Cancelling “Cancel Culture”: What the new social buzzword means for the world of publishing

by Beth Hutton

Cancel culture is gaining momentum across academic circles and social media platforms alike, as people have been calling for authors, celebrities, and other public figures to be “cancelled” for their failure to comply with modern sensibilities. Even the statuses of canonical, traditionally celebrated authors — from Shakespeare to Mark Twain to J. K. Rowling — are being challenged within the contemporary curriculum.

This phenomenon has subsequently received a lot of bad press, with the conservative right complaining that it’s too “politically correct”, and that it poses a threat to career prospects and free speech. But how much power does cancel culture really wield? And whose interests does it actually serve? To understand its impact on literature, the answers to these questions are of central concern.

Let me emphasise that I, too, disagree with cancel culture — but not for the reasons you might think. Rather than claiming that the movement resembles a dangerous form of censorship threatening our literary and cultural heritage, I contend quite the opposite: cancel culture perpetuates the very power structure it intends to challenge.

Let me explain.

The colonial power politics of cancel culture

Cancel culture was initially established by Black and queer communities as a contemporary form of collective activism against problematic public figures, which called on greater accountability for those in positions of power. Since then, the movement has turned into a supposedly “woke” social media trend — hijacked by privileged slacktivists and demonised by the conservative right.

Due to its appropriation, the concept now harbours an inherent paradox. Under its cloak of “wokeness”, the privileged are able to position themselves as both saviours and victims; in an ironic preservation of the colonial power structure, cancel culture has become a vehicle for both virtue-signalling and self-victimisation.

By supposedly “cancelling” controversial figures, the movement has been transformed into a façade of inclusivity, which without any other form of activism merely points to performative allyship.

And are the offenders even deplatformed? At best, they receive a temporary backlash — they are reprimanded, but only provisionally. The offenders generally face no lasting repercussions, and they can even profit off their newfound limelight.

The “cancelled” J. K. Rowling’s novels, for instance, received a record number of sales following her transphobic comments. By enabling influential figures to gain even greater privilege off the backs of marginalised people, cancel culture merely offers surface-level activism without redressing core structural inequalities that affect people of colour, ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, those with disabilities, and other disadvantaged groups.

More alarmingly, the long-term outcome of “cancelling” public figures has given rise to victim-envy, whereby the offenders avoid acknowledging their privilege and the responsibility that comes with it, and instead proclaim themselves victims of censorship. More often than not, those who are “cancelled”, including Piers Morgan and Ellen DeGeneres, not only continue to enjoy the same privileges as before, but actually receive sympathy and support against the “attack” from left-wing liberals.

By hyperbolising the concept of cancel culture into a tool of media scaremongering, the movement has been used against the very people it was intended to protect. In an uncanny recycling of colonial power struggles, fear is utilised by existing platforms of authority, enabling the privileged to displace their own accountability onto the oppressed, and transform the valid concerns of marginalised people into a model of mob rule.

Sounds like history repeating itself, right?

The publishing industry and cancel culture controversy

The publishing industry, as the prerequisite for freedom of expression, remains at the heart of the alleged “war on words”. Cancel culture has been construed by many academics and the right-wing media as a contemporary, insurgent force that is plunging the world of publishing into a censorship “crisis”.

But is cancel culture really that new within the industry? Or is it only recently facing so much backlash because of whose freedom of expression is supposedly under attack?

The principle of cancel culture has defined publishing since its invention, with certain voices being silenced, removed, and prohibited from historical and literary records. I suppose that, for once, it appears to threaten the status of the white, privileged authors who the industry has historically been constructed to protect.

To defend this privilege, many have called on their right to freedom of speech by painting themselves as victims of unfair censorship. More genuine responses seem to point to the “burden” on current authors to be “politically correct” in their work. Whether well-meaning or not, these reactions redirect the attention back to those in power, and ironically thwart the opportunity for marginalised people to be heard — thus violating the very right to “freedom of expression” they’re supposedly defending.

Centring the inconveniences faced by contemporary publishers and authors implies that the “burden” on them to be PC is more significant than the genuine disadvantages marginalised people encounter. This trivialises the burdens that oppressed groups have had to endure throughout the history of publishing, and yet again sidelines their grievances.

A more thought-provoking question is whether we should continue publishing and reading current authors if they have questionable views. And what if their literature isn’t racist, sexist, homophobic, or transphobic, but the author has expressed these sentiments in their personal life — should we “cancel” them or can we view their work as its own entity?

Yes, we can technically separate the art from the artist, but should we? It is true that “art imitates life”. So what does it say about our current society if we continue to publish, and therefore endorse, the product of a creator’s offensive attitudes, regardless of whether or not the work itself overtly echoes these sentiments?

Authors shouldn’t be silenced and literature shouldn’t be destroyed, but the original theory behind cancel culture wasn’t in favour of either outcome. Instead, the principle is focused on accountability and the core concern is sincerity. If controversial authors, such as J. K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, are the staunch defenders of “open debate” that they claim to be, then they must also be open to listening and responding to the reasons behind the public’s calls for their “cancellation”.

Let me also reiterate that many well-known authors with a large platform and loyal fanbase are virtually uncancellable. As for aspiring authors, our society currently offers a myriad of gateways into publishing — be it through an agent, self-publication, or independent publishing companies — so literature can always be made public.

These facts render the question of whether we should allow controversial figures to be published a mainly hypothetical one. And, despite greater sensitivity reads and edits, the barriers to publishing have never been lower. In an industry founded on racist and patriarchal customs, is being more conscious of who and what we publish really a bad thing?

“Cancel culture” or “accountability culture”?

Cancel culture within the publishing industry has always existed; the rise of social media has just given it a new face. But the more recent take on “cancelling” public figures has exacerbated hypocrisy, irony, and performative wokeness.

Let’s get this straight: there’s no use in calling out the problematic views of Roddy Doyle, Ottessa Moshfegh, or David Mitchell if you are not also addressing the offensive opinions of your friends, family, and co-workers. This means listening to marginalised people and creating a space where their grievances can be voiced safely without the fear of ridicule, threats, and self-victimisation that now define the trend of cancel culture.

So, if you’re an aspiring author, what scares you more? The publishing industry becoming too “PC” to accommodate your work, or the thought of excluding or offending those who are already socially and structurally disadvantaged?

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