Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico: Welcome back to So to Speak: The Free Speech Podcast where every other week, we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am as always, your host, Nico Perrino. So, today’s conversation is one I’ve been wanting to have for quite some time. As regular listeners to this show will know, I’m somewhat concerned about censorial trends in the book publishing world, things like the rise of so-called sensitivity readers and demands, sometimes successful, more often not, thankfully, that publishers not publish or stop publishing books.
There are also the adjacent debates about things like whether someone who is one demographic group should be able to write about people in another demographic group. And then, there’s this idea of representation versus endorsement, the question being can we write about the messy stuff in life, indeed humanize the people who do bad things without endorsing the bad things they do. I decided to finally pull the trigger on this conversation after hearing that Vesper Stamper, an author and illustrator of young-adult novels was game to chat about it.
She has a new book coming out next week titled Berliners, which is about a rivalry between two brothers living on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall during the Berlin Wall’s construction in the 1960s. And so, when I heard from Vesper and her publicist, I thought this is perfect. She’s a YA author and illustrator. And when I was first hearing about some of these trends in publishing, it was in the context of young-adult books. That was in 2017 I believe, when our other guest on today’s show, Kat Rosenfield published an essay in Vulture entitled “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter.” I’ve got it up here for our viewing audience with my notes scribbled in the margins.
Kat is an author herself, most recently of the book, No One Will Miss Her, 2021 thriller, murder mystery novel that takes place in rural Maine. Kat, Vesper, welcome onto the show.
Vesper Stamper: Thanks for having us.
Kat Rosenfield: Thanks very much.
Nico: So, I heard through the grapevine that you two actually know each other, or are maybe friends, or something. I swear before I invited you on the show, I had no idea that you knew each other, but it’s a small world, I guess.
Vesper: Yeah, we’ve been chatting for a bit.
Nico: So, I wanna start with you, Kat, and your 2017 piece, “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter.” What got you interested in what was happening in the publishing world, and in particular on Twitter related to YA novels?
Kat: Well, like that Hair Club for Men thing, I wasn’t just interested in YA Twitter, I was also a client. I was also a YA author. I was in that community. And so, I observed, a to me, very interesting dynamic starting to take hold within YA starting really around 2014 but becoming much more potent and much more acrimonious moving into 2016. The election of Donald Trump really did a number on young-adult fiction writers along with, I guess basically everybody else in left leaning spaces. And I started to observe that there were these calls for basically censorship coming from inside the house.
You had adult authors, and in some cases adult influencers starting to really come down hard on books that they believed were problematic, which is code for books that offended progressive pieties in some way. And they would kind of whip up these mobs against authors whose work they found objectionable. There would be petitions to get the work cancelled or to have it forcibly edited. And I was just sort of, I mean, discouraged by this as an author of young-adult fiction, but as a journalist, which I also was at the time. I was sort of fascinated by it.
And as I watched one of these cancellation campaigns unfolding, I got especially interested in covering it kind of holistically, digging into what happens when somebody decides to go after a book before it’s been published. And so, I ended up writing for Vulture, unpacking sort of as a case study, this campaign against a book called The Black Witch, during which I talked to people on both sides of the argument to try to understand what was fueling these campaigns and where the conversation was going to go.
Nico: Now, The Black Witch, it’s kind of an interesting case study because it’s a book, ostensibly an antiracist book that talks about the stratifications of different people in society and why prejudice is wrong. And then, the author, Laurie Forest was accused of perpetuating those very prejudices or whitewashing them, I guess in the book herself. So, it’s odd that this would be the subject of one of those campaigns, or is it not?
Kat: It’s not, really. There’s so much that goes into one of these campaigns or that did because the shape of things has changed somewhat over the past five years, but at the time, it was really a miasma of professional jealousy and opportunism, who was gone after. The sort of the status of the author in question was very important. It tended to focus on debut authors who didn’t already have an audience and didn’t really have a backing, people who would stand up for them in the community, or readers who already liked their books.
And then, as far as the actual content of the book, it just didn’t really matter that much. It was more about could this be spun in some way to be problematic. So, in the case of Laurie Forest’s book, even though this was, yes, very much an antibigotry book, and the story focuses on this girl named Elloren who starts out as a member of the sort of privileged oppressor class, and then comes to understand her place in society and eventually join the revolution on behalf of the oppressed, because of she was seen as a stand in for a White girl basically, that was seen as problematic. She was given a redemption arc.
And there was this kind of – it was even hash tagged at the time, at the time, no redemption arcs for racists. And then, there was also the fact that her learning came, “at the expense of marginalized people.” Now, the fact that the marginalized people in question were fictional and also werewolves and fairies did not matter to anybody. This kind of gives you just a snapshot of the quality of the dialogues surrounding these books and how sort of unhinged from the get-go it could be when it came time to try to take somebody down.
Nico: Let’s take a step back here. And Kat, if you wouldn’t mind moving your collar a little bit, I think it’s rubbing against the microphone.
Kat: Oh, dang. Sorry about that.
Nico: It happens. Sometimes, I just let the guest keep going throughout the entire podcast, and then I spend the whole night awake like why didn’t I just mention that the microphone was rubbing the collar? But Vesper, I wanna take a step back and talk about what young-adult fiction is. When I think about – and I guess it’s called YA for short within the community. When I think about young-adult fiction, I’m thinking of The Hatchet, which I read when I was in middle school, or the Harry Potter books. Is that right, and is it mostly read by young-adults? And why are all these young-adults spending so much time on Twitter?
Vesper: So, I think that Kat would definitely have more of her finger on the pulse of what YA is. I actually come to writing as a whole pretty late. I’ve been an illustrator for almost 25 years now, which I can’t really believe, but I came to writing about 10 years ago. And it really found me. It wasn’t something that I was looking to do or was interested in doing, maybe partly because I was already in the kid lit community as a illustrator. I sorta had a context for it, but I kind of fell into writing YA very much by accident. And so, there’s been a lot of learning on the job in terms of what this atmosphere really is and what this community really is.
And I still am not sure that I really understand, but I can only speak for myself that I’m writing with teenagers in mind, but I’m also aware that roughly half my audience are adults. So, I have very much the concerns of first of all, a mother of teenagers. What are the kinds of books that I want my kids to have? What are the kinds of books that my kids are asking me for? But having a lot of ethical considerations in mind as I’m writing as well because I’m very much aware that I’m writing for other people’s children that I don’t have to raise. So, I don’t wanna add to the mess, but I want to open up worlds.
I wanna offer tools of navigation to kids that are coming of age. So, these are all things that are on front of mind for me.
Nico: So, is the demographic teenagers and maybe people in their early 20s? Because Kat, when I was reading your piece, one of the people who was leading the campaign against The Black Witch was named Shauna Sinyard, and she was a blogger who writes primarily about YA and was a bookstore employee. So, presumably, she was a bit older. And it sounds like, if I’m remembering your piece correctly, a lot of the people who participate in the discussions surrounding this literature are also older.
