On Friday, March 6, Hachette Book Group announced that it was cancelling the release of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, which was scheduled to be published by its Grand Central imprint on April 7.
The move follows public protest about the acquisition of the title because of the allegations that Allen molested his daughter, Dylan Farrow, when she was a child. Her brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, who is the author of Catch and Kill, had criticized the company’s decision to acquire Allen’s memoir. A day before Hachette’s announcement that it would cancel the book, dozens of the publisher’s employees walked out of work in protest. The protesting staffers had demanded that Hachette cancel publication of Allen’s memoir and issue an apology.
David Grogan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), issued a statement regarding Hachette’s decision:
It is disappointing that what could have been a significant conversation about a very important and sensitive topic resulted instead in the cancellation of Woody Allen’s memoir. The allegations against Allen are serious, and the conversations and critique, even outrage, spurred by the news regarding the acquisition of his memoir are both important and protected under the large umbrella that is the First Amendment.
However, so too is Allen’s right to be published. While some may be pleased that his memoir will not be published by Hachette, calls to suspend the publication of controversial titles could in the future chill speech on sensitive topics, significantly limiting the freedom to read.
A publisher has every right to curate its list as it sees fit, but when others demand that the publisher remove a title already scheduled for publication, we enter the area of censorship.
Free speech exists for all titles, from the most innocuous to the most controversial. The protections afforded by the First Amendment are broad and unbiased. At times, this may be seen as unempathetic — especially as it relates to books on topics such as sexual abuse or child abuse — but it is ABFE’s strong belief that carving out exceptions to the First Amendment would, in the long run, erode the rights of free speech for everyone, including those who have historically been marginalized or disempowered.
ABFE continues to believe that our society is stronger when there is a wide and diverse array of titles available to readers, and that the best response to controversial ideas, content, or books is counter speech. Ultimately, public advocacy that seeks to shut down conversation or to suspend the publication of a book serves no one, and indeed places a small group of people as the arbiters of allowable speech. This furthermore will embolden others to shut down books with which they disagree, as we have seen all too often.
Chances are, if you’ve ever enjoyed a book considered “controversial” or “offensive,” someone somewhere has likely attempted to ban it. This is perhaps the best litmus test: What if a group was attempting to stop the publication of a book that you wanted to read by a controversial author? Would you consider this censorship justifiable? Or would it anger you that a small group of people denied you the right to read an author’s work?
Indeed, one doesn’t even have to imagine this scenario because, sadly, each year hundreds of books are challenged. The American Library Association (ALA) compiles a list of titles that have been challenged or banned by groups or parents who believe they are justified in removing a book. According to the ALA, the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 347 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2018. Of the 483 books challenged or banned in 2018, the Top 11 Most Challenged Books included:
- Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-A-Lot, which was challenged for including same-sex couples.
- George, by Alex Gino has been “banned, challenged, and relocated because it was believed to encourage children to clear browser history and change their bodies using hormones, and for mentioning dirty magazines, describing male anatomy, ‘creating confusion,’ and including a transgender character”; and
- Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan, which was “challenged and burned for including LGBTQIA+ content.”
The American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) is the bookseller's voice in the fight for free speech. Its mission is to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, particularly those contained in books, by opposing restrictions on the freedom of speech; issuing statements on significant free expression controversies; participating in legal cases involving First Amendment rights; collaborating with other groups with an interest in free speech; and providing education about the importance of free expression to booksellers, other members of the book industry, politicians, the press, and the public.