Freedom To Read Week (Feb. 21-27) seems especially significant this year. While the pandemic stops us doing so many things, it’s nice to still be free to read. While we can’t fly off to other lands we can still travel through story, on the wings of words. We can’t easily get together with friends but we can meet new characters on the pages of books. We can listen in on what they say to each other. You learn a lot that way.
Who are they though? Which characters currently populate publishers’ new releases? Editorial policies are favouring some themes over others and some groups of authors over others, and while we are free to read whatever we want, book and periodical editors increasingly limit what’s on offer.
A typical note on a publisher’s submission page will say: “We seek writing which challenges bigotry, racialization, marginalization and mis-gendering, and we showcase literature from de-centered voices.” One publication even asserts that “we reserve the right to de-platform writers if they have broken our non-discrimination values”.
De-platforming a writer means de-platforming the right of readers to choose to read that writer. In the scramble to exclude authors deemed overly privileged and insufficiently “racialized”, diversity in the literary landscape is in fact being reduced.
No one can have seen the footage of George Floyd having the life throttled out of him for ten minutes without feeling horrified, and the subsequent rush to embrace the Black Lives Matter concept is no surprise. One result though, in the literary world (publishing, bookselling and librarianship), is the restriction of offerings along narrowing ideological lines.
No one wants to be seen as standing on the wrong side of these issues, and that opens the door to self-censorship. The pressure on authors to self-censor in the interest of popularity, meaning in the interest of being accepted for publication, is a more subtle brake on intellectual freedom than were the overt forms of censorship which librarians and publishers fought against in the past.
S. B. Julian,
(S.B. Julian, BA, MLS, is a writer, bookseller and former librarian working from the west coast of B.C.)