The Original Cancel Culture
- Alice Stephens
- June 22, 2020
When white people get agitated about cancel culture, I just have to laugh. It’s either that or scream.
Cancel culture describes the relatively recent phenomenon of public backlash so vociferous that it forces businesses to disassociate themselves from a product that is deemed offensive. Some have taken it up as a battle cry against what they regard as an insidious form of “politically correct” censorship. Accusations of cancel culture have particularly afflicted the publishing world.
We’ve heard defenders of Woody Allen vilifying cancel culture when his latest memoir was abruptly yanked by Hachette after widespread objections from its employees. (Within a matter of weeks, it was released by another publishing company.)
We hear it from those sticking up for Damon Suede, who was forced to resign as president of Romance Writers of America after an uproar over punitive disciplinary action meted out to a writer of color who called out racism among their ranks.
We hear it from those protesting Central Park Five prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein’s abandonment by her publisher and the withdrawal of a lifetime achievement award by Mystery Writers of America.
As marginalized voices well know, way before Allen, Suede, Fairstein, and Lionel Shriver, there was the original cancel culture, which relentlessly excluded minorities of all types from mainstream culture. The original cancel culture is the systemic racism that yet girds the most powerful purveyors of culture today and is endemic in the publishing industry.
As a book reviewer and an author, I find the most glaring and egregious example of the original cancel culture to be Washington Post’s top fiction critic Ron Charles’ impassioned essay condemning the outpouring of criticism against American Dirt, a novel about the trauma of illegal immigration from Mexico that was written by a white women.
Making unsubstantiated accusations of threats of physical harm, Charles employs fraught rhetoric as he writes of a “cowardly chorus of violence” (implying minorities’ latent tendencies toward savagery), denouncing free speech opinions as a “terrorizing” that is a “symptom of the collapse of our democracy” that should make (white) people very, very afraid.
This was written in 2020, three years into the presidency of the most openly racist commander-in-chief since desegregation.
But it’s even worse than that. About nine months before Charles decried the fall of civil discourse, actual white nationalists actually interrupted an actual book event at Politics and Prose, with no ensuing essay of outrage from the defender of “our democracy” (emphasis mine). Online outrage by those fed up with industry-wide racism was more alarming to Ron Charles than white nationalists chanting hateful slogans at a book event.
Charles is a prominent, deeply respected book critic with a very devoted following. I know readers who take his word as gospel and will or will not buy a book based on his review. In a survey of his book reviews for the Washington Post of the last six months (December 31, 2019, to June 15, 2020), I found that of the 22 books he reviewed, only three were by people of color, and those novels were all set in other countries. That’s fewer than one in seven books.
(Though I have not made a similar tally of all the Post’s book reviews, it is the opinion of this long-term subscriber that the paper does a dismal job with diversity in both the books they select to review and the reviewers hired to write them.)
This is our original cancel culture: white gatekeepers favoring white voices that cater to a white audience.
The original cancel culture is an overwhelmingly white publishing industry that enthusiastically promotes the stories and voices that they most identify with while ignoring those that are too difficult, too painful, too weird, or too radical for the pristine ears and fragile feelings of their coddled readership.
The original cancel culture is Jesmyn Ward fighting to get a $100,000 book advance after winning the National Book Award, while Jeanine Cummins was reported to have received $1 million for American Dirt.
The original cancel culture is editors at powerful media outlets who favor pitches that have “mass audience” appeal, ask for only uplifting articles about difficult subjects, and virtue signal by issuing urgent calls for works by writers of color only when the national conversation trends in that direction.
The original cancel culture is a vast overrepresentation of book reviews written by white reviewers reviewing white authors.
The original cancel culture is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette prohibiting two of its Black journalists from covering anti-racism rallies because they would be biased in their reporting. (In that case, no white journalists should cover NASCAR, Ted Nugent concerts, or Trump’s press conferences.)
The original cancel culture is insinuating that writers of color earned their contracts, acclaim, awards, and readership because of political correctness and reverse discrimination.
The original cancel culture is Penguin Books taking advantage of a copyright loophole to publish John Okada’s Japanese-American classic, No-No Boy, without sharing the profits with Okada’s family, as the University of Washington Press has done in the 30 years it has been publishing the novel.
The original cancel culture means that a feel-good, middle-grade book about white saviorism is voted the most-loved book in America, with Gone With the Wind (#6), The Help (#16), and Atlas Shrugged (#20) appearing before the first work written by a writer of color, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which is #27 (#19 is Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, originally published as Ten Little N-----s).
I could go on. And on. And on.
If America wishes to become that shining example of liberal society that Ron Charles and others envision, we must cancel the original cancel culture.
Alice Stephens is author of the novel Famous Adopted People.