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Censorship Discussion Publishing

What a Crazy Week in Publishing!

illustration: 2021 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2021 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.


Between the post-publication recall of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth and the cancelation of contracts for upcoming political books, my head is spinning. This will probably be quite a rambling discussion, because I am truly of two minds on these kinds of issues.

‘There Is a Tension There’: Publishers Draw Fire for Signing Trump Officials

The New York Times reports that, after “backing out of a deal with Senator Josh Hawley, a prominent supporter of former President Donald J. Trump,” Simon & Schuster has announced that it will publish two books by former Vice-President Mike Pence. On Monday many staff members at S&S presented a petition to management demanding the company end the deal with Pence. The authors of this article also talked with others in the publishing industry, including management at other publishers, literary agents, and public relations firms.

In another era, book deals with former White House officials were viewed as prestigious and uncontroversial, and major publishers have long maintained that putting out books from across the political spectrum is not only good for business but an essential part of their mission. In today’s hyperpartisan environment, however, Simon & Schuster has become a test case for how publishers are trying to draw a line over who is acceptable to publish . . .

According to the article, many publishing insiders now “acknowledge that there are certain ideological lines that they won’t cross. Some said they wouldn’t acquire books by politicians or pundits who questioned the results of the presidential election. Another bright line is working with people who promoted the false narratives or conspiracy theories that Mr. Trump espoused.”

It’s tempting to think of this issue as a blatant example of censorship, but it is not. As the S&S employees wrote in a letter accompanying their petition to management: ““Let’s be clear: the First Amendment protects free speech from legal encroachment. It in no way calls for publishing companies to publish all viewpoints.” 

The same issue came up in March when the company that controls publication of works by Dr. Seuss announced that it would no longer publish six of his works because of their racist imagery. The government may not stop dissemination of certain ideas, but publishing companies—which are, after all, businesses—are free to choose what products they make and sell.

On the other hand, who gets to decide what ideas are appropriate for publication and what ones aren’t? In the current climate that calls for more diversity in publishing, these difficult questions call for specific answers.

Simon & Schuster Employees Submit Petition Demanding No Deals With Trump Administration Authors

The Wall Street Journal offers a more focused look at the business angle of the dispute between Simon & Schuster employees and writers, and management:

An employee petition at Simon & Schuster demanding that the company stop publishing authors associated with the Trump administration collected 216 internal signatures and several thousand outside supporters, including well-known Black writers. . . . The petition demands that the company refrain from publishing a memoir by former Vice President Mike Pence. The letter asks Simon & Schuster not to treat “the Trump administration as a ‘normal’ chapter in American history.”

“Among the more than 3,500 outside supporters, according to a letter accompanying the petition, were writers of color including Jesmyn Ward, a two-time winner of the National Book Award for fiction.”

The employee pushback against Mr. Pence’s book underscores the challenges publishers face in releasing politically sensitive books that are commercially attractive. Major publishers generally want to give a platform to authors with a range of viewpoints, but don’t want to alienate portions of their workforce or customer base.

The petition and letter were submitted to Simon & Schuster Chief Executive Jonathan Karp and Dana Canedy, “publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint.” In reply, “Mr. Karp last week said in his internal letter that Simon & Schuster’s core mission includes publishing ‘a diversity of voices and perspectives.’”

Norton Takes Philip Roth Biography Out of Print

The other major publishing story currently playing out is the recall of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth: The Biography “following allegations that Mr. Bailey sexually assaulted multiple women and behaved inappropriately toward his students when he was an eighth grade English teacher.”

Bailey’s biography of Roth was published earlier this month (April 2021) and has been widely promoted by the publisher. Norton is also discontinuing printing, distribution, and promotion of Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned (2014). 

The New York Times quotes Julia A. Reidhead, president of Norton:

“As a publisher, Norton gives its authors a powerful platform in the civic space. With that power comes the responsibility to balance our commitment to our authors, our recognition of our public role, and our knowledge of our nation’s historic failure to adequately listen to and respect the voices of women and diverse groups,” Ms. Reidhead wrote.

Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of the literary organization PEN America, told the Times that Norton’s action “risked establishing a new, troubling norm that could narrow the range of ideas and information available to readers.” 

Bailey has denied the allegations, and his lawyer “called Norton’s response to the allegations ‘troubling and unwarranted.’”

The Philip Roth biography is canceled, Mike Pence’s book could be next — and publishing may never be the same

Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, typically has a sensible take on literary matters, so I’ll let him have the last word here: “I think this week marks a sea change in publishers’ interest in their authors’ behavior.” He continues:

new voices are starting to assert a different set of judgments about what they think is important, valid and entertaining. . . . Books are not wholly self-contained creations; they retain their moral and financial connections to their authors. Ignoring those connections and pretending that a book floats in a vacuum is the privilege of people protected from discrimination, erasure and assault. . . . The bold professionals who are standing up to their management will fight to bring us books from authors who for too long were excluded or diminished while publishers prided themselves on their pure liberal values.

What Do You Think?

1. Should books by insiders from the previous administration be published? If they are published, will you read them?

I certainly have no interest in reading a book by Mike Pence, Kellyanne Conway, or any of the other people involved in devaluing the press or promulgating white supremacist or insurrectionist activity. But should those books remain unpublished? 

2. What about books written by authors of questionable repute?

Since this is the USA, we should assume someone is innocent until proven guilty. But in cases where allegations are made before a book comes out, shouldn’t a publisher be responsible for examining the situation before giving a writer and public platform? And I’m especially bothered when some of the allegations involve predatory treatment of children.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Censorship Fiction Film Publishing Reading

Literary Links

Captivating Novels about Astrology

In her introduction to this list, Laura Maylene Walter, author of the novel Body of Stars, calls herself “a skeptic who doesn’t read horoscopes in my daily life.” But, she continues, “hand me a work of fiction about astrology or psychics, and I’m captivated.”

Many of the books on this list examine issues surrounding the topics of fate, free will, the future, and alternate life possibilities.

5 Books with Unique Narratives That Play with Format

Experimental (or maybe inventive is a better word) fiction fascinates me, especially novels that bend genre conventions or play with narrative structure.

Here Anne Jaconette lists “a few books with unique narratives that will grab your attention from the first page!”

Calling a Time-Out on Reading for Sport

Jamie Canaves recently realized that she’d been “rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.” And I had the same realization when I read this description.

She had this realization during 2020 and decided to change her reading life at the beginning of 2021 by asking herself three questions: “Why are you doing this? What is the point? Is it adding to the enjoyment of your reading life?” And, she reports, her reading life has greatly improved this year: “I guess I just needed to get myself back to reading for enjoyment and not some weird imaginary sport.”

Turns Out It’s Pretty Good: Reading First Thing in the Morning

Dismayed that reading had nearly disappeared from her busy life, freelance writer and editor Rachel Charlene Lewis developed a new habit: She now sets her alarm so that she can read in bed—even before brushing her teeth or making that first cup of coffee—for an hour in the morning.

What Zora Went Looking For

Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, profiles Zora Neale Hurston for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “As a budding anthropologist, the storyteller began to find her way.” 

This article is adapted from King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.

Do Patricia Highsmith Novels Make Good Films?

“The author’s oeuvre has long been the subject of cinematic preoccupation, inspiring over 20 screen adaptations and counting. Here, a close read of four of the best and worst of them.”

Kerry Manders examines four films based on the novels of Patricia Highsmith:

  • Strangers on a Train (1951), based on the 1950 novel of the same title
  • Carol (2015), based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan
  • A Kind of Murder (2016), adapted from the 1954 novel The Blunderer
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the 1955 novel of the same title

Books that touched on race were among the most challenged as inappropriate for libraries in 2020

From CNN:

Books that talked about racism and racial justice — or told the stories of people of color or the LGBTQ community — were among the most challenged as inappropriate for students in 2020, according to a survey by the American Library Association.

