The following was first delivered on April, 28, 2011.
I want to talk with you about censorship and the First Amendment. Freedom of expression is under threat. Writers have been taken off guard here because this threat is new, and it is not what we expected. It’s gnawing away at literature. We are defenseless because we’re not prepared for it.
First, let me tell you what it isn’t. This is not the Smithsonian Museum caving in to the Catholic League. This is not an outcry against Piss Christ. This is not Rudolph Giuliani crusading against Jesus as black and female, or Mary in camel dung. This threat comes from an entirely unexpected place. It sits at our bistro table. It shares our sense of humor. It gets us drunk at book parties. It kisses us and smiles.
We are the threat to free speech, and our trusted colleagues. We, the writers, have become our own enemies. We, the writers—together with our publishers, our editors, our agents—have become the censors.
It’s a little mistake we made, just before we signed that book contract. It’s a little slip we made—an answer we gave—before we cashed that check. It’s a devil’s bargain we’ve entered into with a troubled book industry. We’ve started writing for The Man. The Man was good to us and he let us be the boss in the beginning. He discovered us, picked our first manuscript out of the slush pile. He took us all out to lunch at Union Square Cafe. The Man took care of our Schnauzer while we were at Yaddo. He invited us to his country house in Rhinebeck. He took us apple picking. He even gave us the keys so we could hole up in the guesthouse and finish our next novel. He read our manuscript four times, and every time he read it, he helped make it better.
Some of us believe that The Man is not The Man. That he is the Muse. That we would not be writers without him. This Man is a good Man—our friend, our ally, our adviser. May we all be published by him.
But those were different days. The Man was in the black. Now he’s in the red, and he’s a changed man, a wounded man, a desperate man. The digital era is looming. E-books are cheap and easy, and anyone can do them; not just a corporate publisher, but any one of us here in this room. The Man is in danger of being “disintermediated.” That’s a Wall Street Journal term, and what it means is obliterated. If writers can publish their own work, The Man wonders, will his services still be needed?
Changes are threatening the status quo: the cozy, book-lined office, the gym membership, the mortgage, the private school tuition payment. A publishing revolution as dramatic as Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press is about to explode. The Man is afraid. What if his publishing company goes under; the vast corporate book chains he depends upon are going out of business. What will happen to The Man?
I’ll tell you what. He’ll ask you to destroy your book. The Man will tell you that you have to change your work for your own good. To save yourself, to save the industry, to save him.
The Man may have been our friend—he may be a lover of books and literature. But he’s two-faced, half art, half commerce, dark and light. I’m here to speak the truth to you today. The truth is: that agent, that editor, that publisher—the one who admires your work, the one who launched your career…he’s lying.
If you get in bed with The Man this time, your book will die. Not just your book either, but all of our books. Literature will be hobbled and sanitized. How do I know this? Because it is already happening.
Editors, agents and authors are colluding to remove any material deemed too dark, disturbing, sad, troubling, subversive or controversial. Writers are muzzling themselves. I submit that we are no longer writing the books we want to write. We no longer dare. We have one eye on our bank accounts and the other on our Amazon rankings. We’ve allowed ourselves to be tyrannized by numbers. Accountants have taken control of the publishing houses and when bureaucrats rule, art gets strangled. Who in this room has not been instructed to remove material from their last manuscript, I wonder? At Mischief and Mayhem, we document these instances, of publishers interfering with content. Not editing, but expunging. Reports of drastic editorial intervention are rising. One critic at a national magazine reports that she can sense a sea change. Books arrive on her desk, but they’re missing something. They are often flat, anemic. Their rough edges have been smoothed and polished to make them easier to swallow. Writers are succumbing to a commercial pressure so severe it is tantamount to censorship.
Walk into any gathering of writers today, including the PEN membership celebration, and ask. Ask a writer: is your editor or agent diluting your ideas?
Some of you are thinking: this woman is exaggerating. All of this is normal. Publishers ask for changes. They edit our books. That isn’t censorship.
I ask you to reconsider. When writers set aside our freedom to say what we want—to be spiky and edgy, to be unpopular, to be politically incorrect, to be ornery and dangerous… When we lose the courage to speak our minds, to write our books as we intend them—what is lost?
It is the imagination that is under threat. Innovation. And the possibility of dissent.