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Why are publishers pandering to the mob? Morality clauses don't defuse Twitterstorms, they incentivise them

Credit: Guang Niu / Getty

January 16, 2019   4 mins

Imagine a writer whose work you admire is suddenly found cheating on his wife; or inappropriately ‘mentoring’ some lovely he met on an Arvon course; or retweeting white supremacist memes on Twitter. How woud you react? Would you remove his books from your shelves and send them to the charity shop or – for fear of moral contagion – simply hoy them into the woodburner?

Perhaps you will think these are silly questions. Perhaps you won’t. Still, it won’t matter soon what you think. A number of publishers have decided to take the matter out of your hands. More and more of them have, in recent years, been adding ‘morality clauses’ to their contracts; a New York Times report says these include HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House and (though the publisher declined to confirm it) Hachette. This news is being greeted with some alarm by the admittedly few writers who bother to read them.

This is, it should be said straight out, not so simple as a ‘freedom of speech’ issue. A morality clause doesn’t police (as private publishers are entitled to, tut-tut though we may) the acceptable parameters of what a writer can say in their work: rather, it reserves the right to pull the work from the shelves if the writer does something they don’t like in their public life, or does something in their private life that becomes public. But in making it a point of something so nebulous as morality, that writes the publisher willing to act in bad faith quite the blank cheque.

The timeworn argument about the separation of life from art needs little rehearsal here. Morality clauses – even if we stuck within current liberal tramlines and gave atheists, adulterers, suicides and sodomites a free pass – could deprive us of the works of Cicero (slave owner), Ben Jonson (murderer), Jean Genet (thief), William Burroughs (manslaughterer), Arthur Koestler (rapist), Hunter Thompson (dangerous driver), T S Eliot (antisemite), Philip Larkin (racist), David Foster Wallace (intimate partner violence, sexual harassment) the Earl of Rochester (all-round bad egg) and any number of others.

And if you started rounding up anyone whose private behaviour or public utterances could cause a scandal on social media – just think of the hashtags you’d get from Dante Gabriel Rossetti plundering his wife’s grave to retrieve a sonnet sequence – the canon would consist of George Herbert and Dorothy Wordsworth.

The reason the issue arises now, though, is nothing to do with morality. It’s to do with public relations. In part, this is because the publishing business model has changed. Writers are no longer, to the same extent they once were, the anonymous or private suppliers of texts that go out into the world. They are personalities: marketable brands in themselves. They are expected to promote their books with personal appearances and readings; to give interviews. If they already have a telly profile or a substantial social media presence, that will be baked into the contract. Publishing acquisitions meetings take into account how ‘promotable’ an author is; periodicals trail their star columnists with photographs and marquee bylines.

A consequence of this is that the publisher then has a financial interest in how they conduct their private lives. Just as Kerry Katona ceased to be a representative of the wholesome supermarket chain Iceland – “That’s why mums go to Iceland” – when she was filmed hoovering up fat lines of cocaine while she was supposed to be looking after her kids, writers can become a liability to their publishers if they’re caught doing something that compromises the public image that is one of their selling points.

Sometimes, mind you, that selling point might not be morality but the opposite. Who can forget Ozzy Osbourne’s poignant objection to using a bubble machine in one of his live shows: “I’m fucking Ozzy Osbourne, I’m the Prince of fucking Darkness. Evil! Evil! What’s fucking evil about a shitload of bubbles!?”

So there is some merit to the publishers’ case that they have a financial interest in the public personas of their authors. But this is not simply a way of finding a legal mechanism whereby you can get out of publishing a children’s book if you discover the author is a serial child molester. To determine the extent to which this is predicated not on real moral objection but on the fear of bad publicity, we need look only at the new Conde Nast boilerplate, which reportedly gives the company the right to drop a writer if, in the company’s “sole judgment”, the author “becomes the subject of public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals”.

Writers and publishers have as their raison d’ĂȘtre the production of original thinking. But here, at the very contract stage, is an active capitulation to groupthink. Not “we can drop you if you’re criminally immoral”: rather, and expressly, “we can drop you if we think people disapprove of you”. In the social media age that’s especially alarming. Social media is set up to be an engine of perpetual outrage. That is its neurological business model: a perpetually self-feeding howl-round. It is, as the futurologist (or whatever he calls himself) Jaron Lanier likes to call ‘BUMMER’: Behaviour of Users Modified and Made into an Empire for Rent. There’s money in the mayhem.

And here, at the heart of it, is the serious point. A Twitterstorm, as it is, can’t do anything but huff and puff. It’s noise: sound and fury, signifying nothing. It’s a huge number of people on the internet deciding that they strongly disapprove of you and getting a little dopamine hit every time someone else interacts with their statement of disapproval. If you sit it out, if you don’t actually mind, if you DGAF, as the young people say, it will blow itself out.

That is easier said than done. It takes some stones to register the furious ad-hominem (or ad-feminam) rage of tens of thousands of strangers and not feel just a tiny bit scared or upset. Most of us, as social animals, are set up to care what others think about us. But however horrible it may be, being slated on social media cannot directly damage our livelihoods.

But in a world where ‘the optics’ matter – the world of brand management – publishers mind very much. So they write in morality clauses as a sort of escape hatch. If their author gave an interview in which he or she said something that has incited the fury of the mob (and let’s not forget that that fury can be and is, particularly in the political arena, purposefully gamed by interested actors), they can drop the author like a hot rock before brand contamination sets in.

And that doesn’t defuse the likelihood of Twitterstorms: rather, it incentivises them. It means that those who are outraged, or just pretending to be because they’re bored, or crave approval, or have clambered on a passing bandwagon, or are being paid a decent wage to sit in a troll farm in the former Soviet Union claiming to be a midwestern hockey mom, now have a concrete means of damaging their target’s livelihood and/or inflicting financial harm on the institutions or publications that employ them. This is to quail at paper tigers and attempt to appease them by giving them real teeth. That really is a bummer.

Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.

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Frances An
Frances An
3 years ago

I agree that a problematic foundation of the free speech vs. author’s/publisher’s responsibility to hold a respectable image comes down to audience’s flawed perception of authors themselves as marketable public figures. For example, the Sydney Writers’ Festival is just tiled with people’s faces. I find this frustrating: the books and arguments discussed are overshadowed by the authors as weird public personalities – and some authors (often the ones with less complex artistic pieces) revel in this! The obsession with optics is a natural consequence from the focus on the author’s public visibility. There’s a strangely corporate echo in the publisher’s prioritisation of ‘saving face’ over faith in their author’s work: I say ‘strangely’ because the arts sphere tends to keep itself as far away from the oppressive conservative corporate landscape. I’m not sure what to make of that odd parallel yet. Thank you.