Kat: Yeah, that’s actually very essential to what makes it so bonkers in a lot of ways is that this is not being driven by young-adult readers. And in many cases, it’s not even being driven by young-adults at all. It’s being driven by not so young, even middle aged adults, which is the ones that are in the community who are writing the books, who have reasons well beyond altruistic concern for young readers to want to kick certain authors off the playing field.
Nico: So, was it professional jealousy then or is it virtue signaling? What is it that is – are leading these campaigns? Because the subhead to your article is, “Young-adult books are books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggins, pile ons, sometimes before anybody’s even read them.” And this is kinda prescient of the sort of callout cancel culture that has captured the popular imagination in recent years. What’s driving it?
Kat: Well, when it comes to YA, I think that you’re right that this has emerged into the mainstream. And the reason why it showed up in YA first is that young-adult content tends to be kind of an early Petrie dish for incubating moral panics. If you can kind of talk about harm being done to some hypothetical vulnerable young person who’s gonna read the wrong book or play the wrong video game and be harmed in some way, it’s very easy to whip up a lot of fear and outrage from there and allow it to kinda come down the pike into the mainstream culture.
And I think that’s why this was happening there so much earlier than it was happening more broadly in young – sorry, in adult fiction and in genre fiction, which it’s now started to bleed into.
Nico: So, Vesper, you got a book coming out next week, Berliners. What’s the process of getting a book published right now, especially a young-adult book? Has any of the concerns that have led to the stuff that Kat was writing about come through the publishing process, at least from the author’s vantage point at this point? And we’ve got Kat’s dog there saying hello. Are you having sensitivity readers, or are you reading your own manuscript looking for any potential word, or phrase, or sentence that could be taken out of context and result in some of these draggings, or pile ons, or demands that your book be censored, or not publish, or what have you?
I mean, what’s the process like now? Because I’ve worked with my boss, Greg Lukianoff on a number of books. He’s written three over the past decade. And some of these conversations weren’t present early on with some of his earlier books, but I recall that with his latest book, Coddling of the American Mind, there was very much a conscious effort to have it read from some of the potential critic’s points of view, which isn’t always a bad thing, but I think it becomes a bad thing if that criticism and how it’s addressed isn’t the author’s decision, which I think is some of the consequences of the sort of trends that we’re discussing in the Twitter space.
Vesper: I wanna come at this from a back door of something that you just said. So, the process of me writing my first novel, I wrote it in grad school. And I happened to start grad school in 2014, which is the year that Greg and Jonathan Haidt talk about this big sea change coming in education. And I got my illustration degree back in the late ‘90s. And I’m a native New Yorker. I’ve gone to art school my whole life. This should have been my safest environment where I knew the ropes. And I found that I was being blindsided constantly by younger students who were very interested in censorship.
And as an artist coming of age in the ‘90s, this was anathema to me. We went through the whole Newt Gingrich, and moral majority, and all of that stuff. And in one of my writing classes, I remember we had to write a piece on censorship of some campaign that was going on, on the public buses in New York. And I was really shocked that some of my classmates were literally calling for curtailments on the First Amendment. And they wanted a Canadian style censorship model. And I just, I couldn’t even believe it.
And it became really apparent to me, I would say within the first three week of being in grad school, that if I made a false move or if I kind of operated in my sort of freewheeling, groovy artist ‘90s way, there was a distinct possibility that my own classmates would call for me to be expelled from the program. I felt this pressure. It was an unspoken thing, but it was definitely present. I don’t think the faculty would have gone for it, but I think there was buzzing about in the studio that was kind of like that. So, into that environment, I wrote my first book, which is about the Holocaust.
And it was purely a passion project, a personal thing that I wanted to do. And I was kind of naively walking into this thing thinking that it was all about the literature. And so, I had a very good experience writing that book. It got picked up by Knopf right away. I had –
Nico: What was the name of the book?
Vesper: What the Night Sings, and the book did very well. And in terms of sensitivity readers, I come from a Jewish background, and my editor was an Orthodox Jewish woman. And so, she told me that she was basically acting as my sensitivity reader. I mean, obviously when you’re writing about something as sensitive as the Holocaust, you wanna make sure that you’re speaking about it responsibly, and that you know the history, and your facts are proper, and that there are a lot of ethical considerations just in terms of representing the history, and the story, and the characters that you’re telling.
So, that was a very good experience. And then, my second novel, also great. It came out during the pandemic, which had its own issues, but I remember I had my first review in which the skin color of my characters was discussed. And it had to do with my illustrations. And I forget who the reviewer was, but they said, “Stamper depicts the main character’s skin as the white of the page,” which is interesting to call out in a book about 14th century England, but also to me, I, knowing about the different ethnicities within England even at that time, I was actually depicting a character of mixed heritage. So, it was interesting, to have these kind of gatekeepers.
Nico: Well, when you say gatekeepers there, did you just find it odd that they were calling that out, or did they call it out with any sort of implied criticism?
Vesper: They called it out as this very kind of matter-of-fact thing, but it was odd coming after a very positive review that just kind of ended bluntly in this statement. That was the last sentence of the review. And I just remember thinking, first of all in the illustrations, it was completely a design choice to leave the skin as the white of the page. I mean, I was working in black and white. But to me, it felt like it was a gut punch in the world of the book that I was creating.
Kat: I just wanted to interject something, when you were talking about how you weren’t sure which outlet this was. I would bet that it was Kirkus, and I would bet that this was the result of this policy that they implemented briefly. Although, I’m not sure if they’re doing it anymore, but they were. Very explicitly in every young-adult fiction review, an editorial policy to mention the races of the characters. And if the races of the characters weren’t mentioned, to assume usually that they were White, and they often did this erroneously.
And I’m not sure if maybe they’ve stepped back from that because they did it so many times that it became embarrassing for them, but it really became the lens through which reviewers at that publication at least were expected to engage with young-adult literature.
Nico: Why does it matter? I mean –
Nico: – race matters, obviously, but why would you have a policy of mentioning the race of the characters?
Vesper: Do you think it has to do, Kat, with school and library, maybe with librarians and educators trying to choose, to diversify their lists in their classrooms?
Kat: It’s entirely possibly that that’s the reason why. And amid a quest to – sorry, I’ve got a cat agitating on my lap. Buddy, will you please –
Nico: No, it’s all right. We invited a third guest. Doesn’t speak, but –
Vesper: Kat and cat.
Nico: – very much present.
Kat: He’s been making a lot of noise, but hopefully it’s not picking up in the microphone. Now I’ve lost my train of thought. What were we talking about?
Nico: Well, we were talking about how Kirkus is including a discussion of race.
Kat: Oh, right. So, maybe this was a question of helping librarians who wanted to diversify their collections, to do that more easily, but in execution, what it really turned into was what felt like this sort of explicit targeting of books as featuring White characters, and hence being bad, morally bad.
