As we become increasingly more divided by so many seemingly different values in this country, publishing has been caught in the crosshairs.
Hate-mongers spout disgusting views, while on the other side, political correctness can be a muzzle on the truth.
And book publishing isn’t immune.
A Feb 15 Washington Post article, entitled, “Publishers are hiring ‘sensitivity readers’ to flag potentially offensive content,” explores how writers are employing these ‘sensitivity readers’ to check their portrayals of people from marginalized groups for accuracy, and for offense.
The ‘accuracy’ part is mandatory. But for offense?
I recently posted on FB a Publishers Weekly article condemning the upcoming publication of a book by a well-known hate-monger.
My concern about this book being published was not about banning books (as one NY editor blasted me for on FB), but rather, voicing my chagrin at S&S publishing and promoting a man who advocates for racism, sexism, misogyny, and even rape. Twitter permanently banned him for leading a wave of racist assaults targeting an African-American actress. He also played a key role in Gamergate, which repeatedly attacked female game developers with death threats, rape threats, and the leaking of women’s personal information.
Do I think he should be silenced? No.
But I do believe those views should be maligned for the hatred they espouse. And I’m deeply sorry at S&S’s choice to publish him.
We’re better than that.
What does this have to do with political correctness?
Back to the Post article.
The headline appeared to be about making sure no one got “offended” by the authors’ novels. Which is pretty much the definition of political correctness.
Full disclosure: I detest political correctness. Chiefly because you simply cannot legislate morality. Hasn’t worked since the dawning of mankind. And what almost always happens is that whatever ‘ism’ just goes underground, and comes out in more nefarious ways.
That said, I detest racism, misogyny, sexism, any of the isms, really. That sure speaks to who the person is practicing it.
But we’ll never get to true peace and inclusion by saying, “You can’t say that.” It’s hearts that have to change, and only then will words follow suit. Which won’t happen without the truth.
The idea that someone might take offense, however, and you need to change things about a novel to prevent that, chills my blood.
An artist’s job is to tell the truth, as he or she knows it. And a lot of the time, that truth isn’t pretty. But unless we face it, we can’t get better, no? Whether this pertains to a personal failing or a cultural one.
And in publishing, anyway, this isn’t exactly new.
In 1993 my first novel was published by a nice literary press. It came out subsequent to the same press’s publication in 1992 of Dulce Moore’s A Place in Mind. Her wonderful novel followed a family displaced by the Great Depression (which she lived). A PW review chastised the use of the word “dago” as a racial slur.
Now, mind you, this book took place during the Depression. It was how people talked. It was true for the time and place.
The worst thing we can ever do is white-wash the actual truth.
And I’m forever grateful that this publisher didn’t bow to the criticism.
Funny thing about that Post article too—the actual examples were about authors making sure they got things right. Not about “offending the sensibilities of readers.” Not one example was given for the latter. I can’t say if that’s happening—the article says it is. But they didn’t quote one author as saying that’s what he or she was doing.
And making sure you “get it right” is an entirely different issue.
Let me give you an objective example. And one without the emotional firepower of current cultural debate. Those are easier to see.
I’ve just finished my new novel, which takes place in a Texas vineyard and winery. Now, I’ve never grown wine grapes. My brother made wine when we were teenagers, but half the time it blew up in Mom’s kitchen. So that wasn’t much help!
So, I researched deeply. Took courses through Texas A&M on growing wine grapes. Talked at length with growers/vintners. I’ll be forever in debt to the wonderful Gary McKibben at The Red Caboose winery and vineyard for his tireless teachings.
He was oh-so important to me because his place is in the same county where my fictional vineyard is set. I did so because—I know that land. I’ve farmed and ranched it and grown many other things there. So what I needed was expertise about growing grapes right there.
The attention to getting the details right in fiction is paramount.
But the idea of changing things in order not to “offend” anyone is travesty.
I offend readers all the time. Someone is probably offended right here! I know because they tell me so.
We all don’t see the world in the same way. Now that’s not a news flash, no? Often someone’s deeply held belief offends the beliefs of another.
That’s why we have the first amendment to begin with.
An artist’s job is to tell the truth, as he or she knows it. And a lot of the time, that truth isn’t pretty.
So, yes, there are times, as in the S&S book, where I’m offended.
On Monday S&S withdrew publication of the book, due to public outcry. Well, that and old videos that surfaced over the weekend of the author advocating for sex with minors.
Did I cheer? Yes.
But do I think the book should be banned? Again, a resounding no. There is a huge difference there.
He has the right to free speech. And he still has publishing options—whether another house picks him up or he self-publishes.
And we have the right to ostracize him for what he promotes.
Words have enormous power. But only when they truly back up what’s in our hearts. I might not like what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it.
I’ll also speak up when something is a horror.
Where do you draw the line?
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.