If Donald Trump has his Boswell, it could well be Milo Yiannopoulos. The proudly gay Brit-born scribe has disrupted expectations on what it means to be a far-right provocateur, styling fabulous fashions and a smashing haircut even as he excoriates feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and globalism—pretty much any ism that isn’t nativism. He is a champion of President-Elect Trump—whom he has been known to call daddy—and if he isn’t a white supremacist, he has undeniably given white supremacists a platform.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Yiannopoulos has parlayed his notoriety into a well-paid gig. He’s the technology editor and a columnist for the far-right opinion site Breitbart News, and he has embarked on a speaking tour of American universities, including several UC campuses; he’s scheduled to speak at UC Berkeley on February 1st.
Of course, Yiannopoulos is engendering some major push-back from progressives. As noted in the Daily Cal, he was banned at DePaul University last year after he delivered a talk that was deemed “inflammatory” by university officials. And Caiden Nason, the Cal Berkeley Democrats vice president of membership, recently excoriated the polemicist, maintaining that “…Students who have [had their] identities attacked by Trump have already been harassed following the election, and Milo’s appearance [at Cal] is only going to enable more people to harass them…”
Adding to free-floating Progressive rage is last month’s announcement that Yiannopoulos has scored a $250,000 deal from Threshold Editions, a Simon & Schuster imprint, for publication of Dangerous, a compendium of his divisive apercus. Scheduled for appearance in March, the effort is what’s known in the trade as an “instant book,” one short on research and ratiocination but timely, long on hoopla, and given to quick editing and rapid publishing.
Simon & Schuster’s motives for publishing Yiannopoulos, of course, are self-evident. Featuring the kind of invective that is red meat for the doctrinaire, Dangerous is certain to generate brisk sales; and sales, after all, are the raison d’être for any commercial publisher. From a business standpoint, at least, publishing the book seems a wholly sound decision.
But as one of the nation’s oldest, largest, and most respected publishing houses, Simon & Schuster is absorbing considerable flak for deigning to even consider Yiannopoulos. After all, Twitter banned him last year for his misogynistic slagging of comedian Leslie Jones following her appearance in the Ghostbusters remake. And Twitter, of course, is not the most discriminating media platform. So given the low common denominator it represents, should venerable and revered Simon & Schuster go where lowbrow social media fears to tread?
Yes, apparently. But the backlash is building with calls for a broad boycott of Simon & Schuster releases. Also, principals at the Chicago Review of Books stated they would not review any Simon & Schuster releases in 2017 to protest the publication of Dangerous. As the Review’s editor-in-chief, Adam Morgan, put it:
“I wanted Simon & Schuster to know that broadcasting his rhetoric would have real-world consequences. So I made a decision that has nothing to do with political ideology and everything to do with human rights and decency…”
And the resistance has spread among Simon & Schuster’s own stable of writers. Several of the publishing house’s authors have posted blogs, sent emails to company execs, or otherwise made it clear that they were loathe to view Yiannopoulos as a comrade-in-letters.
“It’s not a surprise that many of us New York authors are anything but excited about the prospect of giving this guy a larger platform,” said Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, whose books include the best-selling Seinfeldia, a study of the impacts of the TV show Seinfeld on American culture and mores.
“There’s a difference between writing for a hardcore alt-right website and putting out a book with one of the world’s largest and best-known publishers,” says Armstrong, who sent a letter to Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy protesting the deal. “A book contract with Simon & Schuster legitimizes Yiannopoulos and his views, and that deeply concerns us.”
“This isn’t a free speech issue. Free speech doesn’t necessarily mean everybody should get book deals from prominent publishers.”
Armstrong hastens to add that she has no problem with Simon & Schuster publishing books by conservative political figures or celebrities.
