I was thrilled to sign a terrific contract last summer with Simon & Schuster for a new novel due to them in October 2017.
In December, I learned that they’re also publishing Milo Yiannopoulos. I’d never heard of him, but a few clicks told me that Yiannopoulos makes his living selling the idea of white supremacy to college students. His articulate, funny, SNL-stand-up-type routines are emboldening a new wave of young people to do harm by trading on the idea that being white and being male are two of their most valuable assets. He calls “political correctness” a “cancer” guilting people into being sensitive to women, minorities, transgender people, the disabled–anyone who isn’t “them.”. He claims that because he is gay, the cruel things he says about being gay aren’t homophobia. He claims he’s not racist because he has an “anti-white” bedroom policy–meaning he prefers sex with blacks. (History reminds us that it’s a preference he shares with more than one slavemaster the Old South.)
Last month, Roxane Gay pulled her book contract with S&S because “I can’t in good conscience let them publish it while they also publish Milo.” Her announcement made me consider my own deal with them.
Carolyn Reidy, CEO of S&S, wrote a letter to allay discomfort on the part of authors & editors apprehensive about being aligned with the house that is giving Yiannopoulos a mainstream platform. (His speaking gigs improved considerably after the S&S deal was announced.) In the letter she points out that none of the words in the book will constitute hate speech because the manuscript will be carefully edited and any such words will be edited out.
Before I was a writer, I was a copywriter/creative director working for most of the big ad agencies in town. During my tenure in advertising, there was much discussion of cigarette advertising which had been banned from airwaves, but was still in print. Outdoor ads featuring “Joe Camel”, a cartoon camel smoking a cigarette, appeared on buses and bus shelters around the city. The cigarette companies claimed that the ads did not encourage children to smoke because there were no words to that effect. Opponents claimed that the message was being conveyed without using words.
No matter how carefully S&S edits Yiannopoulos, they are elevating his platform and will be promoting his brand message. He himself has bragged that the contract is “the moment Milo goes mainstream.” Whether or not Milo himself believes his rhetoric is irrelevant. He has crafted a brand to push a message that sells. In this, he is proving to be quite successful. According to New York magazine, he “met with top execs at Simon & Schuster and spent half an hour trying to shock them with lewd jokes and outrageous opinions. I thought they were going to have me escorted from the building – but instead they offered me a wheelbarrow full of money.” His book doesn’t come out for another month, but as I write this, his DANGEROUS is #33 on Amazon–in Books, ALL books, not a sub-category.
New attention is being paid to what is protected free speech, and to the question of what responsibility should be taken by speakers (or writers) for their words. Yesterday, a NYT reporter was made to apologize in writing (via 4 Twitter posts) for a casual comment he made about Melania Trump in what he assumed had been a private conversation that took place at a party. A SNL writer was suspended indefinitely because of a tweet she posted about Bannon Trump. Both the tweet and the reporter’s comment were meant to be funny.
Today, amidst coverage on what is the lead story, WSJ reports that both Disney and Youtube cut ties with Felix Kjellberg, a Swede better known by his alias PewDiePie who makes a living by posting anti-Semitic videos.
I think sometimes we best define who we are and what we believe in, not by words but by actions. I’ve asked Simon & Schuster to cancel my contract.