Disqualifying Isms

Whom should publishers shun?
Then-Vice President Mike Pence reads the final certification of Electoral College votes cast in the 2020 presidential election in Washington D.C., January 7, 2021 (CNS photo/J. Scott Applewhite, Pool via Reuters).

Should Simon & Schuster, one of the nation’s largest publishers, cancel former Vice President Mike Pence? Among a hundred questions now facing the country, that one may rank ninety-ninth. But it does raise some intriguing issues. 

On April 28, the front page of the New York Times reported that “over 200 employees” and 3,500 “outsiders” had signed a petition demanding that Simon & Schuster scrap a contract the publisher had signed for two books by Pence. Pence, in case you’ve forgotten, was the determinedly acquiescent accomplice of Donald Trump until finally refusing to drive the getaway car when Trump actually invaded the bank for the Big Robbery. 

If the Republican party itself chose to cancel Mike Pence, as perhaps it already has, I would be delighted. But whether Simon & Schuster should do so is a more complicated question. The publisher’s own reply was an unqualified “no.”  “We come to work each day to publish, not cancel,” declared Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president. The “very core” of the company’s mission, he said, was “to publish a diversity of voices and perspectives.”

Ringing sentiments, but do they settle the matter? Four months earlier, on January 7, Simon & Schuster also presumably came to work “to publish, not cancel”; but on that day, immediately following the siege of the Capitol, the publisher announced that it was canceling the publication of a book by Sen. Josh Hawley. Prefacing its announcement then with the same commitment to publishing “a variety of voices,” the company declared that it also had “a larger public responsibility as citizens, and cannot support Senator Hawley after his role in what became a dangerous threat.”

As the author of two books published by Simon & Schuster, I may have a special interest in this quarrel, although no one invited me to sign the anti-Pence protest. (My last royalty check was for $40.13.) But actions by other publishers raise similar questions. W. W. Norton recently halted publication of a new biography of the late Philip Roth because of sexual-assault allegations against its author, Blake Bailey, who claims to be innocent.

Is this censorship? Legally, absolutely not. Private companies have no obligation to publish everything coming their way. While there has been a disturbing concentration of major publishers in recent years, there is nothing resembling the quasi-monopolies of internet giants like Facebook, Google, and Twitter, which have come to match the government in their power. (This was, ironically, the topic of Sen. Hawley’s canceled book.) Indeed, many publishers have always made a point of their political or literary leanings in what they choose to publish. Some cultivate a distinct profile—a brand, if you will—as part of a market strategy; others do it out of a sense of calling. Profit is an unavoidable consideration, but not the only one. Even in the cases of strictly commercial publishers for whom profit rules, some degree of professional pride and social respectability tempers its reign.

So all publishing companies draw a line. But who, exactly, gets to draw it? Only top management, senior publishers, and chief editors? Why not, at least in some cases, a wide swath of employees? 

The democratic socialist principle that workers should have something to say about the policies of their companies makes sense to me.

The idea that protesting employees could exercise a veto over Simon & Schuster’s deal with Pence might strike many people as mob rule. I can’t agree. The democratic socialist principle that workers should have something to say about the policies of their companies makes sense to me. At a minimum, that should mean having a voice in whether their employer undertakes a project they find morally objectionable—for example, publishing the self-aggrandizing and self-enriching work of someone whose conduct and views they find abhorrent. 

Like every concept of economic democracy, the idea has obvious complications. Is it one person, one vote—bookkeepers as well as editors, tech support alongside executives? Does “over 200 employees” at Simon & Schuster constitute a majority? (No, not even close.) For canceling a contract, should a supermajority be required? Is there a forum for deliberations (democracy is more than counting votes or signatures on a petition), and doesn’t that require a smaller number of duly deputized representatives?    

Complicated? Perhaps. But not too complicated. I can easily imagine a major publisher with such a procedure. It would require a threshold measure of opposition to some publishing project before being set into motion—a protest by more than two hundred employees perhaps—lest a publisher become victim to constant agitation and gridlock. Whatever the procedure, it would have to be precisely and publicly delineated so that writers, agents, and potential employees would know what they were dealing with when approaching, say, Simon & Socialist.  

 

Expanding the pool of people who get to draw lines still leaves unexamined where the lines should be drawn and why. What exactly distinguishes Sen. Hawley’s case from Vice President Pence’s? On January 6, Hawley abetted the trashing of the nation’s presidential election while Pence, after four years of faithfully enabling the Trasher-in-Chief, belatedly refused to join in. Perhaps that’s distinction enough.

But this raises yet another question. Should a judgment about publishing turn primarily on what an author has to say or on what the author has done? Simon & Schuster’s decision not to publish Sen. Hawley’s forthcoming book had nothing to do with its contents. Whatever the merits of Hawley’s views on Big Tech, or whatever diversity his views might have provided, the damning complaint was not about them but about Hawley himself—his complicity in the effort to overthrow a democratic election. Likewise, W. W. Norton’s recent decision to halt publication of the Philip Roth biography had nothing to do with the quality of the biographer’s work—praised by some, questioned by others—but with charges of past sexual offenses.  

