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There’s no wonder that books are becoming more conformist when freedom of expression is being curtailed
This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
David Shelley, the CEO of the UK’s second largest publisher, Hachette, has warned of a “watershed moment” when it comes to freedom of expression. There have, of course, been other watershed moments in publishing such as the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century and the e-book revolution of the late 1990s. But while Gutenberg’s genius opened up a rarefied market to anyone who could read and the digital revolution allowed entire libraries to be stored in your pocket, this latest moment threatens to undermine the very foundations of a free and open press.
Although many of us feared for the future of physical books, e-readers such as the Kindle could never quite compete with the feel and smell of a well-thumbed paperback. Unlike CDs and DVDs, books have an aesthetic appeal that goes beyond mere content. Unfortunately, the shops that sell these little bundles of enlightenment haven’t fared so well, with so many of us choosing to buy the latest blockbuster at a knockdown price on Amazon.
Much of the intolerance is coming from within the industry itself
The ending of the net book agreement in 1997, another watershed moment, meant that retailers were able to discount books with impunity resulting in a fierce price war between Amazon and the big supermarkets. Retail giant Borders and Books Etc succumbed to rampant market forces back in 2009 and even the UK’s last remaining high street chain, Waterstones, is in trouble with chief executive James Daunt issuing a warning earlier this year that the retailer could shut some stores for good if the government’s business rates holiday was not extended. It appears the pile ’em high behemoths have become unstoppable.
Selling £10 books for less than a cup of coffee inevitably meant a drop in profits for publishers that has led to several large-scale mergers; Hachette absorbed ten publishing divisions including Hodder, Orion and Little, Brown along with around 65 imprints while, in 2013, Random House merged with Penguin to form the world’s largest publishing house.
These giant conglomerates have witnessed a profit boom over recent years with Penguin Random House sales jumping by a fifth during the pandemic. However, for many at the bottom of the food chain — namely authors — earnings remain paltry at best outside of a few superstar writers. It’s a sad irony that those who slog away in their garrets tend to be the ones who reap the least rewards. More of that later.
A young, mainly female demographic with strong political views, dominates every level of publishing
Hachette’s David Shelley and literary agent Clare Alexander told a House of Lords select committee hearing of their concern over a rise in censoriousness and intolerance across their industry. This is by no means the first time there have been issues around censorship. The early 1970s saw long-running obscenity trials where a newly emboldened counterculture butted heads with the establishment, but today’s crisis feels more insidious.
Much of the intolerance we are currently witnessing is coming from within the industry itself; as such it is almost a reversal of the 70s legal cases where maverick publishers fought for their right to free expression in the face of post war prudery.
Clare Alexander is particularly concerned about authors self-censoring their work even before manuscripts have been submitted to publishers. “We are in a very judgmental time,” she told the committee, “where imagination and research come up against cultural appropriation in a way that is quite tiresome.”
Nobel Prize-winning author Sir Kazuo Ishiguro has gone further warning that a “climate of fear” prevents some authors from writing what they want, concerned that an “anonymous lynch mob will turn up online and make their lives a misery”. He told the BBC, “I very much fear for the younger generation of writers,” claiming that less established authors were avoiding writing from certain viewpoints or including characters that might not match their immediate experiences. He added, “I think that is a dangerous state of affairs.”
It seems extraordinary that we continue to give Twitter mobs so much credence
Ishiguro’s comments follow a number of disputes where writers have been “cancelled” or face threats to boycott their work. High-profile targets include JK Rowling, Jeanine Cummins and Julie Burchill. Lionel Shriver has described the current climate as “a quasi-Soviet phenomenon”. Yes, Twitter mobs can be wearisome but it seems extraordinary that we continue to give them so much credence; the sooner we learn to laugh in their virtual faces the more likely they are to scuttle off into insignificance.
More worrying is the preponderance of a certain type of employee working within publishing. A young, mainly female demographic, often with strong political views, dominates every level of the publishing world from editors through to sales and marketing teams. This has inevitably led to a narrowing of the sorts of books chosen for publication and an intolerance of anything that deviates from strict progressive orthodoxies.
Publishers, terrified of causing offence, are increasingly turning to “sensitivity readers” to vet manuscripts for the slightest indiscretion. Writers, many at the beginning of their careers, see their books censored after spurious accusations of insensitivity, misogyny, racism, cultural appropriation or transphobia. But it is generally the high profile authors who make the headlines.
Hachette staff who had been working on JK Rowling’s recent children’s book, The Ickabog, were apparently so “upset” after she posted a tweet mocking the expression “people who menstruate” instead of “women” that they threatened to go on strike. Although Hachette refused to give in to their censorious demands — publishers may be cowardly but they aren’t stupid — the atmosphere inside many remains febrile.
At the time of the Rowling debacle, Hachette claimed their decision not to cancel the world’s most successful author had been based purely on their belief in free speech. But a former member of staff at the company saw things differently:
The employees were encouraged to follow diversity and pro-trans initiatives. There was only one way we were supposed to think about these issues, but then JK Rowling, their most successful author, said what she said, so the management had to take a stand in favour of free speech and face down the younger staff. That’s when they realised these initiatives had gone too far in the first place, which a lot of employees felt, but no one was prepared to come out and say it.
Lionel Shriver believes that publishers “are frightened like everyone else, because it’s a merciless movement, with people piling onto the side of righteousness for self-protection.”
Likewise, when Penguin Random House Canada announced it would publish the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s new work, Beyond Order, dozens of staff made formal complaints, with one famously telling Vice “people were crying about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives”. PRH Canada’s diversity and inclusion committee reportedly received at least 70 anonymous messages from disapproving staff.
We spoke in hushed tones, fearful that younger members of staff might overhear our conversation
Perhaps managers should have taken Peterson’s daughter’s pithy advice to “Step 1: identify crying adults, step 2: fire”; instead the publisher immediately released a statement saying “Our employees have started an anonymous feedback channel, which we fully support,” adding they had “provided a space for our employees to express their views and offer feedback”. Like Rowling, Peterson is too big a deal to cancel. But giving any kind of voice to an intolerant minority determined to mould publishing in their own image must surely set a dangerous precedent.
Indeed when Hachette called me in for a meeting to discuss my own take on the masculine malaise, there were rumblings from some of the younger staff who thought it inappropriate to give such a controversial subject to someone like me. Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life had just come out and they were worried that I, too, might be a dangerous right-wing misogynist in league with men’s rights activists. Not that Peterson, or I for that matter, have ever expressed such allegiances.
My prospective editor, one of the last of the older, free-spirited males still employed at the company, seemed keen to open up non-fiction’s narrowing political perspectives especially around matters of gender. He knew about my moderately conservative tendencies and suggested our initial meeting take place in a quiet corner of Hachette HQ’s café in Blackfriars.
We spoke in hushed tones, fearful that younger members of staff might overhear our conversation. That was three years ago and I remember being amused by the clandestine nature of our discussion. It now seems remarkable that such a climate of fear could have taken hold of an industry for which diversity of thought is such a basic principle.
Since that meeting with Hachette, publishers have been doubling down on their commitment to diversity and inclusion campaigns, and although my book was eventually given the green light it seems unlikely that such a risky proposition would be allowed to slip through the net again. These days writing about the plight of men must stick to the approved “toxic masculinity” template; indeed, Hachette published two such books around the same time as my slightly more nuanced take on the subject.
The typical author advance is less than £10,000 for a book that will usually take up to a year to write
There’s no doubt that publishing has a problem with diversity but putting in place tokenistic correctives misses the point. Through its “Changing the Story” initiative for example, Hachette hopes to be “the publisher and employer of choice for all people, regardless of age, faith, disability, race, gender, sexuality or socio-economic background”. But like so many well-meaning diversity and inclusion initiatives, Changing the Story fails to address the fundamental issue of low pay, so often the driving force behind a lack of diversity within creative institutions.
The typical author advance is less than £10,000 for a book that will usually take up to a year to write and publish (JK Rowling famously received £2,500 for the first Harry Potter in 1997). This represents a yearly income well below the national living wage, meaning authors from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, including those with disabilities and people of colour, simply cannot afford to invest the time and effort it takes to write a book.
Unless publishers are willing to grapple with the thorny issue of how authors are remunerated, no amount of tampering with percentages is going to alter the fact that the industry has to a large extent become a playground for young, white, left-leaning university kids with private incomes.
All the major publishing houses are based in central London. This means that only those who can afford to live in the capital get to work there. Stand outside Hachette’s offices at 9am on a weekday morning and you would be forgiven for thinking that the staff streaming into the building were part of some sinister cloning experiment, right down to the expensive cycling gear they all wear.
If publishers were serious about a more diverse workforce, they’d be going out of their way to hire older employees across the board. A 60-year-old male editor, for instance, will have a very different take on what constitutes a good read than the like-minded thirty-somethings currently dominating editorial meetings. Publishers who continue to recruit from such a narrow demographic are guilty of nothing less than institutional ageism.
Tyranny always begins with seemingly benign book censoring
Claiming instead that your industry is institutionally racist, even though it is plainly dominated by hyper-vigilant young progressives, has become a deceitful diversionary tactic that allows creative institutions to feign concern for marginalised groups while continuing to pay the sort of low wages that only the wealthy young can afford to live on. And it is these same independently wealthy young progressives who are driving the publishing narrative, campaigning hard against books they consider beyond the pale.
David Shelley is right to be concerned about freedom of expression but don’t forget it was Hachette that recently cancelled Julie Burchill’s book about, of all things, cancel culture after the famously provocative journalist referred to the age of one of the Prophet Mohammed’s wives in a tweet-spat with the journalist, Ash Sarkar.
By steeping their young employees in highly politicised diversity and unconscious bias training programmes, publishers have become their own worst enemies. How can they expect diversity of thought when so much focus is on a blind adherence to misguided orthodoxies around gender, race and identity?
We need a much broader range of voices in publishing, for sure. But even when minority ethnic authors make it through the gruelling submission process, their books are almost exclusively about the same old social justice shibboleths of white supremacy, systemic racism, colonial guilt and black victimhood. Browse the shelves of any bookshop and you’d be forgiven for thinking that people of colour are all highly politicised revolutionaries who see the world in purely racialised terms.
It was Hachette that recently cancelled Julie Burchill’s book about cancel culture
An intolerance of “dead white European authors” is now widespread across university reading lists while libraries have taken it upon themselves to decolonise valuable collections, paying scant regard for quality or historical context. Even theatres have succumbed to the new intolerance, with the Globe dutifully falling in line with demands to decolonise Shakespeare while questioning the impact of “whiteness across our education system”.
Skewing the written word to fit fashionable doctrines has become central to this new revolutionary zeal as reflected in so many of our creative institutions, but publishers, librarians, theatre directors and university principals should remind themselves that tyranny always begins with seemingly benign book censoring.
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