Episode 109: Cancel Culture and Writers’ Work

On August 22, 2020, Kasie and Rex tip-toed up on Cancel Culture and its effect on writers’ work and careers. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

The Moral Imperative – Part 2: Authors Gone Wild?


  • Join our community on Patreon
  • Last week re-cap
  • Cancel culture and writers
  • Your work and You: the same?
  • The important role of free speech in our profession
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

So last week we talked about “the moral imperative” a term Rex found elitist and bougie so we ended up more talking about morality in general and whether it is constant or varies. Compelling stuff.

But there was a segment of the show notes we didn’t get to, which was what happens when beloved authors — beloved for their work — turn out to not be very good people. 

We’re not the first show to take on so-called “cancel culture” and every radio host, podcast host, and blogger has an opinion. To say nothing of Facebook crusaders (facepalm). So we’ll try to keep ours specifically to three things:

  1. Authors, writers, and publishing industry suchness
  2. The moral imperative conversation — what role does art play in creating (or reflecting) culture?
  3. Can a writer “win” in this environment or is it best to just lay low?

On the third thing, specifically, the people who take on cancel culture get scorched, so we’ll talk about the pros and cons of entering the debate.

I have a feeling Rex thinks writers should just put their heads down and write but I don’t think we can separate the art — the stories, the novels, the books we’re trying to sell — from the society into which we’re pedaling them.

We’re not going to be the only ones talking about this, either. So I’ve pulled these Google search terms to see what we get:

  • Cancel culture + author
  • Disgraced author
  • How is cancel culture affecting publishing?
  • What do publishers do when an author is disgraced?

We’ll see what happens.

First, it’s a literary community aspiration to create a work that will stand the test of time, and MFA programs and writing professors discourage use of transient things like technology or social trends, cliches, etc. because it “dates the work.”

That said, a LOT of commercial work is just fine with being dated and using the slang, pop culture, and technology references that would indicate the work is from a specific era. 

Why does it matter? Attitudes change. The way people speak to one another, how they treat one another, the derogatory language of an era are all clues to what society valued.

From literature, we can take Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and the way Stella puts up with her brute of a husband, Stanley, because of the stability he offers — a roof over her head, money and food. She has no means by which to provide those things for herself, and she makes sacrifices to receive them from him. When her sister, Blanche, challenges Stanley’s brutishness and her sisters’ acceptance of it, Stanley makes it very clear that snobbery is a luxury and she can’t afford it.

In modern times, we would expect Stella to be more resourceful, to protect herself and her sister from Stanley. We take for granted education, workforce opportunity, and birth control — all things that gave women more resources than they had in previous generations. Is it fair to judge Stella by our modern standards?

Segment 2

So Cancel Culture is the idea that an individual has done or said something offensive and should be appropriately shamed. But the level of “appropriate” is where we get into trouble. For example, the radio announced from Cincinnati who this week used the word “fag” on a hot mike and has been virally-excoriated by social media. And this kind of pile-on, the mob mentality of digital shaming, is like a wildfire. Targets are almost a lottery and the outcomes are so arbitrary that it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

Are you a bystander in this? Or are you a participant? How can you tell?

I’d say if you’ve shared, liked, or commented on a social media post that is shaming an individual, you’re a participant. Regardless of who the individual is or what the individual has done.

This article from LAST SUMMER asks how writers can keep up with the demands of the new inclusivity-first culture of publishing.

So is inclusivity a marketing tactic? Is canceling another marketing game?

The article linked above lists multiple authors who lost opportunities for their own personal (social media) behavior which begs the question we raised in the Author Branding episode — is the brand you

If your social media is you and your author work is you, then should you protect the author work by reining in the social media you?

Says the author of the article above, “Here, just as in film or music or any other artistic arena, creators and consumers of the products of publishing are not only molded by, but evaluated by the standards of the greater context in which they operate.” — but should it be that way?

Would authors like Pat Conroy have survived the cancel culture of today? You’re told “build a platform” and go online so you can find readers and if you’re online, you’re not just supposed to say, “buy my book,” a million times, but if what you say besides that is something ugly, or not socially acceptable, then you’re risking your career.

Worse, if your work misrepresents a culture, a circumstance, or a ‘protected’ minority, you will be labeled with that mistake.

Segment 3

I was asked if After December was a “me too” book. Not even a little bit. Readers might not like how Brian treats the women in the book but he has a right to be a jerk and those women are consenting adults who have a right to walk away.

Which brings us to the freedom piece of this — freedom of speech specifically — is there a line? 

Have we become so intolerant we no longer value freedom of speech (as this author suggests)? Key elements to “self actualization” include 1) the ability to freely express ourselves, and 2) the freedom to make mistakes and self-correct. We need the benefit of the doubt — a phrase that means others extend us GRACE or tolerance, because they know we are learning.

If we are to grow, intellectually, we need to try new ideas, think new thoughts, consider alternatives, test them even, and then accept or reject them. Without the freedom to consider new ideas, we have no hope of growth or improvement.

“If we don’t try to solve the fundamental problem behind the speech that we dislike and work only to mitigate the symptom — by censoring it — we drive the problem somewhere else. Out of sight, out of mind and into the gutter: Untoward ideas silenced by polite society inevitably go underground. They don’t disappear simply because we don’t like them and censor them. Worse, silencing these ideas might mean stifling knowledge about their very existence. That helps make bad ideas fester, spread and mutate before they can be countered with facts, logic and evidence.”

If we’re good-old-fashioned libertarian (lowercase “l”) free speech people, then we think even the outrageous should be allowed to be said, heard, considered, and argued.

What about the argument that free speech extremists are sometimes hiding behind their “right” to free speech to maintain a kind of power imbalance (link)? Alarmist phrases like, “where will it end?” are red flags that the ‘free speech defender’ may really just end up perpetuating a dynamic of irrationality.

Journalist Matt Taibbi takes on the idea of media (press, journalists) losing their way in pushing against free speech with this take. He talks about colleagues turning on a reporter for reporting something someone else had said that questioned the black lives matter movement. So now the reporters (writers) can’t even write about opposing viewpoints? They have to simply echo the popular position?

Finally, what’s the role of “listening” in free speech? If you’re upset by what someone has said, what are your options? 1) walk away or turn it off, 2) engage in the debate by calling in, emailing, or posting something, or 3) shame them to your own circle but refrain from open dialogue with the offender? Not sure 3 is an effective strategy but it seems to be where we are right now. Well, 3 and 4) publicly shame them, harass them, and call upon others including their employer to publish them.


Lots to unpack here as well

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