I have asked dozens of literary agents and publishers if they would publish “anti-woke” fiction. Most ignore my queries.
In 2020, fiction was dominated by identity politics more appealing to the academic sociologist than to the general reader. Publishers, agents, and journalists called for more women, non-whites, foreigners, and social antagonists (euphemized as “underrepresented voices,” even though they’re already overrepresented in the marketing). At times, the social mission appears bigger than the business model, epitomized by The Guardian’s long campaign against publishing’s “hideously middle-class and white” market forces. (That’s not satire, but it should be.)
I asked literary journalists if they could think of any anti-woke fiction. Most could not. Sam Leith of The Spectator pointed to Roger Scruton’s final novel, although Douglas Murray characterizes Scruton’s fiction as “non-woke” rather than “anti-woke.” (The Disappeared is about a girl who escapes British-Muslim sex traffickers.)
Where are today’s equivalents of the widely published conservative novelists of the 20th century, such as Evelyn Waugh and G. K. Chesterton?
Contemporary fiction is dominated by left-wing themes. Novelists who call out this bias only hurt themselves, such as the Australian Michael MacConnell. (That was in 2009. He hasn’t published a novel since.) I was told of a few successful novelists who are relatively conservative but remain closeted.
Meanwhile, fashionable literary circles demonize “the classics” for alleged racism, sexism, conservatism, and so on. As one academic argues (in an academic journal, no less!), one of the strikes against the classics is that their authors are mostly white men. Thus, she argues further, the teacher should teach “critical consciousness,” not appreciation.
That is a bit rich, given that males are already underrepresented in the publishing industry (as they are in teaching). Recently, a novelist revealed that in the 2000s he “was explicitly advised . . . to give up any ideas of publishing literary fiction,” given female dominance on both the demand and supply sides.
Sexism and Hypocrisy
Gay literature once had its own section in bookstores, but, as Murray observes, it was already mainstream, clichéd, and easy to caricature by the 2000s. Today, the best gay writers are also those who do not rely on being known as gay writers. Nevertheless, I heard plenty of advice that white males need to be gay to get their foot in the door.
No male under 40 years old has been nominated for the Booker Prize for fiction in a decade. The shortlist for the 2020 Booker Prize was published in mid-September, with three women “of colour,” a man of color, a white woman, and a white man (but he’s gay, Scottish, and wrote about a single mother battling with alcoholism, and a son grappling with his sexuality, in Glasgow, in the 1980s, all of which are blamed on “Thatcher’s policies”). The BBC praised the list for its “new and diverse voices, from as far afield as India, Ethiopia, and Scotland—although five of the six authors were either born or now live in America.” Yes, the BBC is outraged that writers in the English language should reside in the most populous English-speaking country.
The deputy literary editor for the Times of London, James Marriott, welcomed the incline in female nominees on the Booker longlist, but he also noted that young men would struggle to get a break today. One agent told him: “it’s really, really hard,” given that “the culture doesn’t really want to hear from them.” Appropriately, the agent blamed a culture, not the market. Indeed, a minority culture attempted to cancel Marriott on Twitter. He suspended his account (temporarily).
Despite female dominance of the Booker Prize, women have their own annual prize for women’s fiction, now in its 25th year. Where is the annual prize for men’s fiction? That would be sexist, they say, with no realization of hypocrisy.
One all-women prize is not enough. In 2018, a disgruntled author started an annual prize for women’s comic fiction, accusing the Wodehouse Prize of sexism because most of the winners were men. But the new prize doesn’t seem meritorious: one woman has won two years in a row. She’s prejudicial about men’s chances to be funny (it’s all about life experience, apparently). And she’s not above launching her Twitterati against a male critic who was lukewarm about her latest book (she claimed he’s too male to appreciate it).
Women Canceling Women
Even self-identified feminists can get on the wrong side of publishing. (It’s a slippery slope, after all.) J. K. Rowling is the best-selling author alive. In December 2019, Rowling tweeted support for a tax specialist who was fired over tweets that were skeptical of transsexualism. Rowling suffered sustained abuse, but hung on to her social media. In June, Rowling posted on her website a long statement on “sex and gender issues.” Rowling’s position is majoritarian: if any man can demand to be treated as a woman, women’s interests suffer (such as privacy in changing rooms).
