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Cancel culture could do for Dickens

Blake Bailey, Philip Roth’s biographer. Allen J Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

This week marks a “sea change” in publishers’ reactions to their authors’ behaviour, says Ron Charles in The Washington Post. Staffers at Simon & Schuster petitioned bosses to drop a forthcoming book by Mike Pence for “complicity in perpetuating white supremacy” and “rehabilitating fascists”. At the same time, Norton permanently cancelled a brand-new biography of Philip Roth after its author, Blake Bailey, was accused of “inappropriate” sexual behaviour. Any unsold copies are being pulped, and he has been dropped by his literary agents. In the space of a few days, says DJ Taylor in The Times, “one of America’s most distinguished literary biographers has become a non-person”.

The extraordinary implication is that any writer, living or dead, can be pulled from the shelves “simply for bad behaviour”. What of William Thackeray, sipper of mint juleps on slave plantations in the antebellum South? Or Dickens, whose mistreatment of his wife was a “mid-Victorian byword”? Must we now expunge Vanity Fair and Bleak House? A teenage George Orwell is “reliably reported” to have sexually assaulted a girl named Jacintha Buddicom. Surely this means tearing up Animal Farm and sending in the censors for Nineteen Eighty-Four.