Things are moving fast in the publishing world. Writers are being challenged and canceled for a bewildering array of sins, some proven, some unproven, some arguable. We’re here to bring you up to date, starting with the latest on the big three, and there is a point to this round-up which I’ll get to at the end.
The year 2020 opened with Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, a romantic thriller sometimes mistaken for literature, coming under fire from Latinx writers who deemed it inaccurate, racist, and a work of cultural appropriation because its author was insufficiently ethnic. A number of bookstores refused to stock the book.
Cummins’ publisher, Flatiron, a division of Macmillan, canceled the author’s tour. Oprah was pressured to dump the title from her book club. The whole of the U.S. publishing world was indicted for insensitivity to minority writers and for being overwhelmingly white, which it is —whiter than Wimbledon. More here.
Yet Flatiron, with over $1-million invested in American Dirt, stuck by the book, Oprah stuck by her selection and produced two one-hour specials on Apple TV about the controversy (above), and Cummins is enjoying a runaway bestseller. Author Prevails.
Next up was Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, slated to be published this spring by Hachette, which happens to be the publisher of Allen’s estranged son, Ronan Farrow. You’ll remember Farrow as the #MeToo crusader and author of the bestseller Catch and Kill,a book about men who commit sexual abuse and the people who cover for them. Ronan believes his sister Dylan was sexually abused by their father. Allen, a judge, the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale-New Haven Hospital, and the New York Child Welfare Agency disagree. If you want more, a lot of good links here.
When Farrow got wind of Hachette’s plans to release Apropos of Nothing, he told the publisher, in essence, him or me. Hachette staff walked out in support of Farrow and the publisher, which had a lot more invested in Farrow than Allen, dumped Allen. Apropos of Nothing wound up with little-known Arcade Publishing. It performed moderately well. In its pages, Allen concedes that he might not be Ronan’s biological father, and that Ronan looks like a tow-headed Frank Sinatra, with whom his mother, Mia Farrow, was intermittently involved (judge for yourself, above). Woody and the New York Times and others have since taken some hard shots at Ronan’s journalism but there’s only one way to score this: Author (Allen) Loses
The third of the big three, of course, is J.K Rowling, author of the Harry Potterfranchise, the biggest phenomena in the recent history of publishing. In early June, she tweeted complaints about an article that had used the phrase “people who menstruate” in reference to women. The advocacy group GLAAD found her tweets “cruel” and “anti-trans.” Rowling insists she is not anti-trans and published on her website a 3,600-word statement in which she attributed her comments on transgender issues to her experience as a “domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor,” and free-speech advocate. Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe was among the many who were not satisfied with her response, and four authors bolted from The Blair Partnership, the literary agency that has been built around Rowling, in protest. Glamour is all over this.
It was a big story for a week, but Rowling’s books have remained in stock everywhere. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the seven-part series, was number three on Amazon Charts this week, and her various publishers have all stood by Rowling. Harry Potter is a shield (as Rowling demonstrates, above). She is as uncancellable as the weather. Author Prevails.
Those have been the major battles but there have been more.
Kristen Doute is an American TV personality from the reality show Vanderpump Rules. An aspiring actress, she worked as a server at Lisa Vanderpump’s West Hollywood restaurant, the locus of the show’s action, and somehow landed a book deal with the Chicago Review Press. He’s Making You Crazy: How to Get the Guy, Get Even, and Get Over It hit bookstores on June 2, seven days before Doute and another Vanderpump castmember, Stassie Schroeder (left, with Doute, above), got fired from the show for falsely reporting their former black costar, Faith Stowers, to police in 2018. Lots more here. Chicago Review Press put out a press release saying it “prides itself on publishing books that promote social justice and equality,” and that it had stopped promoting He’s Making You Crazy. It was silent on how a reality star’s dating experiences fit the publisher’s social justice agenda. In any event: Author Loses.
G.G. Lake’s Take Your Pick of Disgusting Foodswas published in 2017 by the Minnesota children’s publisher Capstone. It covers everything from head cheese to lutefisk, and it was doing quite well until E.J. Ramos David, a University of Alaska Anchorage psych professor and proud Filibascan (Filipino and Athabaskan) noticed that balut, a Filipino dish made from fertilized duck eggs, and maktak (above), a traditional Alaskan dish of bowhead whale skin and blubber, made the list of disgusting foods. “It’s 2020, & the books in our schools are still teaching our kids to be racist,” he tweeted. Capstone has removed the book from sale and promised to review its staff training procedures. (Ramos David, incidentally, has a daughter in third grade with mad basketball skills). Author Loses.
Emma Nicholson, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, born in 1941 into the J&W Nicholson & Co. gin distilling dynasty, declared deaf at age sixteen, trained as a musician, employed as a computer programmer and systems analyst, elected to parliament as a Conservative before defecting to the Liberal-Democrats and back to the Conservatives, elevated to a life peerage in 1997, elected to the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009 where she served as vice-president of its Committee on Foreign Affairs, and wife of Sir Michael Harris Caine, the English businessman who headed Booker Bros. and helped establish the prestigious Man Booker Prize, has not had a book canceled.
She herself was canceled, however, as honorary vice-president of the Booker Prize foundation for what the trans youth charity Mermaids described as “strange and obsessive tweets attacking our charity with abhorrent accusations,” and further tweets suggesting that the introduction of same-sex marriage has degraded the status of women and girls. Baroness Loses.
