2022 presents a difficult juncture for free expression. Consider: when PW asked a half-dozen luminaries from the biggest publishers to share their thoughts for this sweep through First Amendment history, only one would talk—and then, on condition of anonymity. Another, begging off, explained that today, when your words can quickly be turned against you, if you want to keep publishing diverse ideas, best to do so rather than get caught up speaking about it. Luckily, other corners of the business weren’t so reticent—even while anxiety permeated them, too.
“Very bleak,” declared Oren Teicher, former CEO of the American Booksellers Association, about the current landscape. “Potentially really dangerous,” agent Andrew Wylie, whose clients include Art Spiegelman, Salman Rushdie, and Philip Roth’s estate, said of recent developments. “An avalanche [of censorship] is coming,” insisted 87-year-old lawyer Martin Garbus. Novelist Colm Tóibín reminded us that despite “the beautiful arc” ascribed to many censorship stories, “like something out of a folk tale—think of Ulysses, or of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which had to be published first in the U.K.—it’s not as if every such story ends happily.”
Traditionally, efforts to censor have come from the right. Garbus gauged that pressure from that flank is now “higher than at any time since the McCarthy era.” Judy Blume, whose forthright novels for young people have been battled over for 50 years, recently told library anti-censorship activist Pat Scales that we’re seeing “the 1980s all over again,” referring to the Reagan “family values” period, when more than 800 books were challenged each year. (In response, in 1982, librarians and booksellers created Banned Books Week.)
This current wave has been building at least since the Great Recession, its frustration, fear and anger turbocharged by the internet, social media, and the pandemic. Today, the country finds itself awash in political money being funneled to “local” efforts by groups with names like Moms for Liberty, bent on restricting choice for the nation’s children in schools and libraries. From Maus, Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic memoir about his family and the Holocaust, to Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s novel about a young, abused Black girl, The Bluest Eye; from Alex Gino’s transgender George to Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, the list of attacked books continues to grow.
However, many longtime book people have said what makes the present unprecedented is a new impetus to censor—and self-censor—coming from the left. The desire to heal historical wounds and promote social justice is conflicting with the right to speak and write freely. Call it political correctness, cancel culture, wokeness—and the fear of challenging it—this is the censorship that, as the phrase goes, dare not speak its name.
The ABA board recently removed a full-throated support for free expression from its ends policies, replacing it with less robust language, to emphasize a new commitment to protecting women and minority staff in member stores from harmful speech, sparking heated internal debate. “I’ve never understood how the legitimate effort to create diversity is in conflict with a broader acceptance of ideas with which you disagree,” Teicher insisted. “What’s scary now,” he added, “is that in retail and publishing, people are intimidated. Young folks are less aware of free expression history and can be very doctrinaire. Because you find something offensive that J.K. Rowling said, you decide you’re not going to sell her books?” He underscored that it is possible both to sell a book and articulate a point of view without canceling. Years ago, when former House speaker Newt Gingrich had a new book out, Neal Coonerty—a former ABA president—put a stack of baloney next to the pile of Gingrich books. “When you bought the book, you also got a slice of baloney,” Teicher laughed.
Looking for explanations, some turn to campuses not wanting to “discomfort” students by engaging in real debate. At a time with such an impetus for group identity, it becomes more difficult to think for oneself. “The idea that people should ‘feel safe’ is not a good place to be,” asserted the anonymous publishing executive. Referencing protests by Simon & Schuster staff about it acquiring former vice president Mike Pence’s memoir, the executive asked: “What do you mean you don’t publish him because you don’t like his politics? A publisher should be agnostic, publish things that make people feel uncomfortable.” Others recalled the accusations of “cultural appropriation” lobbed at Jeanine Cummins and her novel American Dirt; Hachette’s decision to drop Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing; and Norton’s to cease publishing Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth (the last two were picked up by Skyhorse).
Because of current sensitivities, Tóibín said he “couldn’t see” two classics—Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita—“being published today. They’d be too problematic.” Wylie, who in 1989 witnessed up close one of the most extreme attempts at censorship imaginable—Iran’s fatwa on his client Rushdie, involving threats, some of them realized, to kill or harm translators, publishers, booksellers, not to mention the author himself—characterized what we face this way: “The thought police are out fully armed in uniforms marching up and down reacting to the madness of Trump, theoretically fighting madness with madness. Those in opposition to the lunatic right have created the lunatic left.”
One bookstore owner saw “the worrisome parallels between what’s happening on the left and on the right, like two peas in the same pod: the attempt to cancel voices you don’t agree with.” Stores have limited shelf space, “and we curate it,” stressed the owner. “But it’s also our job to process orders for books we don’t carry. We’re not going to decide what a customer reads, but today staff sometimes object to processing orders for titles that ‘trigger’ them.”
