As an industry, publishing today seems to have followed a similar path to the music business; in its dying, pre-streaming days, with all-year round million-sellers but a distant memory, the Christmas season was the one guaranteed moment when the race to the No.1 spot revived the spirit of singles past. For a few years, the talent show franchise of Simon Cowell monopolised this brief spell in December and reaped the rewards; but in the process, it killed the golden goose as all energies were devoted to the last few weeks of the year at the expense of the rest. When the record-buying public gradually grew bored, the profits dried up. Similarly, the publishing industry right now makes its only real money from the slew of celebrity memoirs and self-help manuals that clog-up the Yuletide shelves – the abundance of which will eventually exhaust all interest. But it certainly can’t survive by depending on the sales of the largely impenetrable novels that routinely scoop literary prizes of no interest to anyone bar broadsheet reviewers and the author themselves. As with most of the creative arts, there appears to be a sizeable disconnect between those operating within them and those whose hard-earned pennies are required to keep them afloat.
Naturally, the insidious virus of Identity Politics infiltrating publishing has played its part. Any cursory visit to the website of a publisher or literary agency whereby profiles of the leading employees are provided will see for themselves the narrowing of publishing’s vision. Most of these employees appear to be 20 and 30-something, London-based middle-class white women with an expressed bias towards the type of ‘staying-in-your-lane’ real-life stories of struggle, hardship and misery mainly derived from the authentic ‘ethnic’ experience as they perceive it – in a sense, extending the financially-appealing approach of Christmas’s biographical best-sellers into the realms of fiction. They’re fond of being transported into worlds removed from their own, but only if these worlds are reportage from the front-line of the approved shortlist of box-ticking Identity categories and can be verified as genuine voices.
Art at its best has always been good at placing the viewer – or reader – in an alien environment, and authors whose imaginations are able to do so understandably have to apply this to themselves, populating their alien environment with a wide range of characters from many different walks of life, characters living lives that a solitary author can’t possibly have lived every one of; it’s what an imagination – and fiction – is all about, and it’s why the novel has been able to command a readership that cuts across all social, sexual and racial barriers for the best part of 200 years or more. One would like to think this is a given to publishers, yet the latest fashion is to decry the author’s imagination. The recent case of Jeanie Cummins, whose successful novel about Mexican migrants, ‘American Dirt’, was accused of cultural appropriation and racial stereotyping by the usual suspects, resulted in the author’s career and reputation being trashed. Her spineless publisher backed down and no notable fellow writers bar the admirably brave Lionel Shriver spoke out against this pernicious trend.
Cancelling a burgeoning literary career at a time when so few authors are able to make a living from writing is especially nasty, but the heavyweights of the past are an even easier target due to the fact their deceased status means they can’t fight back. Penguin Random House recently abandoned their plans to publish a collection of Norman Mailer’s essays to mark his centenary in 2023 due to the fact one of their delicate little employees was triggered by the title of a 1957 Mailer piece titled ‘The White Negro’. Yes, that’s all it takes. One complaint, coupled with the anticipated prospect of a screaming Twitter lynch-mob at the door, and publishers will instantly cave in. But when the creative arts are predominantly staffed by graduates schooled in this creativity-killing cancer, it’s no real wonder; and the glaring absence of irony accompanying the decision of the University of Northampton to place a trigger warning on – you guessed it – ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ underlines how deep the Woke mindset is embedded on campus. Any curious student will now receive a warning about the novel’s ‘explicit material’, though so accustomed are we today to broadcast mediums presaging anything from the archives with a disclaimer specifying how the vintage programme contains plenty with the potential to upset or offend, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the far wider canvas of the written word has fallen prey to this infantile approach.
Publishing employees, even those in a relatively junior position, have increasingly come to believe their role is to police the output of their employer; and if they don’t get what they want, they’ll thcream and thcream and thcream. They famously managed to get Hachette to abandon plans to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs two years ago, though efforts to exploit the snowflake fatwa against JK Rowling mercifully failed. Declaring the presence of a cross-dressing character in Rowling’s 2020 adult novel, ‘Troubled Blood’ to be evidence of the Harry Potter author’s ‘transphobia’, they received solidarity from a few fellow (minor) authors with the same publisher, who proceeded to issue a ‘it’s her or me’ ultimatum; and it was they who were dropped by the publisher rather than the publisher’s cash cow. Rowling’s status is such that she is practically beyond the simple cancellation which less secure authors are vulnerable to, few of whom can rely on the support of other writers when threatened or such useless organisations as the Society of Authors, who are just as terrified of causing offence as the publishing industry.
Perhaps the worst current example of cancel culture within publishing – and one that highlights the gutless cowardice of the industry – comes with the case of Kate Clanchy, an author who actually provided the ‘real-life’ story so beloved of publishers via her 2019 book, ‘Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me’. Clanchy’s mistake in recounting her own equivalent of a dead poets’ society as she revealed the delights of verse to state-school kids was to describe the racial characteristics of some of the children she taught and recalled with affection. Despite initially receiving good reviews and winning an Orwell Prize, the book was soon subjected to the familiar criticisms that provoked panic on the part of her publisher, Picador. The book was hastily withdrawn and Clanchy ordered to rewrite the offending passages for a reissue that has yet to hit the bookshelves.
As publisher, Picador would certainly have supplied an experienced editor as well as the now-obligatory ‘sensitivity proof-reader’ to ensure there was nothing offensive or triggering to the fragile sensibilities of the modern reader lurking in Clanchy’s manuscript before they hit the publishing button. Yet, despite no doubt revelling in the prize-winning acclaim of the book when it appeared, Picador has now dropped it like the proverbial stone. Clanchy’s reputation is in tatters and her work is apparently poised to be excised from Amazon in classic ‘Ministry of Truth’ style. But the meanest ramification of Kate Clancy’s cancellation is the fact that a planned anthology of poems penned by the children she inspired and wrote about has also been dropped. What a great message that sends out to the kids about the literary world; but maybe they might still eventually progress to a creative writing class and can one day provide the industry with the same dull, Identity-laden safe space bilge that is killing the medium.
© The Editor