Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm
Introduction: The “Problematic” Discourse and Books
In the past few years, the literary community has seen waves of activism that have galvanized much-needed and overdue change in the industry. National movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have pushed publishers to recommit to accountability, representation, and social justice more broadly. Readers are challenging stereotypes, stimulating new conversations about responsible storytelling, and pushing for a more diverse, representative publishing industry.
As PEN America previously detailed in Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing, our 2022 report on roadblocks to greater diversity in the industry, this new wave of literary activism is pushing for a more diverse literary canon, one that better reflects the American populace today.1James Tager and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and the Publishing Industry,” PEN America, October 17, 2022, https://pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/ That work is far from done, and PEN America has called upon publishers to reexamine some of their core conventions – from the structure of author advances to the norms of the acquisition process –to open up greater opportunities for writers with varying backgrounds and degrees of access to the industry.2James Tager and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and the Publishing Industry,” PEN America, October 17, 2022, pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/
Yet amid these necessary shifts, some readers, writers, and critics 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. At one extreme, some critics are calling for an identity-essentialist approach to literature, holding that writers can only responsibly tell the stories that relate to their own identity and experiences.3Shuli de la Fuente-Lau, “What Does Own Voices Mean? And Why It Matters,” Little Feminist, February 22, 2021, littlefeminist.com/2021/02/22/what-does-own-voices-mean/ This approach is incompatible with the freedom to imagine that is essential to the creation of literature, and it denies readers the opportunity to experience stories through the eyes of writers offering varied and distinctive lenses.
These critics have argued that “problematic” books or authors deserve special censure from the literary world—with “problematic” being a catchall term ranging from an author accused of committing a crime to one who relies on lazy narrative conventions. Fiction that is regarded as employing stereotypes, outdated tropes, or unrealistic character sketches may be described as threatening “harm” or being “dangerous.” In the past several years, books deemed problematic due to their authorship, their content, or both have been subjected to boycotts, calls for withdrawals, and harassment of their authors. Some have argued that merely to read the book is to become complicit in its alleged harms. While proponents of these arguments are, of course, free to make them, such arguments risk laying the groundwork for, and justifying, the ostracism of authors and ideas and the narrowing of literary freedom writ large.
Many of these conversations are happening in the realm of young adult (YA) literature. Engaged readers and writers predominantly represent younger generations especially attuned to the moral imperative of inclusivity and the ills of stereotypes and other potentially offensive tropes in literature. Even so, critics who apply a rhetoric of harm in their evaluation of YA books risk playing into the hands of book banners, who also use the language of harm and describe books as “dangerous.” 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.
In articulating this imperative, PEN America draws in part from the Manifesto on the Democracy of the Imagination, a statement unanimously endorsed by over 100 PEN Centers at the 2019 PEN International Congress, which says in part: “PEN stands against notions of national and cultural purity that seek to stop people from listening, reading and learning from each other. . . . PEN believes the imagination allows writers and readers to transcend their own place in the world to include the ideas of others.”4“The Democracy of the Imagination Manifesto,” PEN International, October 2, 2019, pen.org.ua/en/manifest-demokratiya-tvorchoyi-uyavy-uhvalenyj-na-85-mu-mizhnarodnomu-pen-kongresi
Authors and publishers have felt compelled to respond to this intensifying form of literary criticism, which is amplified through online discourse. Authors accused of racial or other forms of insensitivity have sometimes apologized, sometimes held course. In rare cases, authors have taken the extraordinary step of delaying and editing their book to respond to criticism, even choosing to withdraw it from publication entirely. In some cases feedback is taken and changes made truly voluntarily, though it is sometimes unclear whether authors do so because they genuinely accept the critique levied against them or because they feel forced to compromise their artistic vision to appease their most vocal critics or to avoid inviting more widespread opprobrium.
Publishers, too, can feel obligated to address these criticisms, through apologetic statements, changes to author tours, or requests for edits. There have been several instances when publishers have responded by doing something far more drastic: canceling a book contract or pulling a book from circulation.
In researching this report, PEN America examined 16 cases of author, publisher, or estate withdrawals of books between 2021 and 2023, with the most recent occurring in June 2023.5Three Rivers by Sarah Stusek (2023); The Snow Forest by Elizabeth Gilbert (2023); Reframe Your Brain: The User Interface with Happiness and Success by Scott Adams (2023); Bad & Boujee by Jennifer M. Buck (2022); The Blue Eye by Roderick Hunt (2022); The Dictator by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Barry Blitt (2022); Deep Denial by Chris Cuomo (2021); Ook and Gluk: Kung Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey (2021); Philip Roth by Blake Bailey (2021); The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait by Blake Bailey (2021); The Fight for Truth by John Mattingly (2021); The Tyranny of Big Tech by Josh Hawley (2021); Jesus For You by author Ravi Zacharias and various other titles (2021); Welcome to the Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics by Julie Burchill; Various Dr. Seuss titles (2021); one title withdrawn during this date range that is not named in the report for confidentiality reasons. None of these books were withdrawn based on any allegation of containing factual disinformation, nor the glorification of violence, or plagiarized passages. Their content or author was simply deemed offensive. Fewer than half of the books are available for readers to buy today, and only four are still in print.6Oxford Languages definition of “in print”: (of a book) available from the publisher.
While decisions to remove books from circulation remain relatively rare, each withdrawal sets a precedent: one where publishers see jettisoning a book as a legitimate response to criticism, even criticism from those who have not read the book. The normalization of this tactic threatens to shrink the space for risk-taking and creative freedom in the publishing world.
Some of the objections to books – as harmful, dangerous, or hateful, especially to children – that have led to author and publisher withdrawals mirror rhetoric that has led to pulling books from school and library shelves in Florida, Texas, and elsewhere. If advocates for an open society accept the principle that books should be as widely available as possible, that readers should have access to a broad range of topics and perspectives, that offense taken by certain groups of readers cannot be grounds to withhold books from availability, and that withdrawing books from circulation is rarely—if ever—justified, these precepts must extend not just to government book banning but also to how the literary community governs itself.
In major publishing houses, staffers have increasingly expressed opposition to specific book contracts with writers whom they allege to be promoting forms of harm, in some cases going so far as to demand that contracts be nullified. The debate within the literary field has become a debate within publishing houses, calling into question how these publishers define and balance their mission and moral obligations.
Perhaps the most profound articulation of American publishers’ mission and obligations comes from the Freedom to Read Statement, a document first drafted by a group of librarians and publishers in 1953 in response to McCarthyism and the moral panics of the Red Scare. It reads, in part:
We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend. We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.
The imperative to “jealously guard” the freedom to read is a principle that stretches beyond adherence to the First Amendment and beyond vigilance against government interference. This guardianship also requires a stalwart defense of the right of authors to write books that others may find offensive—and the right of publishers to publish them, and of readers to choose to read them.
Of course, readers and the general public have the right to express their strong views, including on social media. Robust, even contentious public debate about books and literature is part of a vibrant democracy. And authors and publishers should be open to criticism for the books they release, including charges of racial, gender, or other forms of insensitivity. When challenged with such criticism, they should be afforded the space to reflect, engage in dialogue, and—where warranted—to change their minds. Advocates for free expression need not deny that, under particular circumstances, language may lead to concrete, measurable harm. This is particularly so when individuals or groups are subjected to pervasive stereotyping and denigration over long periods of time. Indeed, the written word’s power to prompt change in the real world is what makes writers the target of autocrats and oppressors around the world. But we are concerned when the rhetoric of harm is levied against a book such that any defense of the book’s literary or social merits is seen as automatically invalid. Such tactics mirror those of book banners who cite particular scenes or passages depicting disturbing events or that are sexually explicit to argue for removal of whole works of literature from classrooms or libraries.
Books are controversial for myriad reasons. As former PEN America President Salman Rushdie has famously said: “Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.” Defending a robust space for creative expression and for a broad exchange of ideas and perspectives requires making room for controversial books, books that offend, books that “get it wrong.” Employing a separate standard for books that are alleged to promote harm threatens the robustness of that space.
PEN America hopes this report will shed light on these debates, offer guidance, and argue for a firm defense of literary freedom. As a society, we need to be able to engage in free debate about books without resorting to denying readers the opportunity to read these books and come to their own conclusions.
The Freedom to Read Statement
As private businesses, publishers have a legal right to independently determine what and whom they will publish, including when to cancel or withdraw a book or contract. And while American publishers do not have a legal responsibility to uphold freedom of expression, as government officials do under the First Amendment, they have long committed to a social and moral vision of themselves as guarantors of both the author’s freedom to create and the reader’s freedom to read. These commitments have been most forcefully enumerated in the American Association of Publishers/American Library Association Freedom to Read Statement.
The Statement was drafted in 1953, at the height of the second Red Scare, by a delegation of over 3,000 librarians and publishers in direct response to the pressures of McCarthyism, which aimed to set new, politically driven moral standards for what ideas and perspectives were acceptable in American society. The finalized statement established commitments for publishers and librarians regarding the freedom to read.
The Statement made headlines around the country—national and regional newspapers like The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun ran it in full, and it garnered endorsements from a broad range of other publications, including TIME, Newsweek, and The New Republic.
The Statement was updated in 1973 and 2004. Members of the American Association of Publishers, including nearly 140 publishers, have committed themselves to it.
The Statement’s core propositions are:
PEN America believes that these principles remain as relevant today as they were in 1953 and that they should serve as a guiding touchstone for all publishers. To that end, in 2023, PEN America—and 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 others publishers, authors, and free expression and literary organizations to re-sign the statement on the 70th anniversary of its signing.7 In addition to current PEN America president Ayad Akhtar, this list includes Kwame Anthony Appiah, Louis Begley, Ron Chernow, Joel Conarroe, Jennifer Egan, Frances FitzGerald, Peter Godwin, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, Michael Scammell, and Andrew Solomon; https://uniteagainstbookbans.org/freedomtoread/#signatories.
Methods and Report Layout
Research for this report involved substantial desk research from publicly available sources as well as conversations with more than two dozen industry professionals, including editors, publishing executives, literary agents, authors, and attorneys. Of these interviewees, 14 of the authors, editors, and literary agents we spoke with had personally experienced or participated in a situation where a book was withdrawn from intended or actual publication. Many interviewees spoke on condition of anonymity, either to protect their professional connections or to avoid taking a public stance on a hotly debated issue.
Part I of the report examines major debates in the literary arena on themes of identity and harm. We examine several controversies of the past few years over books that were alleged to contain harmful stereotypes, racially appropriative language, or otherwise “problematic” content when viewed through the lens of equity. This section also explores the issue of toxicity in online literary spaces and the extent to which social media outrage has impacted the book review process. We then critically examine several arguments that are gaining currency in the literary world regarding authors who write from diverse perspectives or who explore narratives from cultures not their own—that is, the question of who can write what stories.
The subsequent sections examine the ways that writers and publishers have responded to the critique that their intended or published book is dangerous or harmful—primarily allegations that the book or author is insensitive or inappropriate toward people of color or other marginalized communities.
Part II focuses on actions that authors have taken in response, while Part III focuses on actions that publishing institutions have taken. Part IV focuses on the phenomenon of publishing staff emerging as a voice of increasingly open dissent against controversial authors, to the extent of calling for publishers to cancel contracts. The report ends with conclusions and recommendations, including a call for literary and publishing institutions to uplift the Freedom to Read Statement as a set of principles that all conscientious literary citizens should support.
PART I: THE NEW DEBATES OVER REPRESENTATION, HARM, AND IDENTITY IN LITERATURE
A New Forum for Debate
In the past decade, many debates over a book’s merits have migrated from the pages of established critical forums, like book reviews and newspapers, to social media feeds. On online platforms like Goodreads, “BookTok,” and “Book Twitter,”8After this report was sent to layout, Elon Musk announced the rebranding of Twitter to X. readers can make their opinions—and criticisms—heard by fellow readers, authors, and industry power players like never before.
One anonymous editor who stewarded a book through significant social media scrutiny told PEN America that online platforms have transformed the feedback loop between publishers and readers. “Before, there was a wall—you would have no way to get in touch with a publisher,” she explained. “But social media has changed people’s ability to get their message in front of the people in charge.”9PEN America interview with a former editor at a Big Five publishing house, March 2023. This democratizing effect can be a powerful force for change. Campaigns like #MeToo and #WeNeedDiverseBooks10This campaign grew into the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books, founded in 2014: diversebooks.org have empowered individuals to speak directly to and demand change from previously unreachable institutions.
Another such movement has been the #OwnVoices campaign. In 2015, YA author Corinne Duyvis first used this hashtag on Twitter to recommend books “about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.”11“Corinne Duyvis, “#OwnVocies,” Corinne Duyvis, accessed July 31, 2023, corinneduyvis.net/ownvoices/ Duyvis’s tweet went viral in authors’ circles and—in a testament to Book Twitter’s growing power—spawned a drive in the industry to cultivate, support, and celebrate writers from historically underrepresented backgrounds. The hashtag itself became a mainstay of marketing campaigns, deal announcements, trade reviews, and literary discourse—conversations that drove the creation of initiatives like #DVPit, an annual event connecting emerging “diverse voices” with agents.12Claire Kirch, “Q&A with Corinne Duyvis,” Publishers Weekly, September 2020, publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-authors/article/84336-q-a-with-corinne-duyvis.html; Shannon Steffens, “Despite Controversy, #OwnVoices is Here to Make a Difference,” WWU Undergraduate and Graduate Scholarship, Spring 2021, cedar.wwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1496&context=wwu_honors
The rise of social media as a primary setting for literary discourse brings many benefits. These accessible forums give voice to communities that are traditionally underrepresented in critics’ circles and introduce opinions and judgments that may fall outside the general consensus. “Now readers can directly influence the publishing industry,” Beth Driscoll, an expert on contemporary book culture and global publishing, wrote about Goodreads in 2021. “And compared to established tastemakers and gatekeepers, these readers are more likely to be young, to be women, to be people of colour; not necessarily already well-networked or located in metropolitan centres of London and New York.”13Beth Driscoll, “How Goodreads is Changing Book Culture,” Kill Your Darlings, June 15, 2021, killyourdarlings.com.au/article/how-goodreads-is-changing-book-culture/# They also provide the opportunity for authors to engage in direct dialogue with their fans and critics.
Toxicity in Online Literary Spaces
At the same time, certain now-commonplace patterns of activity in online literary forums raise serious concerns. Commentators have noted that online literary conversations have become increasingly toxic – with authors being subjected to an intense volume of negative social media comments, condemnations, and public call-outs, for writing on specific topics or from certain perspectives, frequently from commentators who have not read the book in question.
In this report, PEN America describes certain patterns of activity as “toxic” in reference to their potentially corrosive effect on the freedoms to imagine, read, and publish as outlined in the Freedom to Read Statement. PEN America stands firm in its support of open debate and discourse, especially when it comes to literary interpretation. However, certain forms of “toxic” literary activity shade into explicit harassment and threats. There is also an element of volume and virality, where what is at issue is not the content of individual critiques but their pile-on nature. Many of these tactics, like online review-bombing and coordinated calls for book withdrawal, threaten to narrow – rather than expand – the space for the very dialogue we seek to protect.
These forms of toxicity have been particularly prevalent in the YA space, surging to the fore around 2016 and often involving allegations of racism directed at a particular author or book.14See e.g. Lucy V. Hay and Lixzie Fry, “‘Toxic YA’ Twitter Controversy is Actually 2 Difficult Debates,” accessed July 31, 2023, lucyvhayauthor.com/toxic-ya-twitter-controversy-is-actually-2-difficult-debates/; Jesse Singal, “Teen Fiction Twitter is Eating Its Young,” Reason, June 2019, reason.com/2019/05/05/teen-fiction-twitter-is-eating-its-young/; Molly Templeton, “YA Twitter Can Be Toxic, But It Also Points Out Real Problems,” Buzzfeed News, June 24, 2019, buzzfeednews.com/article/mollytempleton/ya-twitter-books-publishing-amelie-wen-zhao-social-media; “While the motivation behind the movement for more diverse voices is commendable,” one essayist wrote, “the manifestation of this impulse on social media has been nothing short of cannibalistic.”15Jesse Singal, “Teen Fiction Twitter is Eating Its Young,” Reason, June 2019, reason.com/2019/05/05/teen-fiction-twitter-is-eating-its-young/
There are growing expectations that YA authors maintain an online presence and interact with readers and critics. “As YA experienced drastic change as a category and Twilight pushed it to soaring new heights, Twitter became fundamental to the rapidly expanding community forming around it,” bookseller Nicole Brinkley explained in an essay on the subject. “YA publishing did two things very differently: first, the YA publishing industry made its target audience—its readers, its bloggers, its BookTubers and Bookstagrammers—part of its professional network. . . . Second, the YA publishing industry decided that Twitter was an essential platform for YA writers. Put simply, YA authors needed to be active on Twitter.”16Nicole Brinkley, “Did Twitter break YA? (Misshelved #6),” Coursehero, July 2, 2021, https://tinyletter.com/misshelved/letters/did-twitter-break-ya-misshelved-6
Social media imposes hefty demands on authors. Brinkley’s essay noted that today’s “YA publishing professionals must enact performances of perfection online: They must be constantly accessible (as demanded by the needs of their own marketing), while responding to everything that is happening all of the time (as demanded by their audience).”17Nicole Brinkley, “Did Twitter break YA? (Misshelved #6),” Coursehero, July 2, 2021, https://tinyletter.com/misshelved/letters/did-twitter-break-ya-misshelved-6
This expectation of “performances of perfection”, paired with social media algorithms that reward outrage over nuance, can produce a combustible mix. Over the past decade a series of pitched controversies have erupted in the YA field, with readers engaging in online campaigns to categorically label a book “problematic.” A selection of examples:
- The Raven King (2017), by Maggie Stiefvater, was accused of racism for several passages in which characters make fun of a half-Korean character18Scha Zakir, “It’s Raining Racist Authors: Time to get an Umbrella,” Affinity Magazine, February 21, 2017, affinitymagazine.us/2017/02/21/its-raining-racist-authors-time-to-get-an-umbrella/
- Everything, Everything (2017), by Nicola Yoon, was accused of ableism, in part, for the reveal that the protagonist was not in fact disabled19Jennifer J. Johnson, “Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon,” Disability in KidLit, September 4, 2015, disabilityinkidlit.com/2015/09/04/review-everything-everything-by-nicola-yoon/; Alaina Leary, “What “Everything, Everything” Gets Wrong About Living as a Disabled Person,” Teen Vogue, May 22, 2017, teenvogue.com/story/everything-everything-disabled-representation
- Sad Perfect (2017), by Stephanie Elliot, was accused of being triggering to those who had struggled with eating disorders20Aila, “ARC Review: Sad Perfect by Stephanie Elliot,” One Way or an Author, March 6, 2017, onewayoranauthor.wordpress.com/2017/03/06/arc-review-sad-perfect-by-stephanie-elliot
- When We Was Fierce (2016), by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo, was accused of racism for its use of an imagined Black “street dialect”21Alison Flood, “Publisher Delays YA Novel Amid row Over Invented Black ‘Street Dialect,’” The Guardian, August 16, 2016, theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/16/delays-ya-row-over-invented-black-vernacular-when-we-was-fierce
- A Fine Dessert (2015), by Emily Jenkins and with illustrations by Sophie Blackall, was accused of racism for its images of “smiling slaves”22Jennifer Schuessler, “‘A Fine Dessert’: Judging a Book by the Smile of a Slave,” The New York Times, November 6, 2015, nytimes.com/2015/11/07/books/a-fine-dessert-judging-a-book-by-the-smile-of-a-slave.html
- The Court of Thorn and Roses series (2015-present), by Sarah J. Maas, was accused of lacking diversity and misrepresenting people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals23Anna Garrison, “Let’s Unpack the Controversy Around ‘ACOTAR’ Author Sarah J. Maas,” Distractify, March 20, 2023, distractify.com/p/sarah-j-maas-controversy
- The Traitor’s Kiss (2017), by Erin Beaty, was accused of appropriating the story of Mulan and perpetuating “dark aggressor” stereotypes24Erin Beaty, “The Traitor’s Kiss,” Goodreads, accessed July 31, 2023, goodreads.com/en/book/show/29346870
- American Heart (2018), by Laura Moriarty, was accused of perpetuating a “white savior” narrative25See e.g. Emily May, “‘But I wasn’t done asking questions. I was . . .’” Goodreads, accessed July 31, 2022, goodreads.com/review/show/2117029381
- The Continent, by Keira Drake (2018), was accused of its “troubling portrayals within of people of color and native backgrounds.”26Lila Shapiro, “Can You Revise a Book to Make it More Woke?,” Vulture, February 18, 2018, goodreads.com/review/show/2117029381
“Problematic” is a term with no agreed-upon definition, but in practice such a charge has increasingly been employed as a sort of moral litmus test, 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.
Public outcry can erupt before a book even reaches shelves, meaning that people are reacting to promotional materials, small excerpted sections circulated online, or the impressions of a single reader. The controversy surrounding All the Crooked Saints, Maggie Steifvater’s 2017 YA fantasy novel, offers a glaring example: When news broke of its magical realist take on a fictional Latin-American community in Colorado, reviewers tanked the book’s Goodreads score before Stiefvater had even completed the manuscript.27Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html One Goodreads review—posted more than six months before the book’s release—reads, “Oh look, another racist, appropriating book by a clueless white author. Trash.”28Edith, “Oh look, another racist…” Goodreads, March 21, 2017, goodreads.com/book/show/30025336-all-the-crooked-saints
Allegations that a book is problematic—be they charges of racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, cultural appropriation, use of stereotypical tropes or conventions, or other issues—can drive public – and publisher – response to a book. One example of this is The Black Witch, a 2017 fantasy novel by Laurie Forest. The novel centers on a young protagonist attending university in a fictional magical society steeped in racism. The protagonist’s character arc addresses the racism she grew up with; Forest has described her novel as dealing with issues of race.
But while the book would go on to become a New York Times bestseller, it also became embroiled in controversy within the YA world. It began when bookstore employee Shauna Sinyard wrote a 9,000-word review blasting The Black Witch as “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read. . . . It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.” Sinyard, who is herself white, added that the book’s premise was “racist, ableist, homophobic, and . . . written with no marginalized people in mind.” As evidence, she quoted such dialogue as “The Kelts are not a pure race like us. They’re more accepting of intermarriage, and because of this, they’re hopelessly mixed.”29Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html What her review failed to contextualize, however, was that these quotes from the book’s racist characters provide the starting point for the protagonist’s narrative arc.
The review kicked off a wave of backlash against the book: The publisher, Harlequin Teen, reportedly received a torrent of emails demanding cancellation. The book’s Goodreads page was “review-bombed” with negative ratings, even as many negative reviewers acknowledged that they had not read it, casting their negative ratings as a form of protest against the book’s perceived racism.30Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html; Sadie Williams, “Vermont Fantasy Novel ‘The Black Witch’ Sparks Internet Fury,” Seven Days, April 26, 2017, sevendaysvt.com/vermont/vermont-fantasy-novel-the-black-witch-sparks-internet-fury/Content?oid=5298299
When book reviewer Kirkus gave the book a starred review, dozens of commentators demanded a retraction. The uproar was so pronounced that Kirkus felt compelled to run a follow-up essay. Editor Vicky Smith defended both the review and the importance of giving authors space to write objectionable characters, writing: “How are we as a society to come to grips with our own repugnance if we do not confront it? Literature has a long history as a place to confront our ugliness, and its role in provoking both thought and change in thought is a critical one. We feel that The Black Witch fits squarely in this tradition.”31Vicky Smith, “On Disagreement,” Kirkus, April 11, 2017, kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/disagreement/
Some social media commentators, taking up the call to protest the book, cast their objections in the language of harm.One tweeted: “Hey @HarlequinTEEN, I’d like to know what’s your intend [sic] regarding THE BLACK WITCH? Will changes be made to avoid ppl—TEENS—being hurt?”32Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html A teen blogger posted that she found the sentences that she saw, the ones that had been cherry-picked by critics to bolster their points, to be “very hurtful . . . just harmful and triggering.”33Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html She went on to urge others not to read The Black Witch, saying it caused her “emotional pain,” although she acknowledged she had not actually read it beyond those cherry-picked passages.
Some critics also called upon others not to read the book, with some describing reading it as a racist act.34Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html One tweet argued: “Reading a book specifically because it’s been called out for racism doesn’t make you a champion of independent thought. It makes you racist.”35Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html
The controversy did not derail the book, which gained commercial success, and the author herself has said that it was “a good conversation for me to learn from, to make sure I’m not lazy in my use of language.”36Sadie Williams, “Vermont Fantasy Novel ‘The Black Witch’ Sparks Internet Fury,” Seven Days, April 26, 2017, sevendaysvt.com/vermont/vermont-fantasy-novel-the-black-witch-sparks-internet-fury/Content?oid=5298299 But some of the responses—review-bombing the Goodreads page, calls for the publisher to withdraw publication, demands for reviewers to recant their endorsements, arguments that it was unethical to read a book accused of “hurting” teens—could raise the stakes and potential consequences of writing on certain topics and from certain perspectives, creating a chilling effect on future works.
This concern may be particularly pronounced for younger or debut writers. Author Kazuo Ishiguro has argued that “a climate of fear” is leading less established writers to avoid writing outside their personal experience. “I very much fear for the younger generation of writers,” he told the BBC, who “rightly perhaps feel that their careers are more fragile, their reputations are more fragile and they don’t want to take risks.”37Rebecca Jones, “Sir Kazuo Ishiguro warns of young authors self-censoring out of ‘fear’,” BBC, March 1, 2021, bbc.in/3QvzD20.
Since 2017, these trends in online literary behavior have extended from the YA space to publishing more broadly. Three recent examples, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Snow Forest, Cecilia Rabess’s 2023 debut novel Everything’s Fine, and Gretchen Felker Martin’s 2022 sci-fi horror book Manhunt were all targeted by review-bombing. In all three cases, one-star reviews began pouring in before the books were published, with critics objecting to the books’ premises—a story set in Russia, a story about a Black woman who falls in love with a conservative white coworker, and a story about a virus that targets trans people, respectively. In each case, critics objected to the presumed content rather than provide insights gleaned from reading the book themselves.
At its most extreme, review-bombing can keep a book from being published altogether. But even when a book does get published, the impact of such targeted pile-ons can reverberate for the author and readers. Rabess feared that the strafing of review-bombs six months before publication would devastate her novel’s reception once it hit shelves. “I was concerned about the risk of contagion and that readers and reviewers would dismiss the work without ever really engaging with it,” she told The New York Times. “I felt particularly vulnerable as a debut author, but also as a Black woman author.”38Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth Harris, “How Review-Bombing Can Tank a Book Before It’s Published,” The New York Times, June 26, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/06/26/books/goodreads-review-bombing.html?smid=nytcore-ios-share&referringSource=articleShare Both Rabess and Felker Martin also reported experiencing direct harassment and personal attacks as part of the backlash against their books.
At their best, sites like Goodreads function as channels for engagement and debate, driving sales and helping authors reach new audiences. But when they are used to pressure authors to change or pull their books, or to demand that readers avoid certain books altogether, users can chill the space for disagreement and unorthodoxy and discourage writers from taking chances in their work. Such public policing of literature risks snuffing out complexity and explorations of moral ambiguity. Xochitl Gonzalez, author of the New York Times best seller Olga Dies Dreaming, shared her concerns with how stories with characters from unsympathetic backgrounds were receiving public backlash that could lead to cancellations, saying, in an interview with PEN America: “Humanizing bad people is part of literature. . . . We’re the only art form left that’s allowed to have nuance.”39PEN America interview with Xochitl Gonzalez
Review-bombs are unique to the digital age, when the virality, reach, and volume of speech can itself have a censorious effect. Criticism of books is itself protected speech, a vital part of any public dialogue about a specific work. Yet the pile-on nature of online reviewing culture creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, one that at its most pronounced can threaten to narrow the space for creative expression and impair the freedom to write and read.
#OwnVoices Meets the Identity Trap
At a time when publishing is—rightly—under intense pressure to uplift the voices of writers of color and others with marginalized identities, the literary community has also been engaged in conversations about who has the authority and credibility to tell what stories. These conversations affect both fiction (what perspectives authors can write from) and nonfiction (what subject matter they can address.)
Movements like #OwnVoices are at the forefront of this conversation. When writers with marginalized identities create characters and stories that share those identities, they may incorporate nuances that come from their own experiences. Their authorship also ensures that writers from diverse communities profit from the expanding audiences for such stories.
But for some supporters of the movement, the hashtag has transformed from an entreaty to an inviolable edict. In May 2018, YA author and Book Twitter frequenter Kosoko Jackson tweeted: “Stories about the civil rights movement should be written by black people. Stories of suffrage should be written by women. Ergo, stories about boys during horrific and life changing times, like the AIDS EPIDEMIC, should be written by gay men. Why is this so hard to get?”40Kat Rosenfeld, “What is #OwnVoices Doing to Our Books?” Refinery29, April 9, 2019, refinery29.com/en-us/2019/04/228847/own-voices-movement-ya-literature-impact Books that run afoul of these constraints, critics say, risk causing irreparable damage. Little Feminist, a book subscription service for diverse children’s books, explicitly outlines “The Harm of Non-Own Voices Stories”: on its website: “At best, books not created by Own Voices authors and/or illustrators leave out nuances and may inaccurately capture cultural elements. . . . At worst, books not created by Own Voices authors and/or illustrators may perpetuate White Supremacy characteristics and harmful stereotypes.”41Shuli de la Fuente-Lau, “What Does Own Voices Mean? And Why It Matters,” Little Feminist, February 22, 2021, littlefeminist.com/2021/02/22/what-does-own-voices-mean/
There is no inherent contradiction between the belief that the publishing industry must transform to afford greater opportunities to authors from historically excluded backgrounds and the notion that writers must be unconstrained in their choice of subject matter. As PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel has said, “You can dismantle the barriers to publication for some without erecting them anew for others.” The conflation of the need for wider literary representation and strict litmus tests for the legitimacy of authorial voice—two related but distinct issues—threatens to do a disservice to both.
This burden of representation can unexpectedly fall on members the very communities that movements like #OwnVoices seek to elevate, forcing them to reveal aspects of their identity that they might not have otherwise chosen to make public. In 2020, for example, Becky Albertalli—the YA author of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, which inspired a movie and a Netflix series centering LGBTQ+ characters—came out as bisexual. A major motivator for her decision to come out, she explained, was the pressure she had faced from the YA community as an apparently straight author writing LGBTQ+ characters. In an essay, Albertalli wrote:
To me, it felt like there was never a break in the discourse, and it was often searingly personal. I was frequently mentioned by name, held up again and again as the quintessential example of allocishet42Allocishet = Allosexual [someone who regularly experiences sexual attraction], Cisgendered, Heterosexual inauthenticity. I was a straight woman writing shitty queer books for the straights, profiting off of communities I had no connection to. . . . Apparently it was obvious from my writing. Simon’s fine, but it was clearly written by a het. You can just tell. Her books aren’t really for queer people.43Becky Albertalli, “I know I’m late,” Medium, August 31, 2020, email@example.com/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62 (Italics original)
Albertalli took pains to note that she “believe[d] in the vital importance of #Ownvoices stories.” but added, “I don’t think we, as a community, have ever given these discussions the care and nuance they deserve.” And she made the coerced nature of her announcement clear: “This isn’t how I wanted to come out. This doesn’t feel good or empowering, or even particularly safe. Honestly, I’m doing this because I’ve been scrutinized, subtweeted, mocked, lectured, and invalidated just about every single day for years, and I’m exhausted.”44Becky Albertalli, “I know I’m late,” Medium, August 31, 2020, firstname.lastname@example.org/i-know-im-late-9b31de339c62
Albertalli may be the most high-profile example of social media pressure forcing this type of self-disclosure, but she’s not the only one. YA author Veronica Roth’s 2016 novel, Carve the Mark, about two clashing fictional societies in a sci-fi setting, was criticized as insensitive to both people of color and disabled people. Critics argued that the main character’s magical power—the ability to cause herself and others pain with just a touch—was ableist, in that it made the character’s relationship to pain her defining trait. In response, Roth revealed that she herself suffered from chronic pain, though writers noted that she was clearly uncomfortable disclosing it.45S.e. smith, “Personal connection: #OwnVoices, Outing, and the Ongoing Quest for Authenticity,” Bitch Media, October 14, 2020, bitchmedia.org/article/own-voices-outing-authors-credibility; Nancy Churnin, “Frisco-bound Veronica Roth talks about diverging from ‘Divergent,’ The Dallas Morning News, April 12, 2018, dallasnews.com/arts-entertainment/books/2018/04/12/frisco-bound-veronica-roth-talks-about-diverging-from-divergent/
Fantasy writer Leigh Bardugo, author of The Ninth House, told interviewers in 2019 that she felt “disturbed” by the expectation that she had to reveal her own history as a sexual assault survivor to write about sexual trauma. “I don’t believe that I should have to put that on display to justify writing a novel,” she declared. “I’m disturbed by the performances we require of women authors.”46Zan Romanoff, “Leigh Bardugo’s Book About Yale’s Secret Societies will “F*ck You Up A Little,” Bustle, October 9, 2019, bustle.com/p/leigh-bardugo-wants-ninth-house-to-fck-you-up-a-little-18841924
In a 2020 interview, Corrine Duyvis expressed dismay at what her hashtag had wrought in some segments of the literary world. “Regretfully,” she told Bitch Media, #OwnVoices “is regularly weaponized against marginalized authors. I’ve seen this happen along pretty much every imaginable axis of marginalization, and I absolutely hate that a hashtag that’s supposed to uplift marginalized authors is being used to police and pressure them.”47S.e. smith, “Personal connection: #OwnVoices, Outing, and the Ongoing Quest for Authenticity,” Bitch Media, October 14, 2020, bitchmedia.org/article/own-voices-outing-authors-credibility
PEN America’s report Reading Between the Lines found that the norms of the publishing industry force many marginalized authors into a kind of “identity trap,” siloing them into writing not just about their identity but about specific narratives of their identity that align with reader expectations.48James Tager and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and the Publishing Industry,” PEN America, October 17, 2022, pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/; Kat Rosenfeld, “What is #OwnVoices Doing to Our Books?” Refinery29, April 9, 2019, refinery29.com/en-us/2019/04/228847/own-voices-movement-ya-literature-impact Often, these narratives revolve around collective trauma: A Black writer, for example, may be expected to write about slavery or segregation, while a Colombian writer may be expected to write about migration or the effect of narco-trafficking on their community. In pushing marginalized authors to stick to the “correct” portrayals and topics, this identity trap leaves little room for a writer’s individual experiences, for the full diversity of opinions and experiences within an identity group, or simply for creativity itself. Ironically, movements like #OwnVoices have developed in part as a response to these pressures.