“It’s no secret where I stand,” she says. “I wrote a feminist book for Simon & Schuster, and I used to run a feminist website. But Simon & Schuster publishes many conservative authors, including Trump and Herman Cain. I’m not their fans, but I’m fine with that. They’re prominent people, they have specific platforms, and they sell books. That’s part of life and discourse in America. My problem is that Yiannopoulos spreads hate. This isn’t a free speech issue. Free speech doesn’t necessarily mean everybody should get book deals from prominent publishers.”
Though the number of Simon & Schuster authors protesting the Yiannopoulos contract has not been established, it’s clear that Armstrong is not alone. Mandy Len Catron, the author of How to Fall in Love with Anyone (scheduled for release in June), also sent a letter expressing her displeasure to Simon & Schuster executives, and has been discussing the issue on Facebook.
“My feelings aren’t that complicated,” says Catron. “It’s distressing to share publishers with somebody like Yiannopoulos. Simon & Schuster has many imprints, and they’ve done a very good job of amplifying diverse voices, including those of women and people of color. I understand conservative voices should be part of that mix, but I’m very disappointed that they would include someone from the extreme alt-right.”
But the authors also say they find calls for a boycott of Simon & Schuster just as distressing as Yiannopoulos snagging a contract from the publisher. That’s because Yiannopoulos isn’t the one who will suffer from such an action, says Armstrong. Publisher boycotts, she maintains, aren’t like boycotts against furriers or oil companies.
“In the end, the publishers aren’t likely to be hurt that much,” she says. “It’s the people who’re published by the publisher who suffer, especially the small authors, the mid-list authors who aren’t very well known. In all likelihood, Yiannopoulos will benefit from a boycott – there’ll be a backlash from his followers, and he’ll just sell more books. The people who boycott Simon & Schuster would likely be liberal readers—and the irony is they’ll hurt a lot of liberal authors. I really feel for, say, first time authors who have books scheduled for publication in 2017. They may have worked years on their books, they aren’t very well known, and everything is riding on their first publications. If their books don’t sell, their careers could be ruined.”
Mikki Halpin, a Simon & Schuster author who wrote a teenager’s activism guide, It’s Your World —If you Don’t Like It, Change It, also opposes a boycott. In a recent blog post, Halpin notes Simon & Schuster publishes a range of writers with opinions diametrically opposed to those expressed by Yiannopoulos, including Isabel Allende and Jesmyn Ward. Halpin quotes from an anonymous Facebook post for an alternative strategy:
“….Write them [Simon & Schuster] letters, hard-copy ones that need a stamp and envelope. At any major publishing house, the people at the bottom are mostly clever, thoughtful, progressive gals who don’t like this sort of thing anymore than you do. They want to be able to go to their bosses’ bosses’ bosses with a massive stack of post and say, “Hey, this is the only reader correspondence we’re getting now,” because that wastes time, and the easiest way to piss off a publishing house is to waste their employees’ time. Wasting time = less time for making books. Remember also that everybody who gets into publishing does it because they fundamentally love to READ…Even the guys at the top who spend more time on the phone and at cocktail parties than working with text believe in words as a magical conduit of ideas, and if you write them a long heartfelt letter, they may scoff at it but they will read it, and if they have 1,000 heartfelt letters a day, then sooner or later all those words will sink in…”
Free speech advocates and civil libertarians also have weighed in against a boycott. In an open letter posted by the National Coalition Against Censorship and endorsed by eight organizations that include the Authors Guild, the Freedom to Read Foundation, and the National Council of Teachers of English, the signatories declare Yiannopoulos “…a provocateur and self-described “supervillain,” whose views and statements are highly controversial and deeply offensive to many…”
That established, the letter concludes that “…the suppression of noxious ideas does not defeat them; only vigorous disagreement can counter toxic speech effectively. Shutting down the conversation may temporarily silence disfavored views, but does nothing to prevent them from spreading and resurfacing in other ways…We need not endorse the ideas contained in a book to endorse the right to express them. That is the essence of freedom and democracy…”.