December 21, 2021

I have a small shelf of books that will never be published. They are proof copies of work that ultimately had to be suppressed by the publisher, including a novel by Amanda Craig and a memoir by Rachel Cusk. Some were issued in revised form, but had to be withdrawn, for what used to be the only good reason: they fell foul of the law, in most cases the law of defamation.

Until recently, legitimate reasons to suppress books had been diminishing: obscenity or blasphemy had disappeared. They appear to be increasing again, and expanding out of the realm of the law. I don’t think we should worry about books that are withdrawn because they cross, or prove to have crossed, some legal barrier. When, this year, Alice Sebold’s rape memoir Lucky was withdrawn, it was because the man she accused, and who was convicted on the testimony she then adapted for publication, was shown to have been innocent. That would always have happened, long before the phrase “cancel culture” was coined.

But a more ominous loss was Blake Bailey’s life of the novelist Philip Roth. The American moralising critics had been gunning for Roth himself for some time, on the grounds of supposed misogyny, both in his books and in his real-life relationships with women. Fortunately, the greatest American novelist of the last 60 years is, as yet, out of their reach. Bailey himself was an easier target. He was the author of magnificent lives of John Cheever and Richard Yates, and the Roth biography was magisterial — but too forgiving in tone. And so allegations of sexual harassment, assault and even rape against the biographer were hauled up. Although not yet proved, and apparently not the subject of legal proceedings, they were enough for Bailey to be dropped by his agent and American publisher.

Is it ever acceptable for a legally unobjectionable book to be cancelled, simply because an influential group dislikes its ideas or its author? This is a question that has plagued the publishing industry this year, and will continue to plague it.

A temporarily successful cancellation was of the journalist Julie Burchill’s polemic on wokeness. It is fair to say that if you agree to publish Julie Burchill, you should know what you’re signing up to. The ride will be exhilarating, but sometimes bumpy. This apparently came as news to Little, Brown. Burchill got into an argument on Twitter with a younger, Muslim journalist. During the exchange, Burchill raised a historically verified fact about the age of one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives, and made energetically tactless descriptions about the man the religion venerates. In March, she had to pay damages for defamation. Although this had no bearing on the contents of the book Little, Brown had signed up, they said that she had “crossed the line” and they would not publish it.

Like many writers, I’ve had to admit defamation in the past. 20 years ago, you would have been considered dangerously insane to have suggested that Harper Collins drop my next novel because I’d been rude about a lady artist in the Spectator. Fortunately, there are still some who think this way. Burchill’s book was picked up by a small press, and those who agree with her, or indeed those who, like me, very much enjoy disagreeing with her, can buy her book on the Woke Trials from Academica Press for £24.95.

If you can find a bookshop stocking it, that is — one underrated feature of cancel culture is that quite ordinary booksellers took to announcing in principled tones that they would not sell work they disagreed with. Two reasonable but sceptical books on trans issues by Helen Joyce and Kathleen Stock were, it was suggested, having difficulty being displayed or even stocked by shops. I doubt it did the authors any harm. Amazon was not to be budged.

What is behind these attempts to remove individual books from circulation? And why does publishing, even for a moment, indulge the protesters who want to make the memoirs of, say, a senior member of a conservative US administration like Mike Pence unpublishable? Why are they, or the accusers of Blake Bailey, not told to go away or, if they are within the publishing industry, to find another area to work in?

Some of the scenes that have taken place are unarguably risible. The Canadian polemicist Jordan Peterson has a devoted following for his conservative hard-work-and-self-respect talks and essays. Robust prescriptions of Canadian Protestantism aren’t to everybody’s taste. The New York Times amusingly described him as the “custodian of the patriarchy”, not reflecting that the patriarchy might not need one. When Penguin Random House announced plans to publish his new book, protesters within the Canadian office forced them to hold what was described as an “emotional” meeting. One junior employee explained that publishing the book would “negatively affect their non-binary friend”. PRH went ahead, perhaps foreseeing the difficulties in consulting all the non-binary friends of junior employees about proposed signings and publications.

There are, then, reasons to be hopeful. There has been little attempt to cancel, rather than criticise, writers of the past. VS Naipaul, Joseph Conrad and Philip Roth are still in print; Dickens, widely arraigned for his treatment of his wife, remains a stalwart of the classics lists. The revelation that people who have voted for the Conservative Party have, in the past, written good novels is not yet the universal object of horror. Even the dropping of very controversial current day authors has created opportunities: the American publisher Skyhorse snapped up Bailey’s book, as it had the Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and the hitherto blameless comic writers Garrison Keillor and Woody Allen, after similar campaigns against their supposed inappropriate behaviour.

The direction of travel, however, is clear. We may be living in an age of transition, like the 1840s, when the liberal and relaxed means of expression of the previous age were snuffed out by a fervent and self-righteous rigidity. Mozart’s Così fan Tutte was dropped because it failed to draw an acceptable moral conclusion about marriage. Philip Roth’s novels may suffer the same fate. Will we who came to intellectual maturity in the Eighties and Nineties come to be stared at in the street, like the aged Thomas De Quincey, still off his face in staid 1850s Edinburgh? Well, we shall find out.

This is not a development proved or disproved by individual cases, and when campaigns of cancellation are waged against the million-selling Jordan Peterson, publishers have good reasons not to give way. Junior staff of publishers have been upset about working on J.K. Rowling’s books — she has committed the crime, among other things, of defending lesbians who have said that they don’t want to have sex with anyone with a penis. There are other junior staff to be hired, if that’s how they feel. For the moment.

Rather, we will know the truth of the development in years to come, when we can only guess at the careers that didn’t take place, and the opinions in society which, however widespread and ordinary, were deemed unpublishable. Even now, it is impossible to imagine that a novel, however brilliantly witty, could now be published by a good publisher if it made any jokes at the expense of a minority. And it may be that publishers, in a state of anxiety about offending, are pre-emptively walking away from very large parts of society.

I spoke to a couple of British editors recently who said, to their mild surprise, that they had no immediate plans to publish any novel by a man; to confirm this possible tendency, I am currently judging a new prize for novels of any sort, in which 49 out of the submitted 56 are by women. Whether publishers are turning away from half the human race, or that half of the human race is abandoning a way of life there’s no money in and nothing but disapproval to be expected, is arguable. The final result of an undeniable culture of cancellation is a terrible impoverishment of diversity, of fruitful debate, of the exploration and expression of different lives, different points of view, different ways of living in the world. That matters.