Books

The Thought Police Come for Individual Lines of Dialogue in Novels

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Cowed by online complaints, two authors agree to withdraw passages from already-published books. The precedent is alarming.

Here’s a bit of a watershed in American publishing: Social-media commenters are now successfully editing already-published books in order to alter the remarks of fictional characters.

It’s unbelievable, yet true: Best-selling writer Elin Hilderbrand, who writes beach books with titles suggesting upper-middle-class-white-lady luxury, was so cowed by a few posts on Instagram complaining about a passage in one of her books that she agreed to strike the language from future editions.

In her latest novel, Golden Girl, one of Hilderbrand’s characters makes a mildly tasteless joke about Anne Frank: Examining an attic where a friend has offered her a place to stay for a summer, “Vivi” says, “You’re suggesting I hide here all summer? Like . . . like Anne Frank?” The omniscient narrator of the book follows up, “This makes them both laugh — but is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?”

Anne Frank jokes are hardly a new phenomenon, and as Frank is something like the Jewish equivalent of a saint, she has been the inspiration for outré and ribald humor. In 2019, the Harvard Lampoon published (and later apologized for) a photoshopped image that Kardashianized Frank by joining her face to the body of a bikini model. Hilderbrand’s joke was tame by the standards of the genre.

“As a Jewish woman, one who lost 18 members of her family in the holocaust I’m disgusted in you as a publisher that you allowed that line to be published. It’s inexcusable,” Instagram user Cecile Leana wrote to Hilderbrand on Instagram. This was enough for Publishers Weekly, which posted an article citing that comment and one other as evidence of “readers angered.”

Tying an author to the views expressed by fictional characters represents a breathtaking new advance for the cause of asininity in our culture. Hilderbrand’s response should have been to remind all readers that Norman Lear is not Archie Bunker, and her publishing house Little, Brown should have clarified that it does not submit its published books for re-editing by the mob.

Instead, Hilderbrand unwisely groveled, apologized, and said the reference to Anne Frank would be stripped from the novel in future editions. “I want to wholeheartedly apologize for this,” she wrote on Instagram. “It was meant as hyperbole but was a poor choice, that was offensive and tasteless. I have asked my publisher to remove the passage from digital versions of the book immediately and from all future printings.” Mentioning her children, she said, “I want them to be proud of every word.”

This development is not just discouraging, it’s alarming. Little, Brown is one of America’s most formidable literary houses, having published Evelyn Waugh, J. D. Salinger, Tom Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Gore Vidal, and P. G. Wodehouse. We should shiver at the prospect of rancorous readers now feeling emboldened to pore over everything anyone has ever published looking to sanitize the thoughts and dialogue of every fictional character.

An even more craven and idiotic retraction was pressed upon a different author over another throwaway line, this time for the thoughtcrime of “normalizing Israel” by referring to its existence. In Casey McQuiston’s 2019 novel Red, White & Royal Blue, a fictional U.S. president is heard to say, “Well, my UN ambassador f***ed up his one job and said something idiotic about Israel, and now I have to call Netanyahu and personally apologize.” A Twitter user with 738 followers complained that the line “normalizes the genocide & war crimes done by Israel that will always be backed up & unashamedly supported by America.” Another Twitter user, this one with 1,329 followers, quoted the passage while suggesting McQuiston “could have simply not said this in their book,” adding in a follow-up tweet, “Stop being stupid. @casey_mcquiston do better.”

McQuiston, an ardent progressive whose author page offers a link to a group that solicits bail funds for accused criminals while “working towards a world without prisons, policing, prosecution, surveillance or any form of detention or supervision,” replied meekly, “I wrote this line as a dig at US presidential diplomacy. It was an attempt to punch up at liberal American politics, not a statement of my beliefs. I could and should have made that clearer. It has been changed for all future printings.”

Like many other trends in the New York-based book business, where major houses have proven willing to cancel books on the eve of publication if they inspire the slightest controversy, young-adult novels regularly inspire insane social-media campaigns that attack the very idea of authorial imagination and sometimes succeed in causing books to be withdrawn, and employees petition their bosses to pull books by high-ranking public officials on grounds that anyone on the right side of the political fence is a bigot, the new tendency represents a sickening affront to the spirit of publishing. Woke mobs should be ignored, or told to grow up; instead, they’re being indulged. They will grow ever bolder as more authors and publishing houses effectively cede control of their works to the least reasonable readers.

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