‘I don’t care what a bunch of 19-year-old gender-studies students think’

Owers says he won’t take on authors for the sake of it. “If what they’re arguing is of no merit, or is pure provocation with no real argument, I don’t want to publish it.” That said, he “will publish people who push the boundaries quite far”. How far are we talking? Nazi apologists are (probably) out – because “there’s just never going to be a Nazi apologist who’s going to write a very intellectually rigorous book that’s going to sell many copies”. 

But on nation states, and gay marriage, he has no fear of publishing controversial views, if they “make a good argument”. Provided his conscience is satisfied, “I don’t care what a bunch of 19-year-old gender-studies undergraduates think.”

Owers is a millennial Brexiteer with a PhD from Cambridge in the history of political thought, who typically speaks at a mile-a-minute, clenching his eyes shut when particularly stirred. He thinks “a lot of outrage now is either confected or illegitimate” and has friends who have fallen victim to the current puritanism. In one case, an author’s manuscript made it past the commissioning stage, but was then returned immediately prior to publication with significant revisions (in spite of final versions having been signed off months earlier).

Another author I contacted for this piece had their book on imperialism dropped by the major publisher they first signed with. Having finally found a home for it elsewhere, they refused to speak on the record until its publication, so as not “to tempt woke zealots to try and derail it a second time”.

These skirmishes are often the result of complaints from junior staff at a publisher, other authors signed to the title, or social-media naysayers searching for scalps, and have created a situation, according to Owers, in which editors are now “terrified of being accused of wrongthink [if] they allow a book to be published which is deemed to be out-of-bounds”.

“I think it’s pathetic, to be honest,” he adds. As well as having a chilling effect on freedom of thought, it also leaves authors without stability, working with editors who clearly don’t support their writing, and wondering when, during the years-long process from commission to publication, the axe will fall. Since Forum launched, some have already told Owers that “it’s really nice to have an editor who doesn’t think I’m an a——e.”

Kate Clanchy, a teacher of 30 years whose memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me won the Orwell Prize for Political Writing, saw her decade-long relationship with Picador aborted earlier this year following a cancel-culture maelstrom. Her 2019 book had initially been championed by her publisher as a celebration of her students’ diversity, until a handful of writers on Twitter criticised some of Clanchy’s descriptions, such as “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond eyes”.

She agreed that a revised version should be reprinted, with Picador passing it through “sensitivity readers”, who assess work for offensive material. The readers disagreed on what the offensive parts were; the new version never appeared and, in January, Clanchy and Picador parted company “by mutual consent”.

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