The election of President Donald Trump has galvanized many in the book industry to a level of political activism not seen in generations. This week, we continue a series that shines a spotlight on some of the actions taken by those in publishing, bookselling, libraries, the nonprofit world, book-related media, and elsewhere. In the first part of a two-part feature, we look at the recent work of nonprofits.
Book publishing–related nonprofits have long supported, defended, and promoted both the First Amendment—in particular the rights to freedom of speech and the freedom of the press—and government support for the arts and humanities. But in the wake of the election of President Trump, who has decried well-established journalistic entities as fake news and called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, many perceive these foundational American ideas, and the agencies that enact them, as being in jeopardy.
As a result, the literary nonprofit world is ramping up for a protracted campaign in favor of free speech and support of the arts. As Dave Fenza, the executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, put it: “Literary groups are not changing their values or work. There is just a far greater urgency in expressing those values.”
PW checked in with a host of nonprofits to see how they are responding to that urgency, and how their leaders see their organizations’ roles in a hyperpartisan U.S. The takeaway was clear. Though the literary and book industry–related nonprofit sector remains diverse, when it comes to the administration’s proposals and rhetoric, the response has been uniform and simple: this needs to stop.
At the forefront of the actions taken by nonprofits has been the Literary Network (LitNet), a coalition of nonprofit literary organizations founded in 1992 by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses and Poets & Writers magazine in response to freedom of expression controversies surrounding the National Endowment for the Arts; it is supported by the majority of the other organizations we contacted for this story. In 1995, LitNet was instrumental in preserving NEA writing fellowships. Today, its advocacy committee chair, Joe Callahan, noted, LitNet’s member organizations have shifted quickly into gear following the election of Trump and the news, in early January, that he plans to axe the NEA. Callahan said that, at that time, LitNet began collecting NEA success stories from its members and organizing members in target areas to reach out to their congresspeople in support of the agency. “Collectively, our 68 members bring a breadth of audience and vision to this challenge that we are facing,” Callahan said. “We believe that the NEA is vital to the creative and educational ecosystem, and we will fight to protect it.”
Academy of American Poets
The academy, under the leadership of executive director Jennifer Benka, has worked to publish poems relating or responding to issues brought to light or exemplified by the election. Works include Danez Smith’s “C.R.E.A.M,” on racism and life as an African-American poet; Chard DiNiord’s “Children of Aleppo,” about bombings in Syria and war; and Anne Waldman’s “Anthropocene Blues,” about climate change and environmental threats. The academy is also coordinating a special project focusing on themes of migration and immigration in poetry for the newly formed Poetry Coalition, which is advocating for continuing funding for the NEA and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Benka added that, for the first time in the organization’s history, the academy’s chancellors have issued a public statement. The academy is also an active member of the Literary Network.
Association of Writers and Writing Programs
The AWP’s Fenza sees the current movement as “perhaps the most impassioned response from the literary community since the war in Iraq,” although, he noted, advocacy this time around focuses on “a far wider range of issues.” In response to budgetary threats to the existence of the NEA, the AWP’s efforts to maintain public funding of the arts “have doubled recently,” and the AWP has partnered with the organization Americans for the Arts, which is dedicated to advancing the arts in the U.S. The AWP is also an active member of the Literary Network.
Community of Literary Magazines and Presses
“There’s no question that recent current events have provided a focus and drive for the CLMP community likely not seen since the Vietnam War,” said Jeffrey Lependorf, executive director of the CLMP. One of the founding members of the Literary Network and an advocacy organization by trade, CLMP has remained active in the coalition. The organization has also been working to protect NEA funding by sending directives to its member publishers about how to contact legislators. It also recently cosigned a letter written by the American Literary Translators Association focused on protecting immigrant rights. Lependorf noted that “one of the very core values of small press and literary magazine publishing is giving voice to those not always given a place at the larger commercial publishing table”; in the wake of the election, he has found that “many are focusing in new ways and overtly engaging in political actions in ways beyond the norm.”
