Last week, it was announced that publisher Hachette had acquired the rights to director Woody Allen’s memoir, titled Apropos of Nothing, with sights set on an April 2020 publication date. Nobody seemed surprised by the instant backlash this decision inspired, except, perhaps, for Hachette themselves. On top of widespread media criticism, one of the publisher’s most high-profile authors of the last year, journalist Ronan Farrow (also Allen’s estranged son), called out Hachette for the decision and announced that he no longer planned to work with the company in the future. Farrow has talked extensively about believing and supporting his sister Dylan, who accused their father of sexually abusing her as a child in the early 1990s. The staff of Hachette and its various subdivisions protested the choice made by the company’s highers-up by staging a walkout, an event that garnered immense attention from the media. Soon after, Hachette announced that they had changed their decision and would no longer be publishing Allen’s book. The rights have now reverted back to Allen and he is free to shop the title elsewhere.
As expected, the decision inspired the usual glut of whataboutism and ‘slippery slope’ arguments, most notably by Stephen King. He lamented Hachette’s choice by saying it made him ‘very uneasy’ and that, while he didn’t give a damn about Mr. Allen. It’s who gets muzzled next that worries me.’ He defended this stance by insisting that the best way to combat Allen is to ‘vote with your wallet’ and not give him money for the things he does and creates. We’ve heard this argument a lot and it almost exclusively seems to come up whenever we discuss awful people with known track records of smears, harassment. and nastiness facing the most minute of consequences. Allen’s been the subject of such bad faith conversations for decades now, but more so in the past few years since the rise of the #MeToo campaign and the subsequent renewed public awareness of his alleged crimes.
It doesn’t take a lot for the most benign conversations or political points to be decried as censorship by those who need an easy target to deflect from their own issues. Some of the modern ludicrous examples of recent years I can think of include Brie Larson’s request to have more women critics in the Captain Marvel press tour — or, indeed, any vague call for diversity in pop culture — Adele Haenel walking out of the Cesar Awards to protest the celebration of Roman Polanski, literally every single time a transphobe decries being referred to as a TERF, and book bloggers who have chosen to not read books written by straight white men as part of a literary challenge. At a time when buzz-terms like ‘cancel culture’ and ‘virtue-signaling’ have become virtually meaningless thanks to overuse and misuse by the usual gaggle of talking-heads, cries of censorship have become ever more plentiful. It makes you wonder if any of these people actually know what censorship or free speech is.
When it comes to Allen, it’s kind of depressing that we have to keep reminding people that free speech does not entitle everyone to a high-profile and financially profitable book deal. If it did then we’d all be authors and the publishing world would be further in the tank than it currently is. Hachette’s choice to even pick up the book in the first place proved perplexing purely from a business point-of-view. Who was the intended domestic market for the memoir or a disgraced director whose movies can’t even get distribution in his home country anymore? What kind of return were they hoping to make from that advance, the number of which was never revealed? I could understand giving him a big cheque for his memoirs even five years ago when the allegations were still known but not as publicly impossible to ignore. Now, I have no clue what their business intent was here beyond drumming up controversy. Then again, maybe that was all they needed to do. Of course, they didn’t count on their own staff protesting the decision and highlighting how these choices are never made in a vacuum.
This is the larger context within which we need to have these conversations, rather than screaming censorship then running away. Hachette giving that money, clout, and industry protection to Allen didn’t just affect him: It impacted countless other people, both known and unknown. It retraumatized Dylan Farrow, once again forcing her to watch as her alleged abuser received the financial and professional glow of prestige that kept him afloat for decades, all with the knowledge that the publishing world’s lack of fact-checking with non-fiction titles would give Allen the freedom to spread any sort of smears he likes. It embarrassed Ronan Farrow, a journalist of celebrated integrity who worked with Hachette on the story of his life to help tell the tales of the victims of Harvey Weinstein. It put the overworked and overlooked staff of Hachette in an impossible position, one that they have no doubt been put in countless times before. It forced countless victims and their allies to once again confront the cruel reality of a patriarchal society that sees ‘great men’ and their art as more valuable than the marginalized they trod upon to get to the top, even if the receipts don’t back up that oft-repeated point.
Allen being denied a book deal is not censorship, nor is his inability to get North American and British distribution for films that have no audience and don’t make money. As has been noted numerous times by others much smarter than myself, Allen will easily get another book deal. It may not be with one of the Big Five houses but he’s still in high demand in regions like France, Italy, and Spain, where he is working on his latest movie starring Christoph Waltz and Gina Gershon. That’s the thorn in my side whenever I hear claims that Allen has been cruelly censored. He still makes a movie a year. He is still able to command solid budgets, major stars, and festival attention, even as his reputation is in the gutter (and that doesn’t even take into account how terribly reviewed and financially disappointing his past several years of work has been.) Hell, we just saw Roman Polanski win his fifth Cesar Award and he can’t even leave France for fear of being extradited. Both men will be fine.
Societally speaking, we have always prized the greatness and potential of bad men over that of everyone else. It’s part of the mythos now: The Difficult Man, the tortured artist who treated women cruelly and abused substances and committed endless near-legendary crimes, all of which surely helped them to produce wonderful art. Allen has spent decades making stories about older men who romance much younger women or are seduced half-willingly by such barely legal girls (see Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan), often accompanied by a shrewish older woman who spoils all the fun. Even the laziest armchair psychologist has been able to decipher those messages. Nobody has ever taken away his right or ability to tell such stories and I doubt anyone ever will. The decisions of businesses, distributors, critics, and associated figures to not participate in the free market aspect of that is just capitalism. For better or worse, censorship has nothing to do with it.
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