Editor Roundtable: Does Hate Speech Deserve a Literary Platform?
Without argument, Roxane Gay is currently literature’s closest equivalent to a rock star. Gay has published over a hundred short stories and essays. Her twitter handle carries 182 thousand followers. And she has released five books in the past six years. For a writer, she owns the unique position of being a mainstream influencer. So, when her future publisher (Simon & Schuster) made the move to sign an alt-right spokesperson to their label, Gay took action, and the world listened. We asked a handful of editors to weigh in on the situation.
- Matt Broderick, Reviews Editor, TRR
Question: Roxane Gay recently took a stand against Simon & Schuster's controversial signing of internet-persona Milo Yiannopoulos, by scratching a future book deal with the publisher. How do you digest this? Do authors/publishers have a responsibility to stand against those whose work may delve into hate speech and damaging rhetoric? Does everyone have a right to a literary platform for their opinion?
Kelly Davio, Publisher and Poetry Editor, Tahoma Literary Review:
Free speech is a right. A book deal is a privilege. If a publisher chooses to confer that privilege on folks who use their free speech to spread ugliness and hate, of course other authors have the right to pick up their ball and go play somewhere else. I don’t think that authors are morally obligated to leave a press because of the other authors it chooses to publish (they may have contractual or financial reasons that they can’t do so even if they want to), but it is their absolute right to decide with which publishers they’re willing to make books.
Michael Prihoda, Founding Editor, After the Pause:
Yes, everyone has a right to free speech. However, when a press signs an author and plans to publish that author's work, it inherently says to me that the press is condoning and supporting the work of that author. Publishers are gatekeepers and not beholden to distributing everything that comes their way like how a vanity press might be. Everyone has a right to a literary platform and readers must tease apart who they will support. But when Simon & Schuster signed Milo, it says to me that they are in support of what he stands for and not against. I, and I believe Roxane Gay, happen to be fully against what he believes in. If I was so fortunate to have had a book deal with them, I hope I would have had the same guts and self-respect that Roxane had in pulling her book from them. It is Milo's right to publish what he sees fit. It is not his right to have it published with a big publisher. Most of all, it is our right, as a literary community of authors, editors, and publishers, to stand against hate speech and damaging rhetoric. I stand against Milo Yiannopoulos. Now, it seems, I also stand against Simon & Schuster.
Adam McGee, Managing Editor, Boston Review:
Setting aside the question of whether it is ethical to offer Yiannopoulos a book deal, Simon & Schuster would not do so if there weren't a lot of people who delight in (and will pay for) Yiannopoulos's message. I don't think this is a case where you can simply starve the beast; you must question the source of its appetite as well. Indeed, hateful rhetoric is so widely accepted these days that it has become the go-to language of our electoral politics. If we want to understand the White House's approach to the media, for example, we should begin by examining Yiannopoulos's tactics because they are cut from the same cloth. Keep in mind that Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, taught Yiannopoulos most of his tricks during his days at Breitbart's helm.
In an article about Yiannopoulos that we recently published, Daniel Penny contends, "Understanding the sources of [Milo's] appeal is crucial to developing sophisticated insight into the way alt-right media—now the sanctioned news of the White House—uses spectacle and irony to persuade, bewitch, disrupt, and overwhelm the public." The article goes on to disarm Yiannopoulos of his two most common evasion tactics that he employs when cornered: first, that he is only kidding; and second, that he has no ties to the alt-right or to white supremacy. As Penny shows, neither of these holds up under scrutiny. We felt that these points were crucial contributions to the public discussion and therefore worth the risk of having some audience members rush to the conclusion that we were adding to Yiannopoulos's cult of celebrity.
Though it would be hard to mistake our intention: the article makes a strong case that, intentionally or not, Yiannopoulos draws on the same aesthetic arsenal used by fascist propagandists—although I suppose among some of Yiannopoulos's followers, that may be what passes for a compliment these days.
RW Spryszak, Editor, Thrice Fiction:
I wouldn't have cancelled the deal, but it is certainly up to the ethical views of Ms. Gay. She has just as much right not to be affiliated with Simon & Shuster as they have to publish whoever and whatever they see fit. I disagree with stopping Yiannopoulos from speaking. It makes him more of a martyr than his ridiculous worldview and lightweight philosophy deserve. Would I withdraw a book of mine from a publisher who published Mein Kampf? No. I'm of a mind that says these kinds of absurd philosophies should have the light of day shined on them so we can clearly see them for the trash they are. If they go underground they fester, and can't be argued against or shown to be faulty. Being offended is not an argument. I guess I end up respecting the wishes of both Roxane Gay and S&S. If people are following their conscience, that should be enough of an explanation.
