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Notebook: (3) Heartland Vistas
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
Book Post bookselling partners at the Heartland Fall Forum: Danny Caine (Lawrence, Kansas’s Raven Book Store and author of How to Protect Bookstores and Why), Jeff Deutsch (Chicago’s Seminary Co-op and author of In Praise of Good Bookstores, sample in Book Post here), Alison Jones Turner and Janet Webster Jones (Detroit’s Source Booksellers, reflections in Book Post here). They have brought me much wisdom, but they are not to blame for any blunders herein!
Reading Danny and Josh’s books brought to mind a recent PEN report called “Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm” that challenges those who “are pushing to draw new lines around what types of books, tropes, and narrative conventions should be seen as permissible and who has the legitimacy, authority, or ‘right’ to write certain stories.” The PEN report shares some examples with Josh’s book, such as the controversies around Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, while its thrust goes in the opposite direction, questioning the curatorial impulse to exclude from view books that cause harm. One of their—younger—informants, speaking of the effect of such books on staff, echoed language used by Josh: “Those in senior positions are forgetting that there is surely a duty of care to their staff that must be considered when asking them to work on books by authors with views that might potentially directly oppose their identity and existence.”
The PEN report is mostly directed at publishers who find themselves making “apologetic statements, changes to author tours, or requests for edits … canceling a book contract or pulling a book from circulation” as a result, often, of viral campaigns or internal pressure denouncing a books as “problematic,” usually for threatening harm to members of formerly marginalized groups. (Oddly it doesn’t take up publishers’ “sensitivity readings” of unpublished manuscripts and older books being considered for revision; critics have argued that these readings, whose findings can be compulsory and whose authority can be murky, spring less from cultural sensitivity than commercial anxiety.) The report is extremely useful in talking behind the scenes to a number of often conflicted inside players and drawing together a number of instances for consideration that share certain common characteristics. But it seemed to me to suffer from a significant flaw of framing and logic that undermined the force of its result, particularly when it comes to the application to bookstores and other curated situations.
The flaw was visible in a clause from a 1953 Freedom to Read Statement drafted by publishers and librarians in response to the red scare, which PEN had resurfaced for the report and encouraged “every living past PEN America president—joined with all of the ‘Big Five’ publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster) and hundreds of other publishers, authors, and free expression and literary organizations” to re-sign for the seventieth anniversary of the statement. The opening “core principal” sets the tone: “It is in the public interest for publishers and librarians to make available the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those that are unorthodox, unpopular, or considered dangerous by the majority.” But then the second “core principle” states: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers, librarians, and booksellers] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.”
This is very inexact. Yes, publishers, librarians, and booksellers should not establish “what should be published or circulated” for everyone, nor can they, but they are absolutely free to embrace for their own publishing house, library (unless it is public), and bookshop political, moral, and aesthetic views that inform their own decisions. America has hundreds of publishers and booksellers who embrace an abundance of political, moral, and aesthetic views, and that’s just great. The passion and commitment and knowledge of these outfits contributes incalculably to the richness of the country. Not every publisher (or bookstore, or magazine) is obliged to embrace every point of view. That’s why we have more than one.
Indeed, to me one of the chief sources of the ills identified in the PEN report is corporate consolidation in publishing. When I was starting out in the book business there were many medium-sized publishers that specialized in different corners of American intellectual life and it meant that there were places for all sorts of writers to go, where they would find staffs enthusiastically committed to advancing their work. Now that these are all under five giant umbrellas you have junior staff obliged to labor on behalf of all sorts of ideas that repel them and you have corporate management that is 100 percent dedicated to the bottom line and not able to take the sorts of risks that publishers who personally embrace a “political, moral, or aesthetic view” are prepared to take on behalf of an idea they cherish.
Committing itself to this notion wraps the PEN report around an untenable view that publishers, booksellers, etc., are obliged by their commitment to freedom of thought to be ideologically eclectic. Any reputable editorial shop has standards of argument and language and judgment that are going to mark it off from other reputable shops: it is not always obvious in practice how one disentangles “our standards” from underlying beliefs and values. Comparably, the Freedom to Read statement obliges teachers, for instance, to present young people with the full range of thought and ideas without acknowleding that inevitably teachers are making choices and, indeed, they are making choices with students’ maturity and developmental readiness in mind. Freedom is not on or off; it unfolds in a large complex world of discernment and engagement.
Throughout the report PEN wrestles with this problem of murky distinctions between the exercise of curatorial-editorial judgment and censorship. It doesn’t even address the fact that thousands upon thousands of manuscripts are not published, thousands of editorial changes are introduced before a book is made public, bookstores and libraries exclude thousands of books to arrive at what’s on their shelves. The decision to stock, say, Das Kapital and not The Turner Diaries is one that inevitably involves moral, political, and aesthetic considerations. The difference between selections of books that are “inclusive” and selections that are not is really more a matter of being convincingly representative than being comprehensive. Smaller shops are necessarily organized around a more selective vision.
If ideas are untruthful and dangerous though widespread, they are entitled to First Amendment protection from being suppressed but are they entitled to multi-million dollar promotional budgets? Are they entitled to travel on the most sophisticated distribution networks? Is a bookseller obliged to say of them, “you should also consider this”? The difference between the scheming backyard conspiracy theorist and a legitimate thinker with whom one should reckon is one that “gatekeepers” are responsible for wrestling with. The platforms face these problems of “moderation” because they are not “publishers” (see the disputes around so-called Section 230); publishers are expected to use judgment.
What, besides a moral, political, or aesthetic qualm, constrains a commercial publisher from publishing and promoting with its considerable consolidated resources a truly heinous document that will make a lot of money? Only reputational damage? Pertinently, just the day before yesterday All Seasons Press, a publishing house founded two years ago as a home for writers whose politics—in particular their embrace of the view that President Trump won the 2020 election—drove them from the mainstream publishers, reportedly sued one of their first authors, former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, for breaching his contractual obligation to tell the truth in his 2021 book because he has reportedly testified before a grand jury convened by special prosecutor Jack Smith that he knew and told his boss that they had lost the election. What the publisher promoted as a political difference emerges as misrepresentation. Awkward decisions to revise a manuscript or pull a book or cycle back a PR campaign within the little territory between when a book is announced and the period surrounding its publication are a very small slice of all the decisions that go into what readers see. Telling publishers they should stand by their decisions and telling them they should represent all ideas are two different things.
The report also already seems a little out of date in its lament for the toxic effects of social media, especially Twitter. For better or worse these toxic effects, and their ironic benefits for bookselling, appear to be vanishing in the rear view. The report attempts to address as a problem for publishing what is the much larger problem of the amplification effects and lack of moderation on digital platforms, effects that are the result of their forgoing editorial discretion. Publishers and authors are obliged to address hordes of individual, highly motivated people who may or may not actually represent their audience but who can command the megaphone, driving pressure to cancel contracts or alter manuscripts based on rumors of this or that infraction. This same problem afflicts our political discourse, the dissemination of news, medical information, gossip. We all have to learn to stay the course, and our legislators have to find some way to balance the benefits of increased participation in digital information-sharing against juicing up the dissemination of crackpottery. This is not a problem confined to publishing. One does however note that publishers are to an extent tempting the beast: part of the reason they get these giant campaigns of blowback before a book is published is that they are circulating advance copies among “influencers” trying to get early attention on these precise potentially toxic platforms. So many of the problems cited in the report arose in young adult literature. That publishing is for commercial reasons inviting all these young people to weigh in on early copies of a book and expecting that they exercise mature judgment and PR discretion in their presence on these unstable platforms seems a bit willfully innocent.
Reflecting on the agonizing situations involving young people described in the report—the young authors who were obliged to out themselves as sexually assaulted or bisexual in order to claim the authority to write about their subjects, for instance—did make me think. When one considers the fears facing the modern young person—environmental collapse, threats to democracy, contagion, war—and the prevalence of depression and anxiety among them, is it any wonder that they are so nervous about not being good enough people? They want to live in an equal world; they do not want to be at fault for the sins passed on to them—persistent discrimination, world-destroying greed. They did not get to grow up in a moment of expansiveness and promise as some of us did. They are driven into these declarations of moral purity and absolutism lest they like us be left carrying the weight of these intractable ills. Those from formerly marginalized backgrounds laboring to to celebrate their beleaguered origins risk wrapping themselves in a creative straightjacket. Perhaps as older people it is our job not to scold them for their wokism or cancel culture or infidelity to foundational freedoms but to demonstrate in our own behavior a more resilient intellectual demeanor in the face of difference: a readiness to hear and learn, a willingness to allow different currents to flow and see where they lead. Perhaps we might mention that we agree with them about a lot of things and don’t ourselves have better answers about how to bring about a better world. Perhaps we might do more to unwind commercial arrangements that choke off multiplicity of expression and opportunity for them to pursue it, however much some of us profit from these. This is what is great about bookselling: it is an embrace of the plural, whether within the store or broadly across the land. It says to America, here are our plural ideas, your own plural ideas, dive into them truly and find your way.
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. A few weeks ago she appeared on the Short Fuse podcast with Elizabeth Howard to talk about her editorial origins and her work with Book Post. Have a listen!
Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing snack-sized book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to our paying subscribers’ in-boxes, as well as free posts like this one from time to time to those who follow us. We aspire to grow a shared reading life in a divided world. Become a paying subscriber to support our work and receive our straight-to-you book posts. Recent posts: Geoffrey O’Brien on Robert Bresson, Emily Bernard on Margaret Walker, Ian Frazier on Charles Portis.
Detroit’s Source Booksellers is Book Post’s Autumn 2023 partner bookstore! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life across the land. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com. Read more about Source’s story in here in Book Post. Read found Janet Webster Jones’s acceptance of the 2023 Voice of the Heartland Award here.
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