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It is hard to imagine a more wretched spectacle than Milo Yiannopoulos, a hate-celebrity who used Twitter and a blog as a springboard to fame in recent years, gaining followers the same way radio shock-jocks did a generation ago. So readers across the country were right to seize the moment and trash publisher Simon and Schuster, when one of its imprints offered him a $250,000 book contract.
Almost any opportunity is a good opportunity to challenge Yiannopoulos’s racist and misogynist carnival act. What I do not share is readers’ surprise at the news of the deal, nor am I convinced of claims that giving him one is something that publishers should not do. I may despise Yiannopoulos and his views, but why shouldn't Simon and Schuster see an investment in him as an acceptable risk to take, and why wouldn't he accept the offer?
A boycott might have had a chance if only readers hadn't long ago sacrificed their purchasing power to a different priority: paying less for books.
Yiannopoulos is a beneficiary of good timing and low expectations. He earned distinction last summer as one of the most high profile figures to be banned permanently from Twitter following his racist harassment of actress Leslie Jones. His antics, coincident with the rise of the alt-right hate movement, have landed him a position as an editor at their mouthpiece, Breitbart. Now he can add a book contract to the list, and his publisher can add threats of boycotts from readers — and at least one fellow literary institution, the Chicago Review of Books -- to theirs.
A boycott might have had a chance if only readers hadn't long ago sacrificed their purchasing power to a different priority: paying less for books. Alas, readers' threats not to buy a book have little bearing on publishers' decisions to bring them, or not, to market. Publishers are concerned with markets that pay the most, not the least, and angry opponents of Yiannopoulos do not yet represent an organized or potent enough challenge to that calculus.
Instead of a toothless threat, readers should focus on gaining influence over what is published by changing their own behavior for the better. They should buy the books they want to see published, at full price, from a diversity of booksellers. Publishers might then respond by catering more to their tastes and paying attention when they rebel. Mind you, people like Yiannopoulos will still get book contracts, but the goal of those of us who oppose him should not be censorship of the kind to which the Chicago Review has pledged in its ban of Simon and Schuster titles in the year ahead.
Executives at Simon and Schuster have said that their intention is to publish a book on the theme of “free speech.” When Yiannopoulos was bounced by Twitter, he had nearly 350,000 followers. Given that he is among the most well-known people to be blocked by Twitter, the preferred mode of communication for Donald Trump, there is merit to considering his story.
I have few expectations for quality. The book is being published by an imprint whose other authors include Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney. Even if it is awful, it will be a record of something culturally relevant. It is also difficult to imagine that this is the next "Mein Kampf." Yiannopoulos will gain no new devotees through this work. While it is a convincing argument that his current followers are capable enough of dangerous acts, the history of books such as his suggests that many copies will be scrapped unsold for pennies on the dollar.
Given that he is among the most well-known people to be blocked by Twitter... there is merit to considering his story.
And it's not just books by overt bigots who espouse hate; readers must be vigilant about challenging the publication of books with a propagandistic bent, even feel-good narratives such as the 2006 bestseller "Three Cups of Tea." Embraced by millions, it was a salve for those who opposed the American-led war in Afghanistan and who were looking for any reason to feel hope for that country's future. The author, Greg Mortenson, offered a story of schools being built for girls. He made people believe that something good could come from carnage. He raised money and, in turn, eased readers' collective conscience, mollified their outrage. In the end, he fostered inaction.
In 2011, Jon Krakauer exposed Mortenson as a fraud. The book that had been a persuasive and powerful antidote to outrage over an ongoing war was revealed to be a fairy tale, after it had contributed to a dangerous complacency.
Of course, there is a case to be made that with Yiannopoulos, Simon and Schuster is doing something more cynical. They could simply be seeking to purchase influence with Breitbart, whose former editor is a senior adviser to the president-elect. Readers should respond the same either way, by taking actions that foster a healthier marketplace of ideas, not ones that register disapproval of individual books, no matter how odious.
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