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The Book Banners on the Left
A major report warns that progressive activism is contributing to a chilly climate in publishing.
WHETHER THERE EXISTS in American culture a left-wing illiberalism that threatens freedom of thought and expression under the cover of social justice has been a subject of heated debate in the past decade. At a time when right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise, many people have viewed warnings about illiberal progressivism as a distraction. Liberal and centrist critiques of leftist intolerance, from the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in the summer of 2020 to prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic essay on “the new Puritans” the following year, have been met with purported debunkings and derided as moral panic or whining from people who don’t like to be criticized.
Now, a major liberal institution that has championed freedom of expression for over a century—PEN America, formerly PEN American Center and part of PEN International, the writers’ association whose notable figures have included John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood—has issued a lengthy report that strongly comes down on the side of taking illiberal progressivism seriously.
Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, written by the PEN America research team with a trenchant introduction by playwright Ayad Akhtar titled “In Defense of the Literary Imagination,” is a thorough examination of the chilly climate in publishing and the issues and controversies that have created it. Booklash is particularly valuable because PEN America really cannot be accused of having a right-leaning or even centrist bias: the organization enthusiastically champions racial and gender diversity and has strongly denounced censorship moves from the right, such as red-state policies facilitating school library book removals.
Indeed, the report acknowledges the context of rising right-wing authoritarianism but unabashedly, and correctly, stresses that this context makes it more important to acknowledge troubling illiberal trends on the left:
In the face of the broader government-led assault on freedom, some may question whether debates over offense or cultural trespass are a distraction. But it is precisely this context that makes the conversation so essential. Subjective arguments that books are dangerous or harmful—and thus should be removed from circulation—are easily weaponized to achieve censorship, in service of different political goals. At a time when right-wing activists and politicians have used the machinery of government to pass laws that target the circulation of ideas and information—to suppress history, erase identities, and ban books—it is critical that those fighting for the freedom to read stand against such pretextual evaluations.
The problems, Booklash makes clear, are all too real—and they’re not just about criticism, even vehement criticism. Online hate campaigns directed at books deemed “problematic” for one reason or another have resulted in books being killed when already in the final stages of publication. A prominent recent example, from this past spring, comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. After she announced on June 6 that her next book, The Snow Forest, would come out early next year, it was strafed with one-star review bombs. Its attackers were outraged that a book set in Russia was coming out at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Never mind that it’s not a present-day story: The novel is a partly fact-based tale of a Soviet-era family fleeing into the woods to escape religious persecution. By June 12, Gilbert had had enough: She released a video saying that she was indefinitely “removing the book from its publication schedule.”
In several other cases, books scheduled for publication were not just delayed but permanently deep-sixed by the authors after accusations of cultural appropriation, racist stereotyping, and other sins. Sometimes, it was the publisher who caved. In one case in 2019, They Call Me Wyatt, a debut novel by Natasha Tynes, was torpedoed three weeks away from its scheduled release not because of its content but because of a Twitter firestorm over an allegedly racist tweet by Tynes.
The offending tweet complained about a uniformed employee of the Washington, D.C. subway system, Metro, eating on the train—in violation of Metro rules that ban eating and drinking on board—and included a photo of the employee, a black woman. Tynes, an Arab-American Jordanian immigrant, was promptly pilloried as “entitled,” “anti-black,” and lacking in “WOC [woman of color] solidarity.” Tynes deleted the tweet with an apology and called the Metro administration to ask that no action be taken against the employee, but her accusers were not appeased. The book’s distributor dropped the novel; the publisher promised to cancel it in a statement condemning Tynes, but eventually, because of contractual obligations, released it digitally.
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Another example: In February 2022, an already published nonfiction book, Bad & Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology, was withdrawn by the publisher after an intense backlash focused on the author’s racial identity. (“Trap feminism” approaches black feminism through the lens of trap music, a hip-hop subgenre.) Author Jennifer Buck, a theology professor who has a strong interest in hip-hop and has taught a class on “trap feminism,” is white; indeed, her introduction to the book offered disclaimers about being “a straight, privileged, white woman” who had “not lived the embodied experiences of a trap queen.” Some of Buck’s detractors claimed that she had failed to adequately credit and engage black female writers in the field. But most of them also made it clear that in their view, the subject should have been off-limits to a white person.
