Threats that are made in an effort to force the cancellation of an author’s appearance at a bookstore threaten freedom of speech and the open exchange of ideas. Debate is essential in a free society, and bookstores play an integral part in the process by which ideas are disseminated and debated. An author appearance does more than provide customers the chance to meet the person behind the book. It gives them the opportunity to ask questions, express their own opinions, and even to disagree.
The recently announced cancellation of appearances by Jeanine Cummins, the author of American Dirt, is deeply disturbing. In announcing the interruption of a 40-store tour, her publisher, Flatiron Books, cited “specific threats to booksellers and the author” that created “real peril to their safety.”
While threats to safety must be taken seriously and security increased when necessary, it is important to consider the costs of cancellation as well. Given that some of the stores had sold as many as 300 tickets for these events, it is likely that thousands of people were denied an opportunity to hear Cummins. This does more than disappoint the book’s fans. Readers critical of the book have lost public forums to express their views as well. Some might have wanted to peacefully protest in front of the store.
The cancellation of the American Dirt tour is a lost opportunity to discuss immigration—one of the most fraught issues in American life today—as well as other important subjects, including who gets to tell what stories, whose voices are prioritized in our cultural spaces and how the lack of diversity in publishing impacts the stories and authors given platforms. Recognizing this, Flatiron Books and Oprah Winfrey, who selected American Dirt for her book club, have announced their intention to create forums where these issues can receive the attention they deserve.
We look forward to these initiatives, which should give the book’s critics the opportunity to fully air their opinions. We need fewer threats and more open discussion.