When Hachette bought Woody Allen’s autobiography, they no doubt expected it to be controversial. And no doubt they expected it to be a commercial success.
He is, after all, one of the great American writers and directors. And the notoriety and outrage that have continued since his daughter Dylan Farrow accused him of sexual abuse bring additional interest regarding what he might have to say on the subject. Following the staff walkout on Friday, and critical statements from Dylan and Ronan Farrow, they have now dropped the book. Very swiftly, the book became too damaging to Hachette’s reputation to publish.
This is worrying for writers and for readers. The staff at Hachette who walked out last week clearly thought that they were doing the right thing morally – protesting against the publication of a book by a man who has been accused of abusing his own child. But, as has been repeated many times, Woody Allen was investigated on two occasions and has never been charged. While Dylan and Ronan accuse Woody Allen, he has not been found guilty. Nothing has been proven. There is in fact no acceptable reason for not publishing Woody Allen’s book.
The staff at Hachette who walked out were not behaving like publishers, they were acting as censors. I have been watching Woody Allen films since I was a child and I would like to read his book. I would even want to read his book if he were found guilty, because I am interested in the man, his work and his life. I do not check up on the moral purity or criminal record of a writer before I read them. I would have to strip my bookshelves of many of the writers I love the most if I were going to start to apply the principles of the Hachette staff. TS Eliot and Roald Dahl for a start, as antisemites. In fact most of the English canon would have to be chucked on that basis.
Publishers need to have courage – the courage to publish books that do not suit the moral climate and that express unfashionable views. In the 70s, publishers repeatedly fought for the right to publish in the face of obscenity prosecutions. Those were battles that pushed the boundaries for freedom of expression. Back then, it was Mary Whitehouse who led the moral outrage, most famously in bringing a private prosecution against Gay News for publishing James Kirkup’s poem in which a Roman centurion has sex with Jesus. Gay News lost the case.
I interviewed the great writer and barrister John Mortimer shortly before he died, who defended Gay News and acted for many of the defendants in the obscenity cases of the time. He remembered Whitehouse praying in the corridor when the jury were reaching their verdict. He told me that the general public tends to be in favour of censorship.
In the wake of #MeToo, we have come to view moral outrage as a good thing – we don’t associate it with a reactionary figure like Mary Whitehouse or see it as a barrier to progress. Shutting things down, keeping the wrong kind of views off the platform, has come to be admired. It’s remarkable that a small group of people has managed to persuade one of the biggest publishers in the world to back down, but their cause may not be as morally sound as they believe.
As publishers, in fact, the conduct of the staff who protested is highly questionable. I do not want to read books that are good for me or that are written by people whose views I always agree with or admire. I am always afraid when a mob, however small and well read, exercises power without any accountability, process or redress. That frightens me much more than the prospect of Woody Allen’s autobiography hitting the bookstores.
• Jo Glanville is former director of English PEN and ex-editor of Index on Censorship. She is editing a book on antisemitism for Short Books, a Hachette imprint