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Has publishing gone woke?

It is the duty of a responsible publisher to reflect the intellectual and social diversity that exists across the world

Earlier this week, a “town hall” meeting was held at the headquarters of Penguin Random House in Canada. These company-wide assemblies are only held when a matter of great gravity is at hand, and so it proved.

The offending issue was that one of the company’s bestselling authors, Jordan Peterson, is scheduled to publish his new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life with the publisher in March next year, which will be the follow-up to 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. As Peterson is associated, rightly or wrongly, with the alt-right and the men’s rights movements, he remains a controversial figure, and it would not take a leading psychologist to anticipate a fiery and emotional encounter.

This duly took place. According to Vice, one member of the LGBTQIA+ community who was present denounced Peterson, saying “He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him”.

Others were moved to tears by the very idea that Penguin Random House could be in league with such a morally dreadful man. One employee said that Peterson had radicalised their father, and feared for the safety of their non-binary friend should the book be published. They told Vice, “The company since June has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative.”

The debate seems to pit two mutually exclusive sides against one another. In the red corner are the 70 employees of the company who have sent anonymous messages to their superiors begging that Peterson’s book not be released and denouncing him as a peddler of hateful bombast. And in the blue corner are Peterson and his publishers, who sold over three million copies of 12 Rules for Life worldwide. It would be politically expedient simply to throw in the towel and cancel publication of Beyond Order, but financially disastrous, not least because Penguin Random House know that another publishing house would pick up the book immediately and make a great deal of money out of it.

Therefore, the statement that was released was a masterclass in public relations obfuscation:

We announced yesterday that we will publish Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order this coming March. Immediately following the announcement, we held a forum and provided a space for our employees to express their views and offer feedback. Our employees have started an anonymous feedback channel, which we fully support. We are open to hearing our employees’ feedback and answering all of their questions. We remain committed to publishing a range of voices and viewpoints.

To quote Oscar Wilde on the death of Little Nell, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. While it is disappointing not to see the words “safe space” here, it is otherwise a laundry list of meaningless phrases – “anonymous feedback channel”, “a range of voices” and the like – which do little to offer either Peterson or his anonymous denouncers support.

Yet this argument has proved to be an illuminating one, in that it succinctly illustrates a sea change that has taken place in American publishing, and may yet find itself in the British mainstream before too long. Traditionally, men and women sought publishing careers because they were interested in the written word, had strong editorial or commercial instincts and wanted to be involved in seeing successful, relevant books being published. This has now changed into a form of grass-roots social activism.

Employees at major American publishing houses now not only proudly list their pronouns in their email signatures, but regard it as vitally important to call out what they perceive as any form of discrimination or bigotry that is being exhibited by their employer.

It is the duty of a responsible publisher to reflect intellectual and social diversity

Relatively recently, this would have been regarded as straightforward insubordination, and would have seen staff fired by the dozen. There is, after all, no shortage of intelligent and talented young men and women who would dearly love to pursue careers in publishing, and very few who have managed to make themselves irreplaceable to their companies after a couple of years. But the institution has now changed entirely. As those who work within it feel emboldened to shout their disapproval of their employers’ editorial and commercial decisions at company-wide meetings, there is a deep-seated fear of not wanting to cause offence and of not being seen as racist, transphobic or any of the other cardinal crimes that a business can commit.

Sometimes, this can lead to a book being binned altogether. In the case of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, its intended publication by the Hachette Book Group in April 2020 was cancelled after many members of staff walked out of a town hall meeting designed to allay their concerns. The company commented that, “at HBG, we take our responsibilities with authors seriously, and do not cancel books lightly”, but “we are committed to offering a stimulating, supportive and open work environment for all our staff”.

This “stimulating, supportive and open” environment would not have come cheaply; it is standard contractual practice in these situations to pay off an author’s advance in full if publication does not take place for reasons beyond their control, meaning that Allen was at liberty to take it elsewhere. It duly appeared from the independent publisher Arcade and received mixed reviews, but it was nonetheless a far greater sensation than it would have been otherwise.

In Allen’s case, there may well have been other reasons connected to the non-appearance of the book. His estranged son Ronan Farrow is one of the leading stars of the publisher Little Brown – itself a Hachette division – having written his own bestseller Catch and Kill last year. Its subject was the way in which various high-profile figures including Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby had evaded justice for their appalling actions for years, and it became a cause célèbre upon its publication.

One name that was absent but present by implication was that of Allen’s, who has never been convicted of any crime. It was no surprise that Farrow released an emotive statement, saying that it was ‘‘wildly professional in multiple obvious directions for Hachette to behave this way”, as well as displaying “a lack of ethics and compassion for victims of sexual abuse”. He ended by threatening to leave the publisher if his father’s book was released, saying “a publisher that would conduct itself in this way is one I can’t work with in good conscience.” It produced the desired effect.

There is space for provocative writing that exists both on the left and right of the political spectrum

British publishing is in a slightly different place. Although the continued success of such books as Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race and the Nikesh Shukla-edited The Good Immigrant indicates that there is both a social and a commercial imperative for producing work about the contemporary BAME experience, publishers and literary agents are trying to maintain a plethora of views and voices in their ranks that stretch beyond the usual white Oxbridge-educated men who have traditionally dominated the industry.

As can be seen by the continued success of Douglas Murray’s books, there is space for intelligent, provocative writing that exists both on the left and right of the political spectrum, and it is the duty of a responsible publisher to construct a list that reflects the intellectual and social diversity that exists in Britain at the present time.

Not everyone agrees. The major hate figure to those on the woke extreme of the left is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a woman, JK Rowling. Her views on the trans issue have seen her cast out into outer darkness, but she has still published a new children’s book this year, The Ickabog. Her publisher, the British division of Hachette, met with similar protests from staff at this, but they refused to bow to pressure and cancel publication, and released a statement saying:

We fundamentally believe that everyone has the right to express their own thoughts and beliefs. That’s why we never comment on our authors’ personal views and we respect our employees’ right to hold a different view. We will never make our employees work on a book whose content they find upsetting for personal reasons, but we draw a distinction between that and refusing to work on a book because they disagree with an author’s views outside their writing, which runs contrary to our belief in free speech.

Rowling is the bestselling writer in the world and offending her would be commercially ruinous for any publisher

This is considerably more nuanced and, in its own way, courageous than the American response, though it should also be noted that Rowling is the bestselling writer in the world and that offending her would be a commercially ruinous decision for any publisher. The success of the Harry Potter books at her previous publisher, Bloomsbury, subsidised many less obviously commercial books and thus indirectly began or assisted countless writers’ careers. Yet the issue of perspective is similarly lacking when it comes to commercial representation. Rowling’s literary agency, The Blair Partnership, was set up in 2011 to advance her publishing interests, but has taken on other clients too. They talk on their website about their “progressive approach to representation”, but authors who are less commercially successful than Rowling may be wrong to take this statement too literally.

Four writers left the agency in June in protest at their refusal to issue a statement in explicit support for transgender rights, to which the Blair Partnership responded, not without anger:

We are disappointed by the decision that four clients have taken to part ways with the agency. To reiterate, we believe in freedom of speech for all; these clients have decided to leave because we did not meet their demands to be re-educated to their point of view. We respect their right to pursue what they feel is the correct course of action.

It is heartening to see that high-profile institutions and organisations will not give into arbitrary demands for re-education, which did not work when implemented in Stalinist Russia and will not work now, either. The only question that we now face, both in publishing and in the wider world, is how this particular culture war ends up being decided, and what the eventual results for a generation become.

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