“Books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces,” wrote Orwell in 1984. While books are not eliminated in Orwell’s dystopian vision, they were simplified and dumbed down to the point that authors become unnecessary: indeed, Orwell specifies that in 1984 books “are written by machinery.” The purpose of this absence of real literature is two-fold: for one, it simply means that there is no aspect of natural, passionate human experience that can be outside the purview of the party, and two, it closes off a release valve for personal and political expression, a form of human energy which can then be funneled solely into reverence and duty for the party. Sound familiar?
Yet when a regime seeks to crush all spontaneous and free human creativity and ardor, it often produces a secretive, rebellious underground movement. Even in the world of 1984, Winston and Julia seek their rebellion through a passionate and corporeal love affair, subverting the party’s control simply through their love. In the Soviet Union, state-sanctioned literature was vastly overshadowed in terms of artistic importance by its illicit counterparts: samizdat and tamizdat, underground books published abroad and in Russia by dissident authors. With the threat of imprisonment and persecution looming, Russian writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Boris Pasternak wrote masterpieces that are still read throughout the world, while the names of the officially-sanctioned writers who hewed more faithfully to the party line and received fat book contracts and state honors during the Soviet period have disappeared from history.
In the English-speaking literary world today, a narrow set of acceptable ideological views, a culture of hive-minded conformity, and a commercially driven industry have created an environment in which mainstream publishers don’t print certain views, and censor and revise the ones they do put out. Authors who don’t bow to the woke paradigm lose work, are pressured into self-censoring, or don’t ever get their foot in the door, while publishing professionals are fired left and right for ideological nonconformity, not to mention the rise of the sensitivity reader, whose role is to enforce the party line. When I was fired from my former literary agency, my boss kept repeating, “the industry is very liberal” meaning that my criticism of gender ideology is not welcome anywhere in the industry.
While in the publishing world, I learned a lot about the narrow-mindedness of the editors and agents, and what they are interested in signing. On my first day as an intern at a literary agency in New York, I was instructed on the most important factor in deciding whether to sign a nonfiction writer: the size and reach of their platform—their celebrity—not the merit of their ideas or research. I was taught that religious content is an absolute no unless the book is published by a specifically religious imprint. While separation of church and state is fundamental to our democracy, surely literature is the place to explore both the good and the evil of religion, a central theme of many of the greatest works in the Western canon. It was clear that what we were looking for were books that publishing professionals consider palatable to the upscale conformist audience that devours podcasts and Twitter feeds and believe such delusions as “trans women are women”, among other newly-minted and bizarre beliefs.
Our era will go down as a dry and unimportant milieu in the history of the written word. Instead of publishing controversial and provocative books that would challenge and engage critically with mainstream beliefs, the publishing industry has become the backdrop for a continuous stream of instructive “scandals” wherein an author, agent, or editor is maligned or even dropped after being accused of heretical thought. In January, literary agent Colleen Oefelein was fired from the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency merely for the sin of having accounts on “right-wing” social media platforms Gab and Parler. Last year, Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s memoir after “listening to staff and others” object to the publication on the grounds of the allegations of sexual abuse against Allen. Prior to the cancellation, members of Hachette’s New York staff staged a walkout to protest the Allen memoir, which was then canceled (it seems safe to say that whatever one thinks of the accusations of sexual abuse against Allen, the decision to cancel his memoir only stems the likelihood of a Hachette book actually being of interest to posterity). Just last month, another scandal rocked the literary world when author Kate Clanchy was accused of racism and ableism for rather innocuous language used in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Statements of contrition were released from the publisher, Picador, as well as the Orwell Foundation, which had awarded the book a prize for political writing in 2020. Clanchy herself tweeted that she welcomed the opportunity to revise her book and added “you are right to blame me.”
What I felt as a lowly worker ant trying to get my foot in the door in the publishing industry was a sense that the dominant culture of fear, censorship, and conformity wasn’t driven by a particularly acute understanding of the beliefs being enforced by editors and agents at their own publishing houses and agencies. Even some of the seemingly most ideological editors and agents I met didn’t appear to fully understand the details of the politics being pushed in their books; instead, they were doing their best to keep up with a small number of militant authors, who were thought to serve as beacons for coming progressive trends.
At the tiny, leftist press where I interned in New York in early 2020, I once spent a day pasting over a pronoun on the back cover of every advance copy of a book about a trans character. The blurb on the back cover used the pronoun “he”, which the character, a transwoman, had used at the beginning of the book, but the publicist who bade me change all the copies wanted it to say “she.” I asked the young publicist why she wanted that word changed. She looked affronted and said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, “because it’s transphobic.” Did she really know what she was affronted by? Trans people like Buck Angel have pointed out that it is in fact the reality and history of their sex that defines their trans-ness. But just as in 1984 and in the Soviet Union, the need for retroactive correction, in this case of the text of the book itself, in the service of political correctness overrides considerations of accuracy, taste, and literary integrity.
Although fear and ideological purity drive much of the publishing malaise, the presence of banal incompetence also plays its role in the degradation of literature. In her haste to fix the book, the publicist overlooked another small detail she wanted to be changed, which I spent the following day pasting over on every copy. Another time, an entire order of books was scrapped because the neologism “chicanx” was misspelled on the cover as “chincanx.”