OTHER BOOKS, AS BOOKLASH DETAILS, were not literally canceled but endured some degree of suppression. Initial positive reviews in key industry outlets such as Kirkus Reviews have been downgraded; books have been rewritten under pressure; book tours have been canceled, as in the case of Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling 2020 novel American Dirt, a sympathetic treatment of Mexican migrants that was savaged as exploitative “trauma porn.” Aside from the impact on the targeted authors (Cummins seems to have completely withdrawn from public life), there is also the larger chilling effect on publishing. In the case of American Dirt, the report said, “Despite the book’s commercial success, the episode left many within the literary world with the impression that books perceived to trespass across racial or cultural lines could be risky and undesirable.” Indeed, the report cites conversations with authors and editors who would speak only on conditions of anonymity to describe this overall climate of intimidation as well specific incidents in which books were canceled or revised.
The report offers a thorough and persuasive analysis of how this climate emerged: a perfect storm of social, political and technological shifts. A social justice revival focused on identity politics and oppressive cultural dynamics coincided with the rise of social media, which enabled instant—and sometimes massively collective—feedback from readers, or in many cases outraged non-readers who went by a plot summary, to authors and publishers. Just like awareness of racism, sexism, and other bigotries, reader empowerment certainly has positive aspects but can also take toxic forms—and often does.
Booklash rightly flags the ballooning concept of “harm” in progressive discourse as an insidious vehicle for speech suppression. Can speech, including published text, sometimes be genuinely harmful? One can certainly make that argument about, say, putting The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into mainstream circulation, or about promoting the anti-immigrant bible The Camp of the Saints, whose main message is that empathy for brown migrants leads to the West’s collective suicide. (This is not to say that those books should be legally censored by the state, but no one would blame a reputable publisher for taking a hard pass on a new translation of either text.) But modern social justice activism routinely conflates harm with offense against particular tenets of identity politics. Thus, literary works have been attacked for such intangible “harms” as a white author writing sympathetically about a nonwhite community, or an author from a more “privileged” group adopting the voice of a “marginalized” character, or a narrative judged to have a “problematic” trope such as “white saviorism.” These judgments are so subjective that a book with a white character taking a stand against racial injustice can be praised as anti-racist one moment only to be bashed as a “white savior narrative” the next.
The PEN America report offers some striking examples: a fantasy book attacked for having a female character with some resemblance to the Chinese heroine Mulan (appropriation, obviously); a book by a Mexican-American author attacked, and ultimately pulled, for using an invented black street dialect; a novel slammed for “ableism” for the reveal that a character initially assumed to be disabled is actually not; books branded as racist for depicting racism. Ironically, this means that books with a progressive outlook are especially likely to be targeted. American Dirt is one striking example. Or take two young adult novels mentioned in the report: The Black Witch by Laurie Forest (2017), set in a fantasy world in which bigotry is directed at various magical species, and American Heart by Laurie Moriarty (2018), set in a dystopian America where Muslims are rounded up and sent to internment camps. Both books had young heroines who overcome their prejudices. The Black Witch was blasted (by a white blogger) for having dialogue in which characters voice bigoted sentiments and for supposedly suggesting that white people “deserve recognition and praise for treating [people of color] like they are actually human.” American Heart was skewered for being written from the point of view of a white teenager who decides to help a Muslim family (white saviorism!) rather than from that of a persecuted Muslim. Apparently, it never occurred to detractors that a book with a main character non-Muslim teens could identify with could actually be more helpful in countering anti-Muslim prejudice.
