Squealer’s paintbrush.

Here are two interesting literary anecdotes that I recently heard:

One: When George Orwell wrote Animal Farm, he had great difficulty getting it published in the UK in the early 40’s. Why? Because Animal Farm was a pretty scathing satire of Soviet Russia, and Russia was Britain’s ally at the moment against the Axis forces.

This so incensed Orwell (who himself was, ironically, sympathetic to socialist ideas) that he wrote an embittered preface to the book decrying the squashing of free speech in Britain. (The fact that the link above points to a Russian web address makes me happy.)

This is a 20th-century example of how censorship of ideas that are considered “inappropriate” is not always done at the state level. The gatekeepers of society will do the black-lining themselves.

Two: And now, a 21st-century example: when science fiction author Nick Cole used the concept of abortion as the motivation for a group of sentient robots to turn against humanity in his novel, the editor at HarperVoyager (a division of Harper Collins) was so shocked and “deeply offended” that they removed the novel from production. Cole was told that, if he did not change the motivation for the villains of his novel so that it did not involve the concept of abortion, his novel essentially wouldn’t be published. Cole responded by taking his novel to Amazon and self-publishing there. Yay freedom of the press! (And this isn’t an endorsement of the novel–I haven’t read it, or anything else by Cole. I’m just telling the story.)


Here’s where I’m struggling with this: as a conservative Christian, I don’t like the idea of publishers trying to silence ideas that are politically or culturally taboo…when they’re ideas I might endorse. However, if we change the content under discussion to something I personally find morally offensive or profane, I have to confess I would be more amenable to the “responsibility of publishers to protect the public good.”

And one could rightly ask the question: Do I think a private business should be allowed to make decisions about those with whom it will or will not do business, based on the deeply-held beliefs of the company culture? Can I be consistent in holding such a position?

Maybe what I’m getting at is this: in all these issues of moral conscience and public policy, we need to consider if we’re being consistent, or if we’re just supporting the position that benefits us the most, no matter how it contradicts our other “strongly-held beliefs.” (If you want, you can hash all that out in the comments, with the usual conditions in place.)

I wonder if the truth is that we all like the rules of the farm as long as we’re the pig on the ladder with the paintbrush. 

5 thoughts on “Squealer’s paintbrush.

  1. I like the analogy at the end, but I’d prefer to be the spider making the webs with the messages, than the pig.

  2. I skimmed the blog post about the guy whose novel didn’t get published. I think he’s being intentionally naive to claim that his novel isn’t making a statement about abortion. If the whole point was to create some motivation for the robots to find humans threatening, leading to the main story of the novel, the robot’s revolt, there are about 100 less inflammatory ways to do that. Okay, so you’re the writer and this is the story you want to tell, but you can’t force everyone to enter your (ambivalent?) mindset. There are schools of thought about whether it’s good or bad writing to ignore your audience’s pre-existing prejudices, and I fall more on the side of saying it’s bad writing. As a writer, we need to be very aware of those prejudices and work with them. So sorry: abortion won’t just be a little technicality in why robots suddenly want to kill humans, Cole. Maybe you should take a writing hiatus to observe the current political climate. Or, just self-publish, like you did. But to claim Harper was “effectively banning a book” and was lame to be concerned about “losing 50% of his audience”…

    I get it: robots finding abortion offensive, totally valid. Robot logic, who can predict it? Is it interesting as a concept? Yes. Was Harper overreacting? Maybe, maybe not. Publishers make the weirdest, wrongest decisions. They make a lot of right decisions, but the wrong ones get more publicity.

    Now, I don’t think a publisher not publishing a book because the ideas won’t be marketable and a florist not selling flowers to a gay person because they think gay marriage is sinful is in the same ballpark. Publishers peddle books they think will sell. They often do that poorly, but that’s what they do. Has anyone ever thought florists are in the business of making sure their flowers find a good home?

    In America, there’s this thing we have where “all men are created equal.” We’ve been figuring out over the years that “men” means other things: “women” and “black” and “gay.” If it’s part of your private life, in America, you can’t (or shouldn’t) be treated differently for it. Including one’s religion.

    (I’m not going to get into affirmative action in this particular comment. 100+ years of lawful oppression by the government is a special circumstance.)

    So, to do business in America… “American ethics” is just something you’re going to have to work with, otherwise you can choose to not to do business in America. Or, you can be sly about it. Which, of course, happens all the time and there’s nothing to be done for it. But, you can’t openly be un-American about your business practices. Sorry. This is America.

    And, I mean goods and services. Things like artistic patronage are always going to be weird.

    I haven’t mentioned straight-only pastors being forced to marry gay people because I don’t believe this is something that would ever happen, for the same reason publishers can choose to not publish a novel about abortion causing robots to destroy us, for the same reason Catholic priests can choose to not marry non-Catholics. You might reply, “Oh but that might happen,” and I guess anything *might* happen, but then I’m going to opt out of having a discussion with you. (The royal you.)

    It was really interesting for me to think through this enough to write a comment out. I enjoyed your juxtaposition of these scenarios! 🙂 And on your last point, I think religious people should specifically be the *last* people to put laws in place okaying the discrimination of people based on beliefs. That could very easily turn sour for them.

  3. Oh, and as a writer… This is just the strategic whining of someone who has a large-enough audience to make a good PR move. The narrative of the evil publisher. The American goal of success on one’s own merit. The artistic integrity. “I am a writer. No. One. Will. Ever. Bully. Me.”

    He is not a dumb man. He is also no longer someone who would pluck their left eye out to be published by the Big 6.

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