By: Ross Sempek
The embattled director Woody Allen was about to have his memoir published in early March by Hachette Book Group (HBG). That’s until Ronan Farrow, son of Allen and renowned writer who exposed Harvey Weinstein’s sex abuse scandal, voiced his objections to this decision on (where else?) Twitter. In the missive he doesn’t actually call for HBG to pull the memoir from the presses, but decries its decision to go-ahead with publication so as a betrayal because, you know, independent thought is a crime now. Even still, the memoir’s nixing is what ensued, but not before Farrow was showered with approval from his fans, and then bolstered by HBG employees who staged a walk-out in protest of the book’s publication. This led Hachette to do some soul-searching, and after hashing it out with concerned employees, decided not to move forward with Allen’s memoir.
What I find intriguing about this episode is the liminality of Allen’s book. It was about to be published. Woody had shopped his memoir before Hachette, and no one would have cried “censorship” at these publishers’ turn-downs. Clearly, this is their prerogative. But he was given a go from Hachette, that then reneged at the last moment to save face after backlash from Ronan Farrow, the Twitterverse, and their own employees. Whether or not this was a moral decision, a business decision, or both is a conversation for a different time. But this decision was always in the hands of the publisher. They deemed it “would not be feasible” for them to continue with the book — an unfortunately vague explanation of an already nebulous press release that was a bit of a self-contradictory nothingburger anyway. “We want to publish conflicting points of view…except this one.”
So the controversy isn’t the fact that the memoir wasn’t published. It isn’t even behind the why it wasn’t published: I’m guessing that the work’s previous rejections were tinged with similar trepidations. No, instead the controversy lies in how it wasn’t published. Hachette took a risk by taking on Allen, whose creeper-mythos is far-from-ignorable. But it is nonetheless concerning that a book’s publication can get halted based on one person’s personal objection. An objection over the content of a book that hasn’t seen the light of day. For me, this is where the issue evolves into intellectual freedom fallout. That which lies beneath this call for fact-checking emerges as an archetype of book-banners across all of space-time. Not to mention the mistake people in Ronan’s position make Every. Single. Time. Calls for censorship invariably stokes interest in the work being censored. It should be a law of nature at this point.
But I don’t think that this was an “abuse of power” on Ronan’s part — this was ultimately HBG’s decision, and Farrow has every right to voice his displeasure with the book and its author. But it is remarkable that publishing industry employees would rather kill a book than let it go and have readers decide for themselves. Farrow’s motivations are dubious as well. If this is in the name of justice for victims, then it’s a hollow justice at best. Larry Nassar was justice. Harvey Weinstein was justice. Woody Allen will most likely never be jailed, and his work is already widely published and well-regarded by many. And he has the means to self-publish his book, if he chooses to do so. Things will not be difficult for him. The unconscionable subject at hand makes it easy to side with these employees and makes it hard for people like me who’d rather talk about the overall implications this has for intellectual freedom and the right to read.
I feel like people have become so afraid of being ostracized online or within their group of peers that they decide to not read perspectives that challenge their own. And I can’t help but conclude that this is the ultimate goal of cancellers. If Sarah Hagi is right, and the so-called cancel culture isn’t actually real in a put-me-out-of-a-job kind of way, then shame and fear are the only tangible outcomes of such public displays of righteousness. She herself has experienced this from the other side from racists wanting to “cancel” her over her coverage of bigotry in America. This aspect of the cancel culture is very real, and shouldn’t be overlooked when it comes to one’s right to read.
The ability to stymy humiliation, to withhold judgement about intellectual pursuits, is a pillar of intellectual freedom. It’s what gives people the ability to blossom. If librarianship has shown me anything, it’s that it is possible (and not a bad thing) to respect people with whom you disagree. Just the other day a patron came in to ask about a book on President Trump. He asked for it with a timidity informed by a world that tells him it’s wrong to engage this line of inquiry. The fact that he would be treated with respect in the library seemed anomalous to him.
The assumption behind cancelling people and things completely disregards the validity of other perspectives and posits that all people who read books or watch the news will blindly acquiesce to what they’re being told. Sure, these deleterious items feed implicit biases, but no one is immune to these. And being aware of them is the best we can do — we shouldn’t let the potential to stoke them be the deciding factor in whether or not we deem something meaningful. These embers are prodded every moment of every day. No, the cancellers say, we should be told what to think, and police materials that stray from the path. Perhaps these assumptions of human credulity are understandable when they come from those trapped in their own echo-chambers. If there are those who form opinions based on a reification of their ideals, and not by an earnest consideration of counter-arguments, then it’s no wonder that they think toxic concepts directly osmose into the psyche — they’re projecting their fears onto a population of humans they don’t even know. The last paragraph of this article sums it up nicely.
So while cancellers create a bubble of moral high-ground in the unreality of Twitter, there exists this place called the library. A place where you can find, in the same building, biographies of Michael Jackson, R. Kelley, and Roman Polanski, and DVDs of Ren and Stimpy in juxtaposition with books like Know My Name and Catch and Kill. Books by Ann Coulter and about Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the Bible and the Quran. You catch my drift. I wonder how the library would have handled Ronan’s request for reconsideration…
Patron Opinion of Library Materials
Your Public Library supports the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, confirms the ideals of democracy, and welcomes the free expression from local residents concerning library materials. Requests to remove or reassign materials from Your Public Library collection shall be considered within the context of the principles affirmed in the Your Public Library’s Collection Development Policy.
Thank you for your concern. You will receive a written response from Your Library’s Manager within 30 days. * The above form is fictional and not an actual request for reconsideration from Ronan Farrow.
Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.