Publishing & Perishing

By Neier, Aryeh | The Nation, May 6, 1996 | Go to article overview

Publishing & Perishing


Neier, Aryeh, The Nation


The heated exchange that erupted in the first week of April between St. Martin's Press and its almost author David Irving was simply the latest in a set piece that periodically marks the book publishing world. Getting cold feet on the cusp of printing Irving's 640-page biography, Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich, St. Martin's chairman Thomas McCormack decided the book was "inescapably anti-Semitic" and canceled it, with the company notifying Irving by fax. McCormack's move came on the heels of strong protest against the book from St. Martin's employees and reportedly a spate of angry calls from outside the firm as well. It recalled the fracas over Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, for example, famously dropped by Simon & Schuster when its gruesome content scared off the publisher--though not until after it had already been accepted. (More common, of course, is the cancellation of a book earlier in the process.)

The decision by St. Martin's to kill Irving's biography, far from being simply a commercial issue, raises troubling questions. Does a private book publisher have an obligation to uphold freedom of expression? Is that freedom violated by reneging on an agreement to publish on the basis of the objections raised in this case? Or would insisting that St. Martin's go forward with such a book infringe on the publisher's own freedom of expression--after all, isn't a publisher judged by its list?

Clearly, St. Martin's had no obligation to enter into a contract with Irving to publish his book in the first place. In light of the British historian's well-earned reputation as a Holocaust denier and an apologist for Hitler, someone at St. Martin's--publisher Thomas Dunne but perhaps others as well--exercised terrible judgment in signing up the book. It is no defense to argue that the book should be judged on its own merits rather than on its author's reputation, for the two cannot be separated. Unless St. Martin's was prepared to deploy a small army of fact-checkers over an extended period, it could not verify all of Irving's assertions or determine that he handled his research materials fairly. Moreover, because Irving had exclusive access to some 75,000 pages of Goebbels's diaries in writing his book, much of the information that went into his biography could not be checked. Therefore, any assessment of the author's conclusions, either by his publisher or by his readers, must be informed by the author's reputation for scholarship and probity.

I suspect that most at St. Martin's, even those who protested the Goebbels book, would agree that publishers should defend the values embodied in the concept of freedom of expression. They earn their living marketing ideas, opinions and information, after all, for which they enjoy broad legal protection. In turn, they might agree, they incur certain responsibilities.

The recent case of another publisher is instructive here. Earlier this year, Cambridge University Press canceled a scholarly book on ethnicity and language in Greece because the author's research findings are anathema to Greek nationalists. Officials of the press and the book's academic reviewers concurred that the manuscript, Fields of Wheat, Rivers of Blood, by Anastasia Karakasidou, is of very high scholarly quality. Yet the author aroused hostility because she found that some elderly residents of the Greek province of Macedonia (bordering on the country of the same disputed name) identify themselves and their origins as Slavic. This contradicts nationalist ideology and public policy in Greece that are based on adamant refusal to acknowledge ethnolinguistic diversity in the country's population.

Cambridge said it canceled Karakasidou's book because it feared for the safety of its employees. Yet the press conceded that it had received no threats. Also, there is no recent history of Greek nationalist violence. A more plausible explanation is that Cambridge was concerned that publication of Karakasidou's book might adversely affect its commercial interests in Greece, which are extensive. …

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