Crying Censorship: The Ethics of Publishing the Problematic

It is always disappointing when Woody Allen rears his head in the news cycle. Last month—which feels like centuries ago thanks to the timelessness of living through a pandemic—hundreds of Hachette employees (and prominent journalist Ronan Farrow) protested Hachette’s acquisition of Allen’s memoir. In an astounding display of solidarity and collective action, they successfully pushed Hachette to drop the book.

Why the extreme pushback? For those out of the loop, Woody Allen has been accused of pedophilia and sexual assault, and he married his ex-wife Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter. Yet, he somehow still gets the green light to make movies and share his thoughts with the world. Even after Hachette dropped the memoir, Arcade Publishing picked it back up and quietly it released last month. As those who have read it have reported, the memoir is pretty disgusting. Unsurprisingly, he denies any wrongdoing and doubles down on his innocence and glibly addresses severe allegations and violence. To put it simply, the book is trash.

Who Gets Muzzled Next?

But its publication raises a host of questions about the responsibilities of publishers. After the Hachette protest, horror author Stephen King tweeted out that: “The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It’s not him; I don’t give a damn about Mr. Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me.”

King is never one to choose words carelessly. So the use of “muzzled” here is greatly concerning. Is it “muzzling” to take an ethical stand against a proven despicable human being? I would say not. Or rather, I would say some people deserve to be muzzled anyway. I would even go further and argue that the publishing industry needs more moral and ethical principles about who it chooses to publish. Publishers who disguise themselves as neutral ignore the material realities of the world we live in.

What Is and Isn’t Censorship

I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for censorship. The distinction about what is censorship and what is not is crucial in this discussion. It is far from censorship to not publish Woody Allen, a man with a roughly 80 million dollar net worth who could easily self-publish and still reach a wide audience. Allen’s free speech (and his livelihood) is still very much intact.

As this article from Affinity Magazine eloquently argues, “Memoirs are a powerful medium that provides powerful people a platform to shape their narratives and cement their legacies. To simply state that you can just ‘not buy the book’ grossly ignores the fact that a printed, traditionally published memoir holds social and political value. Regardless of who buys the memoir, its simple existence lends legitimacy to those published, whether or not that legitimacy is earned.”

I agree wholeheartedly. But what then does real, harmful censorship look like? It looks like the hundreds of books not allowed in prisons, lists that seem to include a lot of books about Black power and liberation. It looks like scientists compelled to censor themselves to retain funding under the Trump regime. In short, harmful censorship manifests when those in power silence those who are not.

A Middle Ground?

Perhaps it is too much to ask for publishing companies to swear off publishing books by terrible people. After all, private firms need to make money and controversial books make big bucks. And, as society progresses, we see that many terrible people are long dead and aren’t actively benefitting from books and their profits. However, as the Affinity Mag article stated, published books still cement an author’s importance in the grand societal narrative. Every time a publisher reprints something by H.P. Lovecraft, for example, it sends a message that his work is important.

I would agree that as the so-called “grandfather of horror,” Lovecraft’s work is important. But what is equally vital is the contextualization of his lifelong adherence to white supremacy. It helps us understand where horror is today, and how Lovecraft’s bigotry still affects the horror genre. Penguin Random House’s 2005 print of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness includes an introduction by horror author China Miéville that directly addresses Lovecraft’s shortcomings. “Lovecraft was notoriously not only an elitist and a reactionary, but a bilious lifelong racist,” Miéville writes.

In this way, Penguin Random House still makes money from the work of an appalling man (while he himself gets nothing because he died years ago), while the reader receives the accurate context of a historical work.

Moving Forward?

That’s a great solution for dead authors, but what about the living? Should publishers stop printing the unfortunately classic works of say, Bill Cosby or the conspiracy theories of Alex Jones? And where is the line—sexual assault is obviously reprehensible, but what about or those convicted of other crimes telling their story?

I would say that I don’t have all the answers. But if publishers want to be more than just capitalist machines churning out content for the dollar, they need to start by having the conversation. It is not censorship to pass on giving a bad person a six-figure book deal. There are so many emerging authors dreaming of being published, so many marginalized voices we barely get to hear. Lovecraft’s works are still around because we as a society decided his bigotry wasn’t a breaking point. But for authors living right now? We can shape history so that the authors who change the world are actually deserving of the honor.