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The war on words: how cancel culture is taking over the world of books


Who would have thought that in 2021, as cancel culture becomes the new norm, the effect on authors has been to plunge the literary world into a freedom of speech crisis? Author Lionel Shriver calls it “a  quasi-Soviet phenomenon”.  

A writer says or writes something controversial on social media, in print or on TV. The news breaks, the crowd bays for blood, the tide turns and the writer is “cancelled”, shunned or left with a badly-damaged reputation.  

In the past year, high-profile authors targeted include JK Rowling, Jordan Peterson, Jeanine Cummins, and Julie Burchill, and there are plenty more, many of whom we have never heard of. Some are deemed to have committed worse crimes than others, resulting in anything from mild censorship to accusations of insensitivity, cultural appropriation, misogyny, racism or transphobia, while others have had their book contracts revoked – and writers must learn to navigate this moralistic new world.

“Publishers are not working in a vacuum, they’re part of a larger social tide,” says Shriver. “They read the same newspapers we do, and they’re frightened like everyone else, because it’s a merciless movement, with people piling onto the side of righteousness for self-protection.” But as righteous as publishers may be, they are also in the business of making money.  

Take JK Rowling, who was labelled a toxic transphobe after she posted a tweet mocking the word “people” who menstruate instead of “women”. First it was trans activists, then leading Harry Potter actors Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Eddie Redmayne came out against her. Now, former Potter fans are expressing doubts about whether it is still “acceptable” to enjoy the books.  

Staff working on Rowling’s latest children’s book, The Ickabog, at Hachette were so “upset” they threatened to down tools. The management pushed back. “We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech,” was the official statement.  

A former employee puts it 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.” 

Shriver, who admits that her anti-woke opinions make her publishers “anxious”, thinks the staff at Hachette should have been allowed to walk out. “I feel that strongly. Let the minions who rise up leave, they’re replaceable. The more you play to this idea of power, the more power you give them. This is a story of institutional cowardice, with people in positions of authority frightened of exercising that authority.”  

Similarly, the news that Penguin Random House Canada would be publishing outspoken Canadian psychologist and life coach Jordan Peterson’s sequel to his 12 Rules for Life apparently reduced many of its employees “to tears”.  

The publishing company’s diversity and inclusion committee received at least 70 anonymous messages from staff with only a couple in favour of publishing it. The book went ahead anyway and comes out in March. Like Rowling, Peterson is lucrative. 12 Rules sold over five million copies, but as Shriver points out, few other authors have that degree of “fame and fortune” protection.  

For Julie Burchill, whose book, Welcome to the Woke Trials became a casualty of the very issue it was describing, after her comments on Twitter to Muslim “libertarian communist” journalist Ash Sarkar.

Constable swiftly cancelled Burchill’s contract. “While there is no legal definition of hate speech in the UK, we believe that Julie’s comments on Islam are not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint,” it said. Burchill retorted she would look for another publisher. “They said I’d crossed the line and would probably do so again. They’re not wrong. But they knew what I was like.” She says she has three publishers “brave and small as opposed to big and cowardly”  interested in her book.  

Cancel culture feeds on the public’s perception of reputation. Who do you know, what is your identity? Combined with the growth of corporate culture – and some of these publishers are now vast behemoths – reputation and brand values are everything. “Cancelling an author’s contract if they bring your organisation into disrepute is entirely justified. In the US, a lot of contracts now include clauses to this effect, ” according to another publisher. 

Writers must also beware of other potential booby traps. After her novel American Dirt, about an illegal Mexican migrant, was published in 2019, Jeanine Cummins was accused of cultural appropriation because she is not Mexican, and of filling the novel with stereotypes. Violent threats caused her publishers to cancel a book tour, but Cummins now says her biggest regret was writing the “clumsy” author’s note justifying her reasons for writing it.  “But that just served to open the door for people to make their criticisms extremely personal instead of about the book,” she says.  

Cancel culture’s biggest ally is social media. Lauren Taylor Shute, who runs an editorial coaching consultancy in New York, tells aspiring authors: “You’re entering into a dialogue and everything you put out there opens a door to discussion, so be sure that it’s a room you want to enter first, because you will have an audience and they will talk back.” They sure will.  

This raises a question. Would any UK firm publish Donald Trump’s memoirs? A fortnight ago Republican senator Josh Hawley’s book about the tyranny of big tech was scrapped by Simon & Schuster, after he was photographed raising his fist in salute to pro-Trump protesters on his way to the US Capitol. The general consensus seems to be not. “Who wants to be associated with Trump? You’ve got to think of your company brand.”  

Almost everyone I spoke to for this article was nervous about expressing their views openly, while publishers were not prepared to talk on the record. What does that tell us? 

An exception was Mark Richards, who set up indie publishing imprint Swift last year. “The role of publishers is to help society talk about the most difficult issues. But, with a few exceptions, they have become far too one-sided on far too many topics, arbiters not facilitators of debate.  And that’s not good for publishing or society.”


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