The imperative to write only from one’s identity reinforces the identity trap, flattening the experiences of various groups. At a 2022 PEN America panel, Ayad Akhtar, a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright and PEN America’s current president, expressed concern that his own writing, which includes “critique of [his] American-Muslim, Pakistani-Muslim community,” could, in the future, be eschewed by publishers for its failure to subscribe to monolithic expectations of diverse literature.49Cathy Young, “The Power of Words and the Need to Protect Free Speech,” The Bulwark, September 20, 2022, thebulwark.com/the-power-of-words-and-the-need-to-protect-free-speech/
These concerns have caused some in the literary community to reevaluate how they advocate for diversity in literature, to avoid imposing identity essentialism on authors. In June 2021, the literary organization We Need Diverse Books announced that it was jettisoning the term #OwnVoices, pledging to stop using it going forward and even removing it from previous blog posts. Explaining this decision, the organization wrote that using #OwnVoices as a “catch all” phrase “raises issues due to the vagueness of the term, which has then been used to place diverse creators in uncomfortable and potentially unsafe situations. It is important to use the language that authors want to celebrate about themselves and their characters.”50Alaina Lavoie, “Why We Need Diverse Books Is No Longer Using the Term #OwnVoices,” We Need Diverse Books, June 6, 2021, diversebooks.org/why-we-need-diverse-books-is-no-longer-using-the-term-ownvoices/
The problem with policing the relationship between an author’s personal identities and their subject matter goes far beyond subjecting members of marginalized groups to unwanted self-exposure. An author’s habitation and exploration of a world other than their own is the very essence of literary creativity. Part of the wonder of literature is imagining how an author can possibly conjure a historical period gone by, a futuristic universe, a character utterly unlike themself, a setting they have never experienced, or a social context that they discover through nonfiction immersive reporting. When an author persuasively renders such stories, the result is inspiration, pushing us as readers to see beyond the limitations of our own lives by experiencing and appreciating the vantage points of others, whether in art or in daily life. To suggest that authors must delimit their imaginations to conform to social expectations or preconceived notions of how particular communities must be portrayed impairs the role of literature to transcend and expand the bounds of both writers’ and readers’ experiences.
The acclaimed novelist Arundhati Roy has taken aim at sentiments that seek to confine authors to writing exclusively about their own experiences, saying in a March 2023 speech at the Swedish Academy:
Sealing ourselves into communities, religious and caste groups, ethnicities and genders, reducing and flattening our identities and pressing them into silos precludes solidarity. . . . Once this maze of tripwires has been laid, almost nobody can pass the test of purity and correctness. Certainly, almost nothing that was once thought of as good or great literature. Not Shakespeare, for sure. Not Tolstoy. Leave aside his Russian imperialism, imagine presuming he could understand the mind of a woman called Anna Karenina. Not Dostoevsky, who only refers to older women as “crones.“ By his standards I’d qualify as a crone for sure. But I’d still like people to read him.51Arundhati Roy, “Approaching Gridlock: Arundhati Roy on Free Speech and Failing Democracy,” LitHub, March 24, 2023, lithub.com/approaching-gridlock-arundhati-roy-on-free-speech-and-failing-democracy/
Akhtar has been similarly critical of this newly ascendant argument that writers must stick to their own experiences. At the 2022 PEN panel, he asked: “Do we really believe that the harm of appropriation is greater than the benefit of artistic empathy? Isn’t the artist’s magical self-insertion into the lives of others the very act of moral and aesthetic enlargement that defines what is most singular and necessary about literature and which is only possible through freedom, this singular freedom of the artist to imagine widely, to imagine completely without fetters?”52Cathy Young, “The Power of Words and the Need to Protect Free Speech,” The Bulwark, September 20, 2022, thebulwark.com/the-power-of-words-and-the-need-to-protect-free-speech/
At the 2021 PEN America Literary Gala, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the celebrated Harvard professor and literary critic, spoke in defense of the freedom to write and imagine: “The idea that you have to look like the subject to master the subject was a prejudice that our forebears—women seeking to write about men, Black people seeking to write about white people—were forced to challenge. . . . Any teacher, any student, any reader, any writer, sufficiently attentive and motivated, must be able to engage freely with subjects of their choice. That is not only the essence of learning; it’s the essence of being human. . . . Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries.”53Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Literary Freedom as an Essential Human Right,” The New York Times, October 12, 2021, nytimes.com/2021/10/12/books/review/freedom-literary-expression-henry-louis-gates.html
Amid the uproar, the publisher canceled Cummins’s book tour, citing “threats of physical violence” against Cummins and her bookstore hosts.61Claire Kirch, “Citing ‘Peril,’ Flatiron Cancels ‘American Dirt’ Tour, Apologizes for ‘Serious Mistakes,’ Publishers Weekly, January 9, 2020, publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/82288-citing-peril-flatiron-cancels-american-dirt-tour-apologizes-for-serious-mistakes.html; Stephanie K. Baer, “The “American Dirt” Book Tour Has Been Canceled Due to Safety Concerns as Critics Lash Out,” Buzzfeed News, January 29, 2020, buzzfeednews.com/article/skbaer/american-dirt-book-tour-canceled Flatiron released a statement saying, “The discussion around this book has exposed deep inadequacies in how we at Flatiron Books address issues of representation, both in the books we publish and in the teams that work on them.”62Claire Kirch, “Citing ‘Peril,’ Flatiron Cancels ‘American Dirt’ Tour, Apologizes for ‘Serious Mistakes,’ Publishers Weekly, January 9, 2020, publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/82288-citing-peril-flatiron-cancels-american-dirt-tour-apologizes-for-serious-mistakes.html According to a source who requested anonymity, Flatiron staff had extensive internal discussions about their public response—including whether they should issue a public apology or stand by the book.63PEN America interview with former editor at multiple Big Five publishing houses. The source noted that American Dirt’s economic success despite the criticism—the book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list—figured into these discussions.64Pamela Paul, “The Long Shadow of ‘American Dirt’” The New York Times, January 26, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/01/26/opinion/american-dirt-book-publishing.html
In conversations with interviewees, American Dirt came up repeatedly as an example of the shifting consensus around racial representation that publishers are increasingly considering in their decision-making before and after publication. Interviewees stressed that the book was a bellwether illustrating how a social media outcry can shift the conversation about a book, pressuring publishers to respond. 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. “Certainly,” said a former editor at a Big Five publisher, “the American Dirt controversy brought up a lot around the idea of, ‘Are we saying that not anyone can write any story? Do you have to have a certain identity?’ There’s a lot of fear around that.”65PEN America interview with former editor at multiple Big Five publishing houses.
Individual authors can bear the brunt of criticisms applicable to an entire industry. “In the end, the real fight over ‘American Dirt’ is not about this writer,” Bermudez wrote in the L.A. Times. “It’s about an industry that favors her stories over ones written by actual immigrants and Latinos.”66Esmeralda Bermudez, “Commentary: ‘American Dirt,’ is what happens when Latinos are shut out of the book industry,” Los Angeles Times, January 24, 2020, latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2020-01-24/american-dirt-book-latino-response But for commentators pushing for diversity in the literary world, such controversies offer opportunities to force their concerns onto the agenda, and elicit responses that could lead to structural change.
What makes this issue so confounding is that there are different strands of criticism of such books that are often intertwined. There is the essentialist view that a particular identitarian pedigree is a precondition to writing certain subjects. This view can originate from the position that no one is capable of rendering a story that does not conform to their own life experience, and/or the notion that to do so is to steal away an opportunity that should rightfully belong to someone more deserving. Then there is a more subtle view, which holds that while there should be no hard-and-fast rules dictating who can and cannot address which topics, authors who lack the proper identity credentials have a propensity to misportray the communities and characters they depict.
“White authors—you just can’t write these books,” one blogger argued, giving voice to the essentialist view. “’Can’t’ as in you shouldn’t write these books, because they should be told by people of color, but also because you’re simply unable to write them without them being problematic. . . . You’re taking seats from tables, because publishing is racist.”67Jo, “White Authors, Stop Writing Cultural Appropriation,” Once Upon a Bookcase, accessed July 31, 2023, onceuponabookcase.co.uk/2019/04/white-authors-stop-writing-cultural-appropriation.html
YA author L.L. McKinney, who in 2020 kicked off the #PublishingPaidMe movement on literary Twitter to highlight racial discrepancies in author advance payments, made a somewhat similar argument focusing on white authors’ fictional examinations of racism. In a now-deleted 2017 tweet, McKinney posited: “In the fight for racial equality, white people are not the focus. White authors writing books like #TheContinent or #TheBlackWitch, who say it’s an examination of racism in an attempt to dismantle it, you. don’t. have. the. range.”68See e.g. Patricja Okuniewska, “Social Media is Blowing Up Over Problematic Young Adult Novels,” Electric Lit, August 8, 2017, electricliterature.com/social-media-is-blowing-up-over-problematic-young-adult-novels/
Others, advancing a more textured critique, contend that they are insisting merely that authors write about characters with different identities well. Chicano writer David Bowles, a critic of American Dirt, tweeted: “Nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans. What’s wrong is erasing authentic voices to sell her inaccurate cultural appropriation for millions.”69David Bowles, “Nothing wrong with a non-Mexican writing about the plight of Mexicans …” Twitter, January 21, 2020, twitter.com/DavidOBowles/status/1219637250906038273 Columnist Nesrine Malik advanced a similar argument in The Guardian, writing:
“The problem isn’t that Cummins wrote a story that wasn’t hers to tell, but that she told it poorly, in all the classic ways a story is badly told. Two-dimensional characters, tortured sentences, an attempt to cover the saga of a migrant without even addressing the wider context of migration or inequality. . . . Money is poured into novels such as American Dirt at the expense of other works that tell stories about Mexicans or migrants that are more accurate, more nuanced but most importantly, far more interesting to a reader who the shallow world of publishing assumes is chronically unsophisticated.”70Nesrine Malik, “American Dirt’s problem is bad writing, not cultural appropriation,” The Guardian, February 3, 2020, theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/03/american-dirt-problem-bad-writing-cultural-appropriation-mexico
Bermudez and other Latino writers and commentators also balked at Cummins’s seven-figure advance. In the months following American Dirt’s release, a spreadsheet created by the #PublishingPaidMe movement cataloged that just two Latino writers reported receiving advances of $100,000 or more—compared with 78 white authors who reported the same.71James Tager and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and the Publishing Industry,” PEN America, October 17, 2022, pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/
Yet even with these more thoughtful critiques, making individual books and authors the poster children for systemic inequities inevitably skews the discourse. Cases like American Dirt don’t exist in a vacuum. The reaction to them reflects frustration with the racial disparities that continue to plague the publishing industry, particularly regarding whose stories and voices win fame and money. But when each book becomes a referendum on how well the publishing industry is doing in overcoming its legacy of white dominance, publishers may be tempted to avoid greenlighting any future volume that might play into the hands of critics. Moreover, the notion that certain readers get to adjudicate whether a book meets a particular standard of quality or gets the story “right” overlooks that literary judgments are subjective.
In Reading Between the Lines, PEN America argued that diversifying the ranks of the publishing industry—and of books published—will require a sustained, organization- and industry-wide effort that extends beyond simply hiring a new cohort of editors of color. 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.
Marketing stumbles can occur as early as the first announcement of a new book. PEN America spoke with two authors whose contracts were withdrawn after social media portrayed their books as racially insensitive in response to advance information released by the publishers. Both authors, speaking to PEN America on the condition of anonymity, expressed the belief that different marketing decisions could have reshaped their books’ reception and potentially enabled publication to proceed.
In Reading Between the Lines, PEN America found that diversity in marketing teams often lags behind the editorial side. More diverse editorial and publicity staff in publishing houses may help to provide less fuel for social media fires and minimize unanticipated consequences.
Literature and the Language of Harm
Many of the harshest critiques of specific books invoke the language of harm.
“There have been countless times where an author’s writing harmed me, simply because they were too ignorant about the struggles PoC face and also re: mental illnesses,” one reviewer wrote in 2017, criticizing several books for conventions like the “white savior” trope” shortly after explaining that “I really wanted to highlight the racism of this kind of authors [sic] because we need to stop supporting them and buying their books.”74Scha Zakir, “It’s Raining Racist Authors: Time to Get An Umbrella,” Affinity Magazine, February 21, 2017, affinitymagazine.us/2017/02/21/its-raining-racist-authors-time-to-get-an-umbrella/ (emphasis original)
Writing in 2019, another YA blogger argued that “if you know those books/the author is problematic, in my opinion, you should not be talking about them. . . . You shouldn’t be raving about them, posting photos of them, declaring your love for them from the rooftops. Yes, those books may personally mean a lot to you. Those books may have got you through a hard time. No-one is taking those books away from you, and no-one is telling you, you can’t love them. But if people have been hurt, I really think it’s time to acknowledge that, maybe, and definitely stop talking about them. Stop promoting them.”75Jo, “On Promoting Your Problematic Faves,” Once Upon a Bookcase, accessed July 31, 2023, onceuponabookcase.co.uk/2019/08/on-promoting-your-problematic-faves.html The reviewer went on to list a set of “problematic” books and authors that she felt readers should stop discussing.
At least some of these arguments conflate harm with offense. The two concepts are related; research has shown, for example, that children who internalize pervasive gender or racial stereotypes may suffer damaging effects that potentially last into adulthood.76“Exposure to gender stereotypes as a child causes harm in later life,” Fawcett Society, March 7, 2019, fawcettsociety.org.uk/news/fawcett-research-exposure-gender-stereotypes-child-causes-harm-later-life But to presume that anything that causes offense results in harm is specious, and can become a justification for policing literature to eliminate anything objectionable, to anyone. In too many cases, claims of harm are abstract. Allegations are made without an explanation of the precise harm caused or who endured it. Such claims of harm are particularly consequential when they form the basis for calls to remove access to books for all.
Certainly, YA authors and publishers bear a special obligation to consider the wellbeing and development of young readers. Yet labeling a book harmful stigmatizes it, and presumes that it can have only one effect on a diverse group of readers. A book might conceivably cause harm (in the form of upset or retraumatization, perhaps) to one reader but be enlightening, or even simply harmless, to legions of others. Particularly absent any evidence of demonstrable and widespread tangible or measurable damage, claims of harm should not be used as justification to cancel or withhold books.
In recent years, labeling books “offensive,” “harmful,” and in particular “harmful to minors” has emerged as one strategy that lawmakers and book banners have used to translate their censorious demands on educational instruction and materials into law and policy. PEN America’s recent reports on book bans reveal the codification of “harmful materials standards” in multiple states, including Florida, Georgia, and Texas. These vague and overly broad standards extend far beyond federal definitions of obscenity and typically target books on topics like race and sexuality.77Jonathan Friedman, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” PEN America, September 19, 2022, pen.org/report/banned-usa-growing-movement-to-censor-books-in-schools/; Olivia Little, “Moms for Liberty is placing right-wing propaganda in public school libraries while continuing its censorship crusade,” Media Matters for America, April 22, 2022, mediamatters.org/critical-race-theory/moms-liberty-placing-right-wing-propaganda-public-school-libraries-while Laws like Georgia’s SB 226 open the door for an individual parent or guardian to unilaterally challenge any book that they allege to have “offensive content” and, if successful, remove the book from school or public libraries entirely.78Itoro N. Umontuen, “Georgia House passes bill that changes way books get banned in schools,” The Atlanta Voice, March 28, 2022, theatlantavoice.com/georgia-house-passes-bill-that-changes-way-books-get-banned-in-schools/
This is not to make a false equivalence: The wave of book banning being engineered by conservative activists and Republican legislators across the country is incomparably farther reaching, more damaging, more lasting, and more systematically threatening to our rights than criticisms of a small set of YA books on Twitter. But an argument that books must be blocked to avoid harming children does risk adding legitimacy to the restrictions being enacted against books that predominantly touch on subjects like race, gender, and sexuality in American schools. The best defense against book banning in schools is not giving any individual citizen or parent the power to restrict books for everybody based on their own particular views. Calls on publishers to edit or scrap a book in which editors, authors, and prospective readers see value, because of claims that it may harm children, can contribute to undermining a bedrock individual freedom.
Some might argue that it is morally right to call for books to be suppressed if they have included “harmful” stereotypes, while rejecting and fighting calls to suppress books that are claimed to be “harmful” for their presentation of race, sex or gender. But these arguments are easily inverted. While we can recognize that there are different motives at work—one an effort to redress historical inequity, the other an effort to erase diverse representation—the reality is that the principle of open access to the widest range of literature is best safeguarded universally. Definitions of harm are unavoidably subjective and cannot be the basis to deny access to books that would otherwise be accessible.
As the Freedom to Read Statement declares: “It is not in the public interest to force a reader to accept the prejudgment of a label characterizing any expression or its author as subversive or dangerous. The ideal of labeling presupposes the existence of individuals or groups with wisdom to determine by authority what is good or bad for others. It presupposes that individuals must be directed in making up their minds about the ideas they examine. But Americans do not need others to do their thinking for them.”79“The Freedom to Read Statements,” American Library Association, accessed July 31, 2023, ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/freedomreadstatement
Publishing must encompass the space to publish material that some consider offensive and that may even risk causing harm. Indeed, there is no such thing as a forceful defense of free expression that does not extend to such works. As Salman Rushdie, the novelist and former PEN America president, has put it: “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”80Maya Yang, “‘This is shocking’: writers and celebrities horrified by Salman Rushdie attack,” The Guardian, August 12, 2022, theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/12/salman-rushdie-attack-reaction-journalists-writers-celebrities
The Dangers of Labeling Books Dangerous
Labeling a book dangerous or harmful is both a criticism and an implied call for action to address or prevent the harms the book purportedly poses. As one journalist put it, “Some feel that condemning a book as ‘dangerous’ is no different from any other review, while others consider it closer to a call for censorship than a literary critique.”81Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html
Various interviewees expressed concern about the view that writers should avoid promoting “harm” in their books—with a definition of “harm” that is broad and in flux and that extends to content that offends. They worried that the current focus on harm was prompting writers to self-censor what subjects they explore, opinions they offer, and stories they tell. The result is less room for risk-taking.
Jonah Winter, the prize-winning author whose book The Dictator was withdrawn as a result of publisher concern that it would be too controversial (a case we explore further in Part III), told PEN America that he feels he has much less space to write challenging books today than he did previously. “It has shut me down, creatively,” he said. “There is always a censor perched on my shoulder, telling me I cannot write about this or that topic . . . even before I put pen to paper. I just don’t see the point.”82PEN America email correspondence with Jonah Winter, March 2023.
One author who received a wave of criticism for allegedly offensive portrayals before their book was even released, leading to book’s cancellation, told PEN America that the experience made them doubtful about their ability to publish books that address controversial topics, even if they do so conscientiously: “The commonly held writing advice is that, like, if you just work really hard and you really do your research, and make sure the voice is authentic, get your sensitivity readers, it will be okay. And I don’t think that’s true at all.”83PEN America interview with author, February 2023. Today, they said, “I think if someone was writing a book anywhere along the lines of what I had written, I would tell them not to bother. If I had the same book idea today that I had for that book, I think I would probably run away from it.”
This author feared that readers, especially those who had not even read the book, were no longer giving writers the benefit of the doubt. “I hate to say this, but when it feels like the reading community is reading books, or reading about books, in bad faith, it makes you not want to write a book,” they said. “It doesn’t make you want to participate in that world in any way. I know other authors feel this way, too. Like, why would you want to make something and put it out in the world when it feels like everybody is just looking for a reason to hate it?” It’s a dynamic, the author argues, that appears to be worsening and informs the writing process: “Any decision you make in a book, you are just so much more aware of what people are going to say about it on social media. And now it feels like a very common thing—like, what book are we arguing about this week?”84PEN America interview with author, February 2023.
Publishing professionals have noticed this hesitation. “Many writers are more reluctant to write centrally about an experience that is not their own,” an editor told PEN America. “It is more fraught than it was a decade ago.”85PEN America interview with former Penguin Random House editor.
Back in 2017, Vulture’s Kat Rosenfeld spotlighted this new style of literary call-out of books as harmful in an essay titled “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter.” She reported that, even as she researched the topic, she found YA Twitterati employing the language of harm to discourage her reporting: “Rumors quickly spread that I had threatened or harassed [a profiled author]; several influential authors instructed their followers not to speak to me; and one librarian and member of the Newbery Award committee tweeted at Vulture nearly a dozen times accusing them of enabling ‘a washed-up YA author’ engaged in ‘a personalized crusade’ against the entire publishing community.”
Rosenfeld wrote in conclusion, “Some publishing professionals imagine that the outrage will eventually become powerful enough to rattle the industry”86Kat Rosenfield, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” Vulture, August 7, 2017, vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html That was in 2017. And while this combustible approach to literature began in the YA space, the same dynamics exist in publishing more generally, which has become largely reliant on social media to produce the buzz that can drive market interest in a book—or sink it.
Interviewees caught up in more recent book controversies affirmed that in the heat of the moment, substantive critiques can be overshadowed by social media pile-ons, performative outrage, or in extreme cases online harassment and threats of violence toward a publisher or author. In the words of one editor, “Because you’re getting so many things thrown at you, it gets overwhelming and scary. . . . There became a clear divide between people that were concerned [about a book] and people that were more building a social media platform.”87PEN America interview with a former editor at a Big Five publishing house, March 2023.
As a result of all this, authors and publishers caught up in such conflicts can feel pressured to make quick decisions, in part to quell social media criticism and outrage. This impulse can outpace measured deliberation on a book’s merits and on the best ways to manage what can feel like a crisis—and an impulsive response can bring collateral consequences. “Sometimes critics are using you to make a point, rather than picking through it thoughtfully,” one Big Five editor told PEN America. “So it’s important not to be reactive. It’s important to look at the feedback and examine it rather than just reacting.”88PEN America interview with a former editor at a Big Five publishing house, March 2023.
The social movements of the past several years have empowered broader groups of people to speak out and force a response to their critiques. This widening of discourse brings many positives. But some of these institutional responses have knock-on effects on creative expression that participants may not intend or recognize. Sustaining the freedom to write demands a shared responsibility to uphold principles of tolerance, openness, and the acceptance of varied views and perspectives. Individuals and institutions alike need to be thoughtful and deliberate in reacting to books and responding to criticism of them, realizing that the actions they take can influence literary culture as a whole. The democratization of this discourse and influence is welcome and overdue. But it brings with it a set of responsibilities for all of us as literary citizens who are now exerting potent influence over literary culture as a whole.
Part II: When Authors Respond By Changing Their Work
When criticism of a book veers into accusations of harm, authors may feel compelled to respond to their audiences in real time—typically through social media. In some cases, this means fact-checking details that have been lost or misrepresented in the social media uproar. In 2018, for example, Dave McKean, the illustrator of the controversial children’s graphic novel A Suicide Bomber Sits in a Library, tweeted to clarify that the book’s Muslim protagonist was not in fact illiterate—a sticking point in a since-deleted, viral tweet posted by comics publisher Zainab Akhtar.89Alison Flood, “Graphic novel ‘ steeped in Islamophobia’ pulled after protests,” The Guardian, November 26, 2018, theguardian.com/books/2018/nov/26/a-suicide-bomber-sits-in-the-library-comic-pulled-protests-jack-gantos-dave-mckean; Dave McKean, “The boy can read – I removed any inference that he couldn’t from the final book,” Twitter, November 20, 2018, https://twitter.com/DaveMcKean/status/1064832876133392384
Some authors use online platforms to atone for their missteps and rectify their relationships with critics. In 2015, Emily Jenkins posted an apology after receiving significant social media blowback for her depiction of “happy slaves” in A Fine Dessert. In a comment on the diversity-centered blog Reading While White, Jenkins praised her critics for challenging and expanding her perspective: “As the author of A Fine Dessert, I have read this discussion and the others with care and attention. I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry.” Jenkins also pledged to donate her advance from the book to We Need Diverse Books.90Megan Schliesman, “On Letting Go,” Reading While White, October 31, 2015, readingwhilewhite.blogspot.com/2015/10/on-letting-go.html?showComment=1446389284847%23c7763644794125015907
The growth of online literary spaces like social media, blogs, and personal newsletters streamlines and facilitates this kind of dynamic back-and-forth between authors and critics. In most cases, even the most impassioned conversation about a controversial book remains just that: a conversation. In the past few years, however, some authors have responded to criticism by revising the book’s content, or by pulling their book from publication altogether.
Recent author-led revisions or withdrawals include Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Snow Forest (2023), Dav Pilkey’s Ook and Gluk: Kung Fu Cavemen from the Future by Dav Pilkey (2021), Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir (2019), and Kosoko Jackson’s A Place for Wolves (2019). These examples raise questions about how authors should respond to in-the-moment charges that their work is offensive or harmful: Do they have an obligation to respond to such criticism, to wrestle with the perceived impact of their work to the point that they make changes to the text? Or, conversely, does their perceived obligation to respond constrict their freedom of creative expression, essentially subjecting their work to post hoc edits by the public at large?
Changing creative output isn’t inherently negative. Authors, like anyone else, can grow, learn, and change, and some may take such criticism of their work as an opportunity to do just that. PEN America’s concern, however, is that authors may increasingly steer away from controversial topics and view assuaging public criticism of their books through post hoc edits—even when these edits do not align with their own creative vision—as a prerequisite for professional viability.
Zhao’s Blood Heir is perhaps the most recognizable case of author revisions in response to public criticisms. The novel, a YA fantasy story and Zhao’s first book, was set to publish in 2019. Her journey to publication began in October 2017, during a #DVPit Twitter event, where writers from marginalized communities pitch projects to participating agents. Peter Knapp liked Zhao’s pitch and offered to represent her. In December 2017, he secured a three-book deal through Delacorte Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Blood Heir is about the princess of a fictional kingdom who is falsely accused of killing her father, the king. The princess, Anastacya, secretly shares the blood of the Affinite—a group who are enslaved by the kingdom because they are feared for their powers. The book, the first in a trilogy, focuses on Anastacya’s search for her father’s killer against a backdrop of the kingdom’s system of human trafficking and indentured servitude.91Penguin Random House, Blood Heir, bit.ly/3YHhgMC. Zhao said the book was inspired by her Asian heritage and the problem of human trafficking on the continent.92Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7.
In early 2019, Delacorte sent advance copies of Blood Heir to reviewers, librarians, and booksellers. The publisher received positive responses, but strong critiques emerged as well, especially on Twitter and Goodreads. Some took the book to be an allegory of American slavery and found Zhao’s approach lacking in cultural sensitivity—especially her depiction of a slave auction and the concept that the enslaved population had inherently “dangerous powers.”93Claire Kirch, “Citing Social Media Controversy, Debut Author Delays Publication of YA Novel,” Publisher’s Weekly, January 31, 2019, bit.ly/3Kp0fCC. The critique surprised both the publisher and Zhao, who told The New York Times: “I was really caught off guard. It was very devastating to me that the book was read in a totally different context.”94Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7. In the same article, her publisher noted, “We had had many readers at that point and hadn’t received any such feedback.”95Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7.
On January 30, 2019, Zhao announced that she had asked her publisher to cancel the novel’s June 2019 release. She posted a note on Facebook and Twitter that read: “I am grateful to those who have raised questions around representation, coding, and themes in my book. . . . I immigrated from China when I was 18. . . . I wrote Blood Heir from my immediate cultural perspective. . . . The narrative and history of slavery in the United States is not something I can, would, or intended to write, but I recognize I am not writing in merely my own cultural context. . . . I have decided to ask my publisher not to publish Blood Heir at this time, and they have agreed. I don’t wish to clarify, defend, or have anyone defend me. This is not that; this is an apology.”96Amélie Wen Zhao, “To the book community…” Twitter, January 30, 2019, https://twitter.com/ameliewenzhao/status/1090706315440242688
Zhao’s publisher reportedly told her it would support her decision either way, whether she chose to halt or move forward with publication.97Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7. After Zhao’s decision, Dominique Cimina, vice president of publicity and corporate communications at Penguin Random House Children’s Books, told Publisher’s Weekly, “We respect Amélie’s decision, and look forward to continuing our publishing relationship with her.”98Claire Kirch, “Citing Social Media Controversy, Debut Author Delays Publication of YA Novel,” Publisher’s Weekly, January 31, 2019, bit.ly/3Kp0fCC.
After taking several months to review her original manuscript in light of the critiques, including by soliciting feedback from sensitivity readers and experts on indentured servitude, Zhao decided that she wanted to publish the book, albeit with some revisions. Her announcement of this decision sparked significant online debate. Some praised Zhao’s choice, while others accused her of bowing to a social media mob. . In her description of the revised version of Blood Heir, Zhao noted, “Ultimately, it’s true to my vision.”99Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7. In particular, Zhao said that she wanted to clarify that the indentured servitude depicted in the book was located within the cultural context of human trafficking in Asia.100Alexandra Alter, “She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found it Racist. Now She Plans to Publish,” New York Times, April 29, 2019, bit.ly/3XMAiA7. The result was a revised Blood Heir, published in November 2019. It drew critical praise, went on to become a bestseller, and was followed by the publication of the other two books in the trilogy, Red Tigress and Crimson Rain.101“The Blood Heir Trilogy,” Amélie Wen Zhao, accessed July 31, 2023, ameliezhao.com/blood-heir/ In the meantime, the public criticism largely faded.
Here, after due consideration, the author remained committed to her original vision—albeit with revisions to the text. The book went on to become a commercial and critical success; additionally, the public criticism of Blood Heir largely quieted down in response to Zhao’s decision to revise. Blood Heir is an example of how, with thoughtfulness and care, publishers and authors can address critiques while still moving forward to publish a book. This case is, among other things, a model of how revising a book is superior to withdrawing it—for the reason that a revised book still ultimately ends up being available to readers.
Even so, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that this book could have not been published—and that it required an act of courage from Zhao to wade back into controversy on behalf of her creative vision. The Blood Heir debate exposes the risks of insisting that a book can be judged through a single, specific lens of analysis—in this case, an analysis of the Black American experience grafted onto a book by an Asian author about human trafficking in her own cultural context—and then holding the book to a moral litmus test based on that specific lens. Pushing for book cancellation or revision on this basis also risks robbing people of the opportunity to bring their own experience and perspective to their understanding of a book.
PEN America spoke with one editor, who asked to remain anonymous, about the choice to revise a book with the full support of the author after criticism of alleged ethnic stereotypes. “It was intended to be a big title for us,” the editor recounted. “So ultimately, it was a big hit for the company financially. It was not done lightly, by any means.” The editor stressed that for the author, the most important consideration was that the content under fire was not central to the book’s premise. The editor recalls the author saying, ‘These things don’t matter to the plot in the story. I’m happy for the opportunity to change them.’”102PEN America interview with an editor at a BIg Five publishing house, March 2023. This distinction may be a useful one. Artists should be encouraged to grow from critical feedback—as long as the author sees that response as strengthening the book, not just making it more palatable to critics.
In other cases, an author may determine that a book is fully untenable and abandon it altogether, withdrawing it from circulation or from future publication. In March 2021, Scholastic and author Dav Pilkey announced their collective decision to withdraw The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, a spin-off of the extremely popular Captain Underpants series.) In a statement, Scholastic wrote: “With the full support of Dav Pilkey, Scholastic halted distribution of the 2010 book The Adventures of Ook and Gluk. Together, we recognize that this book perpetuates passive racism.”103Scholastic, “From Scholastic Regarding The Adventures of Ook and Gluk,” March 2021, bit.ly/3TUQI8y. When asked to comment, Pilkey confirmed that he instigated the decision to withdraw the book after he met with an individual who created a petition asking Scholastic to apologize for its “racist imagery”. Pilkey later issued a public apology on YouTube and committed to donating his advance and royalties to organizations that support arts education in underserved communities and fight anti-Asian hatred.104Andrea Immel, “Banned Books: Dav Pilkey’s Adventures of Ook and Gluk, a Post-Mortem,” Costen Children’s Library, April 11, 2021, bit.ly/3x6hX6o. In response to a request for comment from PEN America, Pilkey and his representative confirmed that he came to this decision independently and felt it was the right course of action, writing in an email: “This particular incident with Ook and Gluk is NOT censorship. It is an author who has acknowledged his mistake.”105Email correspondence between PEN America and Dav and Sabina Pilkey, June 2023.
Another example is that of Kosoko Jackson, author of the YA novel A Place for Wolves and himself a major voice in the YA sphere pushing for authors to stick to subjects and characters that relate to their own identities. His book, which centered a gay romance between two Western teens, came under heavy online criticism for using the Kosovo war as a backdrop. Critics also objected to the fact that the villain was an ethnic Albanian, given that during the war, Albanian Kosovar were victims of genocide. One particularly popular Goodreads review asked, using familiar language of harm and complicity, “Are you able to confidently justify supporting this book despite all of the above, despite the harm it can and will do to real people?”106Tamara Cook, “I have to be absolutely fucking honest here…” Goodreads, February 22, 2019, goodreads.com/review/show/2725140484?book_show_action=true
In response, Jackson issued a public mea culpa, citing the book’s “problematic representation and historical insensitivities” and announcing his request that the publisher, Sourcebooks, withdraw it from publication.107Ruth Graham, “Wolves,” Slate, March 4, 2019, slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html In his announcement, Jackson, too, drew upon the rhetoric of harm, apologizing to “those I hurt with my words, especially the Muslim readers, teens, and community members.”108Ruth Graham, “Wolves,” Slate, March 4, 2019, slate.com/culture/2019/03/ya-book-scandal-kosoko-jackson-a-place-for-wolves-explained.html; Emma Kantor, “Sourcebooks Cancels Kosoko Jackson’s YA Debut,” Publishers Weekly, February 28, 2019, publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/79392-sourcebooks-cancels-kosoko-jackson-s-ya-debut.html In response to a request for comment from PEN America, Sourcebooks affirmed: “This was the author’s decision. We respected and implemented that decision.”109PEN America email correspondence with Sourcebooks, June 2023.
At the time this report went to press, the most recent voluntary withdrawal has been by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. On June 6, 2023, the Penguin Random House imprint Riverhead Books announced the upcoming publication of Gilbert’s newest novel, The Snow Forest.110Michael Schaub, “New Novel by Elizabeth Gilbert Coming Next Year,” Kirkus Reviews, June 6, 2023, kirkusreviews.com/news-and-features/articles/new-novel-by-elizabeth-gilbert-coming-next-year/ The book was set to follow a group of resistors to the Soviet government in mid-20th-century Siberia. Almost immediately, The Snow Forest was review-bombed on Goodreads, with hundreds of commenters—who had not read it—reportedly leaving one-star reviews.111Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter, “‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Author Pulls New Book Set in Russia,” The New York Times, June 12, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/06/12/books/elizabeth-gilbert-book-russia.html. The Goodreads page has since been removed. On June 12, six days after the initial announcement, Gilbert released a video statement on Instagram saying that she would be “indefinitely delaying” publication. She cited as the rationale “an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers,” invoking their “anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now—any book, no matter what the subject of it is—that is set in Russia.” She concluded: “It is not the time for this book to be published. And I do not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced and who are continuing to experience grievous and extreme harm.”112Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter, “‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Author Pulls New Book Set in Russia,” The New York Times, June 12, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/06/12/books/elizabeth-gilbert-book-russia.html; Emily St. Martin, “Elizabeth Gilbert criticized for ‘wrongheaded’ decision to pull Russia-set novel,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2023, latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-06-13/elizabeth-gilbert-halts-publication-the-snow-forest
Some in the literary world worried publicly about the signal that Gilbert’s withdrawal sent to other writers. Rebecca Makkai tweeted, “So apparently, wherever you set your novel, you’d better hope to hell that by publication date (usually about a year after you turned it in) that place isn’t up to bad things, or you are personally complicit in them.”113Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter, “‘Eat, Pray, Love’ Author Pulls New Book Set in Russia,” The New York Times, June 12, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/06/12/books/elizabeth-gilbert-book-russia.html Leigh Stein wrote: “The idea that a novel about a family fleeing religious persecution from Communists is in any way ‘pro’ Russia is not only absurd—it’s also the exact same argument of potential ‘harm’ wielded by the crusading book banners in American schools. But more importantly, her self-cancellation sets a dangerous precedent for authors who lack her wealth, career stability, and clout.”114“Elizabeth Gilbert criticized for ‘wrongheaded’ decision to pull Russia-set novel,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 2023, latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-06-13/elizabeth-gilbert-halts-publication-the-snow-forest In our own statement, PEN America publicly called on Gilbert to reconsider, with CEO Suzanne Nossel saying that the choice of whether to read Gilbert’s book should lie with readers themselves, something that is only possible if the book is in fact published.115https://pen.org/press-release/pen-america-regrettable-that-elizabeth-gilbert-delayed-publication-of-new-novel-set-in-russia/
Author Roxane Gay, tweeting in response to Gilbert’s announcement, criticized the practice of Goodreads review-bombing, writing, “Goodreads really needs a mechanism for stopping one-star attacks on writers. It undermines what little credibility they have left. . . . People have reviewed books of mine that aren’t finished.”116Roxane Gay, “Goodreads really needs a mechanism…” Twitter, June 12, 2023, https://twitter.com/rgay/status/1668336078447869952
While all the authors in the above examples have stated that they took these actions not in response to outside pressure but out of sincere conviction that it was the right thing to do, PEN America remains concerned about how these decisions—whether truly voluntary or not—may normalize the idea that authors are obligated to consider withdrawing their work in response to specific types of criticism. Such decisions are normally made under immense pressure and the threat of financial or reputational damage for the parties involved, including and beyond the author.