Christopher Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, reckoned that “few periods in American history have been so polarized and fractured” as our own. Perhaps it’s time to consider a little history.
Snapshots from the past
“Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” So says the First Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1791. Short, clear, simple—yet argued over and threatened almost from the start.
Skip to 1873, when Frederick Leypoldt changed the name of his new bibliographic bulletin to the Publisher’s Weekly. That same year, Anthony Comstock, a former YMCA activist, was the force behind two initiatives that would also leave an imprint on the business, but unlike Leypoldt’s, one far from beneficial. Zealous and puritanical, Comstock founded the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice to eradicate speech he deemed offensive, and in short order persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass the Comstock Act, which enabled him and like-minded citizens to set in motion prosecutions of anyone transporting “obscene, lewd, lascivious” or “harmful” publications through the mail. By “harmful,” Comstock meant information about contraception, abortion, or the prevention of venereal disease. Plenty of prosecutions followed.
Although he died in 1915, his society and law did not. The jailing of Margaret Sanger in 1916 for a flyer advertising her just opened Brooklyn family planning clinic—the first in America—was done under the Comstock Act. In 1921, John Sumner, Comstock’s successor as head of the NYSSV, led a successful effort to convict two brave literary ladies, Margaret Heap and Jane Anderson, of obscenity for having made the first attempt, between 1918 and 1920, to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses in their magazine, the Little Review.
Most states enacted censorship laws, too. In 1923, Sumner lobbied for a Clean Books Bill to be passed in New York and appeared on his way to victory: neither the National Association of Book Publishers (a precursor to the AAP), nor any individual publisher would publicly oppose it. That is, until Horace Liveright—the publisher/theater impresario who blazed brilliantly for a brief time, bringing out the first books of William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Eugene O’Neill; championing Theodore Dreiser; originating the Modern Library—mounted a fight.
He went to the state capitol to lobby the legislature in person. It helped that the minority leader of the Senate, Jimmy Walker (three years later he’d become mayor of New York City), was a friend. Liveright knew how to attract publicity. Others in the business discovered their voices. The Clean Books Bill never passed; after all, as Walker quipped immortally, “No woman was ever ruined by a book.”
With free expression, then as now, it was often two steps forward, one step back. Liveright had wanted to bring out Ulysses in book form, but Anderson and Heap’s prosecution precluded that possibility. Instead, in 1922, the expatriate American bookseller Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in English in Paris, using French printers. Books found their way as desirable contraband into the U.S. and Britain (it was banned there, too), and pirates copied the book in both territories. Joyce desperately wanted his novel to be available legally in the U.S.—he wasn’t earning a cent on all those pirated copies.
As the 1920s roared, attitudes changed; the American Civil Liberties Union had been established at the beginning of the decade, and lawyer Morris Ernst, closely associated with the ACLU, had begun to make significant wins. In 1929, he’d been engaged by publishers Pascal Covici and Donald Friede to defend Radclyffe Hall’s lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness; it had been banned in England. Ernst fought the case in two American courts and won.
Publishers’ thoughts—as well as Ernst’s—again turned to Ulysses. In 1925, Liveright had sold the Modern Library to a protégé. The young man who’d worked for him was Bennett Cerf, and he and his business partner (and best friend) Donald Klopfer, together with an older man, Elmer Adler, founded Random House in 1927. In the fall of 1931, Cerf and Ernst spoke about mounting a court case to publish the novel. Like his mentor, Liveright, Cerf understood the publicity and prestige that would come from liberating Ulysses. It wasn’t until spring 1932 that Joyce gave the go-ahead; he signed a contract at around the time the young men parted from Adler.
Ernst came up with the brilliant stratagem of fighting based on one imported copy of Beach’s Ulysses, into which all manner of reviews and encomia from academics and critics would be pasted, to be admitted as evidence. And he played for time to get the case before the right sitting judge—someone with temperament, culture, and experience enough to consider all factors. The book was full of four-letter words and included scenes of defecation, masturbation, sex—grounds for many judges to discard it as obscene.
It took a while, but in John Munro Woolsey, they thought they had their man. Obscenity had been determined by a 19th-century doctrine first espoused in English law called the “Hicklin” test—whether material had a tendency to “deprave and corrupt” a young person (generally female). Ernst argued that Ulysses had to be judged by current standards; had to be viewed as a whole; and that it didn’t behave like a “dirty” book—it had been acknowledged as a masterpiece. Cerf had orchestrated a campaign to solicit letters from librarians, critics, authors, teachers, clergymen, and psychiatrists supporting the seriousness of Joyce’s undertaking.