Vesper: That’s how it felt, yeah. And my question was, well, what the heck am I supposed to do? I’m writing about the Middle Ages. Would you like me to talk about how the Phoenicians were trading tin 3,000 or 4,000 years ago in Britain? I mean, I could write that book too, but that’s not the purview of this book.
Nico: Well, Kat, you talk in your piece about some of the criticism that Laurie Forest got for being a White author talking about bigotry and prejudice. And you see this broader discussion about content creators, whether they’re filmmakers or authors writing about the experiences of others. And it could be another sex, another race, another religion, and getting criticism for doing so. The idea being that the stories should be told by people who are members of the group. But then, you also, it feels like, get this criticism on the other side, where if you don’t do that, then you’re not fully representing America or the world.
So, it’s like you can’t win, if feels like.
Kat: That does seem to be the case, doesn’t it? You’re damned, irrespective of what you do. And it’s interesting that Laurie Forest came under fire because I mean, if we’re following these rules to their logical conclusion, then the only person who could write a story about a White or a White coded person, realizing their privilege in society, and confronting that, and then becoming a better person would be a White person. But the thing about these rules is that they’re sort of applied indiscriminately and inconsistently so that whatever it is that the group in question or usually the individual in question is – whatever you’re trying to get them to do or not do, that’s how the rules work.
It’s all very kind of [inaudible] [00:22:03].
Nico: My boss, Greg likes to call it the perfect rhetorical fortress where it’s like you can never actually make an argument because there’s always an argument for why you can’t make the argument that’s usually ad hominin. But Kat, in your piece, you talk about how a lot of these efforts to get these books or prevent these books from being published are unsuccessful. This is 2017. We’ve bandied around the word censorship, which can be used colloquially to discuss private actors making efforts to have some sort of speech or expression not presented to a wider audience if it otherwise would be.
A lot has changed since 2017. And I’ve seen reports since then of things, of books successfully being dropped. Simon and Schuster drops Milo Yiannopoulos. There’s the whole Woody Allen debacle. I mean, all these people have histories of course, but then there’s also Random House not publishing a compilation of Norman Mailer’s essays based reportedly on a junior staffer’s objection to the title of a Mailer essay from 1957 titled, “The White Negro.” So, you see it not within the YA context, but has it started to actually have an effect in YA? I was struck by how the publishers in the YA context in 2017 in your piece just told their authors to keep their heads down.
That was kind of the counter com strategy is to just ignore it. What happens on Twitter is separate from what happens in the real world. You hear that phrase often bandied about, Twitter isn’t the real world. So, I mean, when I talk about this being a concern of mine, it’s based on isolated anecdotes. It’s based on essays like your piece, which at the conclusion suggests that there’s pushback and that there’s nothing happening. So, are there things happening now?
Kat: Oh, God.
Nico: Where do we stand?
Kat: I regret to inform you that the hopeful note on which that essay ended in 2017 did not really pan out. Things have changed. And I’ve actually – I was recently looking into this subject again for another piece that I was working on. And what I found was that whereas these campaigns used to take the form of public mobbings instigated very shortly before publication, so at a point at which it was too late to change the story, by one person who may have read the book but who had an ax to grind who then whipped up a whole bunch of people who hadn’t read the book into a frenzy for cancellation. Now these campaigns have moved inside the publishing houses.
Publishers have become concerned about this. They are taking steps during the process of the acquisition of manuscripts and the editing of manuscripts to try to mitigate angry reactions on Twitter. They’re not being necessarily all that successful at this. There is still, you’ll see –
Nico: What do they do? What do they do to sort of mitigate it?
Kat: So, in some cases it’s become institutionalized in the form of things like sensitivity reads, but there’s also sort of an informal but very visible to people in this world, especially to authors, kind of culture now surrounding what is being published, what authors and agents are looking for.
So, for as many people as you have already going through the editorial process and having their work – I was about to say gutted, let’s say adjusted – adjusted by sensitivity readers, you have many more who are observing the landscape, who are observing that authors and – sorry, editors and agents are basically calling explicitly for books by marginalized people or books that center marginalized communities, which of course, you’re only allowed to write if you’re a marginalized person.
And they’re either not getting through the door because editors and agents are selecting for diversity amongst authors and diversity in content in a way that doesn’t allow those books to be published, or they’re observing the landscape and deciding that it’s just not worth trying at all because they don’t think that they have a shot. Whether that’s correct or not, it’s definitely having an impact upon what’s being submitted and what’s being published.
Nico: Well, do the sensitivity readers, can they call the shots on a book or on a manuscript? I mean –
Kat: It depends. So, I have heard – unfortunately, I’ve not been able to get the folks about who these stories focused on – sorry. We’ve got a cat issue here again. I’m trying to keep him from showing his behind to the camera because that would be repulsive. So, I haven’t been able to get these people to speak to me directly, but I have heard secondhand about authors whose books were cancelled because a, excuse me, sensitivity reader, it’s a difficult phrase to say, took offense to the content of their book and decided it was unsalvageable.
And of course, authors who have this happen to them aren’t likely to speak up in public because to do so is akin to admitting that your book was too racist or sexist to see the light of day. And nobody really wants that stain on them, even tangentially.
Nico: I sometimes wonder if sensitivity readers were in place in the late ‘80s when Salman Rushdie sought to publish The Satanic Verses, whether the book would have ever gotten published in the first place, the idea being obviously that certain communities as we have learned would be offended by it. And the publishing house wouldn’t have come to Rushdie’s defense. I think it’s probably likely that they wouldn’t.
Vesper: I wanna just say a note on Salman Rushdie’s behalf if I may.
Nico: Of course, please.
Vesper: That I recently, after he was stabbed, he’s somebody who I’ve followed for a long time, his story, even though I hadn’t read his work. So, I decided to go and start reading The Satanic Verses just out of curiosity. And I haven’t had a more thrilling and pleasurable reading experience in many years. After the first session of sitting down with that book, I literally felt high. It was so amazing to have an artistic experience like that in literature. It was just amazing. So –
Nico: So, you liked the magical realism that he writes with.
Vesper: It was –
Nico: See, I tried to read, what was his – Midnight’s Children. I just couldn’t do it, but that sort of writing always messes with my brain. I know people love it, and you love it, but it’s like watching a Wes Anderson film for me. It’s just too weird. It just breaks my psyche. I can’t do it.
Vesper: I mean, look. I come to writing as a reader, I guess as everybody does, but I think that all of this begs the question – I don’t wanna derail the conversation because I still wanna talk about sensitivity readers too, but the question is what is literature, and what is it for? What is art, and what is it for? And I don’t subscribe to the concept of literature that it exists to be agit prop or to be activism. That definition of art to me – and I think historically, having seen how artists can be coopted for different regimes and different causes unto destruction, I have a very hair trigger kind of response to that.