Publishers have an obligation to ensure that authors do not feel pressured to withdraw their books and that they have full support should they wish to go forward. This is an easier line to draw in principle than in practice: An author may feel conflicted. But where a publisher makes it clear that it will support the author’s choice to proceed notwithstanding criticisms, that author will not feel compounding pressure to retreat in the face of objections. Publishers must also be thoughtful about the reality that the author may be making this choice under significant pressure. The priority should be commitment to the author’s vision rather than appeasement of critics.
Dead Authors: Revising Previously Published Works
A distinct but related phenomenon involves not new books but old books. Since 2021, several literary estates of important authors have announced decisions to withdraw certain titles or release new editions of the authors’ work with revised or updated language intended to reflect contemporary morality or social mores.
In 2021, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that it would halt publication of six Seuss titles and remove them from circulation, citing “hurtful and wrong” racial and ethnic stereotypes.117Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts,” The New York Times, March 4, 2021, nyti.ms/3QvSU3u There is no indication of whether the estate considered measures short of wholesale withdrawal, such as removing or altering some text or illustrations. The first such case to make headlines, this decision prompted outrage from many conservative political figures, including Donald Trump Jr. and Representative Kevin McCarthy, who made politicized claims that “Democrats had canceled Dr. Seuss.”118Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts,” The New York Times, March 4, 2021, nyti.ms/3QvSU3u
Since then, the estates of Roald Dahl, Agatha Christie, and Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, have announced their intention to release amended editions of classic works. On February 17, 2023, The Telegraph reported that the Roald Dahl Story Company and publisher Puffin, a U.K. Penguin Random House imprint, had made over 100 changes to multiple classic texts, altering character descriptions, removing passages, and adding new ones not written by Dahl. According to a public statement from the publisher, the revised U.K. editions were created to ensure that Dahl’s work “can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”119Anita Singh, “Augustus Gloop no longer fat as Roald Dahl goes PC,” The Telegraph, February 17, 2023, telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/02/17/roald-dahl-woke-overhaul-offensive-words-removed/ The CEO of Penguin Books UK also sent a message to staff, later shared with the literary publication The Bookseller, explaining the decision, saying in part, “Our work as a publisher of children’s books is a privilege that brings special responsibilities. A children’s publisher must take great care for the fast-developing minds and imaginations of its readers.”120PEN America email correspondence with Penguin Random House, June 2023.
The statement drew immediate criticism from readers and prominent writers. Rushdie equated the revisions to “absurd censorship.”121Jaclyn Diaz, “Changes to new editions of Roald Dahl books have readers up in arms,” NPR, February 21, 2023, npr.org/2023/02/21/1158347261/roald-dahl-books-changed-offensive-words Suzanne Nossel tweeted: “Selective editing to make works of literature conform to particular sensibilities could represent a dangerous new weapon. Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities. . . . The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas.”122Suzanne Nossel, “At @PENAmerica, we are alarmed at news of “hundreds of changes”…” Twitter, February 18, 2023, twitter.com/SuzanneNossel/status/1627066101309018112
Publishers in the United States, France, and the Netherlands announced that they would not incorporate these changes into their editions. One week after its original statement, Penguin Random House announced that it would continue to publish and circulate Dahl’s original books alongside the revised editions.123Elizabeth Blair, “Roald Dahl’s publisher responds to backlash by keeping ‘classic’ texts in print,” NPR, February 24, 2023, npr.org/2023/02/24/1159224907/roald-dahls-publisher-responds-to-backlash-by-keeping-classic-texts-in-print
Also in February 2023, Ian Fleming Publications announced its intent to revise the James Bond novels to remove certain “racial references.” The estate stated that they “felt strongly that it was not our role to comb out every word or phrase that had the potential to offend,” but ultimately, “Some racial words likely to cause great offence now, and detract from a reader’s enjoyment, have been altered, while keeping as close as possible to the original text and the period.” The estate argued that the changes were posthumously “in guidance from the author himself” based on Fleming’s previous approval of revisions made with publisher Macmillan for the U.S. publication of his 1954 book, Live and Let Die.124Annabel Nugent, “Ian Fleming’s estate backs controversial James Bond edits: ‘It is something he would have wanted,’” The Independent, February 28, 2023, independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/ian-fleming-james-bond-rewriting-statement-b2290950.html
The next month, news broke that HarperCollins had released similarly revised editions of some of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries, including Death on the Nile and the Miss Marple novels. Revisions included the excision of references to characters’ ethnicities and of racial slurs. In at least one case, an entire passage was removed.125Craig Simpson, “Agatha Christie Classics latest to be rewritten for modern sensitivities,” The Telegraph, March 25, 2023, telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/25/agatha-christie-classics-latest-rewritten-modern-sensitivities/ In notable contrast to the Dahl and Dr. Seuss books, which are intended for children, the Fleming and Christie titles have always been intended for an adult audience.
PEN America reached out to Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the Roald Dahl Story Company, Ian Fleming Publications, Agatha Christie Ltd. but all four declined to comment beyond their previous public statements.
While these kinds of revisions are newsworthy, they’re certainly not new. In some cases, what modern audiences know to be the authoritative edition of a book is actually the product of post hoc revisions—from Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Doctor Doolittle, re-released in 1986 with major cuts to “derogatory language,” to Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which the author revised in 1973 to alter the colonialist backstory of the oompa-loompas, to Christie’s And Then There Were None (the book’s original title contained a racial slur).126Theara Coleman, “ ‘Offensive’ books that have been rewritten,” The Week, March 9, 2023, theweek.com/in-review/1021469/4-times-notable-books-or-series-were-rewritten-to-exclude-offensive-language; Sadie Stein, “Mystery,” The Paris Review, February 5, 2016, theparisreview.org/blog/2016/02/05/mystery/
As in the cases of authors’ self-withdrawing, these decisions by their families or the custodians of their literary estates as the instigator of the decisions. Yet ultimately, while the instinct may be laudable, such changes are more than a simple matter of getting the language “right.” Books can be read as reflections of their time; in fact part of the usefulness of reading older books is in critically evaluating their attitudes and arguments. Changing the text of classic books after their original publication is, in a sense, revising history. While some surgical revisions may seem justifiable to avoid distracting references or outdated language, it is unclear who possesses either the moral authority or the judgment to decide what offensive material is beyond the pale and what material should be allowed to remain.
Furthermore, such amendments can open the door to even more significant revisions, including ideologically motivated changes of previous works which threaten to insert entirely new ideas into the work of an author who never intended them. Particularly when one looks at how politicians are attempting increased control over, say, the way American history is taught, the potential for abuse in this approach becomes apparent.
Speaking at a March 2023 conference on the decision to revise the works of Roald Dahl, acclaimed Indian author Arundhati Roy said: “My God, who next? Nabokov? Shall Lolita vanish from our shelves? Or shall she be recast as an undercover pre-teen activist? Shall old masterpieces be repainted? Shorn of the male gaze? It’s so sad to even have to say all this. Where will it leave us? On a shore without footprints? In a world without history?”127Arundhati Roy, “Approaching Gridlock: Arundhati Roy on Free Speech and Failing Democracy,” LitHub, March 24, 2023, lithub.com/approaching-gridlock-arundhati-roy-on-free-speech-and-failing-democracy/
As Suzanne Nossel has previously argued, a far better approach to old authors’ potentially offensive or derogatory language is to contextualize them, not to erase them. “People should rather deal with the work in its original form, and contextualize it and explain to their kids, maybe even feel a little bit affronted, than have someone come in and scrub away anything that people might object to.”128Elizabeth Blair, “Roald Dahl’s publisher responds to backlash by keeping ‘classic’ texts in print,” NPR, February 24, 2023, npr.org/2023/02/24/1159224907/roald-dahls-publisher-responds-to-backlash-by-keeping-classic-texts-in-print
Part III: When Publishers and Distributors Step In
Publishing occupies a unique place in American society. It is both a business, and a driver of cultural production, and it influences society at large. Publishers’ decisions directly dictate and shape the stories available to the American public. When a publisher contracts with a writer, it not only funds the production of a new book; it ensures that that book reaches readers—by securing distribution, promotion, brand recognition, and visibility to a large audience. This is especially true of the Big Five, which collectively comprise the substantial majority of the trade publishing industry.129Constance Grady, “The planned Penguin Random House-Simon & Schuster merged has been struck down in court,” Vox, November 1, 2022, vox.com/culture/23316541/publishing-antitrust-lawsuit-merger-department-justice-penguin-random-house-simon-schuster
For these publishers, financial and social incentives coexist in a certain tension. A book is both a product for sale and a unique cultural output. “Publishing is a business, but books are lifeblood,” one anonymous editor said, “and the two are often in conflict. So you’re working with people’s babies—their dreams, their creativity. And yet you have to make money doing it. And those two things clash frequently.”130PEN America interview with a former editor at a Big Five publishing house, March 2023.
As we have noted elsewhere in this report, publishers have largely recognized that their role as curators of information comes with broad social and moral commitments to ensure the publication of a diverse array of perspectives, views, and ideas—commitments that are compellingly enumerated in the Freedom to Read Statement.
In the past few years, social movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have pushed institutions across the United States, including publishing houses, to articulate new commitments to certain social values or to hold themselves to moral standards in what they publish and their relationships with their own staff. Many publishing houses voiced these commitments through public statements that not only affirmed solidarity with existing staff and authors but also articulated a larger vision of the publishing industry as a “safe and inclusive environment for all.”131James Tager and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and the Publishing Industry,” PEN America, October 17, 2022, pen.org/report/race-equity-and-book-publishing/
These various obligations sometimes come to a head when a book or author is labeled harmful or when various constituencies within the industry—readers, staff, authors, and executive leadership—appear to be split or internally divided on the best course of action. Approaches can range from standing by the book to releasing a public apology or statement to, in extreme cases, becoming involved to the point where the publisher implements changes of its own.
Here are some of the actions that publishers or distributors have taken in response to such criticisms in recent years:
- Canceled a contract in anticipation or in the face of criticism
- Insisted that the author make revisions, or made revisions without consulting the author
- Condemned or forced authors to publicly condemn their work or their own actions
- Halted publication (or distribution)
- Ceased circulation
Heated disagreement about an author or book is not just unavoidable; it is an essential part of free and open discourse, crucial to continually expanding and enriching the marketplace of ideas. However, it is publishers—their agency and their choices—that often play the biggest role in determining whether an allegedly “dangerous” book remains available in its original form. It is in their response to criticism that debate turns into consequences, and that a single editor’s or executive’s decision develops implications beyond an individual controversy.
Involuntary or Insisted-Upon Revisions
An author’s choice to change their creative output once underway or even after completion is not inherently fraught. But in some cases, these revisions do not carry an author’s creative endorsement and are instead initiated by a book’s publisher or distributor.
On March 3, 2023, Scholastic announced that it had revised multiple books in R.L. Stine’s teen-horror Goosebumps series to address concerns about potentially offensive language. In a statement, they wrote: “Scholastic takes its responsibility seriously to continue bringing this classic adolescent brand to each new generation. When re-issuing titles several years ago, Scholastic reviewed the text to keep the language current and avoid imagery that could negatively impact a young person’s view of themselves today, with a particular focus on mental health.” These revisions included more than 100 edits, such as the removal or replacement of certain words and phrases, like “crazy,” “plump,” “slave” and “love tap,” and changes to the descriptions of characters’ races and bodies.132Braden Yandle, “R.L. Stine Debunks Report of Edits to the Goosebumps Novels,” CBR.com, March 6, 2023, cbr.com/rl-stine-debunk-goosebumps-edit-report
Early media coverage reported that Stine had been involved in the revisions,133Amanda Tinoco, “Author R.L. Stine Responds to Reports ‘Goosebumps’ Is Getting Edited with Inclusive Language – Update,” Deadline, March 4, 2023, deadline.com/2023/03/goosebumps-author-rl-stine-edits-book-series-changes-mental-health-weight-ethnicity-references-1235279014/ but Stine himself denied this claim, tweeting, “I’ve never changed a word in Goosebumps. Any changes were never shown to me.”134R.L. Stine, “This story is false. I have never changed a word in a Goosebumps book,” Twitter, March 6 ,2023, twitter.com/RL_Stine/status/1632839200125886464
In response to a request for comment, Scholastic said: “Re-issuing titles is a common industry practice in which language is sometimes updated for relevancy to contemporary readers. Scholastic is in alignment with R.L. Stine that we can improve upon the changes made several years ago. We remain dedicated to destigmatizing mental health and removing negative body portrayals while working with Stine to review the Goosebumps titles.” Scholastic also indicated that the publisher and Stine will continue to work together. In a recent statement, Stine also confirmed, “Scholastic and I are working together to review the edits to my books.”135PEN America email correspondence with Scholastic, July 2023.
Scholastic’s initial revisions to Stine’s books resemble the “corrective” approach of estate post-hoc edits – removals of stereotypical or outdated language made on the author’s behalf to address the concerns of real and anticipated critics. The notable difference here is that Stine is a living author. In Part II of this report, PEN America affirmed the principle that in any circumstances where withdrawals or revisions are considered, the author’s desires and creative vision should be paramount. While the changes to Stine’s books may seem cosmetic to some, it would be concerning if a publisher made changes to the work of a living author without his knowledge or support.
The same pressures – online criticism, charges of political insensitivity, and anticipated backlash from those who dislike the book – that lead publishers to push for altered representations of diversity in books with one set of authors, may also lead them to push others to downplay discussion of certain topics, like race, in other books to improve marketability or palatability to certain audiences.
In April 2023, author Maggie Tokuda-Hall went public with the news that Scholastic had offered to license and distribute her book Love in the Library, a fictional retelling of Tokuda-Hall’s grandparents’ first meeting in a Japanese-American World War II incarceration camp,136Love in the Library by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, Penguin Random House, penguinrandomhouse.com/books/688897/love-in-the-library-by-maggie-tokuda-hall-illustrated-by-yas-imamura/ through the publisher’s AANHPI Rising Voices collection, but had made its distribution contingent on her acceptance of a proposed edit to the author’s note. Tokuda-Hall explained that Scholastic expressed particular concern with one paragraph:
“It was the paragraph that inspires 1 star reviews from angry patriots, the one that sends them to my inbox with words unfit to repeat here or anywhere. And sure enough that was exactly what they wanted to remove. But not only that: the word RACISM would be removed from the author’s note altogether.”
Tokuda-Hall’s mention of “1 star reviews” referred to her book’s page on Goodreads, where one commenter called the book “too political,” while another deemed the author’s note “harsh and almost hateful.”137PEN America’s review of the Goodreads site—May 1 2023. Maggie Tokuda-Hall, “Love in the Library,” Goodreads, goodreads.com/book/show/59819562-love-in-the-library#:~:text=Love%20in%20the%20Library%20is%20a%20beautiful%20picture%20book%20set,love%20during%20those%20horrific%20circumstances. Criticisms of the author’s note comprised a small handful to total reviews of the book – which maintains a 4.5 star rating on Goodreads.
In an email to Tokuda-Hall, Candlewick, the book’s originating publisher, relayed Scholastic’s apparent concern that the author’s note and its explicit references to racism “goes beyond what some teachers are willing to cover with the kids in their elementary classrooms” and would discourage schools from purchasing the book, particularly in this “especially politically sensitive moment”138Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “Asked to Deleted References to Racism From Her Book, an Author refused,” The New York Times, May 6, 2023, nytimes.com/2023/05/06/books/scholastic-book-racism-maggie-tokuda-hall.html—an apprehension likely informed by the state-level restrictions and bans on library content in schools around the country that PEN America has extensively documented. Because of its book fairs and prominent presence in schools, Scholastic faces particular pressures in a climate of aggressive backlash against certain children’s books.
Given Tokuda-Hall’s objection, Candlewick did not consent to the revisions and declined the offer to license on these terms.139PEN America email correspondence with Candlewick Press. In a statement to PEN America, Tokuda-Hall’s editor Karen Lotz wrote, “We honor Maggie’s courage and moral clarity in responding to any request to obscure that truth or censor her voice, and support her decision not to accept an altered version of the book.”140PEN America email correspondence with Candlewick Press.
