Should Authors Disappear Controversial Books?
A story crossed my desk last night (and ended up in the morning coffee post this morning) which I think deserves additional attention.
Last Thursday Digiday asked the question "Should publishers take down controversial posts?":
To unpublish — or not to unpublish. That’s the question for publishers that really step in it with regrettable content that sets off the Social Media Outrage Industrial Complex.
For some publishers, an apology is not enough. They’d rather forget the whole thing took place, erasing the past with a simple keystroke. In the most recent example, Men’s Health took down an article titled “The Secret to Talking Sports with Any Woman” after an online backlash (screengrab below courtesy of Mediaite).
Still, it’s one thing to correct or remove an inaccurate post, as Us Weekly did this week whenit admitted it wrongly reported Neve Campbell was pregnant, but it’s another to remove a piece of content altogether when it’s controversial or just plain embarrassing.
Digiday doesn’t answer the question, but they do look at the post-publication editorial policies of several major media outlets, and they also mention several recent situations where articles were removed from the web.
Coincidentally, Digiday missed what is still one of my favorite articles and subsequent retractions, a book review in which The Economist defended slavery with arguments which explained that the book was not "an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains". (And it gets better from there.)
I had initially planned to cover this story from the view point of a journalist and comment on the original point, but as I got to thinking about it I realized that this was an issue authors would face.
So should authors sometimes disappear books?
I say yes – with reservations.
Edit: Just to be clear, I am saying that I support authors having the option. I am not saying that the option must be used.
In a time when it is common for authors to change pen names when switching from one genre/audience to another, when it is not uncommon for a book to be reissued with a new cover in a new genre, I don’t see unpublishing a book as an attempt to censor or try to cover up for past mistakes.
I see it as an author’s prerogative; they can decide whether a book is published in the first place, and I think authors should have the privilege of unpublishing a book if they so choose (so long as they don’t steal back previously sold copies).
Furthermore, I hold to the view that this is just one of those things that could happen – and in fact has happened. Books have been retracted in the past, with some publishers going so far as to recall all unsold copies and pulp them. (What’s more, this has even happened to ebooks, with Amazon sometimes going so far as to pull an ebook after an egregious number of complaints.)
That of course doesn’t remove what has been said about a book or its author – nor should it. Just because an author wants to remove one of their books doesn’t mean they get to silence what others are saying; the privilege doesn’t extend that far.
What do you think?
image by opensourceway, net_efekt
fjtorres October 13, 2014 um 10:26 am
Well, those are two different issues.
Pulling a book to rework or retarget it is very different from pulling a controversial book because of external pressure. (Say, Salman Rushdie.)
And it is different when the author does it he is than when the publisher throws him off and under the bus.
It’s really a case by case basis.
Context and motivation will matter more than the actual philosophy of whether a book or article should be unpublished. Or buried, as many would prefer.
Sometimes the greater good can be served by taking unpopular stances.
Greg Strandberg October 13, 2014 um 3:49 pm
Stephen King pulled one of his more violent books, and I’ve got no problem with that. But what if you had an author that got a little popular, maybe got one of the Big Publishers interested, and they got a deal.
We all know how they like tricky contracts. So let’s suppose there’s all kinds of jargon and loopholes in there and one day you can an email saying 'hey, guess what? We’re going to need you to take down this and this and this blog post, oh, and remove those passages there from that book and change this over here.'
As profit margins diminish you’ll see a greater need to control those 'guaranteed' revenue streams.
Greg Strandberg October 13, 2014 um 12:12 pm
This is a really good idea. Many authors could be losing money by saying what they think, holding odd views, and maybe alienating a particular audience.
I’d take it a step further, however. Let’s just burn the damn things. Sure, they might be electronic sometimes, but let’s get some barrels and make a real block party out of it. Maybe we can do it in poor inner-city neighborhoods in winter, saving on low-income energy assistance.
Why not just get rid of that damn First Amendment too while we’re at it? Honestly, it’s on the way out anyways. And aren’t you just getting tired of everyone saying what they think all the time? Free speech is overrated.
Yep, I think this is a great idea. Ain’t nothing wrong with the erosion of liberty and the prevalence of ignorance.
LCNR October 13, 2014 um 7:42 pm
This post reminded me of something I’d read on a French author’s blog a couple of years back at the height of the uproar surrounding the government-sponsored "ReLIRE" project that aimed to grab the digital rights to out-of-print works once published in France — yes, that includes the works of foreign authors — unless authors opted out within six months (despite the lack of individual notification). The author in question, François Bon (http://www.tierslivre.net/spip/spip.php?article3447), had deliberately stopped (self-)publishing one of his works because it was about people he’d met at a writing workshop fifteen years earlier and he thought it was time to lay that period of the lives of everyone concerned to rest. Well, the title was out-of-print so it ended up in the ReLIRE register although he’d never given up any of the rights to his work (of course, he probably opted out because he found out in time AND could navigate the French web site, being a French-speaking author).
fahirsch January 19, 2016 um 10:03 am
And what is your view in the case of an author wanting unpublished books be destroyed (Kafka comes to my mind)
Nate Hoffelder January 19, 2016 um 10:37 am
I think it’s the author’s prerogative, but as we learned with Harper Lee, it’s best for the author to see to it themselves while they still have their faculties.