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Publishing Milo Yiannopoulos’ book a ‘test case’ for society

In late December, publisher Simon & Schuster made waves when one of its imprints, Threshold Editions, offered Milo Yiannopoulos a $250,000 deal for his book, Dangerous. Though it’s not exactly known yet what Yiannopoulos’ book will be about, the Breitbart staffer is known for his conservative and often controversial comments, and was banned from Twitter last summer for violating its abuse and harassment policies.

In the wake of the news of the book deal, numerous authors represented by Simon & Schuster decried the decision and the Chicago Review of Books announced a boycott of all Simon & Schuster books for 2017.

This week, the issue made headlines again, when Simon & Schuster CEO Carolyn Reidy responded to the controversy and explained the decision to publish Yiannopoulos’ book in a letter addressed to authors represented by the publishing house.

A copy of the letter, obtained by BuzzFeed, reads, in part, that Yiannopoulos pitched his book as one that would “be a substantive examination of the issues of political correctness and free speech, issues that are already much-discussed and argued and fought over in both mainstream and alternative media and on campuses and in schools across the country.”

We discussed this with Chris Featherman, assistant professor of English who studies language, ideology, and how social movements are constructed in the media. His take? Opting to publish “is a symbolic act in one sense, (that was followed by) a symbolic response.” Indeed, a response that reflects the ideological crossroads at which society finds itself today.

What do you make of Threshold Editions’ decision to publish Yiannopoulos’ book?

There are a few questions we have to consider here.

In this case, it’s not so much that we’re just giving this guy a platform, because it seems like he already has a platform. For me it’s more a question of legitimation, and what publishing a book with someone like Simon & Schuster will do for you.

There’s also an ethical and moral question—we don’t know what the book’s contents will be, but if it resembles some of the things he’s said elsewhere, will Simon & Schuster be profiting off something that’s potentially hate speech?

Situations like this seem to mine that fault line about the moral and ethical issues of what people say and how it impacts other people. I think that’s a conscious strategy—as a society, we don’t always have a real clear consensus on what we think is offensive and what we think is inoffensive, so exploiting that is certainly a strategy.

Do you think the Chicago Review of Books’ decision not to review any titles from the publishing house this year plays into that strategy?

What you have is a symbolic act in one sense, (followed by) a symbolic response. The boycott is symbolic because it may turn out that books not being reviewed won’t hurt Simon & Schuster or this particular author all that much. In fact, it may just be generating more publicity. But that doesn’t mean the symbolic response is weak in some way; it just needs to be judged differently.

The other thing to consider is, when you choose not to review a book, you limit the opportunity to engage with it in the public sphere. The counter argument to that, however, is if you respond to those kinds of things, then you’ve further legitimized it.

The question is why did they choose to boycott Simon & Schuster in general? Why only for a year? And why not just that book itself?

I can only speculate, but it seems that the Review wants to make a kind of symbolic act of protest. This is a response in some way, but not necessarily a way that gives voice directly to this author.

It’s a brave move because I’d think that within the publishing industry, someone like Simon & Schuster is going to have quite a bit of power. The relationship between publishers and reviewers is complex because they depend on each other. In doing this, the Chicago Review of Books takes the risk of alienating itself from a major publisher that has all sorts of imprints.

What about other authors who have contracts with Simon & Schuster or any of its imprints? Are they being unfairly penalized for this backlash of this one book?

I think if you’re an author and you choose a press, or a press chooses you, you’re conscious of that publishing houses’ list—who they publish, what types of writers they publish—so you’re probably aware of these voices.

But let’s say they were being somehow negatively affected. To what extent? There are a lot of other ways to be reviewed and other ways to get out there in the public sphere. Not every book that’s published gets reviewed, and the process of which does and which doesn’t is a political choice—as a reviewer, you make a choice and there are some values being weighed either way.

Do you think this will have ramifications outside the literary sphere?

I don’t necessarily know if it’s strictly a publishing issue; I think it’s part of a larger conversation that people have been having and thinking about throughout this election season. The rhetoric we heard during this election—some of that was strategic, though that doesn’t mean it was any less hateful or discriminatory. But I think people are wondering how much of that was strategic and done to provoke people and how much of that is what people really believe.

As we shift from that particular moment during the campaigns, and now that power has been acquired, what will actually happen? This book could be a test case of that: What happens when this person wants to legitimize his voice?

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