The War on Free Speech
By Mayke Keller
Cancel culture has become the norm of the literary world. Anonymous social media users, Twitter mobs, and Goodread bloggers have taken upon themselves the authority to cancel everyone and everything they deem as problematic. With success. Books get pulled, works get burned, authors get bullied into leaving social media, while critics get silenced for having opposing opinions. Once the cancelling is done, it’s impossible to redeem yourself. The mob has already moved on to the next topic.
This dark view of cancel culture has the upper hand within the literary scene. It’s described as a form of censorship, limiting the free speech of writing. Authors, critics, and journalists declared a war on cancel culture with an open letter, which appeared in Harper’s October issue. Signed by authors such as J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, the letter claims “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” limit tolerance against “different ideological conformities”. The letter argues against cancelling works in favour of open debate: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence them or wish them away.” It concludes writers need the room for “experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes”. Rushdie goes as far as to say that “left-wing cancel culture” is a threat to “the form of literature”.
The question that arises with this dismissal – cancelling, if you will, of cancel culture – is if cancel culture is necessarily wrong. The discussion of cancel culture, especially within YA-fiction, primarily brings to light its negative sides, focusing on the limits it poses on publishing and the act of writing. However, the discussion forgets the issues lying behind the cancelling. It ignores the problematic concerns that result in cancellation. The ‘why’ of cancel culture is left out.
Cancel culture is, according to the general media, a movement on social media to cancel, this is to say silence and ban, everyone and everything that’s deemed as offensive. Once an author, a critic, or a journalist, publishes something that might be taken the wrong way, cancel culture, supposedly, swoops in and bullies this person off the internet, making sure the work doesn’t get distributed any further. This mostly includes works considered racist, transphobic, sexist, and so forth. I emphasize the supposed nature of this claim, as I don’t believe the consequences of cancel culture are as final as is alleged.
Could it be that cancel culture, when not taken to extremes, is just trying to broaden the literary field, instead of restricting it? It seems that cancel culture tries to expand the literary field by creating space for minority authors who have been oppressed throughout literary history. Just as other literary movements have done since the 1980s, cancel culture is a cry of today’s generation to change the literary climate to become more inclusive.
Cancel culture takes the wrong approach, yes, simply trying to silence everyone and everything they don’t agree with. However, the idea of questioning the literary scene and its values, as well as the boundaries of free speech, as cancel culture does, is at its core, not harming “the form of literature”, as Rushdie puts it.
Social media plays a key role in the development of the concept of cancel culture: it allows a new generation of readers to engage with the literary climate in a way that wasn’t possible before. It opens up a whole new world of critique that we’re still not completely familiar with. Platforms such as Twitter, Goodreads, and Reddit allow users to vocalize their opinions in the easiest and quickest way ever, letting their users claim authority over who and what gets published, by questioning problematic books and authors. But to what extent does this cancelling actually affect the authors and works involved?
Take for example J.K Rowling and her transphobic comments, maybe the most well-known cancel controversy still unfolding. She’s been called out for her transphobic tweets and her “anti-trans manifesto”, an article she wrote voicing her concerns over “the new trans activism”. This resulted in fans of her Harry Potter series burning their books, removing her name, and (most of) the actors involved with the film series speaking out against her. Despite this, you can’t quite say she’s cancelled: her new thriller, published in September 2020, became a bestseller, and her Harry Potter book sales seem largely untainted.
Another example is Kosoko Jackson who withdrew his debut novel A Place For Wolves after social media backlash. Jackson, a black and queer author, wrote a story about two American boys falling in love during the Kosovo war. Despite early praise from literary critics, a Goodreads user “took issue with Jackson’s treatment of the war and his portrayal of Muslims”, which then went viral on other social media platforms, resulting in Jackson withdrawing his novel and apologizing for his mistakes. Just like J.K. Rowling, Jackson remains mostly unaffected by cancel culture: he’s currently working on a new novel and is still very active on social media.
Interestingly enough, Jackson himself has been very vocal in favour of cancel culture. He tweeted that writers should only write from their own experience, not stealing someone else’s voice, “Why is this so hard to get?”, as a response to an author being ‘cancelled’ for the same reason he would later attract controversy. He fell for his own trap, not shying away from also representing characters outside his own experience in A Place For Wolves: one of the protagonists is white, while the villain is Muslim.
It seems to me, both of these authors aren’t really cancelled. They were questioned, ridiculed at times, even hated, but in the end, they overcame their controversies and continue to be active within the literary scene, showing cancel culture isn’t as final and definitive as is claimed. What does cancel culture exactly do then, if it doesn’t actually cancel those involved in controversies?
Sofka Zinovieff, the author of Putney, raises the question if the younger generation’s use of social media makes them “merely more vocal and influential in their criticism”, or if this generation is “actually trying to censor what is being said?” The distinction between these two is blurred by the media’s portrayal of cancel culture: the influence of social media in voicing opinions is automatically seen as trying to censor what’s being discussed, even when this is clearly not the case.
Instead of dismissing cancel culture, Zinovieff sees the same potential I see: a new generation “who draw up society’s moral codes”, following in the footpath of older generations because “after all, the young have always changed language and opinions.”
The downside that’s ascribed to cancel culture is its strategy, trying to erase problematic authors and books from existing, not allowing readers to make up their own minds about it. Judith Butler pointed out, in an interview with NewStatesman, that because of the quickness and abruptness of social media, the room for thoughtful and slow debate, from which one can learn from their mistakes, has disappeared.