Judging books not by the worthiness of their contents but by the worthiness of their authors would eliminate a lot of good books by bad people. In announcing its deal with Pence, Simon & Schuster had of course stressed the revelations the Vice President might make about his “journey” as a Christian in politics and the “lessons” he had learned in public service. In rejecting the call to drop the contract, Karp declared that the company’s role was “to assure that in acquiring books we will be bringing into the world works that will provide new information or perspectives on events to which we otherwise might not have access.”

You may be excused for doubting that a ghost-written memoir by the notoriously tight-lipped former vice president, conveniently scheduled for the run-up to the 2024 election, was likely to provide startling new information or perspective on either his Christian journey or his public service. But what if that were not the case? What if Pence was really poised to tell previously hidden truths about Trump and his administration?  

The anti-Pence protesters don’t really care. They clearly reject the book deal for what Pence has done and not what he might say—for years, as they state, of “discrimination against marginalized groups and denying resources to BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] and LGBTQA+ communities”; and for his central place in “a presidency that unequivocally advocated for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and violence,” to say nothing of forcing fundamentalist Christian science teaching on public schools, “denying bodily integrity to pregnant women,” attacking clinics for HIV patients, and “pushing for guns to be in schools and cars.” Should Simon & Schuster be “generating wealth” for such a person? (The two-book deal is for between $3 million and $4 million.) How is this not “legitimizing bigotry”?

There’s no getting around the wealth publishers can generate for miscreant authors. What about the wealth Simon & Schuster is generating for itself and for its executives, stockholders, and employees? A fine conscience might suggest that the money could be contributed to Black Lives Matter or used to oppose restrictive voting laws. In fact, W. W. Norton has announced that it would donate a sum the size of the advance paid to the Roth biographer to organizations for survivors of sexual assault and harassment. Such a fine conscience might also suggest that Simon & Schuster grant a kind of conscientious-objection status to editors morally queasy about polishing Mr. Pence’s ghost-written prose, book-jacket designers or copywriters repelled by packaging the product, or publicists unwilling to promote its sale. 

Conservatives, including Trump enablers, can relax. They are not about to be reduced to communicating by samizdat.

It’s been a few weeks since the Simon & Schuster protest and the management’s swift response started me on this thought experiment. Mike Pence’s book deal remains intact. Josh Hawley immediately found another publisher. So did Woody Allen after Hachette dropped a forthcoming memoir. So, no doubt, will the biographer of Philip Roth. 

But I sympathize with the potential readers of the Roth biography who asked W. W. Norton why they, and not Blake Bailey, the biographer, should be punished for his alleged misdeeds. Why not let them read the biography while Bailey and his accusers settle their past histories in court? I am also worried about the formidably all-embracing and more-than-a-little-formulaic indictment of offending isms, phobias, bigotries, and transgressions that the Simon & Schuster protesters drew up against Pence. I spy a few that, loosely interpreted, might bar me simply as a Catholic from being published by Simon & Schuster. 

 

Finally, I am worried about that other choke point, the distribution of books. Simon & Schuster distributes books by Post Hill Press, a right-wing Tennessee publisher; the protesters demanded that Simon & Schuster terminate this relationship entirely. The firm refused while also refusing to distribute a Post Hill book by a police officer who was wounded while participating in the raid that killed Breonna Taylor. It is understandable that Simon & Schuster would want to dissociate itself from anything connected to a horrible killing, especially when the loss is still fresh. But the fact is that the police officer—the only participating officer not fired or indicted by a Louisville grand jury—might actually have something enlightening to say, unlike the authors of many Post Hill books, such as Matt Gaetz and Dan Bongino. (And unlike, perhaps, Mike Pence.) Does a “rigorous standard,” to quote Mr. Karp, control the distribution as well as the acquisition of books? 

Then there was the decision by Amazon, which now has a huge hold on book sales, to refuse to market the unfortunately titled When Harry Became Sally, a serious critique of transgender theory and the treatment of gender dysphoria in minors. According to the Wall Street Journal’s editors, Facebook too has gotten into “book-banning.” It “appears to be throttling” a Journal book review—and therefore the book, too—by fact-checking and challenging claims made by the book’s author, climate-crisis skeptic Steven Koonin. “Throttling” is probably not the right word in this case: Facebook’s fact-checking appears much more substantial than the Journal lets on, and Koonin’s book is very much still on sale at Amazon.

Despite these worries, the Simon & Schuster protest still deserves some thought. How do people engaged in corporate communication exercise some moral accountability for the perspectives, personalities, narratives, and products they generate? How do they exercise judgment without cramping public discussion? 

Conservatives, including Trump enablers, can relax. They are not about to be reduced to communicating by samizdat. Kellyanne Conway has a book contract (with Simon & Schuster!), and so do William Barr and Amy Coney Barrett. Progressives can relax, too. In a duel of books, Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster again) and the Obamas easily outgun Dinesh D’Souza and Mike Pence, even with Ann Coulter thrown in. 

We are still a long way from any precipice—or, better perhaps, from any no-man’s land, a dead zone between publishers caring only about what the market will bear and those favoring a secular Index of Forbidden Books. If we are stumbling in that direction, however, it might serve us to give the matter some thought.

Please. Before anyone signs up Rudy Giuliani.

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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