I’m sure that I’ve mentioned that one of my duties as a librarian at a university is buying and weeding materials from our literature and languages collection. (I love doing this!) This means that I regularly read reviews from all over: CHOICE, Publishers’ Weekly, Library Journal, Booklist, other readers’ blogs. Unlike reviews for fiction and poetry, reviews of academic books rarely mention the author other than to say something about their credentials. These reviews are all about the content. I make my decision about buying a book if the review makes it sounds like the content fits a gap in our collection and if it sounds authoritative. I won’t say that I haven’t been fooled by reviews before. I’ve sometimes come across reviews published later that point out problems with a book. (These get weeded if the problems are bad enough.) It was only this spring semester that I found out that a book I tried to buy for the library was canceled by the publisher because of allegations that the author had committed sexual assaults and sexual harassment.
I’ve been bothered by the news ever since I read it. Although there was no way of knowing before the story broke that there were allegations against Blake Bailey, I feel a bit of contact shame because my decision sent some of my library’s money to Bailey. I’m not sure if we received a copy before the cancellation news came out or if a refund is in progress. I also don’t know how I feel about weeding a book because of allegations. (Bailey, as far as I know, has not been convicted of anything or admitted guilt.) All the reviews I read before I decided to order a copy claimed that it was a definitive biography of a major American writer.
Thinking about this has brought up all my old wonderings about supporting authors of apparently good books who have done or been accused of doing bad things. I haven’t bought anything—either with my money or the library’s—by Orson Scott Card. I’ve managed to dodge new books by Sherman Alexie and Junot Díaz. But if a faculty member asked me to buy a new book by a “problematic” author, I would probably be obliged to get a copy. Our collection is supposed to support faculty and student research. I feel caught between my professional and personal ethics. If we do end up with a copy of Bailey’s biography of Roth, I am fairly sure that it would get used by faculty or students studying Roth and his work. Professionally, I succeeded. Personally, I feel squicky because my actions sent my library’s funds went into the pocket of someone I don’t think we want to support.
In addition, I don’t know that there’s a solution to this that wouldn’t be hugely invasive (and probably unconstitutional) for authors. The alleged actions of a few authors shouldn’t mean that all authors have to have their past put under a microscope. (Also, we’re talking about allegations. Regardless of my personal judgments, Bailey might be innocent until he admits guilt or a jury finds him guilty.) I don’t know how to avoid this misstep in the future except to wait a long time after a book is published to see if a scandal breaks, which is not always possible. I don’t want to fall into analysis paralysis. It upsets the whole acquisitions/cataloging/shelving process if I delay so long that I put off ordering until the end of the fiscal year.
In spite of all these muddled thoughts, I do think that as readers, librarians, and publishers, there needs to be more thought put into what gets published and put on the shelves. Some authors don’t necessarily need a platform. Authors of color, authors in translation, woman writers, writers with disabilities, neurodivergent authors, and many others should have more chances to have their voices heard and words read. The only conclusion I might be able to draw is that we all need to be a little more principled when it comes to spending our book dollars.