Beware of Books!
A new moralism is gripping the literary world, treating grownups like children
Literature used to be a place for transgressive ideas, a place to question taboos, and seek naked insights into humanity. It no longer is.
Critics, writers and publishers are today enforcing a new vision that treats books less as a vehicle for artistic expression than as a product to be inspected for safety and wholesomeness. In the past few years, this has only gained momentum, with much of what is written about literature, old and new, becoming a series of moral pronouncements.
The new literary moralism made early appearances in young-adult fiction, or YA. Back in 2017, the industry magazine Kirkus Reviews revoked a prestigious starred review of the YA novel American Heart after online denunciations. The chastened critic posted a revised review, now deeming it “problematic” that the author had written of a Muslim girl from the point of view of a white protagonist. Other young-adult authors have since withdrawn books from publication for the self-confessed sin of writing about marginalized characters without belonging to the same identity group.
Perhaps it’s understandable that those in YA publishing would feel a duty of care: Children are vulnerable and unformed, and kids’ books have always been a place for didactic storytelling and safe themes. The problem is that many in the book world—often with a sincere wish to address inequality—have expanded both the notion of what is “offensive” and whose reading must be morally patrolled: It’s the adults too.
Take the reaction last year to Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling novel American Dirt, about a Mexican woman and her son who escape a cartel and find themselves among the migrants and refugees trying to reach the United States. Major publications were fulsome with praise, many suggesting that the novel’s value lay in its potential to humanize immigrants. The writer Sandra Cisneros said in a blurb, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel!” Attention only increased when Oprah Winfrey announced that she would feature it in her book club.
But a scathing blog post emerged from the writer and activist Myriam Gurba: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” Gurba reported that simply reading a publisher’s letter for American Dirt had made her so angry her “blood became carbonated.” She went on to argue that Cummins, a white American woman with some Puerto Rican background, had no business writing about a culture and identity group to which she didn’t belong.
The critical consensus soon flipped.
Already, the novelist Lauren Groff—writing in the New York Times Book Review in January 2020—seemed uneasy about her assignment. “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book,” Groff wrote, noting that neither she nor the author were Mexican migrants. “In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant.”
Some 142 writers signed an open letter imploring Winfrey to rescind her book-club selection, citing “harm this book can and will do,” arguing that it engaged in “trauma fetishization.” Apparently, the book was no longer an urgent remedy to American xenophobia. Rather, Cummins was a cultural appropriator, and her book a collection of harmful stereotypes.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who is chair of English at the University of Southern California, has pressed fellow authors to repurpose their writing into progressive advocacy. The only respectable goal of contemporary literature, he suggested in a New York Times essay last December, is to bring change through “the kind of critical and political work that unsettles whiteness and reveals the legacies of colonialism.” Poetry and fiction that fail to advance politics (specifically, his politics) descend from a legacy of whiteness, conquest and genocide, he said, and they amount to little more than ditties about flowers and the moon.
This mindset isn’t confined to writers and critics. Increasingly, literary agents and editors are nervously evaluating the kinds of authors and stories they are comfortable with, and publishers seek to protect themselves by employing “sensitivity readers,” who scour unpublished fiction for offensive themes, characterizations or language. This moral, rather than artistic, gatekeeping means that some books never even get close enough to publication to be canceled.
The writer Bruce Wagner—a successful author of numerous novels and screenplays, such as Maps to the Stars—says that his editor at Counterpoint Press objected to his latest novel due to “problematic language” regarding a protagonist who weighs over 500 pounds and refers to herself as “fat.” Wagner chose instead to publish his book, The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories, for free online. (Counterpoint did not respond to my requests for comment.)
In March 2020, staff at the publishing house Hachette in New York, including employees of Little Brown and Grand Central Publishing, walked out over the planned publication of Woody Allen’s memoir, Apropos of Nothing, because the film director was the subject in the early 1990s of a molestation allegation, for which he was twice investigated without charge. Hachette caved to employees’ demands and canceled the release, which Allen later published elsewhere.
In November, the Canadian division of Penguin Random House held a townhall meeting to defend its decision to publish the psychologist and conservative self-help author Jordan Peterson. Even though several employees broke down in tears, the book went ahead.
Most recently, the publisher of Dr. Seuss books announced that it would no longer print six of the late author’s works because of racially stereotypical illustrations. The Washington Post book critic Ron Charles approved, adding, “We will have to get rid of other things, too.” Days later, eBay announced they would no longer allow the sale of the six books on their platform, and the Chicago Public Library said it would suspend lending of the books.