The pattern of cancellation, apology, retraction, and re-writing that we keep seeing in the industry is indicative not only of the weakness of its output, but also of the possibility for an exciting landscape of alternatives. Real, living culture thrives on friction and opposition; Just as literature flourished under Soviet censorship, there is no reason why the same can’t be true in today’s America. Is today’s threat of career homicide enough to push artists into fighting back with incendiary, powerful works of audacity and conviction?
In his 1998 novel I Married a Communist, Philip Roth perfectly captures why we must “box with books” and not merely critique and analyze them. Roth portrays the art of boxing with a book in a conversation between Ira, a radio broadcaster who is subject to the brutal unfairness of McCarthyism, and the young protagonist, Nathan, about the book Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast. Ira asks Nathan why he likes a particular line in the book: “I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul by swearing allegiance to one whose character is that of a sottish, stupid, stubborn, worthless, brutish man.” Ira questions Nathan, asking him to uncover the meaning of the phrase “make a whore of my soul”, which Nathan has pinpointed as a line that made him adore Howard Fast. Nathan recognizes that “make a whore of my soul” packs so much more punch than just saying for example, “sell my soul”. Ira helps Nathan see that the power of this phrase lies in the audacity of using an improper word like “whore”, usually avoided in polite conversation out of propriety and embarrassment. Ira ends the informal lesson by saying “Thomas Paine is audacious. But is that enough? Audacity is only part of the formula. Audacity must have a purpose, otherwise it’s cheap and facile and vulgar. Why is Thomas Paine audacious?” To which Nathan answers “In behalf of his convictions.”
Only history will show which books endure. But I have a feeling they won’t be the ones styled within the lines of fashionable and lucrative social justice trends. Even as literature is commercialized into horrific banality and ideological preposterousness, there is a need and a space for authors who are ready to put themselves on the line in order to do what writers should do: honestly explore all parts of the human psyche, including that which is unpalatable, improper, or politically incorrect.
As a college undergraduate studying Russian literature, I once remarked to my professor that I enjoyed Nabokov and Dostoevsky’s books but wasn’t sure if I liked the authors as people. He replied with an old literary joke which goes like this: you go to a tomato seller and ask him, “Do you like tomatoes?” The man replies, “I like to EAT them, yes.” After delivering this line, my professor was silent. I stared blankly at him, wondering if my American mind was failing to compute some strange flavor of Russian humor. But once he explained it to me, I was never again confused as to whether I should “like an author” beyond his or her works. The tomato joke means: what is the use of an author (at least to readers) beyond his books? And the answer is of as little use as a tomato that you don’t eat.
In our era, this concept is not intuitive. Instead of waiting to get your hands on the latest installment of War and Peace or Crime and Punishment in a Russian periodical of the mid 19th Century, for their fix of drama, masses of people turn on Keeping up with the Kardashians or similar. Rather than embodying the tomato joke, the Kardashians are proud of their ability to keep an audience riveted to the screen despite their lack of talent per se; it is their personalities and (supposedly) real intimate foibles that provide the fodder for entertainment. This is not to say that we don’t equally enjoy peering into the lives of authors whose works are their real contribution: Dostoevsky himself is the subject of a five-volume detailed biography by Joseph Frank. And while it is fun to read about how Dostoevsky met his second wife and the love of his life, his less wholesome attributes are also on display: his anti-semitism, his gambling addiction, and his poor money-management skills. Even the story of his meeting Anna Grigorievna, his wife until his death, could be taken either as a miraculous love story of two people complementing each other’s needs, or as a Me Too story of a famous writer entering into a romantic relationship with his much younger stenographer. But there is simply no use in lamenting the fact that Dostoevsky was prejudiced against Jews or that he had personal failings. His works stand on their own, thanks to his uncanny ability to create characters and scenes that display all the contradictions and nuances of his ideas.
If you want to cancel Dostoevsky’s books because of something you object to in his personal life, you are a fool. Likewise, you are a fool to complain about Philip Roth’s personal life, or about the unpopular political views of publishing professionals. Without quirky, off-color, unpopular, or downright offensive thoughts and ideas, literature would be as powerless and meaningless as the machine-written novels in 1984. When a group of people falls prey to an era of self-censorship and preference falsification, the books they churn out will be bland, mediocre, and forgettable.
The fearful crowd who don’t think the public should be subjected to vulgarity or differences in opinion are destroying an outlet that for centuries has allowed people to peer into the less savory parts of our common humanity. Books are more like dreams than perfected utopian ideologies: they are not all kind. Some are nightmares. Sometimes they show us things we’d rather not look at or remind us of painful memories. But dreams, like books, help our brains process these things, and teach us more about ourselves. The use of books to make believe about some pretend perfect standard of humanity is a crime against human intelligence. It is a body blow to the millennia of development that brought us works of literature that shaped and changed the world. Perhaps this blow to the authenticity and audacity of literature signals our decline as a civilization. After all, what good is a culture that refuses to examine itself?
Sasha White is a co-founder and podcast host at Plebity.