America’s publishing industry has “long prided itself” on freedom of expression, says Pamela Paul in The New York Times. Back in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was banned in France, Britain and Argentina – but not the US. Efforts to repress other works, from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, have also been rebuffed. But while publishers and editors would never condone book banning, many privately admit that “a subtler form of repression is taking place in the literary world”: self-censorship.
Terrified of upsetting their liberal employees or generating a social media firestorm, publishing houses “have adopted a defensive crouch”. They don’t bother commissioning books the left might object to. They employ “sensitivity readers” to comb through texts, “weeding out anything that might potentially offend”. If a controversial work does get into print, other “gatekeepers” – the literary press, librarians, independent bookshops – often decline to review, acquire or sell it. When the American Booksellers Association included a book about the “transgender craze” in a mail-out to members, for example, it was forced to issue a grovelling apology. Not every book deserves to be published, of course. But those decisions should be based on quality, not on whatever the Twitter mob thinks is acceptable.