Last month, Young Adult writer Kosoko Jackson asked his US publisher to withdraw his début novel, A Place for Wolves, from publication due to its "historical insensitivities"; in January, fellow YA writer Amélie Wen Zhao pulled her novel Blood Heir after concerns were raised around "representation" in its depiction of human- trafficking. In November, US publisher Abrams cancelled a graphic novel titled A Suicide Bomber Sits in the Library, after the Asian Author Alliance described the book as "steeped in Islamophobia and profound ignorance".
I could go on. Barely two weeks ago, Little, Brown US put out a statement about its upcoming publication of The Cape Doctor by E J Levy, after writers—some of whom called for the book to be pulped—objected to Levy’s description of 19th-century surgeon James Barry as a "she/her". Born a woman, Barry lived as a man until his death in 1865. Little, Brown US publisher Reagan Arthur said it would work with Levy to ensure the use of the "proper prounouns". It is not yet clear how it will adjudicate, but the matter is surely complicated by the fact that Levy's book, as Arthur testily points out, is a work of fiction.
The book trade has a long history of facing down the censor, especially when it comes from on high. But today the urge to repress flows from many directions. It is 30 years since Ayatollah Khomeini called for the killing of Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses, and yet following last week’s BBC documentary about the subject, the Independent’s associate editor, Sean O’Grady, wrote that: "Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation... I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact." He is not alone in the view that an author who oversteps the mark should see their book taken down. In a brilliant essay in the TLS to mark the anniversary of the fatwah, Hanif Kureishi writes of the "weak and guilty liberals" who talked back then of applying "a modicum of censorship to our own work". What other censorships would they end up favouring? asks the author. Novels, he adds, "don’t themselves tyrannise over us". Tell that to Jackson and Zhao who wrote of the "hurt" and "harm" their unpublished fiction had caused to readers, a view echoed by Jackson’s agent.
Perhaps I am wrong to conflate the Rushdie affair with these later books. In their use of sensitivity readers, publishers have signalled that they do not wish to offend marginalised and under-represented groups, and it is hard to see how Abrams’ A Suicide Bomber... sits well within the context of a sector that has largely not given diverse writers the opportunities to tell their own stories.
This week’s news that UK sales of translated fiction grew by 5.5% last year, and the selection of gender-fluid novelist Akwaeke Emezi among this year’s Women’s Prize crop, show that as a sector we do better being open, and open to challenge. We do not counter censorship through the censoring of criticism, however vigorously it manifests. But we cannot expect writers and publishers to go about their day to day without stepping on a few toes—we cannot publish well without risk, and sometimes with books that some readers may find offensive.