Elon Musk has finally bought Twitter and many people have heralded this as a new era of free speech. Or maybe not: apparently a tsunami of ‘hate speakers’ quickly took the change at the top as an invitation to tweet pro-Nazi, anti-Semite, and misogynistic opinions. As a result, Musk has announced proposals to consider some form of moderating what will be allowed, despite his previously unequivocal commitment to ‘anything goes.’

Another champion of free speech, and a vocal opponent of censorship, was Carmen Callil, the founder of the feminist publishing house, Virago, who died earlier this month. Ferociously brave (and sometimes just ferocious), she couldn’t understand why other publishers would not always defend the right of their authors to write freely about what they believed in. Or that other authors could sometimes collude in this – successfully calling on publishers to cancel contracts with relatively unknown authors (like Kate Clanchy, Rachel Rooney, Gillian Philp …), and unsuccessfully calling for the defenestration of big names, like JK Rowling, who had the temerity to tweet in support of a feminist fighting to get her job back after being dismissed for saying there were only two sexes, and subsequently wrote an essay about safeguarding women’s rights.

Many writers self-censor – they see what has happened to other authors and don’t want to lose what precarious income their books make, or jeopardise current and future contracts. But Callil believed that publishers should stick up for such authors and support them even if what they wrote might offend.

Unfortunately, as Tomiwa Owolade said recently in the Sunday Times, too many publishers are happy enough to accept the modishly ‘transgressive’ works that challenge boring ‘heteronormativity,’ but shy away from an author who maintains, for instance, that a man can live as he wants but can’t actually become a biological woman. Under pressure from increasingly emboldened ‘morality police’ (aka their own employees) some have even introduced clauses in contracts which stipulate the contract can be cancelled if the author is found to have ‘problematic’ views.

The Society of Authors has been drawn into the fray, following the former president Philip Pullman’s resignation at what he saw as the shoddy treatment of Kate Clanchy by her publishers and lack of support from the society, and the current chair, Joanne Harris’s apparent trivialising of death threats against JK Rowling after she tweeted about the recent attack on Salman Rushdie and free speech. A potential nomination for the SoA committee highlights the bind the society has got itself into. The novelist Sunny Singh declined the nomination, saying he is not interested in debate “Because debate is an imperialist, capitalist, white supremacist, cis, heteropatriachal technique that transforms a potential exchange of knowledge into a tool of exclusion and oppression.” Maybe just as well he didn’t take up a place on the committee, although meetings that didn’t allow debate would be commendably short!

Carmen Callil was sometimes wrong in her judgements and on occasion she terrified some of her staff and authors. But right up to her death she vehemently defended the right, in a democratic society, for all authors to write what they wanted. May there be more publishers like her!

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