Two days after Tokuda-Hall went public with the story, Scholastic CEO Peter Warwick forcefully renounced the publisher’s initial request, writing in a public statement, “In our initial outreach we suggested edits to Ms. Tokuda-Hall’s author’s note. This approach was wrong and not in keeping with Scholastic’s values. We don’t want to diminish or in any way minimize the racism that tragically persists against Asian-Americans…We must never do this again.”141Emma Bowman, “Scholastic wanted to license her children’s book – if she cut a part about ‘racism,’” NPR, April 15, 2023, npr.org/2023/04/15/1169848627/scholastic-childrens-book-racism Representatives from Scholastic and Candlewick told PEN America that Scholastic apologized to Tokuda-Hall and Candlewick directly following the request and shared that the publisher is actively revisiting internal policies regarding curatorial decision making, with their input.142PEN America email correspondence with Candlewick Press. Scholastic also extended Tokuda-Hall a revised offer to proceed with distribution without the requested changes; Tokuda-Hall rejected this offer.143The Lead CNN, “Childrens book author @emteehall refused to take out references to racism…” Twitter, May 12, 2023, https://twitter.com/TheLeadCNN/status/1657164589501493249.
R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps series and Maggie Tokuda Hall’s Love in the Library are unique cases; they differ both in the specifics of the critiques leveraged against them and in the anticipated source of backlash that publishers sought to preempt. Together, however, they illustrate the risks of an approach that may sideline authors’ self-expression in an attempt to align with current social mores. In both cases, publishers have attempted to alter an author’s words post-publication to make their book more palatable to certain audiences. It is easy to say that one set of changes is laudable and the other objectionable. But the key dynamic of both is an assertion of power to overwrite the intent of the author. A better approach is to emphasize the primacy of the author’s vision and not subject it to after-the-fact publisher-driven revisions—especially without the author’s knowledge or support.
In the long run, and in the absence of industry commitments to safeguard an author’s creative vision, the dynamics that encourage risk aversion and audience appeasement– among publishers may particularly threaten the voices of writers of color and those from other marginalized identities. As Tokuda-Hall wrote when going public with her story, “Always, our voices are the first sacrifice at the altar of marketability.”144Maggie Tokuda-Hall, “Scholastic, and a Faustian Bargain,” Pretty Ok Maggie, April 11, 2023, prettyokmaggie.com/blog/2023/4/11/scholastic-and-a-faustian-bargain
The most permanent, far-reaching, and controversial decision a publisher can make in response to criticism of a book or author is a formal withdrawal. Publisher-driven withdrawals play out in two main ways: In the first, a publisher cancels a book contract with an author prior to publication. In the second, it pulls a book from circulation or cancels additional printings. In both cases, these withdrawals are initiated by the book’s publisher or distributor rather than its author.
Every year, books fail to make it to publication for myriad reasons. Contracts are canceled “not infrequently,” according to professionals interviewed by PEN America, most often at the delivery-and-acceptance phase. Contract cancellations happen when an author fails to deliver a manuscript or delivers a manuscript that fails to conform to the idea originally pitched and contracted. Publishers have significant power in contract terminations of this type, but, as one editor explained, it is a long and “very documented” process with publishers typically sending requests for revisions before initiating contract cancellation.145PEN America interview with former editor at multiple Big Five publishing houses.
This report addresses publisher withdrawals influenced by presumed or actual controversy. These canceled contracts and withdrawn books came days—or sometimes even hours—after a book or its author became the subject of internal or public scrutiny.
Editors and publishers who spoke with PEN America stressed that withdrawing a book represents a worst-case scenario. And yet, while loath to pull a book from intended publication, several interviewees acknowledged that withdrawals have become newly legitimized as a response to a controversial book.
Books accused of depicting characters that promote harmful and offensive stereotypes of certain ethnic and racial groups, and that were subsequently withdrawn by the publisher, include The Blue Eye, by Roderick Hunt; A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram; Bad and Boujee, by Jennifer Buck; and A Suicide Bomber Sits in a Library, by Jack Gantos.
As publishers face new sets of expectations around their societal obligations, they may benefit from guidance on how to navigate pressures to withdraw a book. PEN America’s concern about book withdrawals derives from our mission to defend the freedom to write and the open exchange of ideas. We believe it is not only possible but necessary for publishers to balance their obligations in a way that maintains the public interest of encouraging and making available the widest diversity of views and expressions.
In several cases examined throughout this report, publishers have moved hastily to pull a book from publication or intended publication to quell uproar. Such moves do a disservice to the author, to the publishing professionals who believed in the book, and perhaps even to the detractors themselves, who—while critical—may not have actually called for the book to be pulled. They also do a disservice to readers, depriving them of the opportunity to read a book and assess it for themselves. Perhaps most importantly, these moves may affect future publications, in that they send the message that some books are too risky or controversial to stand by.
There have been several cases where publishers pull books from intended publication due to allegations of racial insensitivity or similar concerns levied before the book is even out, based on advance copy, marketing materials, or selected passages.
PEN America spoke with two authors whose books were withdrawn due to criticism of portrayals of controversial historical figures. In 2022, Simon & Schuster withdrew The Dictator, a children’s book about Adolf Hitler by Jonah Winter, author of such books as Thurgood, a Washington Post Best Book Award–winning biography of Justice Thurgood Marshall, and illustrated by Barry Blitt, a prolific cartoonist for The New Yorker. Far from an endorsement or minimization of its subject matter, the Hitler book was intended to critically contextualize and warn of the dangers of his rise, according to those involved. “It was a cautionary biography about a bad man—not a joke,” Blitt told The New Yorker. “It would have been a very daring kids’ book to actually publish.”146Francoise Moley, “Barry Blitt’s “The Florida Book-of-the-Month Club,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2023, newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2023-03-06
In December 2019, Winter and Blitt submitted a completed manuscript and preliminary rough sketches for the whole book.147PEN America email correspondence with Jonah Winter, March 2023.; PEN America email correspondence with Barry Blitt, June 2023. But when the sketches were presented internally, Winter said that his editor received flack from other departments within the publishing house. In email correspondence with PEN America, Winter recalled: “Some thought it was going to be a ‘pro-Hitler’ book! Others were offended that anyone would ever dream of creating such a book, pro or con.” Winter emphasized that, to his understanding, no internal decision-makers who were opposed had read the manuscript before voicing their objections.148PEN America email correspondence with Jonah Winter, March 2023 In an email to PEN America, Blitt echoed this point, recalling, “The manuscript was brave and terrific, but I guess I knew deep down that some reactionary marketing people might freak out about the subject matter without ever actually reading it.”149PEN America email correspondence with Barry Blitt, June 2023.
The project was then shelved for more than two years; Winter told PEN that in May 2022, the book’s editor called and informed him that it had been canceled. He said that the editor pointed to a “lack of support” from her colleagues and a fear of potential blowback from the public and book reviewers rather than any specific issue with the manuscript.150PEN America email correspondence with Jonah Winter, March 2023. See also Francoise Moley, “Barry Blitt’s “The Florida Book-of-the-Month Club,” The New Yorker, March 9, 2023, newyorker.com/culture/cover-story/cover-story-2023-03-06. The reported internal concern that any book about Hitler would be considered out-of-bounds, regardless of its vantage point, speaks of a constricted approach to teaching children history that could deprive readers of the chance to learn crucial context about historical events.
PEN America spoke with another author whose historical fiction book was canceled prior to publication after backlash over their book’s presumed overly sympathetic portrayal of figures in a racist society. The author spoke to us on condition of anonymity in order not to jeopardize relationships in the industry. After an initial expression of solidarity from the publisher, they were subsequently met by “radio silence,” before the publisher notified them that they would be canceling the book. “I think that they thought that no one would ever give my book a positive review, because if they did, they would get canceled on Twitter,” the author said. “Which I think is absolutely true. Anyone on Twitter who had defended me up to that point, writers and editors that I knew, would get jumped upon online by 20 trolls. The publishers also knew that no book club would pick up my book once it had had this sort of controversy around it. And so I think they felt like it was just not workable.”151PEN America interview with author, February 2023.
The reason the publisher gave, this author explained, was “that the content of the book was a problem. Which didn’t make a lot of sense, because everyone on the publishing team had already okayed the book, knowing exactly what it was about.”
The author expressed frustration that the social media criticism was based on the book’s presumed, rather than actual, content. “I was kind of being judged on something that hadn’t even been seen yet. I was being canceled for the book that people were saying I had written, and I was like, ‘But that’s not the book I wrote. I wrote this other book’. . . . I had done a lot of research, I had read philosophers and historians and memoirs. I wrote about situations that really happened. This was something I really worked hard to get right. And it doesn’t really matter that I got it right, because the book got canceled before anyone could read it.”152PEN America interview with author, February 2023.
At no point, the author reports, did the publisher indicate that it was considering cancellation until after the decision was final. For the author, the experience was crushing. “I really felt like Icarus, like I felt like I had flown too close to the sun. Because I had gotten my dream. I had worked so hard on my book, and achieved something that writers dream about. It just felt like everything was falling into place. And then all of a sudden, it was all gone.”153PEN America interview with author, February 2023.
Alleged Offensive Speech by an Author
Allegations that an author has harmed or targeted a marginalized community in their personal life can also fuel calls for publishers to cancel their written work. The semi-withdrawal of the science fiction story They Call Me Wyatt is a powerful example of how these debates can impact a book’s future. In May 2019, Natasha Tynes was preparing to release her debut novel, a work of speculative fiction about a murdered Jordanian student. They Call Me Wyatt was under contract with the independent publisher California Coldblood, which in turn had contracted with the distributor Rare Bird Books to manage the release. On May 10, Rare Bird withdrew from its distribution agreement after Tynes tweeted a disparaging comment about a Washington, DC, metro worker, a Black woman, eating on the subway. Tynes tagged the woman’s employer, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and pointed out that the woman was violating a rule against eating on the train. Tynes quickly deleted the tweet, but the damage was done—many people had already screenshotted or replied to it, and within hours she was widely accused of racism.154Lesley Hauler, “I was ‘canceled’ and it nearly destroyed my life,” Good Morning America, January 7, 2020, gma.abc/3QpbQB7
PEN America spoke with Tynes as well as representatives of California Coldblood and Rare Bird Books about the incident and its aftermath. Each described a fast-moving crisis prompted by immediate and widespread social media backlash to Tynes’s tweet. Tynes (an immigrant of Middle Eastern descent) expressed her surprise at the charges of racism: “To my shock, this was turned into a race issue because of [the metro worker] being African American. . . .The accusation that I targeted her as an African American is wrong. . . .I didn’t care what color she was. It was just a complaint against the DC metro.”155PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes. Some of the tweets criticizing Tynes also tagged California Coldblood and Rare Bird Books. She recalled: “Their Twitter accounts were flooded. It was a mob.”156PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes.
Lauren Rock, director of publicity and marketing for California Coldblood, also recounted receiving direct threats by phone and on private social media accounts. Her husband, California Coldblood publisher Robert Peterson, called Tynes to discuss their response.157PEN America interview with Robert Peterson and Lauren Rock, March 2023. Tynes characterized this interaction as initially supportive: “They said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve got your back, this will blow over.’”158PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes. Tyson Cornell, founder of Rare Bird Books, communicated with California Coldblood but not with Tynes. In the hours after the incident, communication among author, publisher, and distributor broke down.159PEN America interview with Tyson Cornell, February 2023.
The fallout quickly extended beyond social media. Within hours, the book’s cover designer and an author who had provided a cover blurb informed Peterson that they intended to withdraw from the project.160PEN America interview with Robert Peterson and Lauren Rock, March 2023. At this point, Peterson said, the edition of the book intended for publication “just wasn’t viable,”161PEN America interview with Robert Peterson and Lauren Rock, March 2023. and California Coldblood publicly stated its intention to halt shipments from the holding warehouse “while we further discuss appropriate next steps to officially cancel the book’s publication.”162California Coldblood, “We’ve been made aware of the actions by California Coldblood author Natasha Tynes…” Twitter, May 11, 2019, twitter.com/CalifColdblood/status/1127259321572610049?s=20 At the same time, readers threatened to boycott the publisher, placing other titles and the entire small business at risk. Rock explained: “We were really deeply involved in how this would affect our other authors. It was really scary for us, and we were wanting to protect their works.”163PEN America interview with Robert Peterson and Lauren Rock, March 2023.
Hours later, California Coldblood issued an amended version of its statement, cutting language about canceling the book. Peterson told PEN America that their contracts stipulate that the relationship between author and publisher may only be terminated by mutual agreement.164PEN America interview with Robert Peterson and Lauren Rock, March 2023.
That evening, Rare Bird informed California Coldblood that it would no longer distribute Tynes’s book. According to Cornell, withdrawing from the agreement was a business decision. “The language normally hovers around whether or not we think it’s going to be profitable,” he told PEN America. “If we acquire only distribution rights to a book and it seems as if we’re going to just lose a lot of money, under those circumstances we are allowed to back off, release distribution rights upstream, and just not publish it.”165PEN America interview with Tyson Cornell, February 2023.
Reflecting on the decision, Cornell distinguished between Rare Bird’s responsibility as sub-distributor of They Called Me Wyatt and a publisher’s obligation to an author with whom it directly contracts. “We fall on the sword all the time for authors that we are personally invested in,” he said. “If this was one of our authors, I wouldn’t have been so quick to drop.” Of Tynes, he added: “The book didn’t necessarily need to be canceled completely from the market. From our perspective, it was just canceled from our distribution streams.”166PEN America interview with Tyson Cornell, February 2023.
At the same time it canceled its distribution agreement, Rare Bird tweeted a statement that both announced this decision and condemned Tynes’s actions along with announcing the book’s cancellation: The author, he wrote, “did something truly horrible today. . . . Black women face a constant barrage of this kind of inappropriate behavior directed toward them and a constant policing of their bodies. . . . We are currently taking appropriate actions to cancel Tynes’s novel.”167Lesley Hauler, “I was ‘canceled’ and it nearly destroyed my life,” Good Morning America, January 7, 2020, gma.abc/3QpbQB7 Speaking to PEN America, Cornell said, “In retrospect, it’s not the statement that I would have made . . . but at the time, I felt it was important for me to stand behind staff and employees if they had an opinion.”168PEN America interview with Tyson Cornell, February 2023.
According to Tynes, the cancellation, which unfolded in a single day, took place three weeks before the book was due to be published. The news was devastating to her. She told PEN America: “I hung up the phone and I just cried a lot, and eventually I had to be medicated because I sort of collapsed.”169PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes. She took issue with both the decision to cancel her book and the nature of Rare Bird Books’ statement: “It wasn’t just dropping the book,” she said. “It was this awful statement they put online. That’s when the story picked up—reporters started coming to the house and I started getting hate messages and death threats.”170PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes.
Three weeks later, California Coldblood tweeted an announcement that it was moving forward with the publication of They Called Me Wyatt due to “contractual obligations.”171California Coldblood, “We know many have you have been waiting to hear details about the publication of THEY CALLED ME WYATT…” Twitter, May 31, 2019, twitter.com/CalifColdblood/status/1134528678719774720 It published the book in May 2019 and officially reverted book rights back to Tynes that October.172PEN America email correspondence with Robert Peterson, July 2023; PEN America email correspondence with Natasha Tynes, July 2023. In April 2020, They Called Me Wyatt was acquired and published by Rebeller, a short-lived literary imprint from Cinestate, a Dallas-based movie studio that folded two months later.173Sonny Bunch, “As some of you have noticed, @REBELLER has gone dark…” Twitter, June 10, 2020, twitter.com/SonnyBunch/status/1270788950257545216 Soon after, Tynes self-published the book.174PEN America email correspondence with Natasha Tynes, July 2023.
In June, news broke that Tynes had filed a $13M million lawsuit against Rare Bird Books, alleging breach of contract and defamation and saying that she had experienced “acute anxiety” and “suicidal ideations” in the wake of the incident.175Owen Daugherty, “Author who lost book deal over post about DC Metro worker sues company for ’emotional distress’,” The Hill, June 8, 2019, bit.ly/3cYjKDE In addition to her book troubles, Tynes said, this incident cost her her job.176Lesley Hauler, “I was ‘canceled’ and it nearly destroyed my life,” Good Morning America, January 7, 2020, gma.abc/3QpbQB7 Recalling the experience, Tynes told PEN America: “Where do you draw the line? How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults? What if an author was having a fight with their husband or wife and someone put a picture of that on social media, what would happen? You cannot judge the art by the artist. . . . We’re opening a Pandora’s box by allowing this. . . . Firing people, canceling their deals, for anything termed immoral or not good enough. It’s a very dangerous situation.”177PEN America interview with Natasha Tynes.
All parties expressed frustration and dismay at the series of events resulting in the book’s withdrawal, along with a sense of lack of control. Rare Bird’s Cornell attributed the communication breakdown among the author, publisher, and distributor to the intensity and novelty of the situation: “Natasha was a new author,” he said. “[Peterson] was a smaller publisher, and this was early in the cancel pandemic. No one knew how to deal with that kind of stress in a rushed environment.”178PEN America interview with Tyson Cornell, February 2023.
This is in some ways a unique case, not least because the original publisher did eventually publish the book—a fact omitted from much of the media coverage. The withdrawal of They Called Me Wyatt is perhaps most centrally a demonstration of how quickly an explosive public response—including harassment of all involved—can emerge as the consequences of a single tweet, and how quickly that response can snowball into seemingly insurmountable pressure on publishers and authors alike.
