A Work of Fiction is not a Crime Scene
(Reflections on the state of literary publishing, Part II)
By Bernard Schweizer & James Morrow
The birth of Heresy Press was occasioned by a peculiar malaise currently affecting the publication of fiction in America. “Sensitivity readers” have arrived on the scene, purging lexical impurities, expunging potential “trigger” moments, and, en passant, usurping the reader’s right to a discomfiting but possibly revelatory aesthetic experience.
No less condescending toward fiction consumers is the ubiquitous “own-voices” doctrine, whereby a major character’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity is expected to match the racial, ethnic, or gender identity of the author. It’s as if the accident of birth should somehow count for more than a writer’s personal efforts to articulate nuanced and pleasurable reactions to the mystery of being alive.
Publication venues are becoming increasingly closed to novelists as well respected as Richard North Patterson, simply because their phenotypes are thought to disqualify them from wrestling with racial injustice, ethnic stereotyping, or sexual politics. In the current climate, a latter-day Flaubert submitting a manuscript to a publisher with a cover letter asserting “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” (a remark Flaubert reputedly made about his heroine) would be foolish to expect sympathetic consideration.
Today a publisher thinks nothing of vandalizing Roald Dahl’s books, swapping out words that might conceivably give offense—“ fat,” “ugly,” “crazy,” “hag”—for empty euphemisms. The substitution game is also imposed on characters whose speeches include morally reprehensible words, even if real people in actual situations would use them. George Orwell’s newspeak is evidently alive and well in the offices of contemporary editors and agents.
Our informal surveys suggest that manuscripts featuring endearing and instantly likeable central characters will more probably find their way into print than works centered on morally ambiguous, enigmatic figures. A story that turns on a nonconformist Trump voter or an abused Jewish orphan who grows up to become a serial killer—characters you met in these pages—is unlikely to escape from the slush piles of the neo-Bowdlers who now occupy key niches in the cathedral of American letters.
Fiction that indulges in disrespect toward organized religion is also apt to make editors nervous. One of the present authors has a rejection letter in his files excoriating his manuscript for its “blasphemy” (the Virgin Mary is a prominent character). Salman Rushdie’s recent observation that The Satanic Verses could never find a major publisher today rang true for us the moment we heard it. While these enervating tendencies can be traced to ideological imperatives associated with the left, the political right proudly mounts its own narrow-minded crusades.
As I write these words, politicians and parent groups are collaborating to strip school library bookshelves of works that feature LGBTQ+ characters or explore subjects that conservatives wish to remove from public discourse, such as climate change, gender fluidity, and the shadow thrown across the founding of the American republic by the concentration-camp conditions imposed on African slaves in the Southern colonies.
Among the casualties inflicted by ideologically grounded editorial policies is the tremendous progress fiction writers have made over the years in the domain of unfettered expression, a freedom that arguably took root in 1933 when James Joyce’s “pornographic” novel Ulysses was vindicated by Judge John M. Woolsey (writing on behalf of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York). Ninety years later, it’s not an exaggeration to say that, for many mainstream publishers and even some indie presses, the ideal author is a person haunted by inhibitions. Such a bedeviled creature can be counted on to avoid allegedly insensitive locutions, putative cultural appropriation, or other extra-aesthetic transgressions that might hurl both the publisher and the writer into the vortex of a Twitter storm.
As the award-winning Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie lamented in a recent BBC interview, the current “epidemic of self-censorship,” as she calls it, constitutes an unparalleled threat. When people are “afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions,” the result will ultimately be “the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity,” because “no human endeavor requires freedom as much as creativity does.”
None of this is to suggest that the cancers of white privilege and pervasive bigotry are about to go into remission. From pole to pole, our planet resounds with the tendentious messages of racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, and Christian nationalists, even as readers seek out narratives that grapple honestly with the human condition in all its glorious pluralism. And yet separating the two sorts of discourse—the ugly and the illuminating— is not always simple, for they often exist in an uneasy dialectical alliance. Semantic shading and irreducible contextual complexity make language an always elusive, ever roaming, eternally surprising beast that we try to domesticate only at our peril. Hobbling the tongue is a poor strategy for disabling the bigot.
Postmodern thinkers make a categorical error when, ignoring the insights of 1984, they seek to cancel injustice by constraining vocabularies. The extensive research of free-speech advocates, from Nadine Strossen to Eugene Volokh, provides ample evidence that forbidding repugnant speech in public contexts leaves intact the evils to which those locutions point. While framed in good faith, the hate-speech laws passed during the Weimar era in Germany did nothing to transform the attitudes that prompted them. And when it comes to prohibitions enacted in bad faith—at the moment, the avatar of such censorship is Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis—we get the spectacle of Inauguration Poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” being removed from an elementary school library because it allegedly contains “hate messages.”
Then there is the question of humor. “Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks,” Mel Brooks recently remarked. “It’s the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, telling the truth about human behavior.” The late sociologist Christie Davies posited that jokes and satire, tasteless and otherwise, are vital to the health of a society because they function as thermometers as opposed to thermostats. Troublesome jokes take the temperature of our cultural and political institutions without presuming to alter the sobering realities that underlie them.
Fiction performs a similarly diagnostic function, though occasionally a novelist or short-story writer will strike a vein so rich that the narrative also becomes a thermostat—an agent of change. This phenomenon has arguably occurred with works as diverse as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, James Joyce’s Ulysses, George Orwell’s 1984, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. And yet, the cannier practitioners of fiction remain mindful of the principle that all art is entertainment (it doesn’t work the other way around), which accounts for why those six books make for such gripping reading experiences.
Nothing better illustrates the philosophy of Heresy Press than the stories gathered in the press’s first offering to the reading public, a short story anthology titled Nothing Sacred: Outspoken Voices in Contemporary Fiction. The stylistic range of these tales is broad. Therein are verbally baroque tales which—to paraphrase Keats—“load every rift with ore,” as well as stories where subversive currents roil beneath surfaces smooth as translucent jade. While the twelve authors represented in this anthology could scarcely be more diverse in their worldviews, cultural backgrounds, thematic obsessions, and prose styles, they all share an abiding respect for their readers and an appetite for audacity.