She concluded with a plea for “millions of women . . . to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.” But the haters proliferated, including the former child stars of the Harry Potter movies. Her latest book was virally denounced as transphobic, because, according to Pink News, it “is about a murderous cis man who dresses as a woman to kill.” That’s false, says a reviewer who had read it (unlike anybody at Pink News). And in the real world, transgenderism is overrepresented amongst sexual offenders (although journalists and officials repress the fact, for fear of being called transphobic). Fifty-eight writers signed a letter defending Rowling, but a few days later, more than 200 writers and publishers put out their own letter siding with the trans activists.
While J.K. Rowling is too big to cancel, some of her supporters were not so fortunate or famous.
Gillian Philip is the author of seven books under the pen name “Erin Hunter.” In the midst of the Rowling uproar, she tweeted #IStandWithJKRowling. A couple of weeks later, trans activists made an issue of it. She suffered 24 hours of death threats and sexualized abuse before she deleted her social media accounts. One morning, her agent informed her that the managing director of Working Partners (which owns the brand “Erin Hunter”) wanted to talk, only to say that the company would wait on HarperCollins (which publishes “Erin Hunter”). Once the business day opened in New York, HarperCollins told Working Partners to cancel Philip’s two current book contracts.
Working Partners complied immediately. The company told her agent that she had sworn at a fan. But the company rebuffed a request for evidence. The company’s other excuse was that Philip had linked her own views with that of her pen name. Yet she had been doing that for five years without complaint. HarperCollins pledged to remove Gillian Philip’s real name from the front matter of each book. Her agent removed Philip’s name from the agency’s website. Meanwhile, other authors contracted to the same pen name continued to express pro-trans activism without intervention.
“I’m not (at present) trying to get work in publishing because the consensus from everyone I’ve spoken to is that I’m toxic and no one in the industry will touch me,” Philip told me in an email. “Right now I’m training for a totally different career (truck driving!) but I do plan to write again eventually—and will self-publish by choice, as I don’t ever want my income to depend on the whim (or cowardice) of a publishing company again.”
Philip is not an outlier. In January, a literary agency in New York fired one of its agents for signing up to the social media platforms Parler and Gab. Colleen Oefelein’s employer already knew she was conservative from her Twitter account. Her offense was to sign up to alternative platforms that the woke mischaracterize as fora for right-wing extremists.
When Fashion Trumps Merit
Publishing is increasingly unmeritocratic. For instance, in January 2020, Macmillan published Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt with much fanfare. The author had earned a seven-figure advance, an option for film adaptation, and a selection for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club. Everything looked right-on: the story is about a woman and child fleeing violence in Mexico for America, via the illegal route; the author self-identifies as Latina; she looks dark, tousled, and pierced in the publisher’s headshot; the novel’s postscript makes clear that she wrote in sympathy with real migrants.
But her detractors said Cummins is too white, too well-paid, too successful, and, worst of all, her novel is inauthentic. Oprah promised a conversation about “who gets to publish what stories.” The so-called scandal helped sales. Lost in the brouhaha was any discussion of the book’s literary merit, including its clichéd story and facile objective. The critics included the left-leaning New York Times and The Atlantic.
Fashionable identities are promoted over literary merit. A reviewer for The Guardian, having rehearsed the usual complaints about a lack of women and “writers of colour,” observed fewer “literary fiction” titles among the top 100 bestsellers in 2018 than in 2017. (Data for 2019 and 2020 are not yet available.) Moreover, bestselling novels are “often set . . . in the past or future.” He lamented “how rare it has become for a literary novel with a contemporary setting to combine critical acclaim with mass appeal.”
Yet he did not admit an obvious explanation: the plebs don’t like what the elites promote.
What can be done? Consumers should be raising their voices, and opening their wallets, on behalf of literature that reflects the broader culture, and against what the industry says they should be reading. The adage “go woke, go broke” has been proven in other industries. Why not publishing?
Industry insiders respond that they serve the minority that consumes most of the books. There’s some truth to this, but also complacency. True, the big publishers have the power to create demand for a tiny proportion of authors. Yet at some point, consumers lose faith in the marketing. Those in the publishing world talk up the industry out of self-interest. But most of the time the insiders are talking to each other.
A Changing Market
The market is bigger than the literary class. Britain publishes more books per capita than any other country, partly because it serves an enormous Anglophone market outside of Britain. Most sales are of nonfiction, whose subjects are less woke.