The article concludes with the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.

From the Sidelines to the Spotlight: LGBTQ Books 2021

Publishers Weekly highlights “the authors of new fiction and nonfiction titles . . . bringing a wide range of queer experiences to the fore.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Censorship Ebooks Fiction Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Reading Writing

Literary Links

How Reading Ebooks Changes Our Perception (and Reviews)

Kindle Paperwhite

Addison Rizer, a self-declared “avid Kindle reader,” writes, “I am curious about the ways reading ebooks changes the way we interact, and review, the novels we consume.”

The article contains lots of references, with links, to both scientific studies and popular sources. However, the discussion is unfocused; it includes discussion of viewing both art works and films in addition to reading books. Also, Rizer talks about screens, which could mean either a dedicated ebook reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook) or a laptop/desk computer computer screen. But reading on these three types of screens is decidedly different experiences. In fact, even reading on a Kindle differs from reading the same ebook with the Kindle app on a tablet (such as an iPad).

How ‘Lolita’ Escaped Obscenity Laws and Cancel Culture

Actor and screenwriter Emily Mortimer delves into Nabokov’s 1959 novel Lolita and how it managed to escape the obscenity laws of the era:

to my knowledge, no criminal case was ever brought against “Lolita,” which is surprising given that it appeared in the world at a time when literature was far from safe from the clutches of the obscenity laws, and given that it’s still the most shocking, sensational thing you’ve ever read.

Wisdom in the Work

Bookforum offers an interview by Emily Gould with Vivian Gornick about Gornick’s new essay collection Taking a Long Look: Essays on Culture, Literature, and Feminism in Our Time.

He Writes Unreliable Narrators Because He Is One, Too

“Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer for his debut, ‘The Sympathizer,’ recognition that was great for his career and bad for his writing. Now he’s back with its subversive sequel, ‘The Committed.’”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, Nguyen turned into what he calls “a public intellectual” who was “suddenly in demand as a speaker, panelist, late-night TV guest and op-ed writer, speaking up for refugees and immigrants at a time when both groups were being demonized.” But the demands of that public persona prevented him from writing fiction for a year.

Initially, Nguyen didn’t set out to write a series about a disillusioned spy. But when he finished “The Sympathizer,” he had grown attached to his sardonic narrator, whose voice came to him so naturally that it feels like his alter ego.

Sex, Noir & Isolation

“In his novels, Alfred Hayes explored what he saw as noir’s central concern: the inability to feel the reality of your own life, or anyone else’s.”

Vivian Gornick writes about the work of Alfred Hayes, a reporter, screenwriter, novelist, and poet who died in 1985 and who “has recently become something of a passion for those who find in his writing the mastery that makes a work of literature take up a permanent place in a reader’s inner life.”

Review: From William Styron to ‘American Dirt’: When is it appropriate to culturally appropriate?

Carolyn Kellogg reviews Appropriate: A Provocation by poet and writing professor Paisley Rekdal for the Los Angeles Times: “her basic thesis is that culture is situated in its moment; careful consideration of where each of us is in that moment informs what we create, how we read, what literature is lifted up and what is left out.”

We Can’t Believe Survivors’ Stories If We Never Hear Them

“Our ideas about which narratives are important, sane, or credible depend on what we see reflected in culture”

Rachel Zarrow argues that we must encourage survivors of trauma to tell their stories and we must listen to the stories they tell if we are to understand their experience. Although Zarrow focuses on survivors’ stories of sexual assault, her message applies to people who have experienced other traumas as well, such as political oppression, famine, war.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Book News Book Recommendations Censorship Publishing Reading

Literary Links

The time is right to cancel Dr. Seuss’s racist books

One of the biggest literary stories recently is the decision by the company that controls the works of Dr. Seuss to pull six titles from future republication because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” Here Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post, expresses his agreement with the decision.

Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts

Soon after the story of the Dr. Seuss decision, the story blossomed into a full-blown controversy over censorship and cancel culture. Written a few days after the previous article, this article gives an overview of the Dr. Seuss news.

6 Books That Give Voices to Forgotten Women in Our Stories

The last several years have seen the rise of a movement to put women’s stories back into a cultural history dominated by men. Here Aisling Twomey lists books “specifically retelling older stories from the perspectives of the women in them who have long been ignored.”

Your 9 Favorite Classics and What to Read Next

Book recommendations abound across the internet. But I was particularly interested in this article, which suggests current reading based on your favorite literary classic. See what to read next if your favorite literary classic is one of these works: The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Little Women, Roots, A Passage to India, Pride and Prejudice, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Forever Amber, or Jane Eyre

Teaching Classic Lit Helps Game Designers Make Better Stories

Poet Cindy Frenkel created a course called Creative Writing for Video Gamers, a requirement for students majoring in video game design at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. Here she describes the lesson she learned from one of her student’s presentation: “appreciating classic literature and art could enhance not only the creation of video games but the player’s experience as well.”

“Classic literature has fundamental elements that reappear every day in video games, comics, and movies . . . because the building blocks of a great story remain the same throughout the centuries.”

Is It Worth Reading If I Forget Everything I Read?

Danika Ellis asks this question because she usually remembers only her general impressions of books she’s read, not plot details. But, she concludes, she will continue to read: “I’ve taken to heart that the brain is a great place to make creative connections and to come up with new ideas, but it’s a pretty poor place to store information.”

The Curse of Reading and Forgetting

In this article in The New Yorker from way back in 2013, Ian Crouch addresses the same concern that Ellis explains in the article above: “the assembled books [on his bookshelves], and the hundreds of others that I’ve read and discarded, given away, or returned to libraries, represent a vast catalogue of forgetting.”

Read his conclusion on this “minor existential drama.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Book Groups Book News Book Recommendations Censorship Fiction Last Week's Links Literary History Publishing

Literary Links

What’s Behind the Label ‘Domestic Fiction’?

Soledad Fox Maura, professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at Williams College and soon-to-debut novelist, wonders why World Cat “(the biggest library search engine on the planet)” has classified her upcoming novel, Madrid Again, as domestic fiction:

Why would my novel, about an itinerant bilingual mother and daughter who do not have a permanent home and zigzag across the Atlantic at a frenetic pace, the long and complicated legacy of the Spanish Civil War overshadowing their every move, be in such a category?

After a quick look at the definition of domestic fiction, she suggests that we find some new terms for fictional genres if we, in fact, need such genres at all. “What I question is a genre that is so clearly gendered, with connotations that are so outdated.”

‘My Wine Bills Have Gone Down.’ How Joan Didion Is Weathering the Pandemic

Lucy Feldman writes, “Didion will forever be a certain type of person’s idea of a deity—the literary, the cool.” Here Feldman talks with Didion, now 86, on how she’s enduring the COVID-19 pandemic at her home in New York.

Didion’s latest essay collection, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, was published on January 26th.

What Stories of Transition and Divorce Have in Common

As part of its feature Outward, coverage of “LGBTQ life, thought, and culture,” Slate offers this partial transcript of a podcast with author Torrey Peters about her new novel, Detransition, Baby. The book features the characters “Reese, a trans woman in her 30s who desperately wants to be a mother, and Ames, Reese’s former lover and a former trans woman who now has detransitioned and lives as a man.”

Page refresh: how the internet is transforming the novel

“Doom scrolling, oversharing, constantly updating social media feeds – the internet shapes how we see the world, and now it’s changing the stories we tell, writes author Olivia Sudjic.”

Sudjic writes that, since viewing social media is now such a big part of our lives, we are surprised when fictional characters don’t check their screens:

We are hungry for writers who can parse our present, whether in essay form, in works such as Jia Tolentino’s collection Trick Mirror (2019) and Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020) or the fiction about to hit our shelves (or Kindle screens) that put social media front and centre.

