Woody Allen’s Book Cancellation is Apropos of Today’s Discourse

Authors, Banned and Challenged Books, Intellectual Freedom Issues

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.  

Patron Opinion of Library Materials

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

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.


  • “No, the cancellers say, we should be told what to think” — I don’t understand this statement. Who is telling me what to think?

    and: stymie…yes, I’m one of those people who notice spelling mistakes. They are a distraction for some readers. I hold librarians to a slightly higher standard in their written communication than I do most of the rest.

  • What I find more concerning was that Hachette ever green-lighted this memoir. It’s funny that Mr. Sempak raises this as a “cancel culture” issue since the elitists who have pushed cancel culture on society historically ignored the violations by self-styled intellectuals and “artistes” they like (e.g., Allen and Polanski). This decision by Hachette is a late correction to a bad decision. Allen’s book is supposed to be a memoir so it’s not a matter of intellectual freedom; Allen’s (or Polanski’s) unfettered fulfillment of his purpose in life should have stopped at preying on children.

  • If the decision was always in the hands of the publisher, how specifically is using speech to persuade the publisher to change their mind an offense against intellectual freedom? I’m nostalgic for the movement for intellectual freedom championed by Jello Biafra. The one we have seems like it’s championed by Phyllis Schlafly.

  • Hi Arthur.

    A note about the grammatical error. I, and all of the writers on this blog are volunteers. Our editors are superlative and pretty much let us write whatever we want. Yes I’m a librarian but I’m also human. And the shades of meaning are different but “stymy” is an acceptable variant of your spelling. I find typos on NPR’s website all the time, and these are paid journalists. You’ll probably find grammatical errors in every one of my posts, and standardization is not the natural culmination of language – language evolves. But my variant took you off track, so it’s no wonder you missed my point.

    We’re being told what to think when we’re shamed into acquiescing to a morality trumpeted by a vocal minority based on information that is non-existent. This should be enough! Farrow sullies the book without any information to the contrary. He’s telling you to think that an unverifiable work is bad. If you have no information to the contrary, then he’s expecting you to take his word for it.

    And Derek,

    Intellectual freedom touches everything. You don’t get denied the pursuit of intellectual freedom simply because you’ve chosen to write a memoir. But my point isn’t about the book’s creation by Allen himself – no one is obligated to publish this for him. Rather I’m concerned about how one is viewed if they choose to read this memoir (which has been published, BTW). The basis behind approaching IF with a lack of judgement is that you can’t assume WHY someone chooses to read something. But outspoken tweeters who side with Farrow are unlikely to pardon anyone who wants to read this book. For any reason.

    Here’s my point – you claim that it was a bad decision to publish this book. Is it then a bad decision to read this book? If not then how do you parse our the difference? Neither can exist without the other and this is precisely my fear. You’re judging that a book is bad (and by extension, its readers) which you haven’t had the chance to read. You can write whatever you want and no one has to like it. But it’s myopic to decry something you haven’t read.

  • Hi, Nicholas.

    Thanks for reading, and for your comment! My beef with this challenge wasn’t Farrow’s disapproval of the book. He has every right to dislike the fact that Allen has written a memoir, but the memoir in question didn’t yet exist. He eschewed a book based on nothing but a whim. He hadn’t had a chance to verify whatever inconsistencies he claimed would be in the book because it hadn’t been made public. And his tweet exposed his gross misunderstanding of the publication process. This is a more egregious version of book challenges where a reconsideration proposal is filed merely because of out-of-context obscenities. Well there was no passage with Allen’s book. It was the idea he was mad at, and he preemptively judged the book. The offense to IF is Farrow assuming that there is a singular true account of what happened between his sister and Allen. IF says there are shades of truth, and instead of supplanting one story with another, intellectual pursuits are best done with a full spread. IF respects adult’s ability to reach conclusions on their own. It’s scary to see that people who chose to work in publishing act this way. Librarians bolster IF with access to information in a judgement free environment. This entire episode was anything but.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.