What’s more, the big publishers have been losing market share to self-publishers, which account for about one-third of sales (and a higher proportion of ebook sales). Their growing share proves plebian demand. Self-publishing implies rejection by the elite, however, and is stigmatized as such. Most publishers, agents, and critics refuse to consider authors who self-publish. This is partly self-protection. Hypocritically, they will chase authors who make it big as self-publishers.
Still, some in the industry forego markets they don’t agree with. I heard several stories like this, but Douglas Murray tells the best one. A competitor to Bloomsbury Press confided to feeling vindicated by the success of his Strange Death of Europe (2017), having been overruled when suggesting nonfiction on immigration. Her CEO responded, “We wouldn’t want those readers.”
In 2019, Murray published the explicitly anti-woke book, The Madness of Crowds. The same year saw a surge in cancellations by other publishers of woke-skeptical writings. The most ironic was a progressive academic’s study of academic threats to free speech. Emerald Press of Britain canceled James Flynn’s book in June, even though it had passed peer review and was scheduled for publication. The publisher’s letter to Flynn (who died in December) centered on possible violations of British criminal laws against hate speech and incitement of racial hatred.
Academica, a small U.S.-based publisher, picked up Flynn’s book within months of Emerald’s cancellation. Owner Paul du Quenoy declared he “never will be moved by cancel culture or the revolting sensibilities that enable it.” He has the advantage of owning Academica outright, without board members, shareholders, or academic administrators.
Biteback Publishing is a successful British counterpart. One of its founders is the conservative journalist and commentator Iain Dale, who told me: “The U.K. publishing sector is dominated in personnel terms by people on the liberal center-Left, who view people on the Right as beyond the pale. I didn’t establish Biteback as a right-wing publisher, like Regnery, and in fact, we published slightly more center-Left books than center-Right ones. But we went where other publishers feared to tread, and with some success. I rather reveled in that and I think it helped us, in the end, sign up bigger books than our size and marketing power merited.”
One of the authors published by Biteback was Douglas Murray (a book on Bloody Sunday). Murray went on to bigger things with Bloomsbury Press. Part of the explanation is merit: he is a fearless journalist, sharp analyst, and pithy writer. But he spent many years building his audience before Bloomsbury approached him.
One of the authors rescued by Regnery is Bruce Gilley, whose biography of Sir Alan Burns, a British colonial official, was canceled in October (the same month as its scheduled publication) by Rowman and Littlefield. The publisher caved in response to an online petition by a self-described Maoist that gathered all of 800 signatures. Regnery’s edition of the book is scheduled to appear later this year.
From Publisher to Censor
In January, petitions were going around publishers against working with any member of Donald Trump’s outgoing administration. Simon and Schuster canceled Republican Senator Josh Hawley’s The Tyranny of Big Tech after Hawley argued on the Senate floor against certifying the 2020 presidential election. Once again, Regnery came to the rescue.
The industry magazine Publisher’s Weekly notes the number of editors acquiring conservative titles “has slimmed even further” in recent years. Anonymous agents say a new author from MSNBC could be sold to 30 or 40 editors, while a new author from Fox News would be considered by at most four or five.
While anti-woke nonfiction has a few publishers, anti-woke fiction has none. This is not for want of a market. Scruton’s novels rate well on Amazon (as judged by general readers), though not as well on GoodReads (which overrepresents agents, publishers, and librarians).
Douglas Murray told me that anti-woke fiction would need to be satirical, but attaches a Catch-22: the woke are beyond parody. He had written earlier that satire has run out of targets. He also opined that satire turns best on closed, strong institutions, which digital communications and the counterculture have undermined. With knowing bias, Murray says “the form most suited to our age is nonfiction.” As a mostly nonfiction writer myself, I agree, but “most” still leaves room for “some.”
Sam Leith told me that “intervening in the culture wars probably isn’t a very profitable start as a literary premise.” But Leith has a relaxed concept of wokeness, which he defines as “awareness.” On this false premise, he concludes that anti-woke authors are poking at a paper tiger.
But that tiger isn’t paper: it ignores, censors, and cancels. The publishing industry is identarian and unmeritorious. If publishers were fair about underrepresented voices, and underrepresented consumers, they would be publishing anti-woke authors.