Free words

On social media, when someone tweets something about someone else without directly referring to them, it is called a sub-tweet. 

Last week, two open letters were written in similar style. One sought to defend the author J K Rowling, who has faced extreme levels of hatred on social media as a result of her views on trans-gender issues; a second letter expressed love and solidarity for that community, which too faces daily abuse.

Both are responses to each other’s positions, but neither acknowledged it. According to Jo Glanville, a former director of English PEN, the “worrying implication in the timing of [the second] statement appears to be that any public support for J K Rowling is perceived to be an attack on the transgender community”. As if on cue, for signing the original letter, the author Amanda Craig was ejected as a judge by Mslexia. Meanwhile, for expressing that she felt uncomfortable sitting on a judging panel with Craig, fellow author Kiran Millwood Hargrave was targeted on Twitter, as was the account of Mslexia. (You will note that so far, no men have been harmed in the course of this discussion.)

Once we would have looked to our free speech organisations to cut through the thicket. But now (like others) their tools are blunted. In a statement issued by English PEN, PEN International and other PEN outposts, the organisations argued that any “discussion of freedom of expression must also be a discussion of power”. It did not reference Rowling, though she was—again—the context. For PEN, an author’s speech must now be weighed and measured before it is defended. Even then, as PEN and others perhaps less reputable warn, freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences.

You might ask what this has to do with the publishing and selling of books? Rowling’s sales have hardly suffered as a result; if she has been “cancelled”, someone forgot to tell readers. There are plenty of authors with what we may regard as queasy politics who continue to sell well.

Yet there is scarcely a more important debate happening within the book business. There is disquiet at the top, and division among the ranks. The arguments touch all bases, from the freedom to transgress, to the rights of the under-represented. Some (authors and booksellers included) feel unprotected by an industry that ought to have their back, but which some say has lost its way.

One wonders, though, if the aggro now is part of what we will call progress later. In 2011, Penguin US released a video with authors saying why “freedom of speech matters to me”. Today it feels like a relic. Back then, these things were drawn in thick lines: the censors were the baddies, far away and not among us; there was no reference to power, or platforms, or appropriation. There will always be “loonies” wanting to ban something they don’t believe in, says one author using a term that now—to the objection of no one—would be excised.

I have a simple take. We need more dialogue, not less; more listening less positioning. An emphasis on the freedom, rather than the consequences.