Since When They See Us debuted, Linda Fairstein has become the latest author to face cancel culture. The Netflix series about the Central Park Five broadcast the fact that Fairstein prosecuted the innocent young men who were caught up in racist hysteria after a woman was attacked and raped in Central Park in 1989. After the case, Fairstein went on to write many popular mystery novels. Fairstein has had some honors revoked and has resigned from some prominent positions, but this doesn’t seem like enough for some people. While she didn’t break laws, she did send five innocent people to prison for years after vilifying them in the press.
I’ve seen this before for authors like Orson Scott Card (for publicly advocating against LGBT civil rights) and Junot Díaz (for sexual harassment), but I haven’t seen much happen to these authors after the media attention starts to die down. Readers are left wondering what to do. Do we hold fire until someone breaks a law and/or wait until due process has been met? Do we boycott? Do we protest when they are given honors? I saw a post on the Silent Book Club on Facebook about boycotting Fairstein. I didn’t read the comments because I haven’t made up my mind about where to draw the line. Then I had a small epiphany.
I think cancel culture, at least in the bookish world, comes from the burst of outrage we feel when someone whose work we’ve enjoyed turns out to have done something we dislike or even abhor, as in Fairstein’s case. The only thing about it that I can get on board with is the long-unresolved discussion about whether or not we can or should separate an author from their work. That is, can we still enjoy something created by someone we have problems with? Like most ethical decisions, I don’t think that taking action in this cases is something that we can dictate to others. That gets too close to censorship to me. If an individual reader thinks about it and decides they can’t in good conscience financially support an author by buying their books, I respect that decision. It gets more complicated for publishers, who have the option to completely drop an author, or librarians, who might get requests for books by authors whose skeletons have been pulled out of their closets.
But this is me speaking generally and ineloquently. For myself, there are authors I have personally boycotted because I didn’t want to give them my money. I will also tell people who ask why I am boycotting authors. I’ll tell people that I don’t like Card’s attitudes towards LGBT people. I will tell people that James Frey is a fabricator. I don’t go further than this because my ethics may be different from others. Some people might not read Charles Dickens because he was horrible to his wife or James Patterson because they don’t like the way he exploits other writers. Ethics is just too messy for cancel culture as it currently exists.