It might sound strange, even unlikely, but a civilized discussion about callout culture broke out this Tuesday, during a writers’ panel at PEN America’s annual town-hall meeting. In contrast to Twitter, there was no name-calling, biting, or eye-gouging. Instead, the audience got a reasoned debate about everything from Green Book to The Wire to Portnoy’s Complaint. The gatekeepers have their detractors, but they know how to play nice.
The panel was both decorated and diverse. There were a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners — critic Wesley Morris and playwright Ayad Akhtar — award-winning novelist Francine Prose, author and editor Meredith Talusan, and Slate critic Inkoo Kang. Oh, and there was Ian Buruma, recently ousted from his editorial post at the New York Review of Books.
Buruma was the elephant in the room — swept up by the culture wars after publishing a controversial essay by disgraced Canadian journalist Jian Ghomeshi. He resigned under pressure from younger editors who questioned his editorial judgment, even as a backlash to the backlash led some to question his firing — including PEN America.
To PEN’s credit, the elephant was acknowledged and interrogated. Morris pressed Buruma on his decision to publish Ghomeshi’s piece. Buruma said that he knew it was going to be controversial, but he didn’t understand how serious the consequences would be. After all, the NYRB is supposed to represent “independence of thought and free-spiritedness.” He had simply wanted to add another perspective to the #MeToo discussion — that of a man who had been legally exonerated but publicly denounced.
“I’m not disagreeing with the aims of #MeToo, I think it’s entirely legitimate that everything should be done to create equal opportunities for women,” he said. “But especially since it is something that is exercising so many people, I wanted as many points of view as possible.” He acknowledged how much the times had changed since the NYRB had published work by “problematic” men ranging from Norman Mailer, who stabbed his wife, to Mailer’s pet cause, murderer Jack Abbott. Even in those cases, said Buruma, nobody got fired.
“It was fought out in the leftist columns, people debated about it and so on, which is the way it should be,” he said. “If you publish something as an editor that makes people feel uncomfortable, that people disagree with, maybe if it was badly edited … the pressure is so great that you immediately have to be kicked out of your job.”
But the catalyst for the panel was a different essay, by Morris, in the The New York Times Magazine, “Should Art Be a Battleground for Social Justice?,” which tackled the politically driven “cancel culture” that led, by association, to Buruma’s cancellation. Morris was the star of the panel — as entertaining and powerful an orator as he is a writer — eliciting whoops of delight even when he wasn’t excoriating Green Book. One of Morris’s main points of the evening was that people want art that reflects their experience.
“Since the inception of American popular culture, the only people who had any sort of say in how anybody did anything were white people. It is a completely legitimate thing to observe something shifting in the culture,” he said. “At some point, the other thing that you want as a consumer of that work is for it to be taken seriously and treated seriously as a work of art or as a work of culture.”
The panel agreed with Morris’s assessment of the racially retrograde Oscar-winning Green Book, which he already called a “race reconciliation fantasy” in the Times. Prose instead praised The Wire, a TV show produced by white people that showcases the experience of black people in urban Baltimore — and an example of art that didn’t need to come from the represented culture to be insightful or accurate.
That led to somewhat stickier terrain. There is the practice of sensitivity readings, now common in YA literature and the source of several recent book cancellations. Prose and Buruma considered it dangerous, since it’s the job of writers to challenge conventional ideas, even if they might be upsetting to particular communities. Prose invoked Portnoy’s Complaint, which had massive pushback from the Jewish community when it was published. “I’ve really come to despise the phrase call out,” she said. “Because I think we live in a culture that’s based on bullying and based on intimidation and based on incivility. In a way, we’re living in a time of plague.”
Prose said that writing shouldn’t affirm the readers’ ideas; it should challenge them. “One of the things that bothers me is that somehow it seems to have crept into the culture that the point of writing fiction is to make people feel safe and comfortable and secure,” she said. “And I’m kind of astonished by that because I never thought that was the point. I never thought that was my job or anybody else’s job.”
Akhtar agreed: “I’m not sure at what point we are in the realm of propaganda proper, in the sense that I can be very moved by something that I am touched by because it resonates with my values, but it may not have an aesthetic value at all.”
He said that if his work had initially been subjected to sensitivity readings, it would have been flagged. “I was having a conversation with one of the publishers recently about a book that has created some trouble, and somebody had said, ‘Well, if we’d only run it by a sensitivity reader, we would have known some of the issues,’” said Akhtar. “To which my response was, ‘If you folks had run my work by the sensitivity readers of the community that I come from, I wouldn’t have a career.’ I’ve been writing critique of my American-Muslim, Pakistani-Muslim community for ten years.”
Kang and Talusan were considerably more sympathetic to the callers-out and the guardians of representation. Talusan, a transgender woman, lamented that people in the trans community are often presented, by cisgender people, as tropes instead of humans: the villain, the victim, the monster. In some cases, minorities need to be loud in order to be heard.
“I completely empathize with the desire to speak freely without necessarily feeling people behind you potentially pushing back against your work,” said Talusan. “There are a lot of instances in which a lot of people are unjustly accused … But we do have to recognize that we live in an unjust culture, where minorities are often subject to discrimination behind closed doors.”
Buruma pushed back a bit, saying it’s important to get an outside perspective, since the way people want to be represented is not the way they actually live. “People — and minorities, especially if they’re marginalized — often have myths about themselves. Or, to put it in another way, the way people actually live their lives and the way they would like outsiders to see them are not quite the same thing.”
For Kang, being called out or “canceled” isn’t as dire as the self-appointed free-speech crusaders make it seem. She said that while people assume slapping art with a label — like racist or sexist — will condemn it for eternity, real art can withstand a bit of criticism. And when it’s done well, people generally don’t complain. “Maybe if you find 10 percent of it objectionable, then you can enjoy the other 90 percent,” said Kang. “And I think that people will be able to deal with the cognitive dissonance, as they have been for as long as art has existed.”