In recent months, “cancel culture” has morphed into the bogeyman, and it’s supposedly coming for publishers, and authors too. We in these communities are being told that we must keep our guard up, that we should be scared, that we need to defend our decisions to write and publish whatever content we want, even though this is our literal constitutional right.
This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference threw fuel on the flames of America’s ever-expanding culture wars when it targeted popular culture—asserting that Mr. Potato Head and the Muppets had been “canceled.” The culprits of these cancellations? A so-called woke mob.
Book publishing is at the center of the conversation about cancel culture because of the obvious importance of books and words in shaping our cultural norms and social values. Publishers take very seriously their role as curators of content and guardians of the messages they package. Being “woke” is one of the new favorite insults hurled at progressives, but having an awareness of issues that concern social justice and racial justice is long overdue, especially for people in the position to effect change. For many publishers, the racial awakening that’s swept through the country in recent years has been a clarion call that we have to do better.
What does that mean? Depending on the publisher, it entails being more conscious of who and what we publish. It might mean publishing more authors of color, or content that is more inclusive of the experiences of LGBTQ+ folks, people with disabilities, or other marginalized people. It might mean that more books get sensitivity reads or edits. All of these efforts are important, necessary steps toward progress and equity in an industry that is infamously white- and straight-focused and as such has frequently propagated racist and queerphobic tropes and characters.
Enter Dr. Seuss. Six of his books will no longer be published by his estate. Those six books contain offensive imagery, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises stated that it would pull these titles so that the catalog will represent and support “all communities and families.” This statement has been greeted by progressives as a step in the right direction and by conservatives as another indication that the woke mob is coming to strip away our history and erase everything we hold dear.
We must, as a publishing community and as readers, insist that cancel culture be talked about for what it really is, which is an attempt (often not successful) to block someone from having a platform to amplify their message. People get “canceled” when they do or say offensive, or potentially violent, things. The politicized portrayal of cancel culture twists that deplatforming around in such a way that it claims the offenders are the victims. Witness history repeating itself.
Thomas Spence, the publisher of Regnery (the house that picked up Republican senator Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech after Simon & Schuster dropped it following the riots at the U.S. Capitol), wrote in the Wall Street Journal in January that he’d been in conversations with “publishers, editors, and agents who wondered when and how the mob would come for them.”
I haven’t had these kinds of conversations with publishers, editors, and agents, but I have talked to a few publishers who feel put out, who are frustrated that they’re being held to account in new ways. In a recent Zoom meeting, I witnessed a colleague defend a book coming out on their spring list with the kind of entitlement unique to people who haven’t historically had their authority challenged. “If I get blowback, so be it,” he asserted. And I agree with him: so be it. But whom will he blame when the blowback comes?
I would never suggest to this colleague, nor to Spence, that they not publish the books that their companies choose to publish. But to stand defiantly in the public circle and shout “cancel culture” at their detractors is also unfair. To disparage those who want to hold power to account as a mob is insulting, and repeating this epithet, as we’ve seen incessantly in the media of late, dehumanizes the individuals who have been hurt and marginalized by the content to which they’re objecting. The so-called woke mob of employees who stood up to Grand Central Publishing and objected to publishing Woody Allen’s memoir had good reason to do so. They didn’t want to work for a company that elevated and celebrated an accused sexual predator, and the people condemning them would do well to consider what experiences might motivate these employees to take such a stand.
In the months to come, we will see a concerted effort by some in positions of power to conflate cancel culture with censorship, as evidenced by Republican House representative Jim Jordan’s March 1 call for the House Judiciary Committee to hold an investigation into cancel culture. “Our society must always promote the free exchange of ideas, not cancel the ideas with which we disagree,” he wrote in his letter to the committee.
No publisher would disagree with this statement, of course; however, Jordan is using progressive values to encourage tolerance for intolerance—which never has good outcomes. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Tolerance of intolerance enables oppression.”
In the face of being attacked for the things our industry most values—free speech and freedom of expression—we must remind ourselves and others of what cancel culture really is and that misrepresenting it is an attempt to erode the progress that the publishing community has been so intent on making over this past year. We must stand strong.
Brooke Warner is the publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and the author of Write On, Sisters! and Green-Light Your Book.