We have been discussing writers, editors, commentators, and academics who have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including book banning and blacklisting. That movement has now become retroactive. Authors are now being successfully pressured to remove lines from published books that are deemed objectionable by some readers. It appears that even speech that has published can be retroactively “corrected” under the threat of public accusation.
One of the authors who has agreed to curtail her own prior writing is Elin Hilderbrand who agreed to retroactively remove her own lines in the 2021 book, The Golden Girl. According to an article in Publishers Weekly, there was an objection to a line of the character Vivi who responded to the suggestion of her friend Savannah that they hide out for the summer in the attic of Savannah’s parents’ attic. Vivi asks. “Like … like Anne Frank?” The two friends laugh at the absurdity, but Vivi thinks, “Is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?”
That led to some readers to declare that the line was “horrifically” antisemitic and demanding an apology for thinking “antisemitism is funny.” Hilderbrand responded with a profuse apology and a promise to remove the line.
Author Casey McQuiston also yielded to such demands after readers objected to a line the gay romance novel Red, White & Royal Blue when the president in the United States in the book complains “Well, my UN ambassador fu**ed up his one job and said something idiotic about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and personally apologize.” Readers decried that the line “normalizes the genocide & war crimes done by Israel that will always be backed up & unashamedly supported by America.” It was a bizarre objection since the line could be viewed as an implied criticism of deference shown to Israel in American politics. Nevertheless, McQuiston caved to the pressure and promised to remove the line.
What is striking is how few objections were made to these books and how quickly the authors yielded. The point of cancel campaigns is to create a chilling effect for academics, writers, editors, and others. No one wants to have their careers or lives altered by being labeled racist or anti-Semitic. It is easier to yield.
We just discussed the one year anniversary of the disgraceful action of the New York Times to sack an editor and to issue a cringing apology for publishing the views of a Republican senator. The action of the Times sent a loud message to all writers that the ability to continue to work depends on avoiding any such accusations. Following the Cotton controversies, various writers were forced off major publications in a purging of those with conservative or opposing views.
The decisions of these book authors will fuel greater calls for retroactive censorship of controversial lines in creative works. Works can then be sanitized to remove any material objectionable to readers. That may be advantageous for these authors but it will only further erode the protections and expectations of free speech for writers as a whole.