In February 2022, Wipf and Stock Publishers published Bad & Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology, by Jennifer Buck, a white woman and a professor of theology. Buck had been teaching a course on trap feminism at Azusa Pacific University since at least 2017.179Mitchell Atencio, “Wipf and Stock Pull ‘Bad and Boujee’ from Publication Distribution,” Sojourners, April 14, 2022, bit.ly/3Cnhss4 Trap feminism examines Black feminism through the lens of the Black Southern hip-hop culture of trap music. Its emergence is widely credited to a handful of Black women, including Sesali Bowen, the author of Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes from a Trap Feminist,180“Bad Fat Black Girl: Notes From a Trap Feminist,” HarperCollins Publishers, bit.ly/3KgjgFo and Candace Marie Benbow, the author of Red Lip Theology.181“Red Lip Theology, ” Penguin Random House, bit.ly/3PGJCkM
Soon after the publication of Bad and Boujee, detractors emerged on social media, including in Amazon and Goodreads reviews as well as on Twitter. Black scholars and feminists, including Bowen and Benbow, were at the forefront of the criticism. As Benbow later told The New York Times, “It matters that you have an academic text that would situate Black women’s lived experiences and Black women’s spirituality, and it’s not written by a Black woman.”182Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html Other Black feminist authors argued that while it is possible for a non-Black woman to write about the Black experience, the way Buck approached the subject matter, including allegedly using stereotypical language to describe the experiences of Black women, was unsatisfactory. As an example, critics cited the opening lines: “A trap queen is a woman who is down for the cause. She was born in the ghetto, raised in the ghetto, but she ain’t that ghetto.”183Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html
Some critics made both arguments against the book simultaneously. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a Black womanist theologian, tweeted, “It’s not that White scholars can’t write about Black women, but it has to be done with extreme care, a whole lot of cultural sensitivity and humility, and in relationships of accountability with Black women.”184Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Yesterday I followed the convo about this Jennifer M Buck “Bad and Boujee” mess…” Twitter, April 14, 2022, bit.ly/3AG1fgm Later in the long thread, however, Walker-Barnes wrote, “Black women don’t need White women trying to explain us” and concluded: “Read our stuff. Cite our stuff. But stop trying to write it.”185Chanequa Walker-Barnes, “Yesterday I followed the convo about this Jennifer M Buck “Bad and Boujee” mess…” Twitter, April 14, 2022, bit.ly/3AG1fgm
Buck herself explicitly acknowledged in the introduction to her book that as “a straight, privileged, white woman” she has “not lived the embodied experiences of a trap queen.” Nonetheless, she was inspired to write the book because of her interest in hip-hop.186Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html
Other critics noted the author’s failure to credit Black women scholars in her field, including those widely held to have originated trap theology.187Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html Additional objections included the cover book’s image of a young Black woman with natural hair, which some found “misleading” as to the author’s identity, and the fact no Black women had formally endorsed the book.188Mitchell Atencio, “Wipf and Stock Pull ‘Bad and Boujee’ from Publication Distribution,” Sojourners, April 14, 2022, bit.ly/3Cnhss4 Analysts also connected its publication to the lack of diversity in publishing, arguing that the book would have been subjected to higher editorial scrutiny if it had a Black acquiring editor.189Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html
None of the above criticisms explicitly called for the book to be withdrawn. But in response, the publisher announced in April 2022 that it was pulling the book from circulation. In a tweet, Wipf and Stock cited “a strong backlash to the project [that] emerged on various social media platforms” and conceded that “our critics are right: we should have seen numerous red flags, including but not limited to the inappropriateness of a White theologian writing about the experience of Black women (the issue of cultural appropriation is pervasive, from cover to content), the lack of Black endorsers, and the apparent lack of relationship with Black scholars, especially those who originated the trap feminist discourse.”190Wipf & Stock Publishers, “1/7 Our statement regarding the publication of “Bad and Boujee” by Jennifer M. Buck,” Twitter, April 15, 2022, bit.ly/3AEHIgc Wipf and Stock also cited its goal of repairing the trust of its authors and readers, especially its Black authors and audience.
Buck has not issued any public comment on the cancellation. PEN America reached out to both her and Wipf and Stock. She did not respond, and the publisher declined to comment.
Wipf and Stock’s own apology announcement, which specifically alluded to “the inappropriateness of a White theologian writing about the experience of Black women,” was unclear on whether the grounds for withdrawal were limited to allegations of cultural appropriation or whether the publisher itself took the position that a white academic cannot write about Black experiences. As PEN America’s Chief Program Officer for Literary Programs Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf said in a statement at the time: “There must be no hard and fast rules about who is entitled to tell certain stories or engage particular topics. Such redlines constrain creative and intellectual freedom and impair the role of literature and scholarship as catalysts to understanding across differences.”191Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris, “A White Author’s Book About Black Feminism Was Pulled After a Social Media Outcry,” The New York Times, April 15, 2022, nytimes.com/2022/04/15/arts/jennifer-buck-bad-and-boujee-book-pulled.html
PEN America was unable to ascertain whether or not the publisher and the author had any conversations before Wipf & Stock pulled the book, let alone conversations about steps they could have taken to address the criticisms—such as inserting additional citations or textual material that better recognized the leading scholarship of Black authors. It seems doubtful that any such changes could have fully addressed the criticism that Buck was engaging in cultural trespass merely by writing this book. Even so, Wipf and Stock could have acknowledged and engaged with critiques while keeping the book in circulation. Such a course of action would not necessarily have dampened criticism, but it would have offered readers the opportunity to read and evaluate the text for themselves.
Withdrawals and the Reader’s Interest
Racial stereotypes exist, in fiction and beyond; they deserve to be called out. Publishers must strive to do more to thoughtfully represent people across cultures, nationalities, and other identities in the literature that they make available to the public. But one can hold this view and still believe that publishers should not withdraw books from intended or actual publication based on such criticisms. Firstly, because the criticisms are inherently at least somewhat subjective; reasonable people can disagree on whether the depiction of a certain person or group is offensive or respectable or whether it promotes stereotypes, reflects them, or subverts them. Secondly, even in cases where there is consensus that a book has engaged in questionable or offensive portrayals, that does not necessarily mean the book is without literary merit or social value.
While no author has a right to have their book published, it is PEN America’s position that once a book has been contracted, and especially once it’s been published, the bar to withdraw it should be high. As a society, we need to be able to engage in vociferous, heated debate about books without resorting to denying readers the opportunity to read the work and reach their own judgment.
There is an argument to be made regarding the author’s interests in these cases. But ultimately it is the readers who are worst served by these withdrawals. A withdrawn book affects the public at large, including those who wish to assess the book for themselves.
Part IV: An Industry Divided
It has long been a truism that the publication of a particular author, whether on an op-ed page in a magazine or in book form, is not an endorsement of that author’s opinions. Indeed, the second commitment of the Freedom to Read Statement specifically declares, “Publishers, librarians, and booksellers do not need to endorse every idea or presentation they make available. It would conflict with the public interest for them to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.”192“Freedom to Read Statement,” American Library Association,” accessed July 31, 2023, ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/freedomreadstatement But increasingly, new generations of readers and publishing staff have called this foundational axiom into question.
The act of publishing involves more than ensuring that a particular author’s voice is heard; it represents a heavy investment of funds and labor, an expedited channel to wide audiences, and in many cases a corresponding implication that this writer’s perspective is one worth hearing. In recent years, the consolidation of the publishing industry has meant that most books published in the United States carry the imprimatur of respectability from being associated with one of the country’s Big Five publishers. As a result, the choice of whom a publisher contracts with can seem all the more loaded.
Yet the people making such choices can be myopic. As a former YA marketer told Katy Waldman of The New Yorker: “The majority of those who make the editorial and marketing decisions about YA books are not within the typical YA reading range, don’t regularly consume the content beyond what their work would demand (this is in contrast to the people lower down who are genuine fans of the genre), and, most importantly, don’t trust the people lower down when they give them advice about both problematic content and content that audiences are hungry for.”193Katy Waldman, “In Y.A., Where is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture?” The New Yorker, March 21, 2019, newyorker.com/books/under-review/in-ya-where-is-the-line-between-criticism-and-cancel-culture
The differing expectations of many publishing staffers and the executives making major decisions are, today, increasingly coming to a head. In recent years, publishing employees have repeatedly mounted public campaigns against their employers to block contracts with certain books and authors, particularly controversial celebrities and political figures. Interviewees told PEN America that these protests illustrate employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists. To some degree, these new staff expectations have arisen as a result of publishers’ increasingly public stances on social causes and expressions of solidarity with and duty of care obligations to their own employees. While publishing executives may not have intended such statements to implicate decisions about whom to publish, some staffers have come to see these things as connected.
In March 2020, over 100 Hachette employees walked out in protest of the publisher’s decision—through its Grand Central imprint–-—to publish filmmaker Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing. Staff opposition to Allen’s contract stemmed primarily from his alleged sexual abuse of his daughter—long-disputed allegations that were publicly known at the time the book was contracted. Several months earlier, in October 2019, Hachette Book Group had published Catch and Kill, a book detailing sexual allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, written by Allen’s son Ronan Farrow. Protesters made several demands on the company, including that Allen’s book be canceled.194John Williams, “Hachette Workers Protest Woody Allen Book With a Walkout,” The New York Times, March 5, 2020, nytimes.com/2020/03/05/books/hachette-woody-allen.html
While first defending its decision to publish Allen’s memoir, Hachette later reversed and withdrew the book. In a statement, it said, “The decision to cancel Mr. Allen’s book was a difficult one. At HBG we take our relationships with authors very seriously, and do not cancel books lightly. . . . Over the past few days, HBG leadership had extensive conversations with our staff and others. After listening, we came to the conclusion that moving forward with publication would not be feasible for HBG.”195Hachette Book Group, “Hachette Book Group has decided that it will not publish Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing, originally scheduled for sale in April 2020…” Twitter, March 6, 2020, twitter.com/HachetteUS/status/1236037902339055616/photo/1. The book was eventually published by a different publisher, Skyhorse Publishing, through its imprint Arcade Publishing.196Alexandra Alter and John Williams, “Woody Allen’s Memoir Is Published,” The New York Times, March 23, 2020, nytimes.com/2020/03/23/books/woody-allen-apropos-of-nothing-autobiography-arcade.html
The incident reverberated throughout the publishing world. One editor recalled: “The Woody Allen [case] made waves throughout the industry—there was a real difference of opinion on it, especially generationally.”197PEN America interview with editor. The differences were expressed publicly. “The cancellation of Allen’s book signals a sea change in a notoriously hierarchical industry in which management traditionally made decisions, and workers were expected to comply . . . “ Maris Kreizman wrote for LitHub. She added, “It’s reassuring to know that public shaming works, and that if publishers don’t have the moral clarity to determine whose voices do not require further amplification, their employees can serve as a check.”198Maris Kreizman, “Woody Allen’s Book Could Signal a New Era in the Publishing Industry,” The Outline, March 11, 2020, theoutline.com/post/8789/woody-allen-book-hachette-walk-out
Stephen King took a different view, tweeting that he was concerned about the chilling effect of the cancellation: “The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr. Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that concerns me.”199Edward Helmore, “Stephen King attacks axing of Woody Allen book,” The Guardian, March 8, 2020, bit.ly/3Rn9kMO
Journalist and editor Jo Glanville argued that readers should have the right to determine for themselves whether criticisms of the book and author are valid, writing in The Guardian: “This is worrying for writers and for readers. . . . I have been watching Woody Allen films since I was a child and I would like to read his book. I would even want to read his book if he were found guilty, because I am interested in the man, his work and his life. I do not check up on the moral purity or criminal record of a writer before I read them. I would have to strip my bookshelves of many of the writers I love the most if I were going to start to apply the principles of the Hachette staff.”200Jo Glanville, “Woody Allen’s memoirs: this is the behavior of censors, not publishers,” The Guardian, March 7, 2020, bit.ly/3Bh563H
PEN America’s response at the time cautioned against an outcome that leads “publishers to shy away from manuscripts that editors think are worthwhile but that are about, or even by, people who may be considered contemptible.”201“PEN America Statement on Cancellation of Woody Allen Book,” PEN America, March 6, 2020, bit.ly/3QlMYds
Peril, Platforms, and Politics
Supporters of staff protests often couch their objections in the language of avoiding harm and a publisher’s duty of care. “Nobody’s refusing to work on a book because it doesn’t fit with their party affiliation,” Olivia Beattie, editorial director at Biteback, a political publisher in the U.K., said in an interview with The Guardian in 2021. “What’s been at stake has virtually always been a question of whether the book or the author is responsible for inciting prejudice against already marginalised and oppressed minorities.” The same piece quoted an anonymous junior staffer who argued that publisher decisions have direct implications for the workplace: “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.”202Alison Flood, “‘If Publishers Become Afraid, we are in Trouble’: Publishing’s Cancel Culture Debate Boils Over, The Guardian, June 3, 2021, theguardian.com/books/2021/jun/03/if-publishers-become-afraid-were-in-trouble-publishings-cancel-culture-debate-boils-over
Perhaps nowhere are these intra–publishing house conversations more visible than in the realm of politics. A 2021 letter written by over 500 writers and publishing professionals called on the industry to not publish any books by members of the Trump administration, stating: “We believe in the power of words and we are tired of the industry we love enriching the monsters among us, and we will do whatever is in our power to stop it.”203“This is a letter of intent from the publishing professionals of the United States,” May 1, 2021, bit.ly/3QiY8jc. The letter did not address the potential public and historical value of books being widely available to the public that could document the inner workings of the Trump administration or put members of the administration on record regarding their views or decisions.204Lisa Rein and Eric Yoder, “White House finally tells thousands of political appointees they have to step down,” The Washington Post, January 7, 2021, washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-political-appointees-resign/2021/01/07/0ef858ea-5140-11eb-83e3-322644d82356_story.html
In some cases publishers have withstood either staff or public pressure to withdraw from their contracts with right-wing public figures. Simon & Schuster received significant criticism for its two-book, seven-figure contract with former Vice President Mike Pence, announced in 2021. This pressure came not only from members of the public but also from members of the publisher’s own staff, who argued in an open letter that the publisher was “legitimizing bigotry” and called for the contract’s cancellation. The letter also criticized Simon & Schuster’s distribution deal with Post Hill Press, a small conservative publisher whose clients include John Mattingly, a police officer who shot and killed emergency room technician Breonna Taylor during a no-knock raid of her Louisville home, as well as Congressman Matt Gaetz and other far-right figures.205Solidarity With the Workforce of Simon and Schuster, docs.google.com/forms/d/1S7LBByYZ4Cyf1Mc75ru1SLi4qcmQ3c5ZQg-9Kn2Qfsw/viewform?edit_requested=true.
Ultimately, Simon & Schuster stood by the contract with Pence. At Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, senior vice president and publisher Dana Canedy explained this decision: “I’m someone who just believes we have to understand the country and the world we’re living in. . . . It can’t just be information you agree with.”206Rachel King, “Simon & Schuster publisher Dana Canedy on Mike Pence’s book deal controversy,” Fortune, October 13, 2021, bit.ly/3RtyUQd. Simon & Schuster took a different approach with the Mattingly memoir, canceling its distribution. It offered no public explanation for this decision.207Alison Flood, “Mike Pence’s publisher refuses to cancel memoir after staff protest,” The Guardian, April 21, 2021, theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/21/mike-pences-publisher-refuses-to-cancel-memoir-after-staff-protest; The book was ultimately published and distributed under the name 12 Seconds in the Dark by DW Press, a new publishing division of the right-wing media company, The Daily Wire. https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/breonna-taylor/2021/10/14/breonna-taylor-case-book-louisville-police-officer-raid-lmpd-shooting/8449922002/
A more recent example is Penguin Random House’s November 2022 decision to stand by its contract with conservative Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, signed earlier that year. The outcry against Barrett was again led by publishing staff, in this instance across several houses, with an open letter entitled “We Dissent.” The letter stated, “We believe that moving forward with Coney Barrett’s book places [parent company] Bertelsmann and Penguin Random House both in direct conflict with their own Code of Conduct and in violation of international human rights. This is not just a book that we disagree with, and we are not calling for censorship. Many of us work daily with books we find disagreeable to our personal politics.” Protesters cited Barrett’s role in overturning federal abortion rights, which the letter’s authors argued rendered the publishing house complicit in human rights violations.208“We Dissent,” docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vToh2N4z_Q509Beuyw3oMR9nZCk5PI84TqIR4-sw9lXicS3v4pXzSM8RCf0La0WSBFwnwbinDJ-Tr3L/pub Despite this backlash, publisher Adrian Zackheim of Sentinel, Penguin Random House’s conservative imprint, said, “We remain fully committed to publishing authors who, like Justice Barrett, substantively shape today’s most important conversations.”209Dominick Mastrangelo, “Publisher says it’s committed to Amy Coney Barrett book despite opposition,” The Hill, November 1, 2022, thehill.com/homenews/3713707-publisher-says-its-committed-to-amy-coney-barrett-book-despite-opposition/ To date, publication of the book is still moving forward.
In some cases, publishers seem to reach an independent decision to withdraw a book. In January 2021, Simon & Schuster announced that it would rescind its agreement to publish a book by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley that had been slated for release in June of that year. The book, titled The Tyranny of Big Tech, was about the alleged anti-conservative bias of large American technology companies, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Simon & Schuster’s decision to cancel Hawley’s contract was prompted by his role in the events leading up to the storming of the US. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and his actions on the day of the insurrection.210Constance Grady, “Josh Hawley’s book deal cancellation comes after a year of social debates in publishing,” Vox, January 11, 2021, bit.ly/3dK717O.
A week earlier, Hawley had released a statement saying that he would not vote to certify the electoral college results of the 2020 election, falsely claiming that “some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws.” He also alleged that Twitter and Facebook had interfered with the election to benefit President-Elect Joseph Biden.211Steven Nelson, “Sen. Josh Hawley will object to Electoral College results on Jan. 6,” New York Post, December 30, 2020, nypost.com/2020/12/30/sen-josh-hawley-will-object-to-electoral-college-results/ ; see also: “Sen. Hawley Formally Invites Facebook and Twitter to Testify Regarding Censorship of New York Post & Potential Campaign Finance Violation,” Senator Josh Hawley, October 15, 2020, hawley.senate.gov/sen-hawley-formally-invites-facebook-and-twitter-testify-regarding-censorship-new-york-post Hawley’s statement gained momentum among some Republican lawmakers, with 13 other senators joining him in objecting to the certification of the election.212Jerusalem Demsas, “The 14 Republican senators objecting to the Electoral College’s certification,” Vox, January 6, 2021, bit.ly/3Kv4dcK Then, on January 6, the day that the constitution specifies that Congress must certify the results, a photograph was taken of Hawley raising his fist in apparent support of pro-Trump demonstrators who went on to storm the Capitol in an effort to overturn the election by force.213Constance Grady, “Josh Hawley’s book deal cancellation comes after a year of social debates in publishing,” Vox, January 11, 2021, bit.ly/3dK717O. This attack led to the deaths of five people and injuries to dozens more.214Kenya Evelyn, “Capitol attack: the five people who died,” The Guardian, January 8, 2021, bit.ly/3XQtr8t.
