Last week news broke that controversial internet commentator and Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos had received a $250,000 advance from Simon & Schuster for his forthcoming book Dangerous. The deal sparked outrage among readers and those within the publishing community who accused S&S of pedaling the views of a hatemonger and attempting to profit by selling books to bigots. Several urged the publisher to withdraw the contract; others threatened a boycott. The Chicago Review of Books announced it would not review any S&S books for all of 2017.
These reactions inspired a number of interesting conversations about the role publishers should play in public discourse. Is S&S doing a public good or spreading hate by providing a platform for this inflammatory figure? As a for-profit business, do they have a moral obligation to uphold when deciding what to publish? If so, who decides what those morals should be?
While as an avid reader, liberal, and member of the publishing community, I could discuss these issues all day, they also made me reflect on something much more personal, something that doesn’t make headlines but still has the ability to influence the messages authors—particularly controversial ones—convey to their readers. Namely, how do you edit a manuscript when you fundamentally disagree with its author?
My first job in publishing was in the editorial department at Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Group (now Penguin Random House) that specializes in publishing books with a conservative agenda. It was not the dream job I’d hoped for as a recent college grad with starry-eyed notions about editing the next great American novel. But it was the end of 2007, I knew no one in New York City, and I desperately wanted to be an editor at one of the major publishing houses.
During my interview for the position, my would-be boss (one of the few actual Republicans in publishing) asked me how I would tolerate working with people who might disagree with me politically. “Let’s say you have to talk to Ann Coulter on the phone? How would you handle the conversation?” (Sentinel did not publish Ann Coulter at the time; she was just using her as an example.)
“It’s my job as an editor to help people convey their arguments in the best way possible,” I said. “It’s not my job to have a political debate with them.”
It was the right answer. I got the job and for the next five-and-a-half years, I worked very closely with dozens of authors whose politics did not sit well with me at all. Before long, I was acquiring and editing manuscripts of my own and becoming more directly involved in the publication of the books I was working on. I never once got into a political debate with an author, and while some of them may have figured out my leanings over time, they never mentioned it and (at least to my knowledge) our difference of opinion never once interfered with my professional relationships. In fact, one author told me, essentially, that he felt comfortable with any changes I made to his manuscript because “it’s your job to make my book better, not worse.” Music to an editor’s ears!
That, of course, didn’t mean that the process wasn’t challenging. I am not the most active or outspoken person when it comes to politics, but I do have strong convictions about certain issues and there were times when I had to set them aside in order to look at a project more objectively. This naturally came into play when deciding what to acquire—how does one determine what sells to a particular audience when she is not part of that audience?—but, this is part of any publisher’s job.
No, the real challenge came during the editorial process itself. How do I help an author make sense of an argument that I don’t actually think makes sense? How do I push an author to support and defend her opinions without compromising her right to communicate those opinions freely and openly?
Obviously, as an editor at a large publishing house, I was responsible for making sure that anything we published was written to the highest standard possible. The books I was working on weren’t Shakespeare—they didn’t need to be—but they needed to be well-written and they needed to be factually correct. One time an author wrote that Al Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his film An Inconvenient Truth; when I pointed out that one does not win Nobel Prizes for making movies, he changed the wording, and that was the end of the conversation.
Other times, the process was not so straightforward. On one occasion, I was editing a passage in which the author was discussing the importance of the Golden Rule—treating other people the way you want to be treated. It was all fairly innocuous until he started using the Golden Rule as an argument against gay marriage. I don’t recall the exact reasoning he used, but to me—a staunch supporter of gay rights—the entire argument didn’t make sense. Isn’t denying others the right to marry a prime example of not treating others the way you want to be treated? How was I going to retain the message the author was trying to convey to his audience (an audience I knew would agree with him regardless) while upholding my own standards of editorial quality
All in all, the argument took up no more than a few paragraphs of text, but I spent the better part of an hour (if not longer) editing it. It was clear to me that the author felt this argument was important, so while I could have made a case for picking another example that was, perhaps, more relevant to the subject at hand, I instead constructed a new argument that I felt was more appropriate in the context of the book as a whole. As a liberal, I still wasn’t satisfied by the logic, but as an editor, I was confident I had done my job in helping my author articulate what he was trying to say.
I know there are people—perhaps even some in publishing—who feel that one’s personal moral code should outweigh her professional demands and ambitions. According to those people, I should have refused to work with authors whose opinions I felt were dangerous to society. The books will get published without me, after all, so why compromise my integrity?
But I have always believed that, as an editor, I am responsible for upholding another moral code. No one forced me to take a job at a conservative imprint; just like no one forced Kim Davis to take a job as a county clerk in Kentucky. And if I, as a progressive, expect people like Davis to do their jobs despite their personal or religious beliefs, then how can I not hold myself to the same standard? Yes, Davis is a government employee who was denying citizens something they were entitled to under the law, while I was working for a for-profit company and merely debating semantics with myself. But one could make the case that Davis took her job before gay marriage was legal, whereas I took my job knowing what my responsibilities would be.
As I said in that first job interview, it is not my job as an editor to argue with people; it’s my job to help them make their books as good as possible. No one forces me to do that; I choose to and I’m proud of it. I became an editor because I believe passionately in the power of the written word and the right of the freedom of expression. In the age of social media, fake news, and filter bubbles, it’s easy for us to tune out anyone we don’t agree with politically—or engage them in endless rounds of “here’s why you’re wrong” that end up making everyone feel more entrenched in their beliefs than ever before. But the experience of forcing myself to step inside the mind of someone else, to try and understand why people I disagree with feel the way they do, is an inherently empathetic one, one that acknowledges the rights of each of us to hold opinions, that made me appreciate the importance of free and open discourse—of the right to disagree that we so often take advantage of in America.
I eventually left Sentinel because I knew I ultimately wasn’t cut out to edit conservative political books for the rest of my career. Now, as an independent writer and editor, I have more freedom to work on books that I truly believe in. And, while I probably won’t opt to edit any Breitbart contributors anytime soon, I firmly believe that my experience working at Sentinel has not only made be a better editor but a better citizen as well.