Authors angry after Susan Hill accuses bookshop of anti-Trump censorship

The novelist pulled out of an event at the Book Hive in Norwich because of its giveaway of books promoting resistance, prompting consternation from her peers

Authors including Joanne Harris, Patrick Ness and Sarah Perry have leaped to the defence of a Norwich bookseller after Susan Hill launched an extraordinary attack on it for “opposing” US president Donald Trump.

In an article pubished in the Spectator, The Woman in Black writer said she had cancelled an event to promote her latest novel, From the Heart, after discovering the shop would be giving away copies of novels by writers opposed to Trump’s politics, including George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

But the move backfired after Norwich independent the Book Hive outed itself as the shop concerned and hit back at Hill’s claims as “completely false” and an attempt to “use our fairly innocuous involvement in a local enterprise to give weight to her political views in the press”. Hill has since told the Guardian that the furore surrounding the article had “all got completely out of hand”.

In her line of fire was an initiative at the Book Hive that was inspired by a recent news story in the Guardian about an anonymous donor buying novels from an San Francisco bookseller to give away to customers in a demonstration of resistance against Trump. Led by an retired university academic, a Norwich reading group contacted the Book Hive to donate copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale for a similar handout.

Hill’s article accused the store of not stocking books by Trump, or “anything by those authors known to support/admire/have voted for him” and likened the giveaway of books opposing Trump’s politics to a “form of censorship”.

“Of all places, a bookshop (like a library) should never ever indulge in that. There are exceptions, of course. I would be most unhappy to see a shelf devoted to books promoting paedophilia as A Good Thing, nor anything erotic beyond the legally acceptable. There may be other exceptions but, essentially, censorship is unacceptable,” she wrote, adding that a “business should be neutral, for fear of offending”, which was why she had cancelled her proposed event.

The Book Hive’s owner Henry Layte described the admission as “a bolt out of the blue”, and that Hill’s publisher Penguin Random House had only cited “personal reasons” when it cancelled the ticketed event. “We were astounded when we found out the real reason,” he said. “Up until now, we have only had one person object to the giveaway, and that was someone who rang us 10 days ago and screamed down the phone that we would never do this with books attacking Obama.”

In a strongly worded statement posted on the shop’s Facebook page, Layte dismissed the writer’s claim that the shop had “banned” books by and for Trump as “a deeply flawed and inaccurate portrayal of the shop – to say nothing of unpleasant – and the way we operate”. He said: “Susan Hill has argued that as a business person, the giveaway is the wrong, but teaming up with a local book group is exactly what a bookshop is all about.”

Authors rushed to support The Book Hive. “‘Bestselling author attacks independent bookstore she’s never been to’ is a strange, strange hill on which to die,” Patrick Ness said. “[Independent bookshops] are reflecting their community, one that – up until this point at least – liked Susan Hill enough to want an event with her. Will she refuse to do events at Waterstones, with its enormous front window displays of It Can’t Happen Here?”

Joanne Harris said it was “strange” to attack a bookshop over Trump when the US president was “hardly endangered, unlike independent booksellers”. She added: “Any bookshop that is anti-Trump that wants to book me, I’m there.” Rowan Coleman, author of The Memory Book, was also perplexed about why Hill had launched the attack. Offering to do an event at the shop herself, she said: “It is such a crazy thing to kick off about. If you disagree with something, debate. Don’t shut doors, open them.”

The irony of boycotting a bookshop over free speech was not lost on Sarah Perry, either. The Waterstones book of the year winner launched both her novels at the Book Hive. Describing Hill’s Spectator article as irrational, The Essex Serpent author said: “I think that if you boycott a bookshop for a perceived threat to free speech you are effectively doing the very thing you are claiming to deplore: punishing individuals and businesses for expressing a political view.”

Many authors noted that Hill has a new book out, although the author and her publisher refused to comment on whether the row was caused by a publicity stunt that backfired. “I’m often suspicious when writers make grand public gestures like this,” said Jane Harris, whose debut The Observations was shortlisted for the 2007 Orange prize. “My first impulse is to go on the internet and find out if they have a book coming out soon.”

In an email to the Guardian, Hill appeared chastened by the reaction. “Sorry, but I am saying nothing to anyone. All got completely out of hand,” she wrote.

It is not the first time the author has found herself at odds with the writing community. A friend of Michael Gove, who identifies with the right of the Conservative party, the Scarborough-born writer has used social media to voice at times controversial views about issues such as Brexit and immigration.


Danuta Kean

The GuardianTramp

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