On Dec. 6, 1933, Woolsey’s decision was announced. “The New Deal in the law of letters is here,” he began, deciding that obscenity should be determined on how a grown-up “with average sex instincts” would react, not a young girl. In a miracle week when Prohibition was repealed and President Roosevelt publicly protested lynching, Woolsey had freed Ulysses. The decision set a precedent that allowed many books—and foreign films—to be published and distributed for decades to come. It also well and truly put Random House on the map.
Ezra Pound, then McCarthyism
Another step forward was taken in 1939, when the American Library Association adopted its own Bill of Rights. Wartime always seems to bring an uptick in censorship—there was the Espionage Act of 1917, there would be the Patriot Act after 9/11. During WWII, official censorship was something publishers had to deal with. For example, books by battle zone correspondents containing material sensitive to the war effort could be held up by government censors for months, but the war also provided plenty of reminders that the democratic freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution were what America was fighting for.
In the postwar period, other issues arose. How to deal with the works of authors who’d been on the side of Nazis and Fascists, like Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Ezra Pound? Although an essential helpmeet to Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and others, Pound was a virulent anti-Semite. Throughout the war, he’d made pro-Fascist radio broadcasts from Italy. In 1946, the Modern Library was about to issue its “most comprehensive” anthology of British and American poetry ever, edited by two Pulitzer Prize winners. The editors had included poems by Pound; that self-same fighter for free expression, Mr. Cerf, couldn’t stomach their inclusion, and insisted they be deleted. The editors objected, but the anthology went ahead sans Pound, with a statement printed in the book to that effect.
Blowback came immediately. To allow politics to shape a collection presented as comprehensive, argued Herald Tribune critic Lewis Gannett, was “a disservice to American democracy.” Still, Cerf would not relent. But then a certain Random House author sided with Gannett. Accept “that one thing to which a man stands related shares in his guilt,” and you will “extend it to others; begin by banning his poems not because you object to them but because you object to him, and you will end, as the Nazis did, by slaughtering his wife and children.” So W.H. Auden informed his publisher, adding that regrettably, he’d have to leave Random over such censorship. Cerf was terribly shaken. He wrote a weekly column in the Saturday Review and put the dilemma to his readers, asking them to weigh in. Three hundred letters poured in; half supported his stand, half opposed it. He capitulated; the poems were included in a new edition, along with a note about what had transpired. Auden stayed at Random House.
The late 1940s and early 1950s brought terror in the form of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Political censorship hung in the troubled air. The fear of a Communist connection was such that in 1951, Little, Brown’s directors forced out their leftist fellow director and editor-in-chief Angus Cameron, who’d supported “radical” groups and wanted to publish Spartacus by the known Communist Howard Fast.
But the effect of politics tearing the country apart was to make the whole atmosphere more intolerant. In 1953, Congress created a committee essentially to investigate whether the Comstock Act was strong enough to prevent objectionable matter circulating through the mail. In particular, paperbacks—which had become established thanks to the war—became suspect. Newly energized church and civic organizations conducted what PW called “vigilante campaigns.” The National Organization of Decent Literature, an offshoot of the Catholic church, published long lists of disapproved publications and “persuaded” local retailers not to stock such books. However, 1953 also saw another development: Earl Warren, a Republican former governor of California, was appointed chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. During his long and surprisingly liberal tenure—until 1969—it would significantly expand both racial justice and civil liberties. The pendulum does swing in both directions.
From Lolita to American Psycho
Individuals, especially in the days of owner-publishers, could make an enormous difference: Heap and Anderson; Liveright; Cerf and Klopfer. Walter Minton, Barney Rosset, and though they weren’t owners, Robert L. Bernstein, Peter Mayer, and Sonny Mehta also stood up when it counted. In 1955, Nabokov’s Lolita was published in Paris. It had been turned down by Viking; New Directions; Farrar, Straus; S&S; and Doubleday. Cerf was willing to publish it, but not willing to lose his chief editor, Hiram Haydn, who said he’d leave if Random House did so. Walter Minton, on the other hand, who’d taken over Putnam from his father a few years earlier, was looking for books to make his mark, and was introduced to the Paris edition of Lolita by a girlfriend, Rosemary Ridgewell. He knew he had to publish the novel; the effect was as expected. He’d already published Norman Mailer’s Deer Park, with its “scandalous” oral sex scene, and would go on to publish John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (written in 1749) and go to court for it.
