Before I start this article, I realise the ‘cancel culture’ subject is not always a straightforward one to discuss. That is why, for the purpose of this piece, I will be putting my views across in terms of creative writing, since I have noticed ‘cancel culture’ making its way into the publishing industry.
Recently, a Christian author had an award that she’d won revoked. Her book had stirred up controversy with some readers and even with authors. Elements of the book, At Love’s Command by Karen Witemeyer, are about genocide, and readers and authors alike believed it “romanticised” the genocide of Native Americans.
I have not read the book so I cannot give a review, but the very fact that her award was revoked because of the perceptions of others got me thinking: how free can writers be with their story? Does an author now need to start thinking about every word they construct to make sure it doesn’t offend anybody, as they don’t want to ruin their career? And, if you’re in this industry you know that overthinking is not an author’s best friend; it can put blockages in the way rather than allowing the story to flow. Do authors now have to change genres, for example from contemporary to historical, as they don’t want to be forced to put characters into their books they don’t want?
Though what is perceived as ‘cancel culture’ can be empowering in a positive way, in terms of combating intentional wrongful harm or abuse to others, and holding those accountable, it can also have devastating effects on the livelihood of someone, who just has a different opinion, or has made past mistakes, is genuinely remorseful and wants forgiveness. A career that can take a year or more to build can be destroyed overnight.
Where does this leave authors and creative writing? Will their freedom to express their stories be taken from them? What can authors do? Since this is a new journey we are embarking on, authors need all the support from each other they can get, so I would suggest finding a writers’ group, where opinions can be shared freely and confidentially. If you are not self-published, it is important to gain support from your editor or agent. But do keep in mind that editors who work in publishing houses may have company procedures they need to abide by. If there is a disagreement, it isn’t always the case that the editors are not on the author’s side; they just don’t want to risk being ‘cancelled’ either.
Ultimately, authors should continue to allow the freedom-to-write flow. There are so many book genres that can cater to everybody. It’s unnecessary to cancel a writer just because a person does not agree with what they have written, or because they have a different perception of the book.
I don’t believe it is any writer’s job to do intentional harm. If an author is including characters from a different background, it’s so important that thorough research is done so that the portrayal of the character is authentic.
If there is a scene in the story that readers don’t agree with, and they express their views, I don’t think these should be dismissed either. Authors need to take time to acknowledge their readers’ views, and maybe give them an explanation into why a scene, story, or book is written the way it is. Connecting with the reader doesn’t need to end in a heated exchange, but one must know when to end the conversation if it’s veering off into another direction. It isn’t always possible to do this every time, especially when the author is very well known, however, I do think it is now even more important than ever for authors and readers to engage. Despite the negatives, social media can also be used in a positive way, where nobody has to be cancelled.
Written by: Vanessa Grossett