Last year, Mind Matters News covered the new phenomenon of publishing house staff going to war against the publisher’s own books. It’s a far cry from the days when publishers might have to defend their books in a courtroom. Last year the target was, among other authors, best-selling psychologist Jordan Peterson.
We were informed by Maclean’s Magazine that “Employees at Penguin Random House Canada speak out on how they’re rethinking their workplaces and why publishing, writ large, should weigh its moral responsibilities” in connection with Peterson’s latest, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (Penguin 2021).
The book did get published, despite them, to five star reviews. But Cancel Culture staff continue to lead the charge for “depublishing” and have succeeded with many less well known targets. Orwell Prize-winning author Kate Clanchy’s memoir was Canceled by its original publisher (though acquired by another. Blake Bailey’s biography of author Philip Roth was Canceled by W.W. Norton due to the author’s and subject’s Me Too sins. Young adult author Jessica Cluess was Canceled after she defended literary classics.
The latest attempt at big-name Cancelation is aimed at U.S. Supreme Court justice Amy Coney Barrett. Early in 2021 she was signed by Penguin’s Sentinel imprint to write a book on her judicial philosophy and the reasoning behind her decisions.
Barrett was one of the judges who struck down Roe v. Wade via the Dobbs decision — thus enabling states to make their own laws on abortion, as they had done prior to 1973. We might think therefore that many people would be interested in hearing her perspective, especially because, for the most part, the public has heard mainly from the opponents of Dobbs. But if we think that, we misunderstand Cancel Culture.
Now that her book must be well under way, “a group of concerned publishing professionals” has begun circulating a letter against it:
At the core of the statement argument against PRH’s decision to publish Coney Barrett is the alleged violation of the Bertelsmann Code of Conduct. The statement notes that Human Rights Watch, which was founded by former Random House publisher Robert L. Bernstein, cited the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in declaring abortion access a human right. The Code of Conduct for PRH parent company Bertelsmann also cites that declaration, noting that the publisher is “committed to the principles” of the document. The statement claims that proceeding to publish Coney Barrett’s book would be in violation of both the company’s Code of Conduct and international human rights.Sophia Stewart, “Open Letter Condemns Amy Coney Barrett Book Deal” at Publishers’ Weekly (October 25, 2022)
The core of the argument does not make much sense to non-participants in Cancel Culture because a publisher advances reasonable discussion of a topic by publishing a principal figure’s view. But as of this writing, 559 “concerned publishing professionals” have signed the letter, whose second last paragraph reads,
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. Rather, this is a case where a corporation has privately funded the destruction of human rights with obscene profits. Coney Barrett is free to say as she wishes, but Penguin Random House must decide whether to fund her position at the expense of human rights in order to inflate its bottom line, or to truly stand behind the values it proudly espouses to hold.
But of course, from a traditional publishing perspective the “concerned professionals” are calling for censorship. They want the publisher to Cancel a book they vehemently disagree with.
Update: Penguin’s Sentinel imprint is now standing by its decision to publish Amy Coney Barrett’s book, likely in 2024: ““We remain fully committed to publishing authors who, like Justice Barrett, substantively shape today’s most important conversations,” said Adrian Zackheim, publisher of Sentinel, a leading conservative house, in the publisher’s first public comments on the situation.” (Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2022) That’s an election year and Penguin appears to have voted to stay relevant.
One way of understanding the Cancelers’ point of view: Participants in Cancel Culture generally give themselves the right to assume whatever identity they want and then demand that others assent to it. Thus, when engaging in behavior that they themselves would probably call censorship when others do it, they demand that the world nonetheless not see them as censors. A great deal depends on whether the publishing world will let the Cancelers get away with that.
… despite few activists, organized groups, or political parties rallying around the word “woke,” the values associated with the term have come to dominate every aspect of society, from schools and universities to police, business, health care, and the judiciary. The creative industries—museums and art galleries, journalism and publishing—have proved particularly fertile ground for cultivating woke values. This has not happened overnight but over the course of several decades. And it has not happened because of the merits of woke thinking but because institutions, devoid of any intrinsic sense of purpose, were unable or unwilling to defend liberal values.Joanna Williams, “How Woke Put Paid to Publishing” at City Journal (August 28, 2022)
At worse, Mme Justice Barrett will need to find a less distinguished publisher but it will still be possible so far to read her defence of her pro-life judicial philosophy. But that in turn raises an interesting question:
Does the future of publishing — as an intellectual enterprise — belong to smaller, less well-known publishers, with the great publishing houses reduced to publishing only what the Cancel mob does not object to at present? The next few years will likely tell.
You may also wish to read: Why did the publishing industry go to war against books? Readers need to know how things have changed. For various reasons, traditional publishers today are trying to dump controversial books instead of profiting from their sale.