These attacks are not, properly speaking, criticism: they are collective denunciations by social media users who, in most cases, haven’t read the books they are denouncing except for summaries or snippets. The goal is not to express an opinion or engage in discussion. It is, as the report puts it, to pass “a totalizing judgment on a book’s legitimacy, the legitimacy of those who choose to read it, and the viability of certain topics and perspectives.” The shaming of readers, who are accused of being complicit in racism if they choose to read a book “called out” for alleged racism, is an integral part of such campaigns. And, because of the language of “harm” and “danger,” authors, publishers, and readers stand accused not only of transgressing some subjective moral code, but of causing actual damage to people.
Booklash is overtly and emphatically supportive to many of the goals of social justice activists, such as more and better representation for writers from underrepresented communities (racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, LGBT people, etc.). Unfortunately, inclusion can easily turn to exclusion. Thus, the report notes that the “Own Voices” movement began as a way to promote and encourage books in which “writers with marginalized identities create characters and stories that share those identities”—but the encouragement soon hardened into a requirement, with claims that Non-Own Voices books were actively damaging (“may perpetuate White Supremacy characteristics and harmful stereotypes,” according to one children’s books subscription service). Indeed, according to the report, the creator of the #OwnVoices hashtag, young adult writer Corinne Duyvis, later “expressed dismay at what [it] had wrought in some segments of the literary world.” As Duyvis put it: “I absolutely hate that a hashtag that’s supposed to uplift marginalized authors is being used to police and pressure them.”
The report notes that “authenticity” imperatives can create an “identity trap,” pressuring authors into not only writing about their identity but writing about it from a “correct” perspective. It also describes several troubling cases in which writers were pressured into uncomfortable self-disclosures about their sexuality, disabilities, or sexual trauma after having their writings on related subjects denounced as inauthentic or insensitive.
While many of the toxic trends detailed in the report originated in the world of young adult fiction, which seems to be a perennial hotbed of controversy, the American Dirt brouhaha suggests that they have crossed over into other domains of publishing. And there is the related trend, also discussed in the report, of scrubbing “problematic” passages—not only racist or sexist epithets but potentially offensive references to ethnicity, looks, or weight—from classics by dead authors such as Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming. (Dead, you might say, is the ultimate unwoke.) At least one living author, R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps horror series for kids, also had his books sanitized without his permission or knowledge; the removals included such words as “crazy,” “plump,” “slave,” and “love tap.”
ALTHOUGH BOOKLASH IS COMPREHENSIVE, it has some regrettable omissions—such as the rise of toxic social justice politics in sci-fi and fantasy fiction, which preceded the drama in young adult literature. The scandal around the fantasy writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew offers a disturbing glimpse of this climate. A promising literary newcomer, the apparently Thai writer was revealed to have another identity as the author of a blog titled “Requires Only That You Hate,” who had terrorized the sci-fi/fantasy community from 2011 to 2014 with rage-filled rants against books and writers deemed racist, sexist, homophobic, colonialist, or otherwise problematic. The blogger, known by the shortened moniker “Requires Hate,” routinely employed unhinged language wishing violence, torture, and mutilation on transgressors (“Her hands should be cut off so she can never write another Asian character” is one of the milder examples); yet her clout was such that some of her targets second-guessed everything they wrote or even gave up writing. It’s hard to get more toxic than that.
The 2014 exposé by sci-fi writer Laura Mixon, herself a devout progressive, noted that Requires Hate got away with grossly abusive behavior because many people defended it as “punching up” by a person with multiple “marginalized” identities—a “queer” Asian woman. Sriduangkaew’s subsequent downfall was due partly to strong evidence of her trolling and cyberbullying under multiple nicknames—and to the fact that most of her targets were other “marginalized” authors. Even so, some asked whether the exposé amounted to “an effort to silence a voice raised in anger.”
While the already lengthy PEN America report could not examine every “cancellation” episode in literature, several noteworthy incidents that illustrate the current censorious climate could have made strong additions:
In 2018, the Nation issued an abject apology for publishing a white poet writing in the voice of a black homeless woman. The poem was allowed to stay up, but underneath a contrite statement that read, remarked Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, “like a letter from re-education camp.”
In June 2020, the young adult novel Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan was at the center of a bizarre drama with two layers of cancellation. First, the novel was withdrawn at Duncan’s request because of complaints about chapters written from the perspective of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (African Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). Then, Publishers’ Weekly removed its story about the book’s withdrawal because of complaints that the story had led to “online abuse” toward Duncan’s chief critic, novelist Bethany Morrow, and replaced it with an apology and a pledge to ensure that “our articles will not cause harm in the future.” Obviously, the PEN America report couldn’t cover every such episode without massive sprawl, but these examples seem remarkable enough to merit a mention.
Novelist, journalist, and Bulwark contributor Richard North Patterson recently wrote about the dispiriting experience of having his novel Trial “rejected by roughly 20 imprints of major New York publishers” despite having 16 New York Times bestsellers to his name. According to Patterson, many of the rejections came with glowing compliments but bluntly stated that the problem was race: the novel deals with racial injustice, and Patterson is white. (Trial was eventually published by a small press.)
There are also times when, as George Packer noted in the Atlantic, the authors of the PEN America report struggle to balance their defense of intellectual freedom with their commitment to the values of social justice, bending over backwards to accommodate the latter. This is particularly evident in the section discussing the American Dirt controversy, which fully recognizes the troubling nature of the campaign against the novel and its chilling effects but hedges by shifting part of the blame to bad marketing. Some of those criticisms are fair (what genius decided to have an author dinner with barbed-wire centerpieces?). But the report also quotes a suggestion that the book, whose plot involves a drug cartel, should have been marketed as a “crime novel” instead of a novel about Mexican immigration—a bizarre idea, given that Cummins specifically wanted to draw attention to the plight of Mexican border crossers amid the Trump administration’s anti-migrant crackdown. Booklash also credits “thoughtful” and “textured” criticisms of American Dirt which focused not on the author’s ethnic identity but on her alleged cultural incompetence; however, it fails to mention that many of those critiques were themselves compellingly criticized. For instance, New York Times reviewer Parul Sehgal’s claim that Cummins is weirdly obsessed with “gradients of brown skin” turns out to be based on a total of three brief, decontextualized lines; critic David Bowles’s accusations of rampant inaccuracies and stereotyping in the novel have been meticulously debunked and shown to be filled with errors and distortions. Such shoddy, even dishonest criticism enabled by reputable media outlets is a problem PEN America should have acknowledged.
THE MORE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM, perhaps, is that the authors of Booklash feel compelled to validate the same activist tactics that they identify as especially deleterious to the freedom to read and write. Stressing “the moral imperative of inclusivity,” the report states:
For an industry that remains overwhelmingly white both in its composition and in the books that it chooses to publish and promote, criticisms and protests that highlight the racial blind spots of authors and publishers are not only protected free speech but can play a vital role in pushing the industry toward progress.
But of course, no one questions whether such criticisms and protests are protected speech; the question is whether they should be presumptively treated as righteous and credible, and whether “criticisms” that are abusive, dishonest, or both should entail professional consequences. The result is that the report, for all its commendable goals, is somewhat schizophrenic in its approach. It quotes PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel as saying, “You can dismantle the barriers to publication for some without erecting them anew for others.” Right on. But when increasing the representation of “marginalized” authors is treated as an urgent “moral imperative,” the pressures created by such an attitude will almost inevitably result in “barriers” for authors who are cast as having a “dominant” identity.
How does the climate of conformity and intimidation documented by Booklash compare to censorship campaigns from the right? Which constitutes a greater threat to free expression? That depends on one’s perspective. From a strict First Amendment standpoint, actions by governors and legislators raise a red flag that pressures from activists and private-sector decisions do not. Yet if the question is the practical effect on a book’s availability, a book’s withdrawal—or even the hard-to-quantify pressure on publishers not to pick up certain books—should be far more troubling than a book’s removal from a school library, let alone its transfer to a section for older kids.
Jonah Winter, a nonfiction children’s book author mentioned in the report, offers a valuable perspective as someone who, in his own words, has experienced political censorship from both the left and the right. Earlier this year, Winter’s book on baseball legend Roberto Clemente was banned from public school libraries in Florida’s Duval County, apparently because of the book’s mentions of the anti-Hispanic racism Clemente encountered. Winter believes the ban is absurd and deplorable, but he also notes that the book remains available of Amazon, and the Florida ban even (predictably) improved its sales. As he put it in a Dallas Morning News column:
Book-banning, the “cancel culture” of the right, doesn’t hurt a book or an author.
What hurts a book or an author is the far more effective cancel culture of the left, by which I mean the small but vocal subsection of illiberal ideologues who’ve commandeered both liberalism in general and the publishing world specifically, often using their power to attack well-meaning authors in the form of social media pile-ons and the resulting cancellations, both of which I’ve experienced.
I’ve had two book contracts canceled because of my identity in relation to the subject matter. I am a white man. The irony of the big to-do being made over the banning of my Clemente book by conservative activists is that, were I to try and publish that exact same book today, I would not be able to get it published because of progressive activists.
In today’s world of children’s books, governed by the ideological mantra of “own voices,” I am not allowed to tell the story of anyone who’s not white or male.
Indeed, Winter’s book on Colin Kaepernick was one casualty of #OwnVoices pressures. Winter also points out left-wing censorship happens “behind the scenes, out of public view,” which arguably makes it far more insidious.
There is another factor as well. When attacks on literary works come from the right, they are typically counteracted not only by progressive activists but by institutions that act as guardians of culture: public schools and teachers’ unions, libraries, universities, publishers, the mainstream media. When the attacks are from the left, the same institutions typically offer no objections, or even collude.
The controversy over the March 2021 withdrawal from republication of six Dr. Seuss titles over alleged “hurtful and wrong” racial content (mentioned in Booklash as one example of troubling dead-author cancellations) is a case in point. At the time, the withdrawal—histrionically denounced by Republicans—was widely defended by liberal commentators as a simple marketing decision by a private company, Dr. Seuss Enterprises. But a closer look shows that this decision was almost certainly influenced by an anti-Seuss campaign amplified, among others, by School Library Journal and by the National Education Association. The union had started directing teachers not to use Dr. Seuss books and characters in Read Across America Day celebrations, even though the event was originally launched in tribute to the beloved author and coincides with his birthday. This campaign was based partly on racist stereotypes early in Theodore Seuss Geisel’s work as an advertising artist and cartoonist, but also relied on an incredibly shoddy paper that reinterpreted Seuss’s later work—much of it overtly anti-racist—as filled with covert white supremacist tropes. And once Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would discontinue the handful of titles—which include Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street—and effectively conceded that they were racist or at least racially insensitive, a number of public libraries and library systems responded by removing the discontinued books from their shelves.
DESPITE ITS OMISSIONS and occasional waffling, Booklash is an important step in the right direction: a major institution within the liberal intellectual establishment acknowledging left-wing illiberalism as a serious problem.
The report concludes with a handful of recommendations, some directed toward institutions (e.g., the Goodreads website should take steps to curb “review-bombing” and “toxic outrage”; publishers should issue “formal statements of principles” and be more transparent about any cancellation decisions). But Booklash also calls for a “broader tonal shift in the country’s literary discourse,” suggesting that it might start with a widespread endorsement of the 1953 “Freedom to Read Statement.”
Such a shift must also include much greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stand up to pressures, particularly when it’s a matter of just a few voices denouncing alleged bigotry and “harm” in works the vast majority of people from the supposedly injured group do not see as offensive. But this would also require challenging a key tenet of social justice progressivism: the belief that even to dispute a claim of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is in itself “problematic,” and in most cases actively harmful. Such claims must be examined skeptically, especially when suppression of speech or other expression is at stake.
Pushing back against left-wing illiberalism in publishing need not entail a general dismissiveness toward the existence of racial or gender-based injustice and prejudice in American culture, particularly given the recent rise of overt white supremacism, misogyny, and homophobia on the far right and their seepage into more mainstream right-wing discourse. What it does mean, though, is understanding that “canceling” books and authors for transgressing progressive moral codes does nothing to counteract injustice and prejudice. Instead, it inhibits and silences important conversations and trivializes the very evils it supposedly protests.