Christina Larocco, Editor, Cleaver Magazine:
I applaud Roxane Gay’s decision to pull her book from Simon & Schuster. Milo Yiannopoulos has a right to hold and express his views, but he is entitled to neither the means of disseminating these views or to become rich in the process. Likewise, publishers are not obligated to provide him with a platform.
As Gay has rightfully pointed out, “this isn’t about censorship.” The First Amendment does not protect Yiannopoulous—or anyone else—from facing consequences for what he has said. Unless and until the government takes legal action against him, his rights have not been abrogated. Publishers are not the government. Neither is Twitter.
It’s always seemed strange to me that the Right—which otherwise would argue that private businesses should be allowed free rein—would call the outrage over Yiannopoulos censorship. Similarly, though, I am not entirely comfortable basing my own argument on the Constitution in a way that reifies the “marketplace of ideas.” Perhaps the challenge for those of us who wish to challenge the hatred of Yiannopoulos and others is to develop a discourse of resistance that does not rely on such logic.
Kevin Morgan Watson, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Press 53:
No author has a right to a literary platform, no more than they have a right to someone else’s words. The owner of the platform decides who gets access. That’s how free expression works. Ms. Gay exercised her right to free expression by withdrawing her book from Simon & Schuster, just as Simon & Schuster exercised their right by offering their platform to Mr. Yiannopoulos. While Ms. Gay chose to distance herself from a propagator of hate speech, S&S chose to profit from his words. It’s easy to see in this scenario how each party views their responsibilities to themselves, the literary community, and the world. I applaud Ms. Gay for her bravery in standing up for her principles.
Kris Baker Dersch, Producer/Editor, No Extra Words:
I'm a librarian by training so I get really nervous when we start to censor people based on their ideas. I am always of the opinion that trying to shut an idea down makes more people want it and gives it more power. Do writers and publishers have a responsibility to stand against damaging rhetoric? Well, they have a right to, just like he has a right to create it, but responsibility goes a little too far for me personally. Once you start to have to define what this hateful content is that everyone has to stand against, it becomes a subjective decision and that goes way too close to censorship for me to be comfortable. Really, the power lies with the reader. If they don't buy the stuff, Simon and Schuster will definitely quit printing it.
Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading:
I think, just as it's the prerogative of a publisher to publish the books they want, it's the prerogative of a writer to have their books be part--or not--of a the literary platform that they want. Personally, I agree with Gay's move, I have no idea why anyone would want to add more Yiannopoulos to our lives or validate hate speech by publishing it on a reputable platform; S&S's decision to support his book is poor judgment on their part.
Jacob Weber, Fiction Editor, Baltimore Review:
Every time North Korea shoots off a missile or tests a nuke, the action is met with condemnation from the West. It dominates the headlines for a day or two. North Korea gets what it wants, which is to show its relevance. The fact that the President of the United States took time to craft some invective against a poor Asian nation with 30 million people is really quite a coup for its leader. It solidifies his god-like status. I've often wondered if a president couldn't come up with a clever diss of North Korea the next provocation round. The press asks what he thinks of the latest missile launch, and the President says something like: "Oh, they fired off a missile? I didn't know. We don't typically worry about when tiny, starving nations try out technology we mastered 60 years ago. But good for them. Maybe next, they can try to make a device that will cook food quickly by use of microwaves. If they ever get some food to cook."
Maybe this doesn't work at the high Geo-political level. But it usually works at the level of the local bully. That's why I don't understand Roxane Gay's decision to pull her book from Simon & Schuster because they also were publishing a book by Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo doesn't care if people hate him. He cares about publicity, and every time he's boycotted or rallied against or causes someone else to pull a book in protest, he gets it. His ideas are mostly unoriginal and thinly argued, but the strength of them comes from his insistence that he's reacting against a liberal fascism that brooks no unorthodox thought. He's saying that even mildly feminist women are shrill, that college students are so pampered they cannot even stand to allow people they disagree with to speak, lest the students be traumatized. And he seems to occasionally goad his rivals into acting down to his expectations.
Roxane Gay is smart, smarter than Yiannopoulos. She should ignore Milo, put her book out with Simon & Schuster and outsell Yiannopoulos. If she absolutely must take a swipe at the guy, she can do it in her book, making Simon & Schuster have to decide whether to carry a book that attacks one of its own writers. She ought to outpunch her rivals, not shame the promoter from putting them in the ring. We always lecture the Arab world when it gets upset about blasphemy that the answer to offensive free speech isn't to ban offensive speech, it's to overpower the offensive speech with better free speech. Here's our chance to show it.