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The Bloomsbury brouhaha is not about free speech. It’s about legitimacy

This could be one way for Indian publishers to have their cake and eat it, too — without jettisoning basic principles of fact-checking and other editorial standards, of course

August 24, 2020 / 01:39 PM IST
Image: Reuters

Image: Reuters

Now that Garuda Prakashan has announced that it will be publishing ‘Delhi Riots 2020: The Untold Story’ by Monika Arora, Sonali Chitalkar and Prerna Malhotra, it’s even more evident that the issue was never about stifling free speech or freedom of expression.

One can question Bloomsbury India’s judgement in accepting the book in the first place, as well as their decision to withdraw it. Neither of these choices, however, was accompanied by violence, threats or intimidation.

The ruckus instead seems to be driven by a deeper and more underlying need: that of seeking credibility. This becomes clearer if one examines a recent overseas parallel.

In 2016, Simon & Schuster announced that Threshold Editions, one of its imprints, would be publishing a book by Alt-Right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. “They said banning me from Twitter would finish me off,” he crowed at the time. “Just as I predicted, the opposite has happened…I'm more powerful, more influential and more fabulous than ever before.”

While at Breitbart News, Yiannopoulos had written articles on, among other subjects, why fat-shaming works and how birth control makes women unattractive. The decision by a reputed publishing house to hand a megaphone to someone with such views was greeted with alarm by many.

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Among those who protested was Roxane Gay, who pulled the publication of her forthcoming book from Simon & Schuster. She clarified that he had a right to express his views, but not to have a book deal with a major publisher: “I'm not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege.”

After a tape surfaced in which Yiannopoulos appeared to condone relationships between adult men and teenagers below the age of consent, Simon & Schuster cancelled publication. The aggrieved author published the book on his own, and then filed a $10 million lawsuit against Simon & Schuster for breach of contract. (He subsequently dropped the case, saying: “I don’t want to spend all the money I made from my book, and the next two years of my life, on a lawsuit.”)

Expanding on Gay’s statement, journalist Constance Grady put her finger on the nub when she wrote in Vox that Simon & Schuster was “looking at a figure who is reviled in some corners of the culture and adored in others — a kind of threshold figure — and they are saying that they consider him to be legitimate.”

Such cultural legitimacy is what the authors of ‘Delhi Riots 2020’, and those like them, also crave. One way to achieve this is by coming under the Bloomsbury India umbrella. It’s the same instinct, broadly speaking, which led to the flurry of congratulatory messages after images of the proposed Ram Temple in Ayodhya were flashed on hoardings in New York’s Times Square.

In the United States, many large publishers have dealt with this by launching what are called conservative imprints. Simon & Schuster’s Threshold apart, there’s Penguin Random House’s Crown and Harper Collins’s Broadside, for example. They’ve published Ann Coulter, Donald Rumsfeld, and many other authors with views contrary to mainstream liberal pieties.

This could be one way for their Indian publishing counterparts to have their cake and eat it, too — without jettisoning basic principles of fact-checking and other editorial standards, of course. Otherwise, as Sophie Gilbert wrote in the Atlantic about Simon & Schuster and Yiannopoulos, they’ll be left with no bestseller, no goodwill, and no valid argument for acceptance or cancellation.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer. Views are personal.
Sanjay Sipahimalani
first published: Aug 24, 2020 01:31 pm

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