Sunday, October 17

Publishers in the United States Impose Morality Clauses on Writers | Culture


They are an open secret that has been talked about in private for three years, but on which publicly there still weighs a certain omertá. The case of Blake Bailey – whose biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn on April 29 by the WW Norton publishing house following accusations of rape and abuse that weigh on him – returned to focus on the morality clauses that are routinely included in the United States in contracts between writers and publishers, despite the fact that neither party has confirmed the terms of that pact. These provisions, subject to fierce conditions of confidentiality, allow it to be terminated in the event of a writer becoming embroiled in scandal.

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Finally, the biography of Roth, written by Bailey and canceled at the end of April by Norton, it will return this week to the bookstores in pocket format with Skyhorse. And the situation has not affected the translations or the sales of rights to the book, which was managed directly by the writer’s agency, the same agency that now also stopped representing him. The British and Dutch editions have been in circulation after the withdrawal of the Norton copies, and the Spanish will come out in Debate.

But the shadow of censorship hovers over these new contract terms whose definition of scandal is vague enough to sound the alarm bells. Publishers in the United States can appeal to this morality clause to reverse and even recover the money from the advance and not proceed with the publication or distribution of the title. This provision does not apply in other countries.

Blake Bailey, in 2013, in Los Angeles.
Blake Bailey, in 2013, in Los Angeles.Allen J. Schaben / GETTy / GETT

“All the agents apologize to their clients, but they explain that what is at stake is to be able to close an agreement and that it will not be achieved unless they agree to sign this,” explains, in a telephone conversation, the writer and critic Francine Prose. “If we look back one sees how absurd it is to think that writers should be role models: Dostoevsky was in prison and about to be shot, and Dickens had one of the ugliest divorces in living memory. But really these new provisions have little to do with morality; The point is to cover the backs of publishers against possible financial damage, because if an author is singled out and canceled in the networks, your book can become toxic ”.

The origins of the controversial and confidential morality clause can be traced back to 1920s Hollywood and actor Fatty Arbuckle, who was tried for murder and nearly sought ruin from the Universal Pictures production company. Its widespread inclusion in the literary and publishing world occurred around 2018, and is closely linked to the barrage of accusations of the Me Too in which a good number of authors and publishers were involved.

The agents apologize to their clients, but invite them to sign the conditions

Francine Prose, writer

In January 2019, the authors’ union issued a statement in which it alluded to the censorship imposed by the macartismo in the 1950s in the United States and raised his objections to the moral clauses. “Publishers insist they need them. But most of these clauses are too broad and allow the publisher to terminate the contract based on individual accusations or the vague notion of public condemnation, something that can happen quite easily in these times of viral social networks, ”the writing noted. “The ambiguity and subjectivity of these clauses open the door to abuse. Publishers should not have the sole discretion when deciding whether an allegation is true. And if the allegations are not true, the contract should not be terminated. “

Cover of the biography of Philip Roth written by Blake Bailey.  The hardcover edition of WW Norton was withdrawn on April 29.
Cover of the biography of Philip Roth written by Blake Bailey. The hardcover edition of WW Norton was withdrawn on April 29.AP

After all, the union contends, a writer’s obligations have to do with delivering the book he has promised to write on time. “These types of provisions undermine freedom of expression,” the statement concluded. PEN America has also issued a statement in which it warns of the dangers posed by these clauses: “As an organization dedicated to celebrating and defending the freedom to write, we are seriously concerned about the measures that may penalize writers for expressing themselves.”

Some major literary agencies fight to relax the terms, but they haven’t quite made it go away. There is also no evidence that any best-selling author, a true heavyweight in the sector, has forced the withdrawal of this provision in their contract.

As an organization dedicated to celebrating and defending the freedom of writing, we are seriously concerned about these measures. “

PEN America

Suzanne Nossel, head of PEN America, refers to the same intimidating effect that the authors’ union cited and to a certain paralysis of freedom of expression. “You can appeal to these clauses if an author says something controversial or controversial, the terms are vague and it is the editor who decides,” he explains. “There is some variation in these provisions; They are not all the same, but the fear is that they can serve as an excuse for a publisher to terminate the contract. There is plenty of room for abuse. “

Nossel speaks of worrying cases, such as that certain authors have been pointed out by the workers of a label that is going to publish them or by other writers who do not want to be associated with it, as happened with Woody Allen and his memoirs. “In the end a small publisher took it out, but it seems that the model of the television networks is being replicated, where two sides are established and there are two totally different conversations,” he explains. “Before, in the publishing world the same label published a wide variety of works, and I just hope that this openness is not sacrificed in the current political climate.”

Francine Prose does not hesitate to point out that “an atmosphere of moral and puritanical judgment has been imposed” that can tarnish “the good cause” from which it originally arose. In Bailey’s case, he identifies a dangerous drift. “What happened to him was censorship and it has a certain echo of what was happening in the USSR, in communist China and in Eastern Europe. What is the difference? Well, now it is a private company and not the State that exercises it, and that, in the end, the prohibition is not so strict “, he points out. “Bailey’s book is important not only because it talks about Roth and his life, but because it accounts for a period in the literary history of the United States and of the Jews here.”

Woody Allen in 2017 and, on the right, cover of the book of his memoirs, published by Skyhorse, the same publisher that has now rescued the biography of Philip Roth.
Woody Allen in 2017 and, on the right, cover of the book of his memoirs, published by Skyhorse, the same publisher that has now rescued the biography of Philip Roth. AP

The old idea that even if a book is badly spoken of, this can be positive because, after all, the controversy is also advertising is not fully valid today. The large publishing houses include reputational damage in their calculations and many fear being associated with certain authors or positions that produce strong rejection, and that may end up being toxic to the bottom line. Its collateral effect can go beyond morality. Veteran editor and agent Ira Silverberg concludes: “These clauses are a fascinating point in contracts and publishers will give examples of why they need them, but the shadow of the censorship is there. And morality, really? Please”.


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