Why are we still burning books? Credit: Neil Jacobs/Getty

June 21, 2021   5 mins

Romance author Elin Hilderbrand was hauled over the coals for including an Anne Frank joke in her recently published novel Golden Girl; a teenage girl compares her bedroom for the summer, located in an attic, to the exile of hiding and exclusion Anne Frank and her family had to endure during the Second World War.

Now, humour operates in lots of ways (I can’t believe I’m writing this, but here we are), one of which is through something called hyperbole, from the Greek, meaning: get a grip. This joke is funny because of the contrast between this teenage girl’s minor inconvenience and the horrors suffered by Anne Frank and her family. There’s also a kind of meta-funniness going on too, I think — the joke seems to invoke the way we cope with the unthinkable horror of the Holocaust by making silly jokes about attics and Anne Frank. The word “we” in that sentence is problematic, probably, because I am not Jewish but, well, I think Anne Frank’s work belongs to the world — and for the sin of that thought, I shall begin preparing my own hide-away.

I wonder if a way to deal with the endless contretemps around problematic language in literature at the moment is to offer the reader two versions of the work they wish to read. The first is the draft produced by the writer with nothing on her mind but the business of getting a good story onto the page. The second is the version put through the filter of sensitivity readers who will remove anything that could possibly be interpreted by any group as a slight. That way, I think, everyone wins: those who believe literature should deal with how people really are — problematic, offensive, foul-mouthed — can read about that and revel in their damnation; and those who think literature should show us the higher ideals through characters who never make dodgy jokes can have their safe clean fun too – although, we can never be too sure of this safety since, according to Publisher’s Weekly, this book had been vetted by sensitivity readers and still the joke made it through.

This dual-edition model has the advantage of creating employment for the hordes of people who wish to work in publishing — and the work itself is likely to be satisfying for graduates trained to locate insensitivities in the texts they encounter. Obviously, it will cost the publishers money, but they are mostly celebrating record profits at the moment so they can afford it — and I suspect they will be extremely grateful to throw some money at the problem of these endless social media blow-ups. Indeed it will probably prove less costly in the long run than having to deal with the reduced efficacy of the PR departments who are surely in some kind of group therapy at the moment (I really hope the companies are paying for this because publishing salaries do not stretch so far as to cover the cost of the kind of mental robustness needed in the frontline of these wars).

The alternative, I guess, is that all we are allowed to read will be campus novels about young people with lovely politics arguing sexily before falling into bed with one another. I have no problem with such novels — but I’m not sure if that’s all I want to read. It seems to me that we are dealing with a gap between how people behave in “the real world” and how people in cultural institutions like publishing houses wish they would behave. Anyone who has ever worked in a bar or a McDonald’s or a factory or even a school or hospital will have heard language that would make the most hardened sensitivity reader faint clean anyway. Which means it’s great that we have so few literary novels depicting those kind of environments nowadays — I mean, can you imagine?

Anyway, it doesn’t matter because the joke has been scrubbed out. The author has asked her publisher to remove it from the text of the novel for future printings and from all existing digital versions. So we all win — earlier, problematic versions of the text will likely circulate on eBay for those who think they can handle it, and everyone else will get a safe reading experience. All we need now is for publishers to provide that option to readers from the start, which has the additional advantage of giving us insight into how many unclean readers are out there, and — if these readers mostly purchase their books online — a handy way to keep track of them and their dirty reading habits.

I am honing in, perhaps unfairly, on a particularly egregious example here: I know that as I write, any number of books with any number of dodgy jokes are going to press, brought into being by a solid understanding of the difference between author and character which seems to have failed Hilderbrand’s readers so fatally. Of course we know they understand this very well, but this is not about protecting readers from offence. It is really about incentives and how the discovery of offence in texts is richly rewarded by a social media where attention — of any kind, even for being wilfully, deliberately stupid — is the only currency.

But it is the fact that it is such a trivial joke in such a “trivial” genre that should concern us here. “Trivial” genres are the ones read by most people (though we in fiction publishing must always remember that most people do not read our books at all). Most of the fiction market is commercial and of that, at least 50% of it is digital — often low-priced ebooks depicting characters in settings many people enjoy reading about: schools, hospitals, police stations, helicopters, skyscrapers, Nantucket; that combination of ordinary life enhanced by high drama, romance or crime that has been the bread-and-butter of publishing for as long as anyone can remember.

But now, even here, in the books that never win prestigious prizes, with authors who sell by the bucketload but are never heard of by readers who carry New Yorker tote bags and are sniffy about Amazon — myself first among them, I admit  — even here, if we are to be guided by the Hilderbrand example, it is no longer permissible to depict people talking as they actually talk. Be honest: how inclusive was your language the last time you had sex with a millionaire on a helicopter?

I know that in similar incidents there has been unease at publishing houses about text changes brought about due to social media pressure. And I understand here that it was the author’s decision: the upheaval, the anxiety, the potential damage to her brand just wasn’t worth it. This put me in mind of “Art’s Troubles”, a beautiful essay by Anthony Julius in the recent issue of Liberties, exploring the question of who, in this censorious age of ours, will stand up for the arts?

He astutely comments that the writer/artist will not do so: she is too busy making art, even if the art she is making — commercial romance novels — is usually ignored by the kind of people who read lofty essays in literary journals. As (some) publishing workers do read or at least pretend to have read these essays, I beg them to read Julius’s one and to consider as a slogan – for we all seem so very fond of slogans, all of a sudden, though sloganeering is the very antithesis of art-making – the following:

“Everything is a subject for art and literature; everything can be shown, whatever can be imagined can be described.”

It could even fit quite nicely on a Tote bag.