In July this year, I started as commissioning editor at UK publication SMITH Magazine. Our first issue goes on sale this month. At the time, this seemed an unalloyed good. Well-paid jobs in publishing are rarer than rocking-horse shit and I know a lot of writers. Sourcing talent for a magazine is very much my jam.
Writers tell magazine editors things. They tell us things they would never say publicly because they are terrified. You may have heard stories about the toxic swamps that are Young Adult fiction and comedy and their talent for cancelling people, but I’m here to tell you literature is riddled with cancel culture from bow to stern, and that many of the worst offenders are writers themselves.
Here are things that happen as a matter of routine.
Refusing to appear in a publication alongside another writer. Declining to write for a publication because its editor-in-chief once worked for the IEA (famously, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite think-tank). Making exhausting and detailed inquiry into the political leanings of every columnist the magazine has hired.
Knocking back commissions because “while it’ll be good for me this month I may not be forgiven by the editors at [x] and [y] in future”.
This drove me to seek out more famous writers, people who are simply too big to cancel – a strategy I admit worked. It also revealed fiction is trapped in a left-wing political silo to a much greater extent than commentary. Opinionistas across the spectrum expect their views to be contested. Some even enjoy the thought of appearing in a publication where both columnists and editorial staff disagree among themselves on everything from Brexit to austerity to climate change to the NHS.
However, I took the job in part because I wanted to feature some up-and-coming writers. Unfortunately, we’ve reached the point where less established authors – who are, on average, younger, more female, and less white than more established ones – have more to fear from online mobbery than those (like me) who can log off Twitter for a couple of days and wait for the storm to pass.
This is because cancel culture has changed. In 1995, attempts to cancel me – while personally unpleasant – simply turned The Hand that Signed the Paper into a bestseller. These days, cancel culture gets people before their books have even been published, or when they’re small and new and desperately need critical attention. It’s no longer good enough to discourage people from reading a particular book by dint of hostile reviews. Offendotrons have to make sure the book is never published and that anyone who disagrees with them suffers professionally. Many novelists are also simply frightened they’ll slip up in how they portray a non-white or non-straight character, or that the ever-fluid ‘rules’ will shift under them without warning.
However, I’m nothing if not determined (as well as cashed-up). My approach at SMITH Magazine was inspired in large part by Penthouse and its ongoing commitment to both fiction and commentary and its political independence. It may come as a shock to wokies and offendotrons, but people from all walks of life and of all political persuasions read books. Including people who also watch porn or require escort services. When Penthouse published an extract from
Kingdom of the Wicked, I watched my sales figures shoot up in real time.
Authors write to be read. Unless we’re so rich audience doesn’t matter, most of us don’t aspire to write for two trans men and their dog. We want to write for everyone. Locking ourselves in political and publication silos undermines that goal. Penthouse, by contrast, has spent 40 years furthering that goal. It is to be commended for doing so.
Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. She currently resides in London.