Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing has now been cancelled after a staff walkout at Hachette Book Group, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. The walkout was ignited by Allen’s adopted daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusation that he had molested her when she was seven years old. Allen denies the charge. This book is just one among a number that have been cancelled in recent years. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins’s book tour was cancelled due to “safety concerns.” And the YA book entitled Blood Heir was pulled by the author, Amélie Wen Zhao, after she was accused of displaying “blatantly racist” depictions of slavery.
When there are hoorays and cheers for books being cancelled—books that authors have worked hard on for years—it makes me wonder if it is even worth it to create at all. Being an MFA graduate student in Minnesota, I intend to use part of my professional career writing novels and short stories. The grad program was supposed to be a mechanism to sharpen the writing skills I had developed in the few years since my undergrad, but in my first semester in the graduate program, I have already been labelled an ableist and accused of holding the ideas I do simply because I’m “a f***ing a white guy.”
These accusations have been based on my fiction writing as well as my views on what fiction should do and what it should be. The professor in whose class I was called these names did not step in to say that it was unprofessional or inappropriate to launch such personal attacks, but instead smiled, as if she agreed wholeheartedly. It is clear that there is a concerted effort to censor ideas with which faculty and students don’t want to engage.
Allen’s memoir was not cancelled for anything inside the book itself. It was cancelled because of what he had allegedly done in his personal life. In fact, those accusations have not produced anything of substance. If someone had enough information to charge Allen with molestation or sexual assault, then they should try him on that account (and I would be right there with them), but to cancel his book is an overt attempt to shut someone out of the marketplace of ideas, to smear reputation and work, based on nothing but collective hatred for the guy.
As something of a free speech absolutist (with very few exceptions), I believe that ideas should be exchanged and debated until one idea prevails over the other. If, say, someone disagrees with the content of Marquis De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, then they should be able to write or speak about what they dislike. To ban the book entirely negates all conversation that could have taken place.
If you don’t want to read a given book because of its content, then that is your prerogative, but there is no reason to make it unavailable for others who might have an interest. This quickly turns into a kind of moralizing, where the gatekeepers get to decide what is best for me to read, watch, and listen to. That the gatekeepers are now vilifying authors not for the taboo content of their work but for perceived personal misdeeds makes no difference.
The censorship of Allen’s book is a perfect example of how group think has now gained prominent influence over the gatekeepers. If enough people vandalize colleges over invited speakers, then those colleges are going to avoid controversial voices from speaking on their campus. The same goes for book publishers, where they will cancel books based on a group of people expressing their discontent with the book being published.
Why is it not okay to just not like a book? Why do books have to be cancelled before people can be satisfied? There are many, many books published every year that I think are absolutely atrocious, but I would never think to bar that author from publishing their book. It’s their right to say what they want to say, and it is my right to say their ideas are stupid—but I do not have the right to silence them.