Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Books

Bancroft: Free speech is not always pretty, but it is for everyone — including Milo Yiannopolous

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George Orwell tops bestseller lists with a 68-year-old book. A Margaret Atwood novel is cited on Women's March protest signs. And when inflammatory, self-described troll and Donald Trump partisan Milo Yiannopoulos gets a book contract, it sparks talk of a boycott against an entire publishing house.

Welcome to the brave new world of books in the time of Trump.

I never expected books to be making news as part of the onset of Trump's presidency. After all, he is by his own admission a man who rarely, if ever, reads books. (He pretty clearly has not read the bestselling Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.) Trump's name appears on the covers of more than a dozen books, but he didn't write them himself. One hundred and forty characters seems to be his authorial limit.

Yet Trump's administration so far has raised not only sales for some books but questions about free speech that have authors, publishers and readers wondering about the future. When the president's closest adviser tells the media to "shut up," countless writers and readers feel the icy tentacles of that attitude.

Can free speech survive if only some people get to have it?

For many readers, books have become a form of resistance. When Trump tweeted insults toward the civil rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis and his Atlanta district before the inauguration, Lewis' multiple-award-winning memoir, March, shot to the top of bestseller lists and sold out on Amazon, its sales increasing 10,000 percent.

On Jan. 22, Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway uttered the chilling phrase "alternative facts" on the air (no doubt as the clocks were striking 13). Within hours, George Orwell's 1984, a 1949 novel about a grim authoritarian government built upon the ruthless corruption of language and the knowing embrace of lies, got a 9,500 percent sales bump, selling out on Amazon. More than a week after Conway's remark, it was still No. 1.

The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's 1985 novel set in a totalitarian society that has enslaved women, is on the charts with a bullet. Atwood's publishers have printed 100,000 new copies to meet a demand that began to soar after the election, and the huge Women's March in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 21 was peppered with signs that referred to it, like "The Handmaid's Tale is NOT an Instruction Manual!"

Many authors turned out for the Women's March, from Jennifer Wiener in New York to Atwood in Toronto and Stephen King in Sarasota. During protests at airports over Trump's travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, such authors as Roxane Gay and Celeste Ng hit Twitter to offer to match donations to the American Civil Liberties Union.

J.K. Rowling, queen of Twitter, has there admonished Vice President Mike Pence to remember his own public opposition to such a ban just a year ago, tweaking him with a Bible verse about losing one's soul.

Even the dictionary has gotten in on it: For months, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's Twitter account has trolled Trump with tweets like this one after Conway's "alternative facts" spin: *whispers into the void* In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence.

Other responses were entirely serious. Megapublishers Penguin Random House and Hachette Book Group and industry magazine Publishers Weekly have offered to pay half their employees' membership fees to PEN America, a writers organization that defends press freedom. Hachette CEO Michael Pietsch observed that we are "in a climate where free speech is especially important."

Gay, a feminist and author, has said, "Books will be more important than ever as writers use words to hold this new administration accountable, to bear witness, to remember and remind us of history and to document the ways in which history is being repeated."

A few weeks before, Gay had been in the news alongside Yiannopoulos. The synopsis: Yiannopoulos is an editor for the Breitbart website, which critics say promotes white nationalism, and where until recently his boss was Steve Bannon, now Trump's chief strategist. Yiannopoulos got a $250,000 book contract from Simon & Schuster for a memoir titled Dangerous. A Greek-born British citizen, and a Trump supporter, he is a writer and public speaker in the insult-comic mode (sometimes in drag). His targets are progressives, women, people of color and — even though he is a gay immigrant from a Jewish family — gays, Jews and immigrants. Presales put the book on Amazon's bestseller list.

Simon & Schuster was also scheduled to publish How to Be Heard, one of three books Gay has coming out this year. After Yiannopoulos' book was announced, Gay withdrew hers in protest, saying "how egregious it is to give someone like Milo a platform for his blunt, inelegant hate and provocation."

On social media, her fans demanded his book be dropped, and some called for boycotts of all Simon & Schuster books. Some 160 authors and illustrators of books for young people who are published by Simon & Schuster sent Carolyn Reidy, its CEO and president, a letter of protest. The Chicago Review of Books vowed to no longer review books by any Simon & Schuster author, a list that includes Stephen King, Dan Brown, Jodi Picoult, Mary Higgins Clark, Jimmy Carter and many more.

Yiannopoulos' speech at the University of California, Berkeley was canceled Feb. 1 after some protesters set fires. Trump threatened to pull federal funding from the university for, he said, not protecting free speech. The next day, 1984 was knocked out of the No. 1 spot on Amazon — by Yiannopoulos' Dangerous.

I absolutely understand Gay's act of protest against the world view that Yiannopoulos represents, as I absolutely understand anyone who boycotts his book.

But a blackout on all Simon & Schuster authors? Demands that the company not publish the book? Sorry, I can't go there.

Punishing other authors who have nothing to do with Yiannopoulos — especially those who are outspoken about their own progressive politics, such as King and Picoult — makes no sense.

Simon & Schuster already publishes a number of right-wing writers, including Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Michelle Malkin and Trump himself. It also publishes a huge range of other writers; it recently announced that, in the fall, it will publish a collection of essays by Hillary Clinton.

One other thing: None of the people calling for a boycott have read Dangerous, and trying to censor something pre-emptively seems a very slippery slope. Not that I'm holding my breath for a literary surprise resonant with empathy and insight, but there is that old saw about not judging a book by its cover photo on Amazon.

Simon & Schuster should publish Yiannopoulos' book, because it's the right thing to do, and he'd just find another publisher anyway. And a broadside boycott of his publisher's entire list gives him way more importance than he deserves. After a few days at the top of Amazon's sales after the Berkeley incident, his book was dethroned — by The Handmaid's Tale.

Yes, his views are repugnant to many people. He's a troll — this is the guy who was permanently banned from Twitter for his vicious racist attacks on actor Leslie Jones. He's better groomed than most trolls, but just a troll nevertheless, blinking in the sun for his 15 minutes.

And free speech is free speech. Deny it to anyone, and you open the door for those who would deny it to all. We need the books now, every one of them.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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