(Originally published in Write On! magazine, issue 8 as The Big Debate)
By Mollie Hogg
Whether aspiring or experienced, we writers want our work to reach as many people as possible. For most of us, an important sign of success is also whether we make our mark on the world. Secretly, we all want our writing to shake the foundations of society in some way! In this feature, I want to explore the role of publishers in this and how it’s possible for them to reconcile the need to grab attention with publishing responsibly.
When I first looked at this question, I found myself going round in circles. I thought of the Brontë sisters, who used male pseudonyms when first published; forced into denying their identity because the negative gender stereotypes of the time were so entrenched. Of course, it’s easy to look back and criticise the prejudices against women in this society; prejudices that made it almost impossible to publish a woman writer without courting controversy. Still, though, this train of thought made me angry. Why should women need to publish under male names? Publishers should have published these wonderful authors under their own name, regardless of public opinion. So this was very much a ‘publish and be damned’ moment for me!
A slightly less black and white example is that of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. He received critical acclaim; becoming a Booker Prize finalist, and winning the Whitbread Award. Despite this, though, Rushdie was accused of blasphemy and even banned in India due to ‘hate speech’ towards Muslims. He shocked and upset many people, and yet, this novel is still seen as a seminal piece of writing.
However, a documentary aired at the beginning of March, made me see the other side of the debate more clearly. It featured Max Clifford’s autobiography, Read All About It, published in 2006. Containing purposely controversial subject matter, it was designed to rake in mega-bucks. In The Fall Of A Tabloid King, Channel 4 shared more details about this powerful publicist to the stars, jailed in 2014 for historic sex crimes. The documentary sees the survivors of his abuse telling their stories. Angela Levin, who co-wrote Clifford’s autobiography, talked of their intimate interviews, commenting on how Clifford spoke of experiences that were degrading and sexist towards women. I haven’t read the book, so can only go by the documentary, but in the light of the vile nature of some of these stories, I was shocked that Levin didn’t made a stand at the time and was still prepared to put her name to the book.
There has always been an uneasy relationship between censorship and controversy. Indeed, at the moment, many of the best-known names in tech are being asked to consider issues around free speech and mass-market reach. As established sources, book publishers control how many of us consume ‘formal’ information. The Max Clifford example shows that making money is a primary objective. However, if part of the agenda is to manipulate an ideology to sell more still, that is even more worrying. It’s always worth remembering that, what might be regarded as liberal and progressive on the one hand, might be seen as having a negative impact on the other.
These days in the UK, a book burning would be unlikely, but is allowing censorship on authors who, in the future, might be seen as forward-thinking, the modern-day equivalent? Is it right to allow publishers to conceal ‘different’ pieces of work from us, just because we might be ignorant or scared of their impact?
Courting controversy through publication – which, in our modern era, is what freedom of speech seems to bring with it – can easily slide into something darker and more sinister. That frightens me as, unlike the digital sphere, with unverified sources and often fake news, published books are trusted sources of information.
As with anything in life, balance is essential. Although an author’s character or background should not determine whether they are published, in our modern world of diversity and empowerment, publishers should take a stand where required, but only if they’re truly prepared to stand by decisions, fully engaging with their readership. They may, for example, consider sharing their corporate perspective around controversial matters (i.e., what they, as an organisation, believe in), along with a brief explanation of what the content involves. The dynamic between author and publisher is essential, but so is the trust of the reading public. With a few more checks and balances in place, the reader will more easily be able to interpret work from their own (more informed) perspective.
Ultimately, books are precious. It must also be acknowledged that these sources of weird and wonderful information and entertainment need a solid financial base to enable them to fly on and off the shelves. Most publishing income comes from mass-market bestsellers, including memoirs and opinions, many of which will court controversy. But some may open our eyes as well, moving us beyond those digital echo chambers we’ve become accustomed to. So, publish and be damned by all means. But find a way to link the freedom to write to frameworks that help us make sense of an increasingly challenging world, both as readers and writers.
Connect with Mollie on Instagram: @molliehoggwriting
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What might be regarded as liberal and progressive on the one hand, might be seen as having a negative impact on the other.