The above cases are each distinct. You may agree with how the book world responded in some instances, and disagree in others. But what these cases convey is how much the literary establishment is struggling with a dread of “harm,” related both to content and authors. It speaks to the spreading sense that it thinks of itself as carrying out a moral mission, whose standards are those of progressive activism.
There’s nothing new about the denunciation of ideas and authors in the name of morality. It’s a power that has always been used by those seeking to assert cultural dominance.
Two thousand years before the advent of mass print publishing, Socrates was sentenced to drink poison for having polluted the minds of the YA community of Athens. From the mid-16th century until 1966, the Catholic Church maintained its Index Librorum Prohibitorum, a list of prohibited books. Over the past century, the establishment used anti-obscenity laws to ban Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Norman Mailer couldn’t depict soldiers cursing in his World War II novel The Naked and the Dead because it would be “obscene.” The likes of Native Son and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest were stricken from school curricula for their political subversiveness and perceived vulgarity. Meanwhile, all totalitarian states suppress transgressive writing, sometimes trying to do so across borders, as when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989.
When I was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, the social conservatives of the Moral Majority patrolled the virtue of the American reading public. They were especially exercised by the subject of witchcraft and sorcery, and found a nemesis in Harry Potter. Some organized public burnings of J.K. Rowling’s books. Such right-wing censoriousness hasn’t disappeared: Conservative attacks on literature are still common with respect to books for young people that present LGBTQ characters and themes in a positive light.
What is new, though, is the trend of policing books for social goodness from within the left-leaning literary community—the very people whom we entrust to steer the course of our artistic and intellectual culture.
Those currently burning Rowling’s books aren’t the religious right but members of the progressive left, angered by her comments about gender and trans issues. Numerous articles have asked if it still is permissible in good conscience to enjoy not only Harry Potter, but Rowling’s latest adult detective thriller, Troubled Blood. Reviewers have scoured the text for signs of her alleged transphobia, many noticing that one character, as a Los Angeles Times reviewer pointed out, is “a male serial killer known to have worn a dress.”
“Is that enough to say the author is transphobic?” the reviewer asked, citing various elements in the novel. “Perhaps.” A better question is this: Is it the role of a book reviewer to parse texts for insight into an author’s morality? It’s not far from looking for satanic messages in rock ‘n’ roll. And even if heavy-metal songs were rooting for the devil, should people have been prevented from hearing them?
This new literary moralism isn’t only scrutinizing contemporary writing for evidence of sin; it’s looking to the past as well. #DisruptTexts, a group dedicated to helping teachers “challenge the traditional canon,” talks of “problematic depictions” in Shakespeare, and complains of The Great Gatsby being defined by the white male gaze. If applied fully, that objection would wipe out innumerable works of literature—including many containing moral messages that progressives would endorse.
Does the canon of classics suffer from a lack of diversity? Absolutely. But canons expand with each generation. We don’t simply let old works drop off the back end. And a canon includes books not because they are virtuous, but because they are in complex conversation with one another, or are mighty in their own terms. Writers who broke the canonical color barrier—from W.E.B. Du Bois to Toni Morrison—didn’t do so by tearing up what came before, but by asserting that they too had a place in that long conversation.
Even literary traditionalists like Harold Bloom often had more expansive views than activists like those at #DisruptTexts might give them credit for. As the National Book Award-winner Andrew Solomon wrote after Bloom’s death, the critic “admired the work of Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe and other writers of color; and to say that someone who lionized Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop and Tony Kushner was ignoring LGBT voices seems at best perilously naïve.”
One point that nearly all of these controversies, cancellations, and critical analyses share is that they are ostensibly seeking justice, particularly concerning race. Bigotry and related social ills are worth serious attention. But treating literature according to political goals—and doing so in fear of a righteous online mob—devalues art in meaningful ways. It makes writers fearful of exploring perspectives outside simplistic definitions of their own identity, or of inhabiting morally complex characters or themes. And it diminishes the prospects of the reader too, restricting the scope of books to narrow conceptions of power and privilege.
If we expect literature to fix social problems, we wrongly imagine it as a wrench that might twist the world into a more pleasing position. This is to misunderstand art, which challenges and expands our sense of the world, rather than simplifying it. Art forces us to see with complexity. In return, we must accept that no easy solution awaits. Profound writing is never just an answer.
None of this is to say that the inequities of our time can’t be addressed by other means—through economics and elections, through debate and compromise. But we must ask ourselves: Is this frenzy for censure, moralizing, and a seemingly endless expansion of the definition of harm, how we’ll correct current disparities and historical wrongs? Is this how we intend to talk about art from now on? Which is to say, we’d just talk politics, and hardly mention art at all.
Otis Houston lives in Portland, Oregon. His writing on books and culture can be seen at the Los Angeles Review of Books.