January 26, 2017
Publishing during wartime, part VI: The growing resistance
by Dennis Johnson
If you want to see how Donald Trump’s not-so-peculiar brand of fascism could successfully roll out across America, you could do worse than making a study of what’s going on in the book industry right now with the Milo Yiannopoulos affair.
For example, the way Yiannopoulos’ publisher, Simon and Schuster, continues to insist on its ludicrous—and achingly transparent—assertion that it would be censorship to not publish a hate speech monger like Yiannopulos, and the way the mouthpieces of the industry—the American Association of Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, the Authors Guild—continue to stand by such a perverse conflation of protest and censorship, wagging their heads harder and harder till it seems their eyebrows are going to fly off, is all mindful of the behavior of Senate Democrats of late.
That is, there’s an institutional timidity — the Dems’ defense is that they don’t want to be seen as being as Neanderthally obstructionist as the Republicans were to President Obama (“When they go low, we go high!”), and so they follow “rules” that are actually about preserving the status quo, which was of course recently—they don’t seem to have noticed—blown out of the water.
For instance, did you know that Elizabeth Warren voted to confirm the wildly unqualified nincompoop Ben Carson as HUD Secretary? So did Sherrod Brown.
Such breathtaking cynicism amongst our political, um, heroes, is witheringly disheartening, and within the book business — like politics, supposedly about truth and moral uplift and enlightenment and making the world a better place, all that sort of thing — it’s all the moreso. (For a glimpse at how idiotic the level of cynicism is in the book biz, take the recent letter from S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy defending the Yiannopulos book, and wherever Reidy says “Mr. Yiannopoloulos” substitute “Mr. Hitler,” and watch how rapidly her touted ideals flee stage right.)
Thus, the institutional aspects of the book industry right now are somewhat of a microcosmic reflection of the larger American insitution: The gatekeepers or elected officials who are supposed to be looking out for us — like, say, by fighting a fascist takeover — are in a bizarre gridlock that’s going to let the fascists triumph.
In short, the Yiannopoulos book is still slated to happen in March and Simon and Schuster is shucking and jiving as best it can until the money starts arriving, while the aforementioned industry mouthpieces — ABA, AAP, AG, et al — have come down resolutely behind them, thank you very much, gotta go.
Which only means that it’s going to be that much harder for the rank and file to have an effective protest.
Take the case of one of the very first people to take a public and meaningful stand against Simon and Schuster, Chicago Review of Books publisher Adam Morgan, who declared that he was going to stop reviewing S&S books … and has come under withering personal attack from Breitbart as a result. He’s stopped talking to the press. But he’s still not reviewing S&S titles.
We should also get used to the notion that our leaders are going to come from some unexpected place within the ranks, and not necessarily from within the institution — I say again, Elizabeth Warren voted to confirm Ben Carson.
And that non-institutional leadership is indeed all we have so far in this fight — beyond Adam Morgan and the Chicago Review, only two significant players have taken a significant stand against S&S. One, as previously reported, is a group of Simon & Schuster’s own children’s book authors; and the other is indie bookseller The Booksmith of San Francisco, which has declared it will reduce how many S&S books it stocks by half, and is giving all profits on those few books to the ACLU.
Few others have taken the risk of such a meaningful public stand, however, although several other booksellers have announced they’re not going to stock books from the Threshold imprint, and that instead they’re going to protest by, um, forefronting better books by S&S… Which means, in translation, that they’re not going to sell books they wouldn’t have sold anyway, and they’re going to heavily promote books they like from S&S. So in the end, they’re… making even more money for S&S than they would have ordinarily…
Meanwhile it’s not hard to imagine others under fire from Trump taking far more meaningful stands.
Take, for example, the way Trump, two days after the most massive protest march against a sitting president in history, the women’s march—it’s estimated millions marched around the globe—issued yet another of his thin-skinned fuck-you’s by signing a bill reinstating one of Ronald Reagan’s women-punishing concoctions: a decree “prohibiting the granting of American foreign aid to health providers abroad who discuss abortion as a family-planning option,” also known as the “gag order” policy, as a New York Times report details.
As it explains,
United States law already prohibits the use of American taxpayer dollars for abortion services anywhere, including in countries where the procedure is legal. But Mr. Trump’s order takes the prohibition further: It freezes funding to nongovernmental organizations in poor countries if they offer abortion counseling or if they advocate the right to seek abortion in their countries.
It even prohibits them from discussing contraceptive methods — by definition, pre-conception, so unrelated to abortion, a discrimination too sophisticated to be observed by the likes of Team Trump, apparently.
But in its cruelty to women—an AIDS victim in Africa not wanting to pass it on to a child, a teenage rape victim who can’t take advantage of education support because she will have no childcare—it’s hard not to imagine many caregivers ignoring the law, picking the Hippocratic Oath (“First, do no harm”) over a fascist dictum.
Or on another front, take the actual and ongoing insurgency at the National Park Service, where, as a Time Magazine report details, Team Trump has been literally rewriting history, as at other agencies, by forcing the department to delete social media postings that it disagrees with — such as, say, tweets about the science behind climate change. This, by the way, is what Stalin did.
But a rogue team of National Parks service people have taken to anonymously posting at a look-alike account:
Mr Trump, you may have taken us down officially. But with scientific evidence & the Internet our message will get out.
— AltUSNatParkService (@AltNatParkSer) January 24, 2017
Well, finally, yesterday the book industry got a leader in the fight against Yiannopoulos when a major S&S author declared she’d had enough. Roxane Gay, who had a forthcoming book with S&S, announced she was pulling it from publication.
As she explained in an extremely gracious statement,
I guess I’m putting my money where my mouth is. And to be clear, this isn’t about censorship. Milo has every right to say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be. He doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher but he has, in some bizarre twist of fate, been afforded that privilege. So be it. I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege. I am also fortunate enough to be in a position to make this decision. I recognize that other writers aren’t and understand that completely.
Meanwhile, the echo of violence hangs over the book’s forthcoming publication — as a Seattle Times report notes, the man who shot a protestor at Yiannopoulos’s University of Washington event has been identified as a Trump supporter.
All of which adds up to a sober moment. Will more Roxane Gays appear, more children’s book authors spitting hellfire, more indie booksellers taking a meaningful stand? More people from the rank and file making themselves uncomfortable?
Because make no mistake, this is a battle in the war against Trump, and so far, industry leaders have taken the wrong side. It’s up to us. Call or write Carolyn Reidy. Reach out in support to the children’s authors. Complain to your local bookstore if they’re selling S&S books.
See part one, Publishing during wartime
See Publishing during wartime, part II
See Publishing during wartime, part III
See Publishing during wartime, part IV
See Publishing during wartime, part V
Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives