Writer Resistance – Roxane Gay

roxane-gay

Roxane Gay

According to Wikipedia, that most questionable but oh-so-convenient source of information, Roxane Gay is – among other things – “an American feminist writer, professor, editor and commentator … associate professor of English at Purdue University, [and] contributing opinion writer at The New York Times ...”

She is also, apparently, a champion for writers who want to stand up for their beliefs, even in the dog-eat-dog world of publishing.

Gay is perhaps best known for her NYT bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist. But, she came across many new readers’ radar (mine included) in January when she pulled her upcoming book, How To Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster after learning that the company’s TED imprint, Threshold, had also signed to publish Milo Yiannopoulos’ book, Dangerous.

For those not familiar with Yiannopoulos, he is described in a related Washington Post article as a, “Greek-born, British writer who thrives on the publicity he generates by being outrageous. His incendiary and racist remarks about “Ghostbusters” actress and Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones on Twitter got him permanently banned from the platform in July 2016.” They also note that, “His caustic viewpoints on women, minorities, Muslims and immigrants have made Yiannopoulos a de-facto mouthpiece for the ‘alt-right’ movement, short for alternative right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.”

In a January statement to Buzzfeed, Gay explained her stance and how it was her “putting my money where my mouth is.”

And to be clear, this isn’t about censorship. Milo has every right to say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be. He doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher but he has, in some bizarre twist of fate, been afforded that privilege. So be it. I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege. I am also fortunate enough to be in a position to make this decision. I recognize that other writers aren’t and understand that completely.

Yesterday, Simon & Schuster cancelled Yiannopoulos’ book deal. The publisher reportedly made the decision in response to statements Yiannopoulos made about pedophilia on a conservative radio talk show.

Gay posted a reaction to the publisher’s change of heart on her Tumblr:

In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies. They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online. Let me assure you, as someone who endured a bit of that harassment, it is breathtaking in its scope, intensity, and cruelty but hey, we must protect the freedom of speech. Certainly, Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.

.I share this story because I think there are several things we can learn from it and, specifically, from Gay’s words and actions.

First of all, freedom of speech must exist for everyone, even those whose opinions we find abhorrent. Censorship is not advisable as a solution because silencing any voice opens the door to silencing all voices. (Personally, I wish that more individuals and news institutions would stop providing free press and air time to people like Yiannopoulos, but that is – perhaps – an opinion for a different post.) We can, however, find other ways to condemn and cripple hate speech and oppression in all its forms. Gay’s choice to pull her book from the publisher was a powerful way for her to a) exercise her will in the situation, and b) bring wider attention to the story.

I also think there is something important about how far Yiannopoulos had to go before Simon & Schuster drew the line. I haven’t had time to fully digest what it means that, as Gay points out in her Tumblr post, the publisher was willing to look past all kinds of offensive opinions until pedophilia was in play. It makes me think of the quote from Martin Niemöller that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.”

Finally, I believe that artists – including writers – must very often play the role of canaries in the coal mine. While it is not mandatory that every creative endeavor carry the weight of political opinion, I believe history will show us again and again that artists are often the first line of defense against forces of oppression, in all their hideous forms.


Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on FacebookTwitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.

This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.
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12 thoughts on “Writer Resistance – Roxane Gay

  1. Sorry – but I have to voice my opinion on this one. Despite her disclaimer, her comments advocate censorship. Her attack on Simon & Schuster takes her own emotional reaction, and assumes their decisions are entirely politically and emotionally based, ignoring the simple business principles involved here.

    “He (Milo) doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher but he has, in some bizarre twist of fate, been afforded that privilege…” First of all – anyone has the right to submit a book for publishing and any publisher has the right to accept that manuscript. This is not a bizarre twist of fate – it’s the way publishing works in a free society.

    Simon and Schuster is a business, and makes decisions based on profitability, not on emotional decisions based on what is right or wrong within the current political climate. Under corporate law they are required to make decisions that enhance the profit to their shareholders. This man voiced his opinions in a manuscript. But many writers and readers also voiced their opinions and opposition to Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish his work. The result “…Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them…” is correct. Then comes the stretch…

    Ms. Gay’s statement “…They (Simon & Schuster) were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online…” Let’s stick to truth – not conjecture. This is a horrendous unfounded attack on a very reputable publisher. Because his book was considered for publishing by them, does not in any way establish their agreement to his philosophies. It only establishes they considered Milo Yiannopoulos, a popular and controversial speaker and political personality, might prove to be a profitable endeavor.

    • You never have to apologize for voicing your opinion, Christine.

      I won’t presume to argue on behalf of Ms Gay’s except to point out that I believe she is actually in agreement with your statement that S&S were basing their decision on profitability. I do not read in her statement anything that would indicate her belief that they were publishing his book in support of his platform, rather that they were willing to overlook his platform (and any issue they may have had with it as individuals or as a corporation) in favor of making money. Fair enough, in the name of capitalism, I suppose. I also don’t think she is condemning them for doing so, only saying that she did not then feel personally comfortable being affiliated with a publisher who would make such a choice. And that is her right as a free agent to disassociate herself from their business.