The next day, Simon & Schuster released a statement saying that Hawley’s actions ran counter to company values: “After witnessing the disturbing, deadly insurrection that took place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., Simon & Schuster has decided to cancel publication of Senator Josh Hawley’s forthcoming book. . . . As a publisher it will always be our mission to amplify a variety of voices and viewpoints: at the same time we take seriously our larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat to our democracy and freedom.”215Constance Grady, “Josh Hawley’s book deal cancellation comes after a year of social debates in publishing,” Vox, January 11, 2021, bit.ly/3dK717O.
While there was widespread public criticism of Hawley’s role in the January 6 attack, the discourse at the time was understandably not focused on his book contract. The decision to cancel was apparently made internally and rapidly, perhaps in anticipation of public or internal pressure but not primarily in response to it. Public reporting indicates that Simon & Schuster invoked its morals clause to terminate the contract.216Elizabeth A. Holmes, “How Getting Canceled on Social Media Can Derail a Book Deal,” Daily Press, February 21, 2021, bit.ly/3erQRA8. The company declined PEN America’s request for comment. Hawley did not respond.
The same day his book was withdrawn, Hawley responded with his own statement, which read: “This could not be more Orwelian. Simon & Schuster is canceling my contract because I was representing my constituents, leading a debate on the Senate floor on voter integrity, which they have now decided to redefine as sedition. Let me be clear, this is not just a contract dispute. It’s a direct assault on the First Amendment.” Of course, as a private company, Simon & Schuster is not bound by the First Amendment. It responded to Hawley’s statement by saying it was “confident that we are acting fully within our contractual rights.”217Martin Pengelly, “Josh Hawley finds new publisher after Simon & Schuster cancels book,” The Guardian, January 18, 2021, bit.ly/3Z8bKTd.
Eleven days after Simon & Schuster’s withdrawal, Regnery Publishing, a self-described conservative publisher, picked up the book.218Mollie Hemingway, “Josh Hawley Book On Big Tech Tyranny To Be Published Despite Cancellation Attempt,” The Federalist, January 18, 2021, bit.ly/3Z7yqmf. In an interview with PEN America, Tom Spence, the president and publisher, explained, “There wasn’t much of a thought process. . . . I heard in the news that Simon & Schuster had canceled Hawley’s book—that was big news in publishing land. . . . It seemed to everybody at Regnery an obvious book for us to pick up given the circumstances and the notoriety of the case.” Spence also spoke to the advantages for smaller publishers in picking up canceled books: “The book’s already done, already edited. Simon & Schuster had already done our publicity campaign. It was pretty much ready to go.”219PEN America interview with Tom Spence.
Notably, Simon & Schuster also acts as the distributor for Regnery Publishing, meaning that the company is still involved in selling and disseminating Hawley’s book, even though it refused to publish it under its own banner.220Rachel Sandler, “Hawley Finds New Publisher After Simon & Schuster Dropped His Book,” Forbes, January 18, 2021, bit.ly/3ki7YYB.
The Publisher’s Balancing Act
Today, publishers are taking on a widening array of societal obligations—making broader commitments to advance justice and representation and to redress inequities within and outside the industry. They also maintain their commitment to the principles outlined in the Freedom to Read Statement, to which all of the Big Five publishing houses recommitted on its 70th anniversary. As they try to implement and balance these lofty ideals, they increasingly confront challenges.
Historically, publishers have sought to manage different perspectives through their varied imprints, which often subscribe to specific missions like promoting underrepresented authors. Employees are sometimes motivated by the values and mission of specific imprints that may conflict with the perspectives of other programs within the publishing house, a point that some interviewees emphasized in their conversations with us.
Publishers must clearly and affirmatively communicate their positions and principles to their employees and the public alike. Where employees perceive a mismatch between a publisher’s words and its actions, it falls upon their leaders to explain how they reconcile their various obligations in their decision-making across all imprints.
Foremost among these various obligations, PEN America believes, is a strong commitment to the social utility of a diversity of voices and a maximalist approach to reader access. It is vital that publishers highlight how an expansive conception and protection of free expression is the bedrock for a more broadly free society. This is particularly the case given how, in recent years, free speech has increasingly been perceived—especially among a rising generation of progressive Americans—as inadequate for protecting certain marginalized groups.254Knight Foundation, “Free speech for all? Poll reveals Americans’ views on free expression post-2020,” January 6, 2022, knightfoundation.org/press/releases/free-speech-for-all-poll-reveals-americans-views-on-free-expression-post-2020/
To hold to publishing’s historic commitment to offer a broad range of views and perspectives, both executives and staffers at all levels must buy into that vision. This does not negate the role of dissent and disagreement within the industry. But it does call for a high standard of care for staff making such objections to a specific book or author. In our conversations with publishing executives and editors who had participated in the decision to withdraw a book in response to criticism, many expressed continuing uncertainty. “It kind of left us all shaken, and feeling like, did we do the right thing?” one editor said. “I still have questions about it. It’s very hard to reconcile.”255PEN America interview with a former editor at a Big Five publishing house, March 2023. At the very least, these honest reflections demonstrate the need for publishing houses to better prepare themselves for such controversies, and the importance of making decisions that publishers feel they can stand by years later.
Publishing remains at a crossroads. Online spaces have become the default forum for literary discourse, opening up dialogue among readers, authors, and decision makers as never before. Amongst its many benefits, this dialogue has also energized—and at times inflamed—controversies over specific books and authors: their portrayals of race, the authenticity of the stories they tell, and their overall commitments to equity. Meanwhile, in just the last few years, a much-needed and long-overdue industry-wide reckoning has transformed the ranks of the industry’s largest employers—and ushered in complex debates about topics like harm, representation, and offense.
The Freedom to Read Statement—most recently endorsed by PEN America and a coalition of publishers and other literary organizations in June 2023256“Freedom to Read statement, Drafted 70 Years Ago, Is Vital Today In a New Time of Censorship,” PEN America, June 25, 2023, https://pen.org/press-release/freedom-to-read-statement-drafted-70-years-ago-is-vital-today-in-a-new-time-of-censorship/—reads, “Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. . . . We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be ‘protected’ against what others think may be bad for them.” Even as the publishing community moves toward the goal of greater equity and care in its book offerings, we believe this principle remains as true today as it was when it was written.
Publishers hold a responsibility to readers that draws from the values espoused in the Freedom to Read Statement. Foremost of these is to ensure the greatest public access to books and ideas, from which readers can draw their personal judgments and conclusions. We implore publishers to resist the impulse to sacrifice individual books and authors as a way to publicly project their moral positions. Instead, they should work to clarify what they see as their obligations to writers and readers. Steps to do so would include making renewed public commitments to freedom of expression and the freedom to read (including language on how publishers balance these commitments with other social and institutional equities) and increasing transparency with the public about their decision-making.
Publishers must also commit to supporting authors in the face of criticism of their books and creative vision. In situations where a writer is considering making changes to, or even withdrawing, their book, publishers should be clear that such a decision rests with the author, not the publisher.
While publishers have the most agency to ensure that books remain available, PEN America is also calling for a broader tonal shift in literary discourse. We support the continued protection of debate, disagreement, and free and open dialogue about books and the ideas espoused within them. While individual critics are within their rights to criticize books, we reject pretextual labeling of books as “harmful” or “dangerous” by those who have not read the books in question. The argument that any book must be withdrawn from circulation because of its potential impact will ultimately foreclose the space for robust intellectual and academic freedom, and constrain the essential democratic freedoms to write, read, teach, learn, and think.
Additionally, we reject the contention that a specific identity is a prerequisite for a writer to explore a specific subject, narrative, character, or point of view. This contention, which is incompatible with the freedom of imagination that underlies the writing endeavor, does not exempt writers from criticism—but such criticism should not be invoked as grounds for a writer or author to withdraw a book.
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. After all, book banners will also frequently claim that they do not have to read a certain book in order to call for it to be removed from schools or libraries.
These are difficult debates to have. But publishers, authors, and readers alike are capable of having them, and they must do so to safeguard literary culture and the value of free inquiry, which is central to the practice of writing and to democratic public discourse. Books are meant to challenge orthodoxies, spark debate, and raise critical questions about our lives and communities. As the entities responsible for bringing books to the world, publishers should not shy away from controversy. By embracing a strong commitment to this societal obligation, publishers can meaningfully advance the open exchange of ideas, on the page and in the public sphere.
Recommendation: A Renewed Commitment to the Freedom to Read
PEN America normally tailors its recommendations to institutions, aiming to shift concrete corporate or governmental policies. Here, however, we are calling not just for institutional shifts but also for a broader tonal shift in the country’s literary discourse, one that seeks to prevent subjective notions of offense and even harm from serving as grounds to attack or deny the very availability of books.
The Freedom to Read Statement, first drafted 70 years ago, offers a series of principles that underpin a robust literary culture. Crucially, they articulate both a principled defense against government censorship and a robust assertion of the societal value of tolerance for books that offend or outrage, either due to their content or to the personality of the author. It is easy to defend this principle in the abstract. It is another thing altogether to defend it in relation to a specific book that one considers personally offensive or harmful or that has come under attack from allies or communities whom an individual holds in esteem. Refraining from labeling books “dangerous” or “harmful” does not mean endorsing such volumes, or silencing substantive criticisms. But it does extend to respecting the right of others to read the book—and the right of publishers and booksellers to offer it.
The principles of the Freedom to Read Statement remain as crucial today as they were in 1953. They require the buy-in not just of publishing institutions but of all members of the literary community: authors, literary agents, publishing employees, book reviewers, and—especially—everyday readers.
To that end, PEN America recommends that the literary and publishing communities at large commit themselves—or recommit themselves—to these principles. Potential steps that institutions can take to actualize this commitment could include:
- Hold events or programming where the hosts explain or discuss the statement—its history, its principles, and its applicability today
- Raise awareness of the statement and its contents in communications with the public
- Send the statement to their members or constituents
- Include the statement on websites and in other public materials
- Reference the statement in public statements or communications
- Seek opportunities to spark debate on the statement’s precepts to foster dialogue and address the perceptions and concerns that may stand in the way of a broad embrace of these principles.
For our own part, PEN America has taken the 70th anniversary of the Freedom to Read Statement as an opportunity to endorse the document—including by enlisting every living past PEN America president to personally endorse it.257In addition to current PEN America president Ayad Akhtar, this list would include Kwame Anthony Appiah, Louis Begley, Ron Chernow, Joel Conarroe, Jennifer Egan, Frances FitzGerald, Peter Godwin, Francine Prose, Salman Rushdie, Michael Scammell, and Andrew Solomon. We commit to taking all the above steps following the issuance of this report.
We urge reading groups, literary influencers, literary conveners, and individual readers—as “conscientious literary citizens”—to familiarize themselves with the statement, discuss what its principles mean to them, and foster such discussions among their followers. We urge everyone with a voice in the literary community to consider these shared values as they navigate future disputes over literary work.
In addition to this call, PEN America offers the following recommendations to publishing and literary institutions:
Institutional Recommendations: To Goodreads
Goodreads should establish clear policies to encourage authentic reviews and curb practices, like review-bombing, that can have the effect of suppressing ideas and open discourse in the literary space.
As a primary venue for literary discourse today, Goodreads has a particular responsibility to foster a diverse marketplace of ideas. Toxic outrage on Goodreads is especially troubling when levied against books that have not yet been published. In such cases, almost by definition, critiques cannot be substantive (unless they come from a reader with a pre-publication copy) since readers have not yet had a chance to read the works in question. These critiques can constrain the willingness of an author or publisher to make a book publicly available, sometimes denying readers the opportunity to evaluate it for themselves.
While recognizing that users should be allowed to use the platform freely, Goodreads should take steps to institutionalize the expectation that reviewers read books prior to posting critiques. Following established methods used by other sites with user reviews, Goodreads may award a “authentic reviewer” badge to reviewers that requires proof of possessing a pre-publication copy or another means of verification. Distinguishing between verified and unverified reviewers will also help site visitors more easily identify credible information.
As a site that stands for reasoned, authentic discourse among readers, Goodreads should explore tactics to address review-bombing so that orchestrated campaigns to tank a book are easier for site visitors to recognize. There are established methods for detecting and addressing coordinated, inauthentic activity in ways that do not impinge upon free speech or discriminate on the basis of viewpoint. Goodreads should adopt such approaches and transparently indicate how it is doing so.
Institutional Recommendations: To Publishers
Publishers should make formal statements of principles, including their commitment to freedom of expression and the freedom to publish widely.
This may include language about their commitment to publish authors whose views do not align with their own institutional values. These statements should be based on or affirm the .Freedom to Read Statement. Publishers should take steps to educate and engage their staffs and stakeholders on these principles, by distributing the statement to existing and new staff, hosting in-office programs to explore it, inviting feedback and dialogue on its principles, reiterating them in editorial and sales gatherings, and taking the opportunity to explain how they are are being applied in specific situations.
Publishing houses should rarely, if ever, withdraw books from circulation.
While recognizing that commercial considerations will always be a factor, publishers should commit themselves to the public interest, freedom of expression, and the freedom to read in making a book available to readers.
Publishers should include authors in conversations where pre- or post-publication withdrawals are being considered.
Publishers should formally commit to including authors in any conversation where withdrawing a book is being considered. Publishers owe this to their authors at a minimum. Firstly, as an obligation to transparency and honesty with their authors. Secondly, because such consultations afford authors the opportunity to advocate for their work. Decisions to withdraw a book without the consent of the author should be the rarest of circumstances. Publishers should also have resources in place to support authors experiencing online abuse and threats. PEN America and other civil society organizations have developed guidance, training, and additional resources to protect and support authors and publishers in the face of online attacks.258For more on PEN America’s Online Abuse work, see: pen.org/issue/online-abuse/
Publishers should be as transparent as possible about their decisions and make efforts to foster public discussion and debate about free expression and the freedom to read.
Publishers’ decisions on whether or not to withdraw a book are typically made behind closed doors, with little transparency. This opaque decision-making does not help facilitate meaningful public dialogue about the controversy surrounding a particular author or book or the principles at stake. Outcomes that result in the withdrawal of a book can also have a reverberating and chilling effect on other publishing houses, editors, and authors, who may conclude that a particular topic or type of controversy is too risky to take on or support.
While we understand that full transparency may not always be possible, publishers should play a leading role in advancing discussion of the broader questions involved in these decisions: How should we weigh economic, artistic, and ethical considerations? Should an author’s conduct have any bearing on how we appreciate their work? How do we balance concerns about free speech with concerns about safety from harassment and abuse? Publishers should embrace their role at the center of these big questions and strive to bring people into the discussion in an open and productive way.
This report was written by the PEN America Research Team, with research and drafting contributions from Understory Consulting. The report was reviewed and edited by Summer Lopez, Chief Program Officer of Free Expression Programs, and Clarisse Rose Shariyf, Chief Program Officer of Literary Programming. PEN America staff Kate Ruane, Viktorya Vilk, Jonathan Friedman, William Johnson, Sabir Sultan, and Nadine Farid Johnson provided thoughtful feedback and guidance.
PEN America extends special thanks to the reviewers who thoughtfully gave their time to review this report, as well as the authors and literary and publishing professionals who agreed to be interviewed, including those who are not named. We would also like to thank the fellows whose fact-checking and proofreading made this report possible: Olivia Vinson and Rachel Hochhauser. PEN America is deeply grateful to Dascha Epstein for support of this report.
APPENDIX: FREEDOM TO READ STATEMENT
The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label “controversial” views, to distribute lists of “objectionable” books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals. We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.
Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.
These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials.
Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.
Now as always in our history, reading is among our greatest freedoms. The freedom to read and write is almost the only means for making generally available ideas or manners of expression that can initially command only a small audience. The written word is the natural medium for the new idea and the untried voice from which come the original contributions to social growth. It is essential to the extended discussion that serious thought requires, and to the accumulation of knowledge and ideas into organized collections.
We believe that free communication is essential to the preservation of a free society and a creative culture. We believe that these pressures toward conformity present the danger of limiting the range and variety of inquiry and expression on which our democracy and our culture depend. We believe that every American community must jealously guard the freedom to publish and to circulate, in order to preserve its own freedom to read. We believe that publishers and librarians have a profound responsibility to give validity to that freedom to read by making it possible for the readers to choose freely from a variety of offerings.
The freedom to read is guaranteed by the Constitution. Those with faith in free people will stand firm on these constitutional guarantees of essential rights and will exercise the responsibilities that accompany these rights.
We therefore affirm these propositions:
We state these propositions neither lightly nor as easy generalizations. We here stake out a lofty claim for the value of the written word. We do so because we believe that it is possessed of enormous variety and usefulness, worthy of cherishing and keeping free. We realize that the application of these propositions may mean the dissemination of ideas and manners of expression that are repugnant to many persons. We do not state these propositions in the comfortable belief that what people read is unimportant. We believe rather that what people read is deeply important; that ideas can be dangerous; but that the suppression of ideas is fatal to a democratic society. Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.
This statement was originally issued in May of 1953 by the Westchester Conference of the American Library Association and the American Book Publishers Council, which in 1970 consolidated with the American Educational Publishers Institute to become the Association of American Publishers.
Adopted June 25, 1953, by the ALA Council and the AAP Freedom to Read Committee; amended January 28, 1972; January 16, 1991; July 12, 2000; June 30, 2004.