The silencing works against the goal cancel culture tries to achieve. Instead of broadening the literary field, it poses strict limits on what writers are allowed to publish. By taking the room for own thought and open debate away, cancel culture hinders the free speech that accompanies writing. Cancel culture sabotages itself: its approach makes it impossible to succeed.
Cancel culture’s fight towards more inclusivity has thus the opposite effect. Publishers are afraid to publish “anything that might attract controversy or negative attention”, Katy Waldman found out when writing for The New Yorker, questioning different editors involved with literary scandals closely tied to cancel culture. She writes that there’s currently a shift from “who traditionally wielded power in publishing” to “a group of unpaid readers” doing most of the literary critiquing, “for better or worse”. Due to the large impact of social media, this group of readers hold a lot more authority over the literary field than actual critics: one negative review going viral is enough to cancel a book’s publication.
In the New York Times, Jennifer Senior likewise points out that cancel culture is pushing literature away from broadening its field: “If Twitter controls publishing, we’ll soon enter a dreary monoculture that admits no book unless it has been prejudged and meets the standards of the censors.” While I agree with both women that cancel culture’s supposed censorship isn’t the way to go, I additionally feel like publishing houses should own up to their own contributing factors in withdrawing novels and representing problematic authors.
Waldman questioned multiple editors about cancel culture and its connection to book sales, addressing the “homogeneity of the publishing world”. Eighty-two percent of editors are white, resulting in the “people who are most qualified to weigh in a text’s treatment of marginalized identities” being “often the least likely to do so”. Waldman additionally found out that most of the advice about both problematic content and the content audiences are hungry for is ignored by “the majority of those who make the editorial and marketing decisions”.
When publishing houses lack the editors to ‘check’ their projects for offensive and questionable representation, as was the case for Jackson’s A Place For Wolves, who is at fault when these shortcomings are pointed out? Is the publishing house, as well as the author, solely a victim of cancel culture? Or are they actually partly to blame themselves, lacking a diverse team that could, most likely, prevent the controversy?
The same questions can be raised when it comes to problematic authors. If there have been multiple issues with an author, is it really a surprise that there’s backlash every time they publish something? And for that matter, is it wrong for others to speak out against these authors and their works?
It seems to me, cancel culture is seen as an exclusively negative threat, precisely because it confronts publishers and writers with their own shortcomings. By simply labelling cancel culture as “left-wing propaganda” and as a new form of censorship, the confrontation with outdated literary values is avoided. Social media users engaging with cancel culture are branded as “overly sensitive snowflakes”, undermining their message for change. The paradoxical nature of this dismissal of cancel culture is that it exactly does what cancel culture is condemned for. A new generation is discredited, simply for disagreeing with older standards, and using new platforms to express themselves.
The questioning and challenging of literary norms aren’t new. There have always been debates surrounding the limits of free speech and the positions of authors in relation to their books. Cancel culture raises the questions that have always been raised, the only difference being the immediate consequences for not obeying the current moral standards, due to social media. Everything is read and reacted to from the moment it’s published, and since everything is connected through the internet, reactions move fast.
Instead of dismissing social media’s cancel culture, however, we should open up space in the literary field to let social media in, and change literature for the better. Cancel culture is continuing an age-old debate on literature’s inclusivity and should be taken seriously. It should get the opportunity to nuance itself, change itself, and learn from its current mistakes; just as authors should be allowed to do. Only when there’s a mutual influence between the literary field and social media’s cancel culture can the room for freedom of thought and open debate be brought back.
Mayke Keller finished her BA in Film and Literary Studies and is currently pursuing the Literature Today MA in Utrecht. Within the literary scene, she’s mostly interested in Irish poetry and focuses her attention on feminism, gender studies, and postcolonialism. On behalf of RevUU she also works in PR team.
Author image by Lee Russell
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harper’s Magazine, 7 Jul. 2020. https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate/. Accessed 26 Sep. 2020.
“Author Salmon Rushdie warns that Left-wing ‘cancel culture’ is a threat to literature and freedom of speech.” DailyMail, 4 Aug. 2020. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8593441/Salman-Rushdie-warns-Left-wing-cancel-culture-threat-literature-freedom-speech.html.
Ferber, Alona. “Judith Butler on the culture wars, JK Rowling and living in ‘anti-intellectual times.’” NewStatesman, 22 Sep. 2020. https://www.newstatesman.com/international/2020/09/judith-butler-culture-wars-jk-rowling-and-living-anti-intellectual-times.
Gardner, Abby. “A Complete Breakdown of the J.K. Rowling Transgender-Comments Controversy.” Glamour, 15 Sept. 2020. https://www.glamour.com/story/a-complete-breakdown-of-the-jk-rowling-transgender-comments-controversy.
Senior, Jennifer. “Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture.” The New York Times, 8 Mar. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/opinion/teen-fiction-and-the-perils-of-cancel-culture.html.
Waldman, Katy. “In Y.A., Where Is the Line Between Criticism and Cancel Culture?” The New Yorker, 21 Mar. 2019. https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/in-ya-where-is-the-line-between-criticism-and-cancel-culture.
Zinovieff, Sofka. “Are millenials really driving ‘cancel culture’ – or is it their overcautious critics?” The Guardian, 10 Jul. 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/10/millennials-censorship-putney-sofka-zinovieff-lolita.