Kate Elizabeth Russell worked for eighteen years, from high-school through a Ph.D. in creative writing, on her first novel, My Dark Vanessa. It was worth it. She received a seven-figure advance from William Morrow and her book was hailed as “a well-constructed package of dynamite” by no less than Stephen King, and “one of the most anticipated books of 2020” by the New York Times. In January, Wendy Ortiz, a writer of Mexican descent, accused Russell, who is white, of plagiarism, which was enough for Oprah, reeling from the American Dirt controversy, to drop My Dark Vanessa as a selection. An explainer here.
Russell’s novel was released in mid-March, the same week all the bookstores closed over coronavirus. The plagiarism charges were investigated and found to be unwarranted. The novel received amazing reviews (above) and became a best-seller. Author Prevails
Kelly Childs and Erinn Weatherbie (above), “the mother-and-daughter team behind the fabulously successful, award-winning Kelly’s Bake Shoppe and Lettuce Love Cafe,” and joint authors of Made With Love: More than 100 Sweet and Savory Plant-Based Recipes for Every Moment in Life, were dropped by Penguin Random House Canada this week after their Burlington bakery was accused of commercially exploiting both Blackout Tuesday and Pride Month, as well as insensitivity in its social media messaging, and conspiracy theorizing around Covid-19 — something about vaccines being excuses to force microchips into unsuspecting citizens. Interestingly, Penguin Random House distanced itself from the authors but it is still selling the book on Amazon. Authors Lose
Natasha Tynes, a Jordanian-American World Bank employee who lives in Washington DC, became twitter-famous in 2019 for shaming a metro transit employee for eating on a train. Nobody is supposed to eat on Washington’s metro trains, Tynes tweeted, along with a picture of the African-American employee. Twitter took the employee’s side - “Eating while Black” - and Tynes’ publisher, Rare Bird Books, canceled her forthcoming novel They Called Me Wyatt. Tynes’ tweet, said Rare Bird, was “truly horrible.” Tynes (that’s her and her photo above) says she received death threats and wound up in hospital with a panic attack. She has sued Rare Bird for $13 million (later dropped). They Call Me Wyatt was “independently published” two months ago by Rebeller Media, a movie-review site, and it has gone nowhere. Tynes’ thoughts on the American Dirt controversy here. Author Loses
This is by no means a comprehensive list. We could talk about Jay Asher, the author of Thirteen Reasons Why who was jettisoned by his agent and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators for allegedly violating the organization’s harassment code. We could mention Linda Fairstein (below), a former prosecutor turned thriller-writer who was dumped by Dutton after a Netflix miniseries held her responsible for the wrongful conviction of five teens in the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case. We could wonder if Penguin Random House Canada is going to sit forever on the next novel of Joseph Boyden (with his Giller, above) which was apparently derailed by accusations that he has made false claims about his Indigenous heritage.
I don’t see any particular pattern in all of these cases, except that if you’re financially consequential to your publisher, your odds of surviving an attempted cancelation are much improved. The ethics of most publishers are not much different than the ethics of banks or telecoms (or, for that matter, political parties): they have them when they can afford them.
As for the authors, I won’t venture an opinion on each case. I’m generally against cancelation. I prefer to see these things fought out in public. I’m mostly impressed at the myriad ways an author can court ruin. I suppose that’s why one of the most contentious clauses in literary contracts these days is the so-called morals clause:
Publisher may terminate… if Author’s conduct evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals, or Author commits a crime or any other act that will tend to bring Author into serious contempt, and such behavior would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales.
Publisher may at any time prior to publication choose not to publish the Work if past or future illegal conduct of the Author, inconsistent with the Author’s reputation at the time this Agreement is executed and unknown to Publisher, is made public and results in sustained, widespread public condemnation of the Author that materially diminishes the sales potential of the Work.
It allows publishers to back out of a book deal and even require the writer to repay an advance if the writer is accused (not convicted) of being a bad person or holding offensive ideas. Authors and their agents hate the clauses for being vague—what constitutes “widespread public condemnation”?—and an infringement on free speech, but they are in most deals now.
As for whether the ongoing cancelation fever will burn itself out or intensify, it’s difficult to say. The New Republic, once a bastion of free speech, published an article two weeks ago demanding that the big publishing houses quit publishing conservative authors.
It is a version of the arguments used by staffers at the New York Times earlier this month in their successful rebellion against the newspaper’s decision to publish an op-ed by Republican Senator Tom Cotton (above) which called for federal troops to be used to restore order amid the George Floyd protests. The rebels were not interested in working at a paper that took an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand approach to crucial issues, which is the practice at a lot of publishing houses, including all of the big ones. It is time, says the New Republic, for the likes of HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Random House to take sides and quit publishing the likes of Donald Trump Jr., Bill O'Reilly, Tucker Carlson, and any other authors defending conservative administrations and their policies.
Not unrelated to all of the above, Philip Slayton, author Nothing Left to Lose, proudly published by Sutherland House, had a great piece in the Globe & Mail last weekend entitled “Canadians are not as free as we’d like to believe we are.” Definitely worth your time. Or you could just buy a signed copy from us here.