannot but agree with Pamela Paul. Writing in the New York Times, columnist Paul takes out after those leftists who have gotten into the habit of banning books. It’s the latest in book burning-- preventing books from being published in the first place. If they are published, leftist scolds mount campaigns to deplatform authors, to assure that their books are not discussed or reviewed.

So, it’s a major totalitarian moment in American history. Paul is correct to call out its practitioners, but she does not ask whether the New York Times, her home base, is part of the problem or part of the solution.

As it happens the Times did cover the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 presidential campaign. They dismissed it as so much disinformation. One does not recall their denouncing Twitter for canceling, not just the story, but the New York Post during said campaign. And one does not recall the Times denouncing the new disinformation standard that seems to have infected leftist media of late.

Be that as it may, Paul is calling out the book publishing industry for having caved into threats and intimidation coming largely from the political left.

The American publishing industry has long prided itself on publishing ideas and narratives that are worthy of our engagement, even if some people might consider them unsavory or dangerous, and for standing its ground on freedom of expression.

Whether about James Joyce’s Ulysses or D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley's Lover, the publishing industry has a long and proud history of standing tall and proud against censorship. 

That was yesterday. Today is today. As Paul says, publishing industry executives have found a new way to burn books. That is, by not publishing anything that might offend any leftist interest groups:

But that ground is getting shaky. Though the publishing industry would never condone book banning, a subtler form of repression is taking place in the literary world, restricting intellectual and artistic expression from behind closed doors, and often defending these restrictions with thoughtful-sounding rationales. As many top editors and publishing executives admit off the record, a real strain of self-censorship has emerged that many otherwise liberal-minded editors, agents and authors feel compelled to take part in.

Naturally, in the interest of being fair and balanced Paul remarks that some rightist political leaders have also promoted book banning. She does not, however, make the most elementary distinction, namely that while leftists want to ensure that books do not utter anything that contradicts their fanatical beliefs, rightists are more likely to want to limit the books that are taught to children at certain ages. Not publishing a book about transgenderism because the transgender lobby is on a massive campaign of mind control is not the same as saying that books containing pornographic images should not be taught to five year olds. 

Over the course of his long career, John Sargent, who was chief executive of Macmillan until last year and is widely respected in the industry for his staunch defense of freedom of expression, witnessed the growing forces of censorship — outside the industry, with overt book-banning efforts on the political right, but also within the industry, through self-censorship and fear of public outcry from those on the far left.

Generally speaking, publishers are more responsive to the radical left, so they have been known to ban books on ideological grounds. One must note that the young staffers at publishing houses are products of America's miseducation factories. They know very little and cannot bear to have to engage in debate:

In the face of those pressures, publishers have adopted a defensive crouch, taking pre-emptive measures to avoid controversy and criticism. Now, many books the left might object to never make it to bookshelves because a softer form of banishment happens earlier in the publishing process: scuttling a project for ideological reasons before a deal is signed, or defusing or eliminating “sensitive” material in the course of editing.

It is less about supposedly dangerous ideas than about offending the sensibility of someone who believes that his beliefs trump reality:

Though it has long been a practice to lawyer many books, sensitivity readers take matters to another level, weeding out anything that might potentially offend.

After publishers, the next line of offense in this totalitarian effort to control the American mind lies in what Paul calls the other gatekeepers of the book world. They do their best to consign a published book to critical oblivion. Among the books in question Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage, a report about transgenderism and the rage to mutilate children. 

Even when a potentially controversial book does find its way into print, other gatekeepers in the book world — the literary press, librarians, independent bookstores — may not review, acquire or sell it, limiting the book’s ability to succeed in the marketplace. Last year, when the American Booksellers Association included Abigail Shrier’s book, “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” in a mailing to member booksellers, a number of booksellers publicly castigated the group for promoting a book they considered transphobic. The association issued a lengthy apology and subsequently promised to revise its practices. The group’s board then backed away from its traditional support of free expression, emphasizing the importance of avoiding “harmful speech.”

As it happened, Shrier’s book received a staunch defense from people like Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson. This means that some people have been willing to stand up to the mob, to defend books that the mob hates. Somehow or other Paul forgot to mention those who have been defending free expression.

But Paul does emphasize that the urge to ban books is now mostly coming from the left.

A recent overview in Publishers Weekly about the state of free expression in the industry noted, “Many longtime book people have said what makes the present unprecedented is a new impetus to censor — and self-censor — coming from the left.”

And, of course, certain subjects have become strictly forbidden, on the grounds that you need to have suffering the right kind of oppression to discuss oppression.

In another instance, a white academic was denounced for cultural appropriation because trap feminism, the subject of her book “Bad and Boujee,” lay outside her own racial experience. The publisher subsequently withdrew the book. PEN America rightfully denounced the publisher’s decision, noting that it “detracts from public discourse and feeds into a climate where authors, editors and publishers are disincentivized to take risks.”

Paul does mention that some people on the right have tried to ban some books-- from school libraries. This is fair, even though no one on the right is saying that certain books not be published.

An added challenge is that all of this is happening against the backdrop of a recent spate of shameful book bans that comes largely from the right. According to the American Library Association, of the hundreds of attempts to remove books from schools and libraries in 2021, a vast majority were made in response to content related to race and sex — red meat for red states, with Texas and Florida ranking high among those determined to quash artistic freedom and limit reader access. Republican politicians, for so long forces of intolerance, are now deep in the book-banning business.

Limiting children’s access to inappropriate material is not the same as preventing books from being published at all.

Paul concludes that the left has no business any more denouncing the right for not wanting certain books in school curricula. Given that the radical left is leading the charge against books it finds disagreeable, it has no standing to attack the right:

For those on the illiberal left to conduct their own campaigns of censorship while bemoaning the book-burning impulses of the right is to violate the core tenets of liberalism. We’re better than this.


David Foster said...

Joyce Carol Oates:

"(a friend who is a literary agent told me that he cannot even get editors to read first novels by young white male writers, no matter how good; they are just not interested. this is heartbreaking for writers who may, in fact, be brilliant, & critical of their own "privilege.")"

370H55V said...

I guess those young white male writers will have to used pen names, just like "The Front" in reverse.

Yet while I agree that censorship by the left is abhorrent, I don't find it a matter of pressing concern in the long run. There are still conservative publishing houses (Regnery Gateway for example), and with Kindle who needs print versions of books anyway?

David Foster said...

"and with Kindle who needs print versions of books anyway?"

...indeed, some of these writers may wind up making more $$ with the Kindle self-publishing route (and it's also possible to add a print version) than going with a traditional publisher.

BUT, Amazon themselves is not above occasional censorship.

Anonymous said...

"As it happens the Times did cover the Hunter Biden laptop story during the 2020 presidential campaign. They dismissed it as so much disinformation." As I keep saying, the Dems and the media sleep in the same beds.

Anonymous said...

I'm just a guy who lives in a rural area, so I have no interest in the NYT, but I have picked up enough information to have concluded to never open a copy of the NYT, if I were in an area which had one lying about.