Friday, September 23, 2022

Publish and Be Damned

by Abir

Cancel culture: In these polarized times, and in light of recent events, are there any topics or viewpoints which you would not write about or which you think are off limits?



Just over a month ago I was in Oxford, attending the annual St. Hilda’s Crime Fiction Weekend. It was while sitting outside in the sun, having a drink with some other writers that the news came through from New York of the attack on Sir Salman Rushdie.


At that point the information was sparse. There’d been an attempt on the writer’s life. It wasn’t clear if he would survive. The news sent a chill through us all. A writer, attacked for something he’d written. It was an action that had repercussions for every author on the planet.


It got me thinking. I write about issues, about things in the world that bother me, things that I feel are unjust. Naturally, this covers the worlds of politics and religion. Of course I’m aware, and extremely thankful for, the fact that I live in a free country, where I can say or write pretty much whatever I want to, and normally the worst that’ll happen is I’ll get an irate e-mail from Alan in Baltimore or a fulminating tweet from @chunkyboy129. Writers in China or Russia or so many other places don’t enjoy that basic, yet fundamental freedom. Even in India, that long-time bastion of free speech and a free press in a region of autocracies and dictatorships, that freedom – to write what you want to write - is being eroded. And if theTrump years have shown us anything, it is that our freedoms are not as abiding or as secure as we might wish to believe, and that they need constant defending.


Bringing things closer to home, there has been the rise of what is termed ‘cancel culture’. I honestly don’t know what to make of the ‘phenomenon’. Like my colleagues earlier in the week, on one level, I see it as an overdue reckoning where wrong, often racist or sexist ideas are finally stood up to and answered. For too long we have accepted a very pale, male, stale Anglo-Saxon view of the world as the dominant, if not the only, acceptable narrative. I think a lot of folk complaining about cancel culture are people really complaining that their views are no longer held in high regard by most people. They’re basically complaining about a loss of influence.


Yet I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as that. I do feel that we are living in an age which, though hugely more tolerant in terms of attitudes towards sexuality, race and religion, has become quite puritanical in regard to dissent from views that chime with the new orthodoxy. The days of ‘I disagree with you, but I’ll defend your right to say it’, seem to be over. It seems that the voicing of a dissenting opinion is now deemed hurtful on an almost physical level, often requiring trigger warnings.


So I’m conflicted. I don’t know where the balance is.


Anyway, back to the question. I like to think there’s no subject I’d shy away from, assuming I wanted to discuss it and had done the research to treat the subject respectfully and knowledgeably, but I’m not sure that’s completely true. The debate over trans rights and identities, for example, is one area I suspect I’d probably steer clear of – even assuming I had the knowledge of the subject to write meaningfully about it. It just seems too highly charged. However, that’s a purely hypothetical surmising as it’s not a subject I feel there’s anything that I could add to the discussion anyway.


Then there’s the issue of cultural appropriation. There has been a reaction in recent years to certain authors writing about the experience of other ethnic groups. One that comes to mind is American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins – a story of Mexican migrants coming to the USA, written by a white American woman, which was hyped to the rafters by the publishing industry. When certain Latinx people pointed out that similar books, more authentic books, written by Latinx writers were ignored by the publishing industry while this white writer received a huge advance for writing this book, there was a justified backlash. (and is 'Latinx'  even the right word? Even as I write it I find myself fearful that I'm using the wrong term - and isn't that fear part of the issue we're discussing? I don't mean to cause offence, but someone might be offended by my use of potentially the wrong word and then what?)  


I think the first thing to say is that in the instance of American Dirt, the author is hardly to blame. She wrote a book and got paid a lot of money for it. That’s great and more power to her. We all want that. I guess the real problem is the publishing industry which holds up the white narrative on non-white issues as somehow worth more than the narratives of those writers who actually come from those communities and can discuss it as their lived experience. The publishing industry needs to change (as does the book buying public) – and I think it is, if only slowly. I was at an event the other night – my publishers, Vintage (part of Penguin Random House) held a press event for their marquee titles for 2023. There was a mixture of British, Irish and American writers – some household names, some debuts – but the most interesting thing was the diversity. As far as I could tell – out of about fifteen or sixteen writers – only one, maybe two, were straight, white and male. That would have been unthinkable even five years ago.


So where are we? Greater diversity, hand in hand with greater puritanism. Greater breadth of stories, yet greater repression of writers saying the wrong thing. It’s hard to know which way the wind is blowing. Exciting, challenging times lie ahead, so buckle up.

1 comment:

Catriona McPherson said...

Good for Vintage. It's got to lead to more interesting stories, right? It makes me laugh a hollow laugh when people suddenly become exquisitely concerned with quality and how to measure it just when the door happens to be opening a little wider, after being blithely unconcerned, as long as it was only ajar enough for them to slip through