Arcade Publishing, the press that brought out Woody Allen’s memoir Apropos of Nothing in a surprise drop today, has a venerable record of fighting censorship and prudery. Its founder, the late Richard Seaver, brought D.H. Lawrence’s suppressed novel Lady Chatterly’s Lover to the public in the 1950s.
“Richard Seaver, an editor, translator and publisher who defied censorship, societal prudishness and conventional literary standards to bring works by rabble-rousing authors like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, William Burroughs and the Marquis de Sade to American readers, died Tuesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.”
As editor in chief of Grove, he also published The Story of O as well as work by William Burroughs, Henry Miller and the Marquis de Sade. Arcade, the publisher he founded and grew into one of the most important independent publishers in the U.S. has an impressive backlist that includes the memoir of director Ingmar Bergman, for which Allen provided an introduction.
How appropriate that this daring publisher has stepped up to douse the flames of 2020’s virtual book burning.
I don’t know what it was that had me reaching for my Voltaire a few months ago — probably something in the cultural air portending a dissolution of standards and, yes, a Closing of the American Mind that must be dealt with.
New Rules for Cultural Criticism:
Don’t speculate about real people’s personal lives, you’ll never get it right.
Never wish a creative work out of existence. Criticize it all you want, denounce it if you must, but never seek to destroy it or isolate it from other people’s attention.
“De-platforming,” or whatever the scolds are calling it these days, has more in common with red baiting, blacklisting, book burning and Victorian shaming than it does to liberation or empowerment.
The first amendment is a subset, and a damned small one, of free speech and expression. It does not define the concept.
It’s fine not to work on creative projects that offend you morally, but it’s bankrupt to try to hinder them if the creators wish to move on without you.
While you can reassess works you liked in the past, you shouldn’t ignore what initially attracted you to the art. While you don’t have to laugh at the same joke over and over, you can’t unlaugh at something.
Everybody has standing to create anything and to comment on anything. This is the essential human right from which all others derive.
Wandering through the Tribeca Barnes & Noble today, I came upon something surprising in these repressed cultural times. The publishers of the maligned and protested American Dirt have stuck by their author, as has Oprah’s book club.
Not only that, but a store employee who likes the book is not afraid to say so.
Of course I’m not saying anybody should like this novel or buy it. But imagine letting readers decide, rather than giving into pressure from activists who are out for nothing more than to silence the people they dislike and the points of view they’re afraid to contend with.
My aim here is not to write much about politics but creative arts are often, if not always, political and lines cannot be clearly drawn all of the time. We’re in the midst of Democratic primary season for the 2020 presidential election and former New York City mayor and the multibillionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, is running on a “can do” mantra, touting his competency and accomplishments. Fine. But he’s also complaining that his campaign offices are being tagged around the country with spray-painted epithets like “Oligarch,” “corporate pig,” and “Eat the rich.”
Of course, the Bloomberg campaign will take exception to this but, at the same time, the candidate has said he’d spend maybe $1 billion of his own money on advertising. His ads became quickly ubiquitous on all major social media platforms and on cable television networks. He bought a massive amount of ad spots to run on MSNBC during a debate where he was a participant and MSNBC was one of the sponsors. He bought Superbowl ads. Bloomberg is using his massive wealth to flood and takeover public spaces both online and off.
Graffiti is a communications tool used by people without $1 billion to also get their message out to the public. A Mike Bloomberg campaign office is an advertisement to everybody who walks or drives by it. So is a graffiti tag. Bloomberg will never see it that way, of course, but in the spirit of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hambleton and more importantly, to resistance movements around the world, we should see these tags not as the affront that Bloomberg does but as artists taking back space that Bloomberg is buying in our minds.
I grew up with and have long practiced a kind of first amendment absolutism that seems now to be out of step with our times. It’s not that people don’t believe in the first amendment — polls show that most do and pretty much everyone I know would say they do — it’s more that people will no longer rank it as the highest value as issues of safety and social equality have taken new precedence in our discourse.
I first encountered this impulse directly in the 1990s, as part of an Albuquerque-based theatre company producing Ntzozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf with a multiracial cast, a decision that ran afoul the sensibilities of a local bookstore and led to protests. It didn’t even matter to those offended that Shange had explicitly blessed the production and casting.
We tend to view new attitudes about speech and whats constitutes offensive speech as a highly contemporary development, but this has been with us since the social awakenings of the 60s and was huge in the 90s. Along the way, the right of anybody to say whatever they want has eroded and the simple dismissal “you’re just complaining about the social consequences of speech,” doesn’t really suffice as an answer. Not if those social consequences are shutting people out of global conversations.
In an online literary forum where the topic of American Dirt was raised, I wrote: “We all have an absolute right to tell any story we want.”
The first response: “Hard disagree.”
This isn’t exactly an attack on the Constitution is how the argument tends to proceed. The Constitution only guarantees that the government will not stop something like American Dirt from being written and published. It makes no promises about people buying the book, agreeing to sell the book or not protesting the book’s existence. That’s all true. The right to write a book is equal to the right for somebody to protest the book’s existence. That’s the deal.
But I sill believe that the conviction that certain people shouldn’t even attempt to tell certain stories represents the beginning of an erosion of free speech. “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt,” is just not an argument I can get behind even as “A white woman shouldn’t have written American Dirt badly,” is one I’m fine with.
We should argue about the quality of speech, not the existence of speech. The Freedom Forum Institute, which conducts an annual poll about first amendment attitudes shows that absolute support for free speech is slipping. In 2018, 23% of the poll respondents said that first amendment protections “go too far.” That number climbed to 29% in 2019. Can nearly a third of Americans really believe such nonsense?
35% of respondents believe that student journalists in public schools should need school administrator approval to write about controversial topics in student run publications. 27% believe that teachers should be allowed to punish students for the contents of their social media posts.
We allow and accept, by the way, that employers can fire people for what they post on social media or for having political bumper stickers on their cars. We also allow and accept that the massive corporate gatekeepers of the internet and the wider culture, like Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Twitter can promote or ban whatever speech they want and we say that this is proper because they are private even though corporate censorship may be a bigger threat than government censorship in contemporary America.