January 20, 2015

Two for Tuesday: the publishers are anxious!


( via Shutterstock)

(via Shutterstock)

Mark: Hi Alex! Did anything happen last week, other than the release of another Clint Eastwood movie I probably won’t see? (I should say that my objections aren’t sniper-related, Iraq-related, or chair-related so much as Million Dollar Baby-related. Have you seen Million Dollar Baby? It’s impossible to watch more Clint Eastwood movies after watching Million Dollar Baby.)

Alex: I have not seen Million Dollar Baby, though I’ve always lauded Eastwood for casting himself as Charles Lindbergh.

OK, I just checked IMDB and can confirm that I have not seen any movies Clint Eastwood directed, though I did recently watch the first 40 minutes of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil when I was in Savannah (god, that’s so embarrassing to type). It was really bad! I did not like it, though I did like that Kevin Spacey was apparently playing Jay Gatsby in it? I thought that was a playful touch!

Anyway, I suppose we should briefly introduce whatever the hell this is. Basically we’re going to do one of these once a week (probably on Tuesdays) and talk about stories we may or may not have missed from the previous week/stories from today that we don’t feel like blogging about. I want to call it “Two for Tuesday” even though that doesn’t make sense because classic rock is cool.

Mark: If you had told me ahead of time that this was going to be called “Two for Tuesdays,” I would have never agreed to it. But now it’s too late. But ugh, what a stupid, stupid name. Just terrible. Michael Schaub is going to make fun of us, and he’ll be right.

Okay, what did we miss? I’d say that we should start with Amazon and Woody Allen, but that’s too depressing, so let’s talk instead about something we have written about over the last couple of weeks: anxious publishers. One publisher left Israel off a map, another told its writers to stay away from culturally sensitive topics, and in what seems like a related incident, the Oxford Junior Dictionary admitted that it had gotten rid of many words because they were no longer relevant. What’s going on here?

Alex: You can sum up most stories about the publishing industry as stories about “anxious publishers.” Publishers are really anxious! Even Penguin Random House, the largest publishing house in human history (and then some!) was essentially created out of anxiety. Everyone is really anxious in the publishing industry! I am on my seventh Lexapro of the day. I can’t stop shaking Mark! I keep falling out of my chair.

Before delving into this a little bit more it’s worth making note of one thing: these are interesting stories but they’re also, to my mind at least, mostly bullshit ones. They’re stories that became stories because a bunch of conservative reactionaries took them wildly out of context to fit existing narratives about the relationship between political correctness and the rise of that most awkward of awkward terms, Islamism. They’ve become stories because they’ve been framed with bullshit. But we’re talking about them because of that bullshit frame, so whatever, let’s get our hands dirty.

You highlighted a really interesting and thoughtful response from Oxford University Press’s Jane Harley yesterday that is very much worth reading. In that piece she had this to say:

Managing cultural sensitivities isn’t about reducing educational quality, pandering to minority views, restricting freedom of speech or self-censorship. It’s about ensuring the educational value of our publishing is able to navigate the maze of cultural norms for the benefit of students around the world. We want to ensure we can make the widest possible impact.

I’m going to take that response at face value, but my question for you is: is that how that balance should work? And is that what’s going on here?

Mark: First, Alex, please stop it with the Lexapro. I don’t understand who you found to prescribe you so many drugs, but it’s a problem. As usual, I blame Canada. Second, it’s worth noting that in at least one of these cases, the balance of misunderstanding to Actual Horrible Crime Against Free Speech committed leans heavily toward the former. The Oxford University Press dustup was based on an internal document that didn’t seem binding and seemed, mostly, like a tool to help authors have some basic guidance. But that’s what tends to happen in these cases–overreaction is always the more appealing option.

But look, we should also be clear about what exactly we’re talking about. Academic publishers are naturally going to skew their material to specific parts of the world. One thing (the only thing!) I’ve always liked about standardized tests is the diversity of the names in the questions. I’m sure that there are reactionaries who are mad that good, all-American names like Bobby, Jeb, and Rand don’t appear with greater frequency, but this strikes me as a wholly sensible editorial decision. But it’s also clearly an editorial decision. Same goes, I think, for a pork-related math problem in a textbook intended for a country in the Middle East. If the mention of bacon will seem both weird and distracting to a student, I don’t think an omission constitutes a grand, horrific act of censorship.

And we should be clear about what we’re not talking about. No one is telling novelists what to include in or exclude from their work. I, for one, would encourage more literary novels about bacon-eating contests and pork belly, but that’s just me.

The map thing, though. I draw a line at the map thing.

Alex: The map thing is just straight up lowest common denominator pandering and I feel bad that Harper had to deal with that shit.

I want to talk about the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s decision to cut nature words in a second, but first I think it’s worth bringing in another big publishing story from this month: the amazing success of Michel Houellebecq’s novel in France. I am going to politely call it “arguably Islamophobic” even though it is, well, definitely arguably Islamophobic (I don’t speak French for obvious reasons so I don’t know for sure). Either way, Houellebecq has a history of arguable Islamophobia—who knows whether that’s deeply felt (I suspect it is) or just part of his well-cultivated raconteur image (his actual image: a wet Gauloise).

