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 recall Brett Easton Ellis’ first nonfiction book getting all that great a reception when it was released last year, but the Goodreads ratings come in at a strong 3.5 and there are themes in this book that the legacy media might be reluctant to support. White is about people self-censoring in the post-Empire age of American public life where we are all subject to sudden mass judgment and expulsion based on musings, wisecracks and opinions uttered on social media or in print. Ellis’ book is a fun lamentation of the death of Open Society and should be read as a warning, not dismissed as reactionary.
Though Ellis doesn’t say it outright, I think he’s understanding that the First Amendment, as a legal term, cannot encompass everything that’s demanded of a society that truly celebrates freedom of expression. If you tell somebody say, protesting a speech on their college campus or demanding that a publisher doesn’t release a book that they’re working against free speech they will argue back that they, too, have a right to criticize, to make demands and to shape the culture.
Of course, they do. But how they exercise that right matters. As the author of American Psycho, which has its original publishing contract canceled at the last minute after people who had not even read the book protested against what they assumed were its themes, Ellis knows full well that there’s a big difference between a civil society that says “Sure, publish it and then I’ll argue against it” and one that seeks to suppress creative work that might be challenging or, in contemporary parlance, “triggering.”
Ellis got a lot of attention for calling Millennials “Generation Wuss” and so the response to White was that the former literary brat packer had become an old man yelling at the kids. But he’s really trying to save the kids by bringing them back to a culture of aesthetic appreciation where, yes, you can watch and enjoy Roman Polanski film without concerning yourself with the director’s life, if you so choose.
From my vantage, the Millennials are not really to blame for the emergent anti-speech culture. They were children and toddlers or unborn when “political correctness” became prominent in the 1990s. Around that same time, we were slapping warning labels on popular music and people were threatening to outright censor sexual content on MTV and violent content in video games (after the Legend of Zelda massacres, of course, I kid).
There’s always been a tension between speech and society’s stability (just ask Socrates) but Ellis is refreshingly blunt about the mental illness of adults who allow themselves to be psychologically triggered and disrupted by other people’s opinions and aesthetics.
There’s a lot of art and opinion I don’t like in the world and some of it makes me mad and some of it makes me uncomfortable. Ellis, for example, loved horror movies in his youth while I’ve always hated them and scenes of even absurd horror violence can still worm into my mind and rob my sleep. But I don’t agitate against horror movies. I don’t demand that they aren’t distributed or made available to others, though I surely have every right to do so.
There’s ultimately a difference, and it’s deeper than a legal one, between saying “I don’t like something or somebody,” and saying, “Those things should not exist, those people should not be allowed employment in industries where I can see them.” It’s also funny and telling that our society is highly judgmental over who gets to be an actor, director or writer for a living but that we’re almost entirely unconcerned about who foams our cappuccino. Some of those baristas probably have hair curling opinions.
Ellis fans will also want to read White because there’s a lot of cool detail about the mindset that led to Less Than Zero and the creation of the Ellis-verse that includes all of his books. I was only a little disappointed that Glamorama isn’t mentioned at all.
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.
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.