Stuck in the middle with you

One of the more uncomfortable aspects of last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair was the confrontation between publishers from the right of politics and protestors on the left. If book fairs are about the exchange of ideas, it was hard to see how the optics could have looked worse.

Yet Frankfurt was not alone: just a few weeks earlier the Gothenburg Book Fair faced boycotts from authors and publishers over its decision to allow anti-immigrant newspaper Nya Tider into that year’s event. So what’s going on?

Frankfurt’s problems were prompted by the appearance of the alt-right publisher Antaios, whose book The End of Germany has been a surprise bestseller in that country. It remains on sale today, despite being described as “anti-semitic and historically revisionist”, and banned from the German newspaper Der Spiegel’s bestseller charts.

As this week’s Lead Story details, both fairs have faced pressure to block the publishers from coming back this year: it is a sign of how complex the arguments are that the two fairs have adopted different approaches. Gothenburg says no pasarán, Frankfurt will hold its nose.

Gothenburg’s answer is in fact a pragmatic one: without the support of its community of writers and publishers, it faced extinction. Frankfurt’s attitude was more of an abdication: “We have to include these exhibitors whether we want them there or not,” fair director Jürgen Boos says.

Neither response is entirely satisfactory. But that may be because for publishers and advocates of free expression, there is no satisfactory response. Publishers by their very nature are pro-free speech—without it we perish. As Simon & Schuster’s chief executive Carolyn Reidy argued at last year’s Frankfurt, publishers must show a commitment to publishing across the spectrum, even when there are loud and legitimate objections (as there were when S&S bought a book by Milo Yiannopoulos). In short, as Voltaire did not say, we can be uncomfortable in what we publish, but still defend the right to publish it.

Yet the lessons from history tell us what can happen when arguments from the extremes are allowed to grow, or are left unchallenged. Trump is empowered by the unmediated platform he has long been given on Twitter. Publishers, by contrast, are not platforms: their lists are curated, as they should be, by editors who are free to make good and bad decisions. Indeed, the internet has made saying “no” easier: Reidy may have found her line in the sand with Yiannopoulos’ comments about paedophilia, but his book still found its way onto the market.

This will not get easier: as the disgraceful attack on socialist bookshop Bookmarks showed, the right is emboldened, while what journalist Nick Cohen describes as the regressive left is rallying behind Jeremy Corbyn, whose attack this week on the press was drawn from the Trump playbook.

Frankfurt and Gothenburg are to push an inclusive agenda at their respective events, and this is undoubtedly a smart response. We counter intolerance with tolerance, jingoism with openness, hatred with empathy, ignorance with books.