As Political Divide Widens, Will Big Houses Rethink Conservative Publishing?

Publishers Weekly takes a look at the significance of Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Josh Hawley’s book after his actions on January 6th as an unruly mob broke into the U.S. Capitol. The article asks several members of the publishing industry “whether, and where, big houses will draw the line with conservative authors.”

(Also see this article from last week’s Literary Links.)

25 Great Writers and Thinkers Weigh In on Books That Matter

In honor of the 125th anniversary of its Book Review, the New York Times “[dips] into the archives to revisit our most thrilling, memorable and thought-provoking coverage.” Writers featured include Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Patricia Highsmith, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Tracking the Vocabulary of Sci-Fi, from Aerocar to Zero-Gravity

“The new online Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction probes the speculative corners of the lexicographic universe.”

Check here for the backstory of terms such as warp speed, transporter, and deep space.

Take a peek inside the world of longtime Seattle-area book clubs

I met most of my best friends at book group. Here Moira Macdonald, arts critic for the Seattle Times, features the stories of some local book groups that have been discussing books for more than 30 years.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Censorship Fiction Last Week's Links Libraries

Literary Links

Murder, He Wrote

When Charles Dickens dropped dead on 9 June 1850, he was hard at work on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Readers who had already devoured the first three instalments of the story were left to solve its central mystery without the author’s help. On the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, Frances Wilson looks back on his final months. What lay behind Dickens’s turn to crime fiction? What were the real-life inspirations for this new novel? And, most importantly, who killed Edwin Drood?

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

“A college class weathering the pandemic finds Dostoyevsky’s savage inwardness and apocalyptic feverishness uncomfortably resonant.”

This is a fascinating account of David Denby’s experience of enrolling in the course Literary Humanities at Columbia University in New York City at the age of 76, then having the class moved online with the onset of COVID-19. Read how the pandemic-induced isolation affected students’ reactions to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Denby, a Columbia graduate, first took this course as an undergraduate at the university. He enrolled in the course again at age 48 to re-examine the “great books” that traditionally have made up the Western literary canon but more recently have come under fire as too limited to represent world culture. The result of that experience was his 1996 book The Great Books.

This current article recounts his third time through the same two-semester course, begun in fall 2019.

 Natural attenuation as a decontamination approach for SARS-CoV-2 on five library materials

Don’t let that dull and formal-sounding title scare you off. Now that we’re beginning to have hope that libraries will be able to reopen, this report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) offers encouraging news—or, as it describes itself, “science-based information designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors who are engaging in the delivery or use of museum, library, and archival services.”

To sum up: “Results show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on the materials after three days of quarantine.

You should take a look at the report yourself to find out exactly what materials they tested and what procedures they used.

You’re not alone: Thrillers and mysteries that also feature characters stuck in isolation

“Sheltering in place doesn’t mean you can’t go visiting. You can drop in on fictional characters trapped in isolated houses in out-of-the-way places. No social distancing is required, and you’ll sympathize when they feel the walls closing in.”

Carol Memmott, a writer from Austin, Texas, describes five mysteries, some of which are variations on the traditional locked-room mystery.

Parental Fear and Cultural Erasure: The Logic Behind Banning Books

Because I’m very openly against censorship, I approached this article with interest. Nancy Snyder here asks, “Have you ever considered what lies beneath the vitriolic fury within the parents screaming at the school board meetings in favor of banning children’s and YA books?”

I ended up quite disappointed in this article because it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Here’s the conclusion:

For anyone who respects the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas, book banning is an exercise in repression and ignorance. Removing controversial content does nothing but have the young reader want to read the book that has been banned from them. Too often, these banned book titles are the exact books young people need to read: banned books are effective in helping children develop their own values and moral convictions.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Censorship

Celebrate the Freedom to Read

quotation: The Hate U Give
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Censorship

Banned Books Week

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Censorship

Who Challenges Books?

graphic: who initiates censorship?
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Categories
Censorship

Read Banned Books

list of challenged books
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