      I also don’t think that Ms. Gay’s statements about S&S being “fine” with the various aspects of Yiannopoulos’ platform are at all libelous or conjecture. It’s clear from their actions (signing him and providing a $250K advance) that they were “fine” with the idea of spreading his rhetoric via their powerful publishing capabilities – again, with profitability, not political collusion, being the driving factor in their decision. She even characterizes S&S as “tolerating” Yiannopoulos, which is a far cry from saying they support him.

      • Ms. Gay states clearly Milo does not deserve to be published and then proceeds to bash S&S for even considering the notion. I could never agree with anything Milo Yiannopoulos has to say, but I will defend his right to say it. When you try to take away or censor any person’s right to free speech, you become no better than any other bigot.

        She trashed S&S for considering a publication by a notable political figure. A practice followed by many publishers in this current literary markets. In her OPINION they appeared to be “fine” with his ideas. There are no facts, statements, or any other information to support her accusations. Had she done a 30 second Google search, she would have found the following:

        From an article in “Entertainment” posted on December 30, 2016 at 8:42pm EST
        “We do not and never have condoned discrimination or hate speech in any form,” the company posted to social media. “At Simon & Schuster, we have always published books by a wide range of authors with greatly varying, and frequently controversial opinions, and appealing to many different audiences of readers.” The statement continued, “While we are cognizant that many may disagree vehemently with the books we publish, we note that the opinions expressed therein belong to our authors, and do not reflect either a corporate viewpoint or the views of our employees.”

        I care about how the truth has been twisted and manipulated by BOTH sides of the current political upheaval. Why S&S had to be berated and subjected to this kind of abuse seems vengeful and I have to wonder about Ms. Gay’s motivation. As a writer and reader who, along with many many others, actively requested S&S not to publish the work in question, I would think we should be thanking them for changing their minds, not trashing them on a public forum.

      • I am familiar with S&S’s statement about their decision to publish Yiannopoulos’ book. Again, I think you might be misinterpreting Ms. Gay’s words. I do not believe that her statement that Mr. Yiannopoulos “doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher” is meant to say that he doesn’t have the same right to submit and be published by S&S (or any other publisher) – he does – but simply to assert that acquiring such a deal is not part of his right to free speech. It is a privilege and a commercial transaction that is not guaranteed by the First Amendment. I do not think she is trying to deny him the right to publication should he pursue and successfully win a book deal.

        I also don’t see that S&S has been either “berated” or subjected to any kind of “abuse.” Ms. Gay simply stated her opinions – something that is protected by the First Amendment – and a summary of the publisher’s actions, which are a matter of public record. And, in my opinion, she did all of this in a very restrained and professional manner. In the statements I read, she did not publish any incendiary statements, call names, deny S&S their right to operate as they saw fit, or otherwise agitate people to attack or to boycott the publisher. She simply shared her personal experience and her reasons for her decisions, something that would be of interest to readers awaiting her new book (which will now be delayed while she seeks a new publisher) and also to other writers who may be navigating similarly complex waters in their own careers.

        For some additional insight, this article by James S. Fell explains why – in his opinion – S&S doesn’t necessarily deserve to be thanked for changing their minds: http://www.bodyforwife.com/inside-information-on-why-simon-schuster-cancelled-milos-book-deal/

  2. Makes me think of that awful book by the self proclaimed narcissist who slept with women and then publicly shamed them. His book was a wild success whether or not you agree with his absurdity. It’s a tough call and I can see both sides. In one sense I glad to hear about a woman silencing hate speech but as a researcher I guess I’m intrigued to read the inner thoughts of various, sometimes broken, minds. Maybe the real issue is about equality and leverage? We know scandal sells. I wonder when diversity, love and common sense will be as popular.

    • You’ve touched on something that sits at the core of this whole conversation, “E,” namely, when will love and common sense be as popular (and profitable) as scandal? There is something both very sad and more than a little scary about realizing that we live in a culture that elevates hate speech while devaluing the kinder, saner, more inclusive voices that exist. The battles between publishers and authors, readers and publishers are all just symptoms of a much deeper and more troubling issue.

      As a side note, I don’t think that any woman (Ms. Gay or otherwise) silenced Yiannopoulos. Her actions were not necessarily meant to influence Simon & Schuster, they were merely one author making a choice about a business relationship based on her personal beliefs and their misalignment with the profit-driven actions of a particular publisher. In the end, perhaps ironically, it seems to have been the same capitalist drivers that were prepared to give Yiannopoulos a larger stage via publication that ultimately took that opportunity away from him. 😉 Poetic justice, perhaps?

  3. Pingback: Writer Resistance – Roxane Gay | Mister Journalism: "Reading, Sharing, Discussing, Learning"

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