National Coalition Against Censorship
Earlier in March, the NCAC released a statement in support of freedom of the press in conjunction with the majority of the other nonprofits on this list. “We are nonpartisan, and we make a concerted effort to be critics of censorship whether it comes from the left, the right, the center, or wherever in this solar system,” said NCAC executive director Joan Bertin, before adding that “in my life—and I’ve been around a while—I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sustained attack on the credibility and sustainability of the press” like that being enacted by the current administration. Bertin also worries that this climate might affect which books do and do not get published. “I’ve read a lot of articles about sensitivity screeners, and it could be plausible that publishers are a little more cautious about what they publish than they may have been a few years ago,” she said. “Ironically, it appears that the Yiannopoulos book was cancelled because it offended not just the left but the right.” As for her organization’s response to censorship of publishers or press, regardless of ideological bent, Bertin was clear: “We will continue to do what we’ve always done. We don’t defend the speech, we just defend the right to speech, and the right to publish it.”
Poets & Writers
At Poets & Writers, magazine editor-in-chief Kevin Larimer maintains that the priority remains “to serve, to inform, and inspire creative writers; so of course our coverage is going to reflect what’s important to them.” The September/October 2016 issue of Poets & Writers magazine featured advice from 50 writers for the next president; in its May/June 2017 issue, a number of articles will directly respond to the Trump administration and its priorities, including its threats to the NEA. “There’s no doubt that the positions taken by the Trump administration, some of which run counter to the principles of many of our nation’s literary artists—including the president’s budget proposal that would eliminate federal funding for the NEA—are of grave concern to them,” Larimer said. Poets & Writers is also a founding member of LitNet, and remains involved in its work as well under the auspices of P&W executive director Elliot Figman.
American Booksellers for Free Expression
ABFE, a unit of the American Booksellers Association, is working on a new Open Discussion Project, which it will use to provide booksellers with tools to “encourage people to cross partisan lines and engage in conversation about race, class, immigration, and other divisive issues,” according to director Chris Finan. The project will begin with diversity-focused reading lists that can be distributed to customers, used in reading groups, or incorporated into public forums and events. Finan said that six bookseller volunteers are already working on creating the lists, and the ABFE is looking for additional help. “The First Amendment is always more important at times when the country is divided,” Finan added. “It protects the right to protest and freedom of the press. It also provides a way to resolve our differences peacefully in conversation and debate.”
American Library Association
While the ALA is continuing in its usual advocacy work, promoting factually correct information and equity and parity in the library community, “the variety of things that we’re handling at one time are definitely different” since the election, Julie Todaro, ALA president, said. “I’ll do two or three [media] interviews a day, some weeks more, and they’ll each be on a different topic. This is unique.” Todaro added that, unlike in the past, ALA members are explicitly looking for not just advocacy, but an outspoken response to the actions of the current administration. “Our people want us to speak up, but they want an outcry,” she said. “[Now] I’ll take a press release that we’re releasing and I’ll change it from ‘opposed to’ to ‘shocked and dismayed.’ Because we are shocked and dismayed, and we want to reflect what our members are feeling.” She mentioned that now, when candidates run for positions in the ALA, vetting committees will ask questions on topics including sanctuary cities, global warming, and other hot-button political issues, and they will vet candidates based on how their answers correspond with the ALA code. The director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, James LaRue, has also been busy spearheading the OIF’s condemnation of censorship of government websites and teaching students and others about media literacy, including how to discern “fake news” from satire and opinion. LaRue noted that there is “an emerging role for librarians as moderators of civil and civic discourse,” adding that “there aren’t many places left in America where you can go and listen to people that you disagree with.” He pointed to librarians in red states such as Montana as caretakers of sensible, fact-based intellectual exchange. Finally, the most recent issue (March/April) of the ALA’s magazine, American Libraries, robustly outlines how librarians can best fulfill their mission in times of turmoil.
