(NEW YORK)—In a new report,  Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, PEN America warns that social media blowback and societal outrage are imposing new moral litmus tests on books and authors, chilling literary expression and fueling a dangerous trend of self-censorship that is shrinking writers’ creative freedom and imagination.

Offering a forceful defense of the freedom to imagine, write, and publish, PEN America, the premier free expression and writers organization, implores stakeholders across the literary community – including publishers, authors, institutions and readers –  to be zealous guardians of literary freedom and to avoid giving in to pressure to pull books because of content that some consider offensive.

The report argues that book withdrawals in the face of criticism–though relatively rare—have ripple effects, shrinking the space for risk-taking in literature and circumscribing what future books will be proposed and signed. The report states. “As a society we need to be able to engage in free debate about books without resorting to denying readers the opportunity to read them and come to their own conclusions.”

In addition, the report rejects “an identity-essentialist approach to literature: that writers can only responsibly tell the stories that relate to their own identity and experiences.” Such an approach is incompatible with the freedom to imagine that is essential for literary creation, PEN America argues.

In an introduction to the report, PEN America President Ayad Akhtar wrote: “We believe that it is possible to move boldly forward for equity in publishing without disavowing individual books and applying new moral litmus tests to stanch ideas deemed offensive.”

Drawing from months of research and dozens of conversations in the literary and publishing community–including with authors whose book contracts were canceled and editors who responded to calls to withdraw books from publication–the report includes in-depth accounts of many of the most contentious literary controversies over the past eight years.

In the report, PEN America cautions publishers against giving in to newly-drawn lines that restrict the space for the writer’s prerogative to imagine and create literature: “It is imperative that the literary field chart a course that advances diversity and equity without making these values a cudgel against specific books or writers deemed to fall short in these areas.”

Among its recommendations, the report urges the literary review site Goodreads to implement new protocols to ensure reviewers have read the book in question before posting a review and to prevent tactics like “review-bombing,” the online practice of users giving negative reviews to harm sales of a book.

Akhtar, the playwright and novelist, said that as a literary organization that defends writers, PEN America’s leadership felt it was important to articulate some of the “more intangible consequences” of what is happening culturally within these literary conversations.

He said: “I hope that this report will give publishers, authors, and commentators new ways to think about what we should be doing to support a healthier literary culture. Questions about harm, stereotypes, and representation, are important–but they shouldn’t create an atmosphere where they become an excuse for suppression of speech.”

Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s chief of literary programming, said: “As an organization that stands in support of writers and readers, we are concerned about a culture in which books are suppressed because they may cause offense.  This report is a call to action for the literary community writ large to renew its vow to defend the freedom to read.”

This report is PEN America’s latest in-depth examination of the publishing industry; its 2022 report Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, found deep and persistent obstacles to bringing more titles by authors of color to commercial success and exposed a broad range of systemic shortcomings in fostering a diverse and inclusive approach to publishing.

PEN America has also been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans that rob students of exemplary literary works and undermine the freedom to read as protected by the Constitution. The wave of book censorship nationwide is worse than anything seen since the McCarthy Red Scare era, with PEN America counting more than 4,000 book bans since the fall of 2021.

Last month, the American Library Association commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Freedom to Read Statement, an expansive vision of literary freedom drafted by librarians and publishers in 1953 during the Red Scare period, by re-releasing it with a set of new signatories, including PEN America and every living former president of the organization.

The Booklash report argues that the principles of the statement are as important as ever and urges the publishing industry to recommit to its  concepts.

The report also specifically addresses:

  • Social media criticism of books judged to be problematic for reasons relating to racial or other forms of representation
  • The rising tendency to look to an author’s identity as a test for what they are allowed to write
  • Cases where an author’s estate has posthumously revised the author’s work to meet contemporary social standards
  • When authors revise or withdraw their own work in response to criticism, including in cases where the book has not yet been published
  • When publishers withdraw book contracts or published books in response to criticism of either the book or the author
  • The rising contentions of publishing staff that publishing certain books and authors clashes with industry values

Laying out its positions on some of the most controversial issues in the literary world today, PEN America uses this report to:

  • Explore and explain how new litmus tests over identity in literature can hurt the very writers they are intended to serve–such as LGBTQ+ writers or writers of color
  • Challenge the notion that expanding diversity in publishing requires publishers to withdraw or disavow books from authors who write about communities not their own
  • Warn that readers and reviewers who decry books as “harmful” or “dangerous” risk giving credence to the narratives of book banners
  • Call on publishers to highlight how an expansive conception and protection of free expression is the bedrock for a more broadly free society.

PEN America concludes by calling for an industry-wide recommitment from publishers and literary institutions to the principles of the Freedom to Read Statement—and by offering specific advice to publishers on how to defend their books in the face of calls for withdrawal. As part of its call, PEN America uses this report to recommit itself to these principles, including through upcoming programming and events.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057