Rosset, a young man with money, ambition, and a taste for the avant-garde, had bought Grove Press in 1951. In the 1950s and ‘60s, his First Amendment battles allowed D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover to appear unexpurgated; Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to be published; and Rosset orchestrated many other triumphs. Bernstein, who succeeded Cerf to head Random House, went to court in 1974 when the federal government tried to censor The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, an exposé by Victor L. Marchetti and John D. Marks. Mayer, of course, then the CEO of Penguin, published The Satanic Verses, and did his part to face down the fatwa. A few years later, when the wife of a Paramount board member was repulsed by a novel coming out from its Simon & Schuster subsidiary, the board member leaned on the company, and the book was dropped. Many others didn’t care for the book, but Knopf’s Sonny Mehta thought Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho should be published, and did so.
And the future
There are many more snapshots, and what they reveal is both the progress we have made and the progress we have not. Deleting Pound because you believe his wartime broadcasts were deplorable and treasonous is similar to canceling Woody Allen because you think he’s committed contemptible acts (albeit not proven in a court of law). Tony Lyons, the Skyhorse publisher who’s seized the opportunity to pick up titles that bigger houses have shed, maintained he’d “always have been excited” to publish Allen, “but probably I wouldn’t have gotten the chance. The bigger publishers used to look at the content of a book; now they also look at what a writer might be accused of. I think publishers ought to judge [a book] by the content.”
Most of those interviewed for this essay felt that concentration in publishing and book distribution can impinge on free expression. “If the biggest publishers and the biggest distributors don’t stand up, there’s a problem,” the anonymous executive declared. “Without them, you can’t get broad-based distribution.” Even when large houses talk of imprints acting like independent entities, bigness exerts an effect.
When Tóibín said that Lolita or Death in Venice couldn’t be published now, he elaborated: “It’s because if they came before a meeting today, rather than argue that literary value outweighed concerns about depicting relationships that would horrify people, they would say, ‘Let’s pass.’ How such books got through earlier—those sorts of meetings didn’t happen. The bigger the house, the more likely it’s not going to take risks in that regard.” An editor friend of this reporter supported that view: “It’s easier to ask yourself if you need the headache of the woke furies coming down on you for a project even a tiny bit afoul of current orthodoxies,” and answer no. “People like Rosset, Minton, Mayer, Bernstein were individuals able to wear two hats, a profit-capitalist and a person wanting to do some good,” Garbus reflected. “Now economic pressures and the corporate success ladder make it difficult for people to speak out.”
Disagreements abound, but it was to support, rather than suppress, free speech that S&S CEO Jonathan Karp wrote to every member of staff and conducted a town hall to discuss why Mike Pence has a right to be published and S&S a right to publish him. PRH CEO Markus Dohle’s recent commitment to donate $500,000 personally to PEN to help counter book bans in schools, libraries, and state houses also speaks for itself.
Certainly, the fight for free expression on those fronts needs all the help it can get. Local efforts at censorship have always existed, but as Pat Scales, who advises the National Coalition Against Censorship, pointed out, in the ’50s or ’80s, “intolerance traveled via newspapers and pamphlets. Today it happens in an instant.” Texas state Rep. Matt Krause sent an 850-title list to school districts, asking them to report how many copies they had of each, inducing fear in the same way that list makers did in the McCarthy era. But Krause’s list, Scales said, “was immediately all over the internet” and has prompted similar action in other locales. “What those [lists] say,” she explained, “is ‘we don’t trust our teachers.’” Politicians need platforms, and “some throw a rock to ignite certain groups,” she added. “For instance, schools have LGBTQ students; those kids need to see themselves in books. Kids who aren’t LGBTQ need to read about others who are, to encourage acceptance and empathy. Denying access to those books, the losers will be our students.”
One other front provoked deep concern: the courts. Americans have depended on wise jurists to guarantee and expand speech. But Garbus, who’s won scores of libel cases for publishers, said that “with changes in the law that the Supreme Court, post-Trump, is going to make, I would have lost two-thirds of them.” If the court were to change “how you define ‘malice’ and ‘public figure’ ” and make American libel law more like its English counterpart, expression would become a lot less free. “I grew up thinking that the courts would resolve everything,” Garbus said. “That’s over.” Tóibín agreed. “There’s an extra new hardness in ideology in the three Trump justices. I can’t see them becoming more interested in extending freedom, as some justices appointed by previous Republicans did become. America has been very, very unlucky.”
So, yes, we find ourselves at a complicated crossroads. Nonetheless, Wylie maintained, “there are a lot of people who would stand up. It’s hard to suppress truth and a work of quality and importance. There’ll always be someone willing to publish.”
“We just have to hang on,” the bookstore owner concluded. “What other choice do we have?”
Gayle Feldman has been associated with Publishers Weekly since 1986, and is completing a biography of Bennett Cerf for Random House.