Nico: Well, that’s one of my concerns about some of these trends. It’s just gonna make reading less fun, less interesting. If you think of fiction in particularly as giving you a window into the life of someone else and giving you perspective on your own like, the idea being people are messy, as I said at the top. We do good things. We do bad things. We do them for mixed reasons. And fiction often tries to humanize the experience, tries to give you a window into why people do the things that they do.
And if trying to humanize people who like all of us live messy lives is in effect and endorsement of doing those things, you have, Kat, one person in your piece who is quoted as saying, “The simple fact that a book contains repugnant ideas is in not in itself in my opinion a reason to condemn it. Literature has a long history as a place to confront our ugliness. And its role in provoking both thought and change in thought is a critical one.” I mean, if it’s just agit prop, if it’s just, I don’t know, all sunbeams and rainbows, it’s just not gonna be interesting reading, I don’t think, but maybe I’m wrong.
Vesper: Or writing, I mean, I can’t even imagine sitting down to write something like that. It just, it sounds intensely boring. Maybe it’s just me.
Nico: I mean, I feel like, I just wonder, all the books. You mentioned the agents who aren’t accepting books. I just wonder, we talk about censorship, and people are often asking for anecdotes. Well, give me one example. And there are examples of course.
Kat: Which are never good enough for the people asking for the examples.
Nico: Of course not, but you don’t see all the books that never get written. And Kat, you have someone in your piece who – I’m trying to find, I wrote it down, but was thinking about writing a book but just – oh, wait, here it is. She also scrapped a work in – this is a New York Times bestselling author, I believe. She also scrapped a work in progress that featured a POC character citing a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a White author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.
She’s quoted as saying, “I was told do not write that. I was told spare yourself.” It’s just a book that doesn’t get written because people don’t wanna deal with it. And my sense is that within the publishing world in particular, the reason you’re starting to see books actually not get published or contracts get dropped is they’re afraid of being called a racist, or a sexist, or whatever ist you wanna call it. How do you fight that, especially when that’s the worst thing you could be called today.
Kat: I mean, people are very, I think, cavalier and kind of contemptuous about that line of argument, even though I think it’s quite compelling.
Nico: Which line of argument, that –
Kat: That there’s a chilling effect on writers in general, that this isn’t just about the very public campaigns to cancel books that are being published that have already been written. It’s also about what doesn’t get through the door or what doesn’t get written at all. And there’s this sort of very sneering dismissal of that from a lot of the folks who are sort of agitating for this type of censorship. And they say things like oh, well, maybe your book just isn’t that good or whatever. Like, you’re so afraid to write it, your just not really a very good writer, which I guess is predictable.
But at the same time, if it was the ‘90s, and somebody was trying to talk about how they’d like to write a book where, for instance, a young woman has premarital sex, and then doesn’t get pregnant and die as a result, and they couldn’t get that through the door, we would be very sympathetic to that. We would say, well, that’s not right. That story should have room to exist. If somebody wanted to write a book that was really dark, or really gay, or really violent, or all three, and they were having trouble getting that through the door, they were afraid of being censored for that.
We would be sympathetic to that. We’d say that book should have room to exist on the shelf. There should be a place for that because that sounds like a good story. And I think people have really kind of abandoned the principled commitment to seeing a diversity, a literal diversity, a real diversity of stories and of storytellers on shelves because of this sense that the culture war has been won. And all of the stuff that we on the progressive side, all the stuff we like is now getting through the door, so who cares about the stuff that’s not?
Nico: You’d have a hard time imagining this argument in the 1980s when the PMRC was going after Prince and Twister Sister, the idea being that there was some sort of moral outrage associated with it. Vesper, I was just thinking back, we were talking about Rushdie, and I was thinking again about Kat’s piece and how a lot of the backlash came from people who had never read the book because the book wasn’t out yet. And that happened with Salman Rushdie too. And I’m also thinking, have you guys been following that, I forget how to pronounce her name, Meg Smaker? She did that documentary, Jihad Rehab.
Kat: The UnRedacted, yeah.
Nico: That’s the new title for it, I guess because it was Jihad Rehab, and how a lot of people were protesting against her film, which is about former Gitmo inmates if I’m not mistaken, kind of rehabbing their lives. And a lot of the criticisms that we’re discussing in the context of book publishing were levied against her, the idea that she’s not, I guess, a former jihadist, or Muslim, which is a weird kind of way to look at it.
Or the idea that inmates can’t be interviewed with full consent because they’re inmates, eschewing the fact that the majority of people that she reached out to declined to be interviewed, a number of the inmates she – but anyway, I mean, after the backlash including many people who had never actually seen the film, the film’s – can’t get distribution. So, a lot of it just seems to be virtue signaling. Their tribe says something about one of these books, but they never engage with it on their merits. And I guess that can be to be expected.
I mean, you see it on Twitter all the time. They read a headline but not the actual work. Nonetheless, disappointing.
Kat: I mean, I just wanna kind of bring this back to the question of what this means for fiction writers. It’s not just about – once you start bringing identity into it in this way, for someone like Vesper who writes historical fiction, what’s she supposed to do? Nobody left alive has lived the experiences that are being documented in many of these books. So, imagination is all that’s available, I mean, imagination augmented by research but still. Taken to its logical conclusion, this is a way of looking at art that eventually precludes the possibility or writing fiction altogether.
Vesper: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, and I think when you’re talking about a historical period where you are talking about different people groups, well, there are myriad experiences within that one people group. So, to have something like oh, there’s consensus within this demographic that this is how the experience was is just ridiculous and would be an incredibly boring story to read. It’s precisely putting characters under extreme pressure that yields interesting story arcs because when we read fiction, we read ourselves into every single character in that book, not just the protagonist. And we don’t just read ourselves into the good characters and not the evil characters.
And we also all know that a one-sided villain is incredibly boring to read. We wanna read about complexity and diversity of human experience, not just diversity of somebody’s external features.
Nico: Can you talk a little bit about Berliners? Because you say it has some intersection with the free expression issues that we’re talking about here. I mean, I can only imagine. It’s about East and West Berlin, open and closed societies.
Vesper: I mean, I could probably talk for three hours about it, but I’ll try to condense it to this one aspect. So, it’s a sequel of What the Night Sings. So, my first book was about the post-Holocaust, the post-liberation experience of Jewish teenagers rebuilding their lives after this tragedy. So, I tried to cover a range of experiences among Jewish survivors, but then it inevitably begs the question, well, what happened to all the perpetrators? And what is the Germany that we’re dealing with today, the modern Germany? And how did the war directly lead into this split between East and West?
And what I discovered was that these two sectors let’s say, the Soviet sector and the western sector had completely different approaches to reckoning with their country’s past. And so, there’s the approach of denial on the East German side, and there’s the approach of a very messy kind of open reckoning on the western side.
Nico: Why would you have the denial on the eastern side and not on the western side among of the residents?
Vesper: Because there was this kind of Hegelian triumphalism about the fact that the communists had liberated Germany and that they had defeated fascism, had defeated antisemitism, that they were the victors, and they were bringing this new utopian model to bear for the new Germany. And so, that kind of narrative, it had to suppress the reality of any former Nazis in their ranks. It had to suppress their own purges of Jews from high-ranking positions within the communist party. It just had to. And so, what you find is that by 1961, there were only 1,000 Jews left in East Germany because the conditions had become so intolerable.
Nico: So, where did they go? They went to West Berlin or western –
Vesper: I mean, all over, immigrated different places or went to the west.
Nico: While they still could, I’m assuming because then the Berlin Wall went up, and you couldn’t escape?
Vesper: Well –
Nico: I mean, I don’t know my history very well.
Vesper: Well, sure, yeah, ostensibly. That’s ostensibly right, yeah.
Nico: Now, did you have any of these sort of issues when you were at least thinking about, or writing, or getting the book published, the issues that we talk about here?
Vesper: I mean, I have to say, to Knopf’s credit, they’ve been very good to me. I’ve had a very good experience with Knopf. I think it’s very much down to my editor, Karen Greenberg, who was very supportive and understood what I was trying to do in the work. Later on in the process of writing Berliners, when it came time heading toward copyediting, I did have a sensitivity reader because I have – and this will be interesting for our conversation. I have exactly one African American character in the book. And that’s not because I couldn’t make up more.
It’s specifically because I wanted to talk about the subject of tokenizing. And I was also trying to explore these different civil rights – different responses to the postwar situation in the world. So, you wouldn’t have had the civil rights movement in America without what happened in World War II and without the fact that we had a segregated army. So, all of these things, once the world became aware of what had happened in the Holocaust, which really didn’t happen until the 1960s on a public scale, then these kinds of reckonings could start to happen.
But because I had this one Black character, the fear was, was I gonna be accused of tokening? And so, we had a sensitivity reader. Well, that actually wound up being a positive experience for me. And it had nothing to do with what the reader brought to the subject of race. By and large, the person had no problems with what I was saying, but there was a certain plot point that I had missed. And this person called it out. And it made the book better. So, just having another pair of eyes on it as a reader was really – but in terms of the sensitivity issue – sorry, I just heard a glitch, was –
Nico: Oh, no, that was just me trying to interject, inappropriately of course. You can finish your thought, sorry.
Vesper: But I had another – well, I’ll let you interject, but there’s another sort of point on the sensitivity front that I’d love to –
Nico: Well, my question was on the sensitivity front. I mean, what is the mandate that is given to a sensitivity reader? Because often, if you’re telling them to go in and look for things that might be insensitive –
Nico: – or offensive, they’re gonna find it, right? It’s –
Vesper: Well, right.
Nico: And –
Vesper: Well, right. And thankfully, this reader did not.
Nico: Yeah. You think, just –
Vesper: Publisher’s Weekly did, after the fact.
Kat: I would love to jump in here to talk a little bit more about sensitivity readers and the sort of – the line between a sensitivity reader reading for offensiveness versus a sensitivity reading for subject matter expertise because there is a little bit of overlap there.
Kat: And –
Nico: The latter could be helpful.
Kat: Yes, exactly. And –
Nico: It’s a paid additional reviewer to help see things you miss and give you feedback.
Kat: Exactly. And I mean, I’ve worked as a sensitivity reader to offer a female perspective on a book. And that was a case where I was reading for offense. And I kind of hated the entire experience. And as I was doing it, I really had to put myself in the shoes of somebody who is completely unlike me and was like, okay, if I were an incredibly easily offended person, what would I find problematic about this? And eventually, it became a very depressing exercise because as many things as I could call out and say well you should probably fix this, the person I was pretending to be would always find something else.
But at the same time, as Vesper was noting, there are ways in which a sensitive rendering and an accurate rendering overlap. If you’ve missed something that would have been salient to that experience, it’s important to be able to get it in there because it makes the book better. And for me, I come at this from the perspective of I write about crime. I write murder books. And so, I do consult police officers, and medical examiners, and so on for my work, not because I’m worried about being insensitive, but because I’m worried about putting something completely unbelievable into the book.
I think the difference when it comes to the role of a sensitivity reader versus a subject matter expert is that a sensitivity reader will, in their sort of most offendotron mode, will presume to tell you what your characters are thinking and feeling, and so they know that better than you do as the author who created them. And as an author myself, I find that very objectionable. As a reader, I find it really objectionable. A sensitivity reader who’s telling you how to make your story more authentic or more accurate, there’s always gotta be that veto where you can say, well, this may be inaccurate, but it serves the story better for me to make it like this instead of like that.
Nico: Now, do these sensitivity readers – I’ve never been a part of the process. Do they get paid, presumably?
Kat: Yes, but not very much, and that’s sort of a key thing about how they became such a part of the publishing process because amid the sort of great diversity reckoning that was happening within publishing, which is very White and very upper class –
Vesper: And female.
Kat: And female, yeah, that’s too. It’s a bunch of upper middle class White ladies.
Vesper: It’s what it is.
Kat: I feel like this is very the pot calling the kettle black, and yet. So, when they were having this great diversity reckoning, and people were starting to realize how incredibly homogeneous publishing is, they were able to hire 1,000 sensitivity readers at 200 bucks a pop to proofread manuscripts for sensitivity and say look at all of the people of color we’re employing. And it cost them nothing.
Nico: Well, what should we call these trends? I mentioned that these are private companies. There are authors who can take their manuscript and leave or succumb to the new process and get their book published potentially. Kat, in your piece, you quote someone who said, “The idea that it shouldn’t be in the public atmosphere, that these books shouldn’t be in the public atmosphere, I find it extremely funny that people don’t think that’s censorship.” I mean, do you both think of it as censorship, or is this more, do you kinda bristle at calling it censorship, or should we think of it as artistic freedom? I –
Kat: It’s totally censorship. I’m sorry.
Nico: But if you look on Twitter, people say it’s not.
Kat: Yeah, but –
Nico: They’ll say it’s like – they’ll say, oh, this is a –
Vesper: Well, Twitter. What is Twitter? I’m sorry, but why do we give these people authority who can only express themselves in 280 characters? What is the credentialism here? Are they authorities? Have they studied the subjects? Have they studied the subjects that their authors are writing about? Are they writers themselves? What is it? I don’t even – I’m not on Twitter, thank God.
Kat: Yeah, stay away. Oh, God.
Vesper: I have no intention of going back. It’s, whoa, awful.
Nico: It’s funny you say that because I do First Amendment stuff. And often, at the center of culture wars, and for 10 years at FIRE, led our communications department, and often something would be blowing up on Twitter. And our staff is very attuned to what’s happening on Twitter. So, it had this perception that the world was exploding, but you could go ask 100 people on the side of the street if they were aware of what was happening on Twitter, and 100 out of 100 of them would say no. So, I was constantly as part of my job, trying to remind people that this latest outrage isn’t as big as it might seem because you all are within the thinker space, which tends to live on Twitter.
It’s also the reason that I can kinda get away with putting out content that’s a little bit more fun on Instagram on TikTok because I know that our lawyers, for example, aren’t on Twitter and aren’t gonna be policing it as closely, but yeah. And Kat, you have this in your piece. You talk about how most of the buyers of these books aren’t on Twitter and are uninterested in the blowups that are happening there.
Kat: Right. Well, this has never been a reader-driven phenomenon. And on the one hand, do we want to give people on Twitter the authority to determine what is or is not censorship? No. These people, their voices should not be worth more than somebody else’s just because they happen to be capable of making a lot of noise in this one space. On the other hand, discounting Twitter, I think is also a mistake because for better or for worse, this is the one social media platform on which people who drive the national discourse are disproportionately represented.
Everybody in publishing, everybody in media, everybody in academia, everybody in the arts, every place that culture is being created, all those people are on Twitter, and they’re all asking for censorship, and then calling it not censorship. So, I mean, that’s a problem. It’s a complicated problem, but I think to disregard it in the sense of like, as Dave Chappelle said, Twitter is not a real place. As satisfying as it might be to just kind of write it off in that sense, I think that by refusing to engage with it on those grounds, it just allows it to take deeper and deeper root, and to then kind of affect what’s being made, what’s being written.
Vesper: Well, I apologize then for not being on Twitter and not helping to be part of the solution there.
Nico: If I were your publicist, I’d be saying get on Twitter, but I’m not.
Vesper: But I think that just at the end of the day, I’m an artist. And I have to live as an artist that is doing the things that feel like I’m working with the most integrity. And years ago, I was a touring musician. And we got written up in all the big publications and stuff, and Pitchfork, and whatever. And most of their reviews were great. It was fine. We could go on our merry way, but every now and then, we’d get a bad review. And my husband would just – he couldn’t handle it. It was just, it would wreck his day. And I would just kind of think about the fact that I had two toddlers running around my feet at home.
And here I am, strapping my daughter in the BabyBjörn, and getting up on stage, and singing with her on me. And this was really frigging hard work. And I wanted to make the music. And I wanted to make the art that was meaningful to me. And I was gonna do it, no matter what anybody said. And PS, those people were not cleaning up the baby poop at home with me. So, they did not have any bearing on the art that I made or how I was gonna live my life. And it’s become a different environment, obviously. Twitter was not around then, but it still stands.
At the end of the day, if somebody drags me on Twitter or whatever, it doesn’t affect my life, and it doesn’t affect the art that I’m gonna make. And that’s the end of the story for me.
Nico: Well, unless it affects your livelihood, right?
Vesper: Well –
Nico: I mean, for some people, their art is their livelihood, and you have to make a choice.
Vesper: Yes, and that is a consideration. That is something that I’m actively thinking about. How do I proactively create other revenue streams for myself? And thankfully, because I’m an illustrator, I do have some diversification there. So, I do understand that, that aspect of things, but even before the livelihood has to come the peace of mind and the inner peace that allows you to even want to create something in the first place. That part of the artist’s life cannot be market driven.
Nico: Well, we were talking about the Twitter space, and we at FIRE like to advocate for a culture of free speech, the kind of the culture where people feel free and are free legally to be who they are and to speak their minds. And within the progressive left that’s on Twitter, there’s a lot of hay made right now, and in many cases rightfully so about book bans, but in the same vein, many of them, I think, if I were to have a conversation with them, wouldn’t see this, the trends that we’re discussing today that seek to alter the art that artists are creating, or that prevent artist’s books from coming into being, or having their contracts dropped, they wouldn’t see that as a book ban.
And I know that because we talk about Dave Chappelle getting dropped from a venue in Minneapolis after tickets have already been sold to an artist. And people say, oh, that’s just consequence culture, not cancel culture. It’s not censorship. It’s a private venue, parallels to the private publisher making a choice after hearing feedback, after people express their right, express themselves and why they don’t think it should be in the public domain. It’s just, that’s how the marketplace of ideas work, and these ideas lost, and these people’s art shouldn’t be available to a willing audience. So, I don’t know. Do you see it as book banning?
Kat: Well, I see a fundamental contradiction in your argument, where obviously you’re articulating this on behalf of somebody else, but it kind of reveals how confused it is, where it’s like, on the one hand, you have a willing audience who wants to pay to consume whatever the art is. And on the other hand, you have the claim that the marketplace of ideas has won, and so nobody should be able to access this art. I think you can have one or the other.
Kat: If there’s a market for it, then that de facto makes it a winner in the marketplace of ideas. I think that the book banning conversation is so complicated, and that’s very much due to the fact that in the digital age and because of the replicability of digital media, what we think of as a book ban where access to the content in question is restricted to the point where people cannot get it, it’s just not possible anymore. That’s an extinct creature. What we have now are various attempts to remove books from a classroom reading list or a school library.
Sometimes on the other side, we have attempts to press publishers not to publish a book that they were planning on publishing, or we have pressure on somebody like Amazon to not stock at title. And depending on which side politically you’re on, you’ll tend to say that some of these things are book bans, and the others are just consequence culture or the market at work, and that it’ll be completely the inverse if you go onto the other side. I think that if we’re going to reimagine book banning as any action that restricts the availability of a title in any context, then we at least need to open up that conversation so that we’re not pretending that it’s only people on the right who do this because it’s really not.
I mean, even in the context of school libraries, for every parent group that is agitating to have a book removed because it’s too gay, or too violent, or too violently gay, you also have librarians quietly every single year going through their collections and weeding out books that they consider racist, or sexist, or otherwise promoting outdated values. And nobody talks about that as though it's banning. Then, it’s just curating. And so, I think for the conversation to move forward, and for it to be intellectually consistent and valuable in any way, we really need to allow for either a very narrow and consistent definition of book banning or a very broad and very consistent definition of book banning.
Nico: Well, I with some of the ethos was brough to bear on the book banning conversation, the idea that this is bad because it’s restricting a piece of work to a broader willing audience, was brought to bear on more types of expression. What is in a book? I mean, I think John Milton called it the master spirit of an author. It’s a message transmitted, either a fictional or a nonfictional message, in the same way that the message that speaker when they stand on stage at a college campus and invited to stand on a stage on that college campus, it’s trying to transmit a message too.
But the people who hate the book bans don’t also in many cases condemn the shutting down, or the disruptions, or the calls for cancellations of the speakers. I don’t know if there’s something magical about it being written on a page rather than coming out of someone’s mouth, but I wish the same ethos that criticized the book banning also criticized the speaker disinvitations or deplatformings.
Vesper: I think the complicating factor that Kat brought up is the parents. And when you’re talking about anything that’s created for the consumption of minors, it brings something else into the conversation, which is the responsibility to our children. And so, those things, there is a place for curation. I mean, actual curation, which is what librarians do. They decide what’s gonna be on their shelves and what’s not, teachers, the same.
Nico: What’s age appropriate, yeah.
Vesper: What’s age appropriate. And it seems to me that we’ve completely thrown out the consideration of child development in all of these things.
Nico: Yeah, and that’s some of the nuance that we’ve at FIRE tried to bring to the conversation within the K-12 environment. For better or worse, curriculum and libraries are controlled by processes, the democratic process.
Vesper: I remember, you put out a short video on Instagram on how that process worked. And I thought it was really interesting and helpful for me as an author to understand how those thing happen.
Nico: Yeah, for us, there is a process for deciding what books go into libraries. It’s determined politically often, or oftentimes the decisions are outsourced to the librarians through the democratic and political process. And for us, it becomes a concern when whatever preestablished process is usurped for political reasons, like you have from on high someone going around the process that the librarians or school board have in place for determining what books go in the curriculum or on the library shelves. And they’re doing it in a politically motivated way.
Vesper: Is it possible that – I mean, I think again, that video was really helpful because I didn’t know that there was a process like that. So, maybe you would think that the process is just go and picket, or shout at the school board meeting. Instead, oh, there is a really orderly process here that’s helpful, but I think before we even get to the curation process, I think we need to take several steps back as creators to recognize that there is no sort of credentialing system, nor does there necessarily have to be.
But maybe something that publishers could do that would be helpful would be to provide resources for writers and illustrators that are creating for children to say these are some just developmental considerations that you might wanna take into account. Because there’s that, but then there’s also the bleed over in audience that we started talking about early on where you have a lot of adults that are really into young-adult fiction, and so are bringing their adult sensibilities into things. And so, the most recent kerfuffle with Maia Kobabe’s book, which was written for an adult audience but is now being brought into some schools, and that begs the question, where is that line?
Nico: Well, the line needs to be determined somewhere. You’re not gonna put Kama Sutra in a middle school library, but it should probably or perhaps be in the public library. I don’t know.
Nico: And so, there was this one incident in Oklahoma where a teacher was told that certain books in her classroom couldn’t be made available to the students. So, she put, I guess a QR code for the Brooklyn Public Library in her classrooms, so the students could access it there. She was, I think fired or otherwise reprimanded for doing so. The discussion about curation in the K-12 environment is obviously more complicated than public libraries, and then the ability to buy a book in general is obviously, it’s more straightforward from a free speech advocate’s perspective than even the public library’s.
It’d be very concerning for me if some of these pile on campaigns resulted in books that are otherwise available not being available on Amazon because I don’t know, the overlords at Amazon decided that a willing audience shouldn’t be able to access them. I don’t know. Complicated stuff. I’ve kept you guys longer than an hour now. Any final thoughts before we sign off here? I mean, Kat, you were in your piece, optimistic about the younger generation it sounds like, and some of the ways that they were avoiding the Twitter conversations about some of these books, setting up their own channels to discuss them in a way that wasn’t tinged with some of these trends.
I mean, it sounds like you’re less optimistic now.
Kat: Oh, it’s so complicated. I mean, I think that what it comes down to is that you have two completely different audiences. On the one hand, you have people who like to read. And on the other hand, you have people who want to control how books are written. And there is absolutely no overlap between these two groups. The people in the latter category not only don’t like to read, but they often just don’t read. They agitate against works that they have not themselves consumed. And it’s really about the kind of high of getting an author, or a creator, or in the case of Beyonce, a musician, to change their work because they, the consumer made a noise.
Nico: Well, the Beyonce thing was difficult because she apologized and agreed to do it. She wasn’t forced by her record label. I mean, we looked at that one from FIRE’s perspective too, and it’s like, how do you defend an artist who doesn’t wanna defend their own stuff?
Kat: Well, I mean, that’s such a long conversation. I think it’s probably best not to get into it, but we can focus this back on the question of young-adult fiction because you have so many cases in which an author has self-cancelled their work after one of the pile ons. That’s actually become the more common thing. For an author who’s very much a member of the community and has a lot of investment in this idea of kind of literary citizenship and wants to remain in good standing on the sort of social justice left that is in publishing, there’s an expectation that when you’re called out, you will capitulate.
And this does happen. We’ve seen it happen most recently – oh God, what was her name? Alexandra – I’m not gonna be able to remember. She had written a book that was called out on Twitter because of the cover. Somebody took offense to the cover. They said, what is this book about? I think it’s probably problematic. And she cancelled her book.
Vesper: Rather than getting another – I mean, as an illustrator, this is shocking to me. You can always have the illustrator redo the cover. What’s the problem?
Kat: Yeah, no, it was that the tagline said something about how something was being hidden in plain sight. And then, the book itself was focused on, I don’t know if it was a tangential character or the protagonist, but there were Gullah Geechee people in the book, the kind of Deep South –
Nico: Well, I mean, we had a case like that at FIRE where this gentleman, Keith John Sampson was a nontraditional student at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, which is always a mouthful to say, working his way through college as a janitor. And on his lunch break, he was reading this book called Notre Dame Vs. The Klan. And on the cover are burning crosses and people in Klans robes. And people forget that the Klan, in addition to being bigoted against Black people also hated Catholics. And so, they marched on Notre Dame’s campus in the 1920.
And this book, Notre Dame Vs. The Klan is about how Notre Dame defeated the Klan when they walked on campus, but someone was offended by seeing the robes and the burning crosses, so he was reported to the administration, and was found guilty of racial harassment simply for reading a book, and simply because someone who had not read that book had judged that book by its cover. And here’s the catch. That book was found in the university’s own library. And we had done what we do at FIRE, which is we write a private letter to the school, and point out the outrage, and give them the opportunity to resolve it in private, but the university doubled down.
And it was only once we wrote about it in the pages of The Wall Street Journal that they backed off, but it’s like, we talk about judging a book by its cover, but –
Kat: Yeah, so the young-adult fiction version of this controversy would have been the guy came out and made a self-flagellating apology for having read this book in public. And everybody would have agreed that he did this of his own free will and with no concerns about reputational damage or being unpersoned, and that it was a totally valid outcome, like everybody won. So, when this author, I think her name was Alexandra Duncan, I think I finally remembered it. When she cancelled her own book, immediately all these arguments erupted.
Well, she decided to do this of her own free will. There was no pressure. There was just an author realizing that she’d made a terrible mistake by writing a 50,000-word novel, and accepting money for it, and expecting it to be published. She just realized that all of this was a terrible error in judgement. And so, she pulled the book. And that was as it should be. This is such a disingenuous argument that I think it’s really difficult to engage with it facially. It's really absurd. And so, any time that you have one of these incidents where an author cancels, or edits, or what have you their own work, you really have to zoom out and ask what was the cultural context in which this was happening?
Nico: Yeah, or the personal context. I’ve got a young son. I’ve got a wife. I’ve got a mortgage. And if I was amidst a cancel campaign, and it was the livelihood of not just myself but my family at stake, I’d like to think I’d have the courage to stand up to it, but I probably wouldn’t. I don’t know. It’s not just a decision for myself at that point. So, the people who are talking about, well, they make this of their own volition, yeah, I guess it’s technically true, but if their livelihood wasn’t at risk, would they have made that decision about their art, about as you say, the construction of 50,000 words over many years? Probably not.
Vesper: Yeah, I mean, Kat can attest to this too, writing is a labor of life, and I do mean labor. It’s very hard work. It’s all consuming. It takes years to do. And that needs to be taken into account, just how difficult of a job it is. It’s not that we do this because it’s a nice hobby or because it’s easy and stress relieving. It’s very hard work. And I think that the resolve to not succumb to cancellation, it happens by degrees, and it has to be small decisions over time to say no, I’m not going to capitulate to this. Because let’s be honest, everything that you just described is basically a struggle session.
And so, you have to decide when the pressure to engage in a struggle session comes your way, you will refuse and not apologize. And that’s just, it has to be that. And does that mean that you’re risking reputation, and livelihood, and everything? Yes, and that’s very real, but we have people like Salman Rushdie to look to, to say he was willing to die for his art, and his right to express himself, and to say what he needed to say about his – in his time.
Nico: I mean, that’s a very astute observation about not apologizing.
Kat: Well, also, and Rushdie’s publisher was willing to stand by him. They were willing to put that book out into the world, and they were willing to defend him. I think that, I just wanna kinda yes and what Vesper said, which is that on top of the individual courage of artists, and authors, and musicians, and anybody who’s working in the creative space, institutional support is so huge. So, if somebody is in a position to make these decisions at an executive level, at an administrative level, for you to stand by your creator – not your creator as in God, but as in your content creator who’s working for you, that is enormous, and we need to see more of that.
If there’s a place where there is still hope, it’s in people being willing to stand up within the institutions that have been otherwise kind of captured by this censorial impulse, and to say no, we believe in free expression.
Nico: You have an interesting conundrum because people’s first instinct is to apologize, but there have been plenty of studies that shown in these contexts, often the apology is an admission that you’re the witch. And it demonstrates a weakness. And it’s sort of an admission that you did something wrong. And then, more people pile on.
Vesper: It’s blood in the water.
Nico: It’s blood in the water for sure, and we’ve seen this in the higher education context because that’s where we work, when there’s a call for a professor to be fired or otherwise cancelled, and the college administrator or the president in charge says no, and does so in an unequivocable manner, it just goes away. We saw this with Camille Paglia, I think this was like 2017. She was being cancelled for something or another. Students were demanding she be fired.
And the president of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia said no in an unequivocable manner, and then had written [inaudible] [01:13:07] to freedom of expression and academic freedom. And it just died out. You saw this at the University of Chicago as well, but that sort of courage is often in short supply. Netflix did this with Dave Chappelle, that the cancel Chappelle was short lived because I forget what the name – the co-CEO of Netflix’s name is, but he essentially said no. And then, he wrote in to Netflix’s company values, a message about artistic freedom, and said if you’re not on board with this, you shouldn’t work here.
It’s a very strong message of support. And I think where people get into trouble or institutions get into trouble is when they try to have it both ways. They wanna seem sympathetic to the would-be cancellers while also protecting the content creators. It just doesn’t work that way, unfortunately, so…
Vesper: I just wanna add one other thing to this, which is that the more that you say no, the easier it gets, the more comfortable you get just saying no I won’t compromise my artistic integrity. I’m going to stand by this. I had to do this several times in Berliners. Again, the sensitivity reader was not the issue for me, but within editorial there was pressure to change certain things, and I refused. And I was okay. And I think that’s what artists need to hear is that if you say no, and you stand by your artistic integrity, you will be okay. Yes, things may come your way, but they may not.
Again, it may blow over, and you might just be fine.
Nico: I think that’s a good message to end on. I appreciate you both staying on a little bit longer than I promised. Vesper, I hope folks next week buy a copy of your book. It’s out on, I’m assuming it’s a Tuesday because books come out on Tuesday, the 25th.
Vesper: October 25th.
Nico: October 25th, it’s called Berliners. And Kat, I hope people not only read your essay, “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter” from 2017 in Vulture, I’ll link it in the show notes, but also pick up one of your past books. You had a book come out a year ago, right?
Kat: Yeah, well, my next one comes out in January.
Nico: Oh, congratulations. What’s it called? What’s it about?
Kat: It’s called You Must Remember This, and it’s a sort of a Knives Out meets The Notebook historical thriller on the windswept coast of Maine.
Nico: Oh, are you from Maine or something, all your books are taking place in Maine?
Kat: I spent a lot of time in Maine. I’m not from there, but it’s a place close to my heart.
Nico: So, You Must Remember This is also a title of a podcast that I listen to about old Hollywood, which is fairly good. They did one on the Manson murders, which was pretty good.
Kat: Yeah, it’s a great podcast. And this book –
Nico: Oh, so you know it?
Kat: Yeah, oh yeah, for sure. I mean, this book centers on – one of the main characters is an elderly woman who is losing her memory. And so, you see her in her aged and decrepit state. And then, you go back in time in a tangential – tangential, sorry, no – parallel plotline to see who she was as a younger woman, and how the decisions she made as a younger woman came back to haunt her in her decrepitude.
Nico: So, are you gonna need a sensitivity reader who has Alzheimer’s, or dementia, or something? My grandmother died of dementia.
Kat: I actually –
Nico: It’s a serious problem. There’s a market for your book, but I don’t know that you’re gonna find a sensitivity reader up to the task.
Kat: I was gonna say, it’s sort of a self-defeating thing, isn’t it?
Kat: Well, I drew heavily on my experiences with my own grandmother for this book. We lost her at the very start of the pandemic, unfortunately. So, I thought a lot about her during the long, dark period of COVID and while I was working on this book. So, it’s dedicated to her. And hopefully people will pick it up, but pick up Vesper’s book first because it comes out next week, and it’s amazing.
Vesper: Thank you.
Nico: I do not have a copy yet, but apparently, it’s arriving soon, and I’m looking forward to picking it up. And I will, of course, put a link to it in the show notes. So, Vesper, Kat, I appreciate you guys taking the time and staying a little bit extra for me.
Kat: Oh, my pleasure.
Vesper: Thanks so much for having us.
Nico: This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and edited by my colleague, Aaron Reese. To learn more about So to Speak, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Twitter, dreaded Twitter, or Instagram by searching for the handle, free speech talk, and like us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast. We take email feedback. If you have any thoughts that you wanna share with myself or with my guests, I can forward along your feedback. You can email us at email@example.com.
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