Artillery Row

Why do women bear the brunt of literary censorship?

Cancellation is the modern manifestation of public shaming culture

Why is it these days that female writers seem to be at the sharp end of censorship? Is it because women are traditionally perceived as being more docile when it comes to fighting injustice?

Men are supported by their publishers whilst women are not

Take the example of Kate Clanchy. Last summer, she was accused of racist and ableist tropes in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Picador and Pan Macmillan issued statements apologising “profoundly” and claiming that it was discussing ways “to update the book for future editions”. But why on earth would a publisher try to rewrite a book — one which, necessarily, it must have scrutinised in the initial publishing process — when it would be submitted to even more public scrutiny than before? In the end, Pan Macmillan’s contrition failed to close the matter. It later announced “a mutual parting of the ways” with Clanchy, which is invariably corporate speak for sacking an employee.

Let’s be very clear that the opprobrium women are subjected to is not evenly applied when it comes to men. Clanchy may have used phrases like “almond-shaped eyes”, but Boris Johnson has never once faced the sack for describing Africans in 2002 as having “watermelon smiles”. The double standards in the public arena are egregious. A woman can be called to account with devastating results (Clanchy herself referred to contemplating suicide) while a man is able to avoid repercussions.

Both Clanchy and Johnson apologised for their words, but the male tendency is to be less propitiatory. Would, for instance, Jimmy Carr or Frankie Boyle ever dream of issuing an apology for penning their controversial jokes? Did Chris Rock say sorry for his alopecia-inspired gag? Of course not. In the words of that braggadocious boxing bard Conor McGregor, “I’d like to take this chance to apologise…to absolutely nobody.”

It is encouraging for women that a high-profile female writer like J.K. Rowling has not apologised for her opinions, despite being no-platformed and omitted from the Harry Potter twentieth anniversary reunion. However, it’s interesting how Graham Linehan, who has also been accused of anti-trans views, has been more confrontational than Rowling in his response to cancel culture. He has refused to work with Channel 4 again until they reinstate an allegedly transphobic episode of The IT Crowd.

Literary history shows that women have always borne the brunt of publishers’ punishment. A century ago, Dorothy Parker was sacked from Vanity Fair for writing reviews that offended powerful Broadway producers. Luckily for her, Robert Benchley resigned in protest and helped publish an exposé of her treatment in the New York Times. With the boys on board, hey presto, Parker was immediately rehired by Vanity Fair on a freelance basis.

One male writer who has fallen foul of Twitter intemperance over the past few years is John Boyne. He incurred the wrath of some trans activists with My Brother’s Name is Jessica in 2019. He has also been criticized by the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre for “historical inaccuracies and stereotypical portrayals” in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Undeterred, Boyne is releasing another Holocaust-based novel this autumn. He’s already standing up to implacable online bullies, stating, “I am perfectly aware that the news will have the usual antagonists on Twitter but they are screaming into a void because…I’m not going to be listening to any of it.”

When Boyne is compared to the American writer Jeanine Cummins, the problem is even more apparent. Cummins was similarly charged with stereotypical writing (on this occasion about Mexicans) in her novel American Dirt. But her publisher cancelled her book tour due to threats she received. Boyne also suffered threats of violence, but his tour continued: men are supported by their publishers whilst women are not.

There is further evidence of female writers attracting more cancellations. Julie Burchill wrote Welcome to the Woke Trials: How Identity Killed Progressive Politics in partial response to Suzanne Moore’s assertion that she was pushed out of the Guardian in 2020 for her comments on transgenderism. The Hachette Book Group later cancelled Burchill’s book over her tweets about Islam. There’s more than a hint of irony that a book by a woman criticising the cancellation of women was cancelled.

Women have been subjected to public shaming throughout the centuries

Movements such as #MeToo and #WakingTheFeminists had felt like the dawn of a new era of cultural equality — women were on a level playing ground with their male peers. But within a couple of years, that aspiration was smashed by diversity politics. Other groups in society saw that women were beginning to operate on an equal footing with men. They began to form what can only be described as #MeTooMoreThanYou movements. Writing communities have been splintered into subsets (queer, global majority, disabled, etc.); literature has become a social engineering exercise by publishing companies. If a forthright UK woman writer doesn’t strongly align herself with a subset, she leaves herself prone to being cancelled, as we can see with Clanchy, Rowling, Moore and Burchill.

The cancellation of women can to some extent be regarded as a vengeful kickback from the men who used to imperiously rule the literary world. I have some skin in the game: the male partner of the duo who run Doire Press sent me an email rescinding an offer to publish my novel after my article about Troubles literature in Fortnight Magazine was publicly criticised.

Yet the overblown tweets that set the tone for my cancellation came mostly from women. Incidentally, Julie Burchill’s Twitter opponent preceding her cancellation was female. Could it be that women have become so accustomed to calling men out through #MeToo that they are now addicted to having the blood of others on their fingertips?

The rise of cancellation may also be attributed to the mistaken belief among female writers that the easiest way to advance is by denigrating other women. Last year, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie outlined in an essay how younger women authors on Twitter have tried to damage her career in order to further their own. As Adichie says, “What matters now is not goodness but the appearance of goodness.” The current trend for women is to denounce a peer with more pharisaical zealotry than a latter-day Abigail Williams.

It’s time for society to remember the lessons of history and literature. The truth is that women have been subjected to public shaming throughout the centuries, from Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter to the tarring and feathering of my native Northern Ireland. Cancellation is in many ways the modern manifestation of such debasement. This is why it’s vital for cancelled women writers like Kate Clanchy to refuse to give in to the public demand for mea culpas. Women should stand up for their writing careers. We must never be unfairly viewed as the authors of our own downfall.

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