Either way, while we’re hand-wringing about what words are in dictionaries and what books have pictures of pigs in them and whether or not Israel is in this map and not this map, a book that is arguably Islamophobic and inarguably incredibly controversial has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I suspect that there are a few reasons why that’s happened. One is fairly obvious: fiction and nonfiction play by different rules, and commercial fiction and academic nonfiction play by very different rules.

But there’s something interesting going on here. Houellebecq wrote a provocative book that may very well be hateful but he’s being celebrated for it, while fairly modest decisions made by academic presses have been greeted with outrage. Why do we celebrate someone for writing something (ugh I keep having to say “arguably’ but c’mon) hateful and lambast someone else for trying their hardest to appease everyone? Maybe outrage culture just moves in strange ways: one person’s deliberate attempt to cause outrage is celebrated as an example of freedom of speech in action while another’s attempt to suppress it is seen as a move to suppress freedom of speech. Is that just how freedom works? Deliberately alienating people is rewarded while deliberately trying not to alienate people is denigrated?

Mark: On the subject of freedom, I defer mostly to the political theorists Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who wrote that freedom isn’t free, and that it “costs a buck ‘o five.”

Oh, I’m not a snarky teenager anymore and I have to have substantive responses to questions? Dammit.

You know, I find all of this interesting in light of David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules, which we’re publishing next month. (I promise that this isn’t a shameless plug!) Graeber has a lot of fascinating things to say about our relationship with bureaucracies and bureaucrats, and ever since reading the book, I’ve been making connections with just about everything I encounter, validly or not.

So, yes, I think you’re right that the truth-telling provocateur will always be treated with more respect and deference than the consensus-building committee. There is, I think, a great skepticism of groups of individuals who make decisions on behalf of others (Graeber cites a wonderful example of Bill Clinton’s complicated relationship with the term “government bureaucrats”), which is often warranted but just as often isn’t. In this case, the bureaucrats who are trying to control (nay, suppress!) human knowledge come off much worse than the lone asshole (and he may not be an Islamophobe, but Houellebecq *is* an asshole. And I like his writing!) who is speaking on behalf of truth and freedom. That these categories are basically meaningless in a case like this (because for one thing, the “truth” of Houellebecq’s novel is surely questionable) doesn’t render them any less convincing. They’re very flawed, but they’re the categories we know.

Alex: I like his writing, too! Sometimes a lot! I just remember being shocked that we were talking about Oxford University Press last week and not Michel Houellebecq—though that may largely be due to the fact that, ya know, the book isn’t out in English yet (shouts to FSG).

I’m glad you brought up Graeber, both because it was a solid plug for a great book  and because it transitions nicely into the Oxford Junior Dictionary story, which Zeljka Marosevic wrote a great piece about last week. To sum up: people freaked out because they thought words relating to pigs were being removed, when in fact nature words were being removed and replaced with words relating to technology. The compilers of the dictionary argued that nature words were no longer relevant, while tech words were super relevant.

In Zeljka’s piece she referenced a letter that argued that the decision spoke to “the increasing disconnect between children’s lives and natural play and interaction with the outdoors.” That’s certainly true, but it also speaks to a growing sense that the future of the economy is purely digital (Ha-Joon Chang has forcefully argued that this is not true) and that the only kinds of education that are worthwhile are those that are “practical”—that is, that lead to a job in an increasingly digital, neoliberal economy. Maybe I’m just being a reactionary Marxist but that strikes me as a controversial decision.

Mark: I think that’s right, though here, too, I’m sure that the dictionary’s editors’ intentions were somewhat modest. I doubt that they were sitting around imagining a future free of nature and rich with jobs in the booming precariat and permalance sectors. This, in some ways, is another example of a modest change whose implications grow with a corresponding loss of context. But in this instance, yes, even if one grants that the change is modest, it’s sinister as hell. I know absolutely nothing about editing dictionaries, and it might well be the case that these kinds of substitutions have always occurred because you can’t keep adding page signatures or shrinking the type. I get that. But this particular story is why, for all the annoyance, misinterpretation, and misguided outrage that these stories produce, I think that public scrutiny is a great thing. Did many people overreact? Yes. But am I glad that the editors received some pushback that they likely wouldn’t have gotten otherwise? Yes!

Alex: Yeah, I think it’s worth pointing out that I don’t see this as an intentional decision or a plot or a neoliberal cabbal or whatever, just a reflection of a trend that makes me sad. Kids should learn the word “sycamore.” That’s a really great word!

We’ve got to wrap this sucker up, but it’d be a shame if we didn’t bring up that weird Amazon debate between the four greatest Amazon thinkers of all time: Matt Yglesias, Joe Konrath, Frank Foer, and Scott Turow. I didn’t watch it because it seemed like a huge waste of time. That’s all I think I have to say about it? Except that Laura Hazard Owen’s coverage was fucking wonderful. Otherwise, nope. Nothing. That’s it.

Mark: I, too, didn’t watch it, but based on Laura Hazard Owen’s report and Sarah Weinman’s, I think it’s clear that I missed nothing. Why would the organizers of a debate hire, as one of their participants, someone who was broadly criticized for his ignorance of the topic at hand? Perhaps we’ll figure out an answer to that question in our next installment. But probably not.

Alex: Na, I’m going to try to avoid talking about Yglesias. But what I’m not going to avoid is living up to the very stupid name of this very new series. Here are two songs from Humble Pie: