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This item is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

CAN WE GET the balance right?

More opprobrium seems to attach to those publishers who quietly tried to oblige the Chinese censors, implementing self-censorship in order to protect their export markets, than to President Xi Jinping’s faceless, minatory censors. Cambridge University Press and Springer Nature came under particular pressure from journalists for seeming to roll over without a struggle in this assault on free speech. President Xi Jinping’s assault was taken for granted: it’s what regimes of his sort do. After his Party Congress he is riding alarmingly high.

Xi Jinping censors, where Cambridge University Press was concerned, were evidently ham-fisted. They used search engines and required the removal of articles with key words including Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan – a latter-day Boston T-Party. There was no sense that the to-be-banned articles had been read. They had been summarily searched at electronic customs posts and refused entry. Springer Nature publishes Nature and Scientific American. They too had agreed to remove articles – or articles with words – the Communist Party considered sensitive, including, the New York Times reported, ‘Taiwan, Tibet, human rights and elite politics’. Springer declared that the impact of censorship was slight, affecting only about one percent of its content. A minor infraction, meriting a parking and not a speeding ticket. The court of journalists was not to be appeased by such attenuations.

Academic publishers are Xi Jinping’s preferred targets. He does not want Chinese universities to be infected with disruptive data. Cambridge had removed three hundred articles from the site in China of China Quarterly. The articles were said to have been restored after protests. It was the Financial Times that reported Springer Nature’s self-censorship on the Chinese mainland. It alleged that the company was putting profit above free speech. And no doubt they were. One of the editors of Springer’s International Politics, Professor Emeritus Michael Cox of the LSE, declared, ‘My first priority is to maintain and defend the principle of academic freedom.’ Against China?

In the last five years, Xi Jinping’s authorities have been putting the Internet under tighter control, aware of how destabilising its impact can be. Universities have been enjoined to remain alert to Western intellectual infection. ‘While foreign news sites and social media portals are widely blocked in China,’ the New York Times says, ‘overseas academic journals had largely avoided mass censorship until recently.’ No doubt Western publishers should stand firm, but the principal target for criticism should be a government bent on intellectual control of the kind that sets men and women marching to a single tune. One professor was critical of the ineffectuality of the censorship effort: ‘It takes such a clumsy broad-brush approach that even completely uncontroversial articles could be blocked’, as though something subtler is required.


We call the Chinese action censorship, and we are right to do so. What do we call the kind of action drawn to our attention by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker on 23 October? His article is called ‘Kirkus Reviews and the Plight of the “Problematic” Book Review’. Every publisher is familiar with Kirkus, a magazine not many people actually read but one which reviews books succinctly from a wide range of disciplines. It is a journal of record, of more or less sound literary judgement, and in a virtually anonymous spirit it has fulfilled this role for many years. As review culture declines, Kirkus becomes more important, and more exposed. ‘Kirkus gets its authority from its scale,’ says Heller, ‘yet readers generally encounter its reviews individually, book by book.’ It gives out stars, like a primary school teacher, for outstanding books.

And now, it takes stars away. This, too, is the result of journal self-censorship, a self-censorship promoted by some of the very bien-pensant intellectuals who are hard on Springer Nature and Cambridge University Press.

The book in question is a young adult novel, due out in December, entitled American Heart, by a white woman called Laura Moriarty. The book is about a teenage Southern white girl who helps a Muslim woman escape to Canada. Echoes of that other ‘problematic’ book by a white man about a white teenager, Huckleberry Finn, a book no longer much taught in schools. There are fatwas out on various kinds of books, in this case what have been dubbed ‘white savior’ narratives, ‘a story about a person of color who relies on the compassion of a white protagonist for rescue’.

Kirkus had chosen a reviewer for the book who was female and Muslim, and who liked the book a lot. But the editor, having published the first version of the review, under pressure, reviewed the reviewer. She was encouraged to change her mind and her verdict. Kirkus removed the star, the editor acknowledged, ‘after noticing the book’s white point of view’. The replacement review noted ‘that the white heroine’s “ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf” – the Muslim woman – “is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter”’. In the editor’s account, the reviewer had ‘merely updated’ her assessment. Nowadays in reviews of fiction for young people, Kirkus notes the characters’ skin colour. What is more, ‘Reviewers of books for young readers are given special training to help “identify problematic tropes and representations,” and the reviews themselves are assigned to what Kirkus calls “own voices” reviewers – that is, writers who share an affinity of “lived experience” with characters in the book.’ Who will review Lolita? It is hard not to share the New Yorker’s verdict that ‘Kirkus, one of the country’s most prolific book reviewers, has somehow managed to misapprehend both the nature of reviewing and the nature of books.’

We had a series of strong letters not long ago responding to a forthright review in these pages. The pressure from readers was not directly ideological, though the reviewer was white and male and the author of the book reviewed was white and female, in Kirkus’s terms already a misalignment, and there was in the letters, from male readers, a sense of outraged chivalry. One correspondent demanded an apology from the reviewer, who had hurt the author’s feelings; another urged PN Review to commission ‘a balancing, favourable’ review. As though a negative review could not of its nature be fair. As though reviewing was constrained by those mannerly protocols which do not call things by their names or describe the emperor’s déshabillé.

Censorship is alive in all sorts of unsettling ways, differently institutionalised in different cultures, and ‘problematic’ in how it is promoted and resisted.

This item is taken from PN Review 239, Volume 44 Number 3, January - February 2018.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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