“We have had to increase our First Amendment activities in the last couple months plus,” Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger noted. “Our membership comes from across the political spectrum, so as a policy, we try to keep things nonpartisan. That said, when we see authors’ freedom of expression and freedom of the press attacked, even by the president himself, we need to take a stand. Some may view that as partisan, but we do not. We are serving our mission, period.” Rasenberger said that the guild is likely to “slow down a bit” on free speech advocacy for the moment in order to focus on the guild’s other priorities, to ensure that they do not get lost in the hurricane of threats to free expression. Those priorities include rallying opposition to the proposed elimination of funding for the NEA and NEH; letters opposing the budget cuts have been sent to members of the two congressional appropriations committees, and those letters have gained more than 3,500 signatures total. The guild is also pushing for net neutrality and has signed statements and letters regarding freedom of expression from organizations including the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Media Coalition, and the Free Expression Network. The organization has also launched, and has begun publishing online, a series of essays asking authors to respond to the question, “What does the First Amendment mean to you?”
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
“One thing that we’re noticing on the legal challenge side is that things that were off the table previously in terms of legislation are back on the table,” said CBLDF executive director Charles Brownstein. “Most especially in the area of filtering—library filtering and other kinds of filtering.” Brownstein said that his group’s focus is primarily on the state and local level, where turnaround time on court decisions and legislation tends to be quicker. He noted an uptick in incidents of book bans and challenges, and mentioned the Stop Human Trafficking Act as having embedded language mandating filtering on devices. The CBLDF’s response, Brownstein said, is to provide counsel behind the scenes and public letters “when appropriate.” The organization is also working with the Kirkland and Ellis law firm to develop a handbook for creators on the First Amendment and intellectual property principles. And CBLDF general counsel Bob Corn-Revere, of the Davis Wright Tremaine firm, is organizing a workshop aimed at acquainting retailers with their First Amendment rights and what the risks are of selling expressive content and how to protect themselves. The organization has signed a number of joint statements, including a National Coalition Against Censorship missive calling President Trump’s attacks on the media a threat to democracy.
Under the direction of executive director Suzanne Nossel, who previously served in the State Department under Obama and as head of Amnesty International, PEN America will continue to ramp up its political involvement—Nossel noted that the organization will soon open an office in Washington, D.C. “I think it’s a very different landscape for those of us who do free expression for a living,” she said. “Things we have taken for granted in this country have been really thrown into question.” As such, PEN is putting together a report on how to address issues around “fake news” without impinging on the freedom of the press. PEN is also active, Nossel said, in the fight to preserve the NEA and NEH. Nossel said that PEN is also “working more closely with our partners in the publishing industry,” whom she described as “galvanized,” in efforts to engage authors and publishers more directly in PEN’s work. “There’s a sense that people are on high alert,” she said. “Publishers are worried about their authors’ abilities to travel. We’ve heard from authors who’ve been stopped and forced to turn over their passports. There’s a very worrying sense that this new administration is encroaching on our freedom as a creative sector.” Nossel noted that she has also been working with the ALA’s attorney on a tip sheet on refugees and sanctuary cities, and added that she admires the way organizations such as the ALA have been dealing with the current political climate.
PEN Center USA
PEN America’s Los Angeles–based sister branch of PEN International has run two Freedom to Write petitions in the wake of the election and has advocated for writers on an individual basis as well. These efforts include petitioning authorities to drop charges against the journalist Jenni Monet for covering the North Dakota Access pipeline protests and petitioning U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips to drop the criminal charges against six journalists arrested while covering the inauguration. Libby Flores, the director of literary programs at PEN Center USA, noted that all charges save those against journalist Aaron Cantú have been dropped. The organization also collaborated with literary journal the Rattling Wall in a call for postelection writing, and has launched a Writers Respond essay series where each author provides a take on a First Amendment–related issue. “PEN Center USA’s mission has not changed since November 8, though the need for the kind of work we do—advocating for free expression, writers, readers, and stories—has become even more urgent,” said PEN Center USA executive director Michelle Franke. “Not only is the First Amendment under attack in the U.S., so are the most vulnerable among us. Journalists need to be protected and championed right now, but so do writers of color, women writers, LGBTQ writers, disabled writers, and so many more.”
This article has been updated with new information.