The UK does not maintain a list of banned books. There is no official censor with a list of illegal publications. However, as George Orwell wrote at the end of the Second World War, the "sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary".
Increasingly booksellers, already under assault on many fronts, are becoming the target of more and more censorious attention. Where once demands for books to be removed from the public’s hands were due to fears of sedition, subsequently obscenity, today’s reason is "offence". The chance that someone will be offended by a book’s content—or worse, the author’s own behaviour—has become almost commonplace. While publishers and their authors may rise above such criticism, booksellers are all too often on the frontline.
A disaffected customer who decries the sale of a title they disagree with is neither new nor unique. It is something booksellers have always had to contend with. However, there is a broader censorious nature to these calls from those regarded as the "left", which is more unusual, where the right not to be offended is seen as more important than free speech. This is a new and troublesome trend which has a potentially more dangerous outcome for both booksellers and society.
Booksellers were once described as "des hommes doubles" by Christophe Charle, as "experts who participate in both highbrow and popular culture, who build bridges between producers and consumers of cultural goods while acting as critics and filters". Following the birth of the internet, the role of the bookseller may have changed from purely curating a selection of titles in a limited amount of space to, often, making millions of titles available online, however they still offer an important gateway to culture and information.
The new censorship
There have always been contentious books, there have always been offensive books, in fact, and a great number of those books were offensive to a particular age and society. We can mark significant cultural changes with the liberalisation of views on what may corrupt the (ever growing) reading public. Whether specific titles, for example D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, or the more general disapprobation afforded to penny dreadfuls or other mass-market literature, books have often drawn the attention of those who are distrustful of the reading public.
Now there is a more general shift towards feeling uncertain about whether all ideas can be heard. A Harris poll in the US found that in 2011, 18% of those surveyed wanted some books banned; in 2015, 28% agreed with the assertion. An earlier (2007) poll found 64% of the British public supported the right to "not be exposed to offensive views", surpassing the support for people’s "right to say what they think" (54%).
In more recent years, there has been a trend towards a slightly different narrative. This new censorship is often draped in apparently more reasonable arguments for restriction, for example when the associate editor of the Independent, Sean O’Grady, wrote a piece reflecting on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses that reads: "Rushdie’s silly, childish book should be banned under today’s anti-hate legislation. It’s no better than racist graffiti on a bus stop. I wouldn’t have it in my house, out of respect to Muslim people and contempt for Rushdie, and because it sounds quite boring. I’d be quite inclined to burn it, in fact. It’s a free country, after all."
In March 2018 the anti-far-right pressure group Hope Not Hate produced a list of books, highlighted for being racist or proselytising for the right, which were available on a number of booksellers’ websites. It specifically targeted Amazon, Waterstones, W H Smith and Foyles. It demanded all these titles were withdrawn from sale immediately, and that by just making them available these booksellers were somehow endorsing, or legitimising, their content. Its claims of "huge quantities of extreme hate content being sold by the major booksellers", conflated the availability of titles with their sale. Attempting to make this point at the time, then Foyles chief executive Paul Currie offered to donate the profits from the books sold from the list over the past three years to charity, a princely sum of £35.67.
Yet the idea that an anti-fascist group should campaign for books to, not be banned as such, but to be put out of reach of the general population, is a striking one; one which could be seen as both endowing these particular titles with a power which they do not have (in addition to preparing a handy reading list for any would-be fascist) and a more general malaise, whereby anti-fascism is indiscernible from fascism itself when it comes to restricting books. The history of attempting to censor those on the right has tended to backfire. As academic and scientist Kenan Malik has said: "Anti-racists in particular should be wary of such bans. Censorious laws that some applaud when applied to the far right inevitably get turned on to the left and anti-racists."
This liberal urge to protect through censorship and distrust of the public’s ability to make informed decisions, and the pursuit of booksellers as gatekeepers, has not limited itself to restricting the far right. As some booksellers did indeed capitulate to these requests to remove titles, then additional books were added to these lists, and other campaigners joined in calls to remove "objectionable titles". These included anti-vaccination books, animal testing titles, bomb-making (quite broad if extended into science titles), religious books, and those condemning homosexuality etc.
Unless a book is actually illegal, then for most booksellers it has generally been seen as a sensible position to not withdraw a title from sale, as something is always offensive to someone. Inevitably, giving an inch on this effectively opens the door to correlating reading a book with committing a heinous deed of some sort.
Thomas Joy, a past president of the Booksellers Association, described the dilemma in his 1964 book The Truth About Bookselling: "Once a bookseller refuses to stock or to order a book just because it might possibly offend someone, he can hardly run a sound business. Political books, religious books, biographies, art books, to say nothing of the modern novel and many classics of literature, can bring down on the poor bookseller’s head the wrath of a biased or bigoted customer. Throughout the ages, writers and purveyors of books have been persecuted and there are always those who would censor books without the full appreciation of the consequences to mankind."
Publishers are concerned about public opinion. Booksellers are too, as we need to sell the books we trade. However, if this leads to the avoidance of contentious books, or books which people may find offensive not being given a chance, however well-written they are, then society is poorer for it. Protecting the public from offence, and taking a dim view of their intellectual capabilities to appreciate and understand nonsense from reason, is also a recurring theme.
Liberals today are much concerned for people being easily swayed by bigotry and narrow-minded ideas. Bookshops have not been immune to the growth of identity politics. Shops may now be judged on how many sections they have given over to particular identities, or how representative of a particular gender or culture the books are that are featured on a display table. Even literary prizes as respected as the Booker Prize are seen through the lens of how many women are on the shortlist—the 2019 prize being celebrated for having "no white men at all".
Successful bookshops can not be tokenistic representations of how identity should be represented to this, or that, person. Rather, they are successful only because they
are integral and representative of their local community. They choose the books which engage, amuse, inform, inspire and ignite debate—and, of course, books that sell. Otherwise we could just follow some sort of national quota list and scale out accordingly. If the urge for inclusiveness is one whereby we have more quality books and more readers, then this is of course positive. If it leads to more fear of offence and limitation of which books can be written or stocked or sold, then this will be positive for no one.
Even with the new mechanical booksellers of online cataloguing and infinite range, there is still, I would argue, a necessity to show everything, because as soon as books are filtered by offence then our access to freedom of thought and expression also becomes filtered.
Although booksellers often decry the number of books published each year, we decry the declining number of readers more so. Bookselling thrives on a healthy culture of reading and of a true battle of ideas, not one where there is a right not to be offended, and where people have lost so much of their intellectual autonomy that they need protecting from potentially offensive books.