Are there some books we should not publish, no matter how well they might sell? The following ruminations are the result of a discussion at my book group of Hitler’s Willing Executioners by Daniel Goldhagen (Random House, 1996), an absolutely stunning book which of course should have been published.
I have for years been irritating my friends with the notion that a publisher should not be much concerned with the moral content of the books it publishes. The books selected for publication should be well written and written by someone who would seem to have good credentials, but as for the “truth” of the ideas expressed or the moral wholesomeness of the message—these are matters for readers to judge, not publishers.
Moreover, I have argued, if you believe that the true and the good win out over time, it would seem to follow that the true and the good are strengthened by being challenged by their opposites; and in a free society, we need absolutely to protect free speech, no matter how wrong-headed or even dangerous some opinions may seem to us.
The Holocaust, as with so much else, puts such ideas to a hard test. When a rising young politician with a huge following sends in the manuscript for Mein Kampf, it is perfectly clear according to the above argument that it should be published. Of course this monstrous book is still available in many editions because it is by now an essential historical document. But should it have been published in the first place?
This issue became of more than academic interest to me when Die Antwort, by Kurt Waldheim, appeared on my desk. Waldheim was a Secretary General to the United Nations, the Chancellor of Austria, and a towering statesman in post-war Europe. The book was his answer (his “I didn’t do it”) to well-documented charges that he had been a high-ranking Nazi officer during the war and was directly responsible for many atrocities. The Austrian publisher of the German language edition wanted to know if we would do an English edition of this important book.
Well, Waldheim is a political figure of some importance and his account of his behavior, no matter how mendacious, is therefore a document of some historical importance. The events at issue have receded into the past, and such a book could now give rise to serious discussions among serious people. On the other hand, its publication would no doubt give some comfort to various vicious anti-Semites and holocaust deniers. What to do?
Of course what I did was refer the problem to an expert—in this case, an academic friend of mine who agreed to appraise it. He told me it was turgidly written and full of Austrian political minutiae of no interest to an American audience. What a relief! I could reject the book on purely commercial grounds.
Then The Turner Diaries became a distribution possibility. This is an underground best-selling novel, much loved by paramilitary groups. It reportedly has been used as inspiration and instruction for various atrocities, including the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. This is the point at which my philosophical notions about the proper role of a publisher collapsed altogether. Perhaps there are, theoretically, no well-written books that should not be published; but there surely are some that I will not touch.
And what about miracle cancer cure books? I will not touch these either, but perhaps some of the remedies they prescribe actually help. And pornographic books? One person’s pornography is another’s literary masterpiece. Perhaps the answer is for us to publish only the books we are comfortable publishing. Somebody else will turn up to publish the others.
This article is from thePMA Newsletterfor June, 1997, and is reprinted with permission of Publishers Marketing Association.