Marian And Me


Jan. 7, 2002 | It was the kind of battle that provocateur journalist
Michael Moore would ordinarily consider red meat: a major media corporation
threatening a writer’s freedom of speech. Moore’s new book, “Stupid White
Men and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation,” which pointedly
criticizes President George W. Bush and his administration, was due in
stores on Oct. 2. As with many books scheduled for release in the weeks
that immediately followed Sept. 11, plans to ship the title to stores were
put on hold. According to HarperCollins, “both Moore and [Judith Regan's
HarperCollins imprint] ReganBooks thought its publication would be
insensitive, given the events of September 11.”

By mid-October, there were 50,000 finished books (out of an announced first
printing of 100,000) collecting a month’s worth of dust in a Scranton, Pa.,
warehouse, and ReganBooks had yet to schedule a new release date for
“Stupid White Men.” It was holding off in hopes that Moore would include
new material to address the recent events, and would change the title and
cover art. Moore says he readily agreed to these requests. But once
HarperCollins had his consent, it asked Moore to rewrite sections — up to
50 percent of the book — that it deemed politically offensive given the
current climate. In addition, the Rupert Murdoch-owned publishing house
wanted Moore to help defray half the cost of destroying the old copies and
of producing the new edition, by contributing $100,000 from his royalty
account.

Moore was aghast. “They wanted me to censor myself and then pay for the
right to censor myself,” he declared. “I’m not going to do that!” After
close to three months of relentless negotiations that threatened to
embarrass one of the country’s leading publishing houses, the potentially
explosive drama was suddenly resolved when HarperCollins announced on Dec.
18 its plans to publish “Stupid White Men” as is, slating the title for
early March 2002. “We have made the decision to move it forward as it was.
We’re very happy about that,” says Lisa Herling, HarperCollins’ director of
corporate communications. What motivated the publisher’s change of heart?
Not, as some might well expect, an ugly public fuss orchestrated by Moore.
Instead, the author remained uncharacteristically quiet, and the protest
over the holdup on “Stupid White Men” came from an unexpected source.

In fact, the turnabout was a surprise to Moore, but then so were
HarperCollins’ initial reservations about publishing “Stupid White Men.”
After all, Moore observes, “They not only bought the book, but they
accepted the manuscript and printed it.” But after Sept. 11, the satirical
bite of Moore’s book was too sharp for his publisher. In particular,
HarperCollins flagged an open letter to George W. Bush, in which Moore asks
the president whether he’s a functional illiterate, whether he’s a felon
and whether he is getting the necessary help for his drug and alcohol
problem. “They said it would be ‘intellectually dishonest’ not to admit
that Bush has done a good job, and that the other things in the book
wouldn’t be believable if I didn’t at least give Bush that much,” says
Moore. The author was certain that HarperCollins would cancel and destroy
the book if he didn’t concede to its demands. (The rights to publish the
book would subsequently revert to Moore after six months.)

HarperCollins also wanted him to take out the chapter “A Very American
Coup,” about Dubya’s dubious victory in Florida, and it objected to the
title of an essay about race in America, “Kill Whitey.” According to Moore,
his editor at ReganBooks, Cal Morgan, explained, “It’s not the dissent we
disagree with, it’s the tone of your dissent. You can’t question the
president about his past felonies or alcohol problems right now.” (Cal
Morgan did not respond to requests for comment.)

The publisher’s request came at a chilling moment, on the heels of
presidential spokeman Ari Fleischer’s Sept. 26 warning (later retracted)
that “all Americans … need to watch what they say, watch what they do.”
In the weeks that immediately followed Sept. 11, television host Bill Maher
and essayist Susan Sontag were excoriated for presenting unconventional
views on the hijackers, and newspaper journalists at the Texas City Sun and
the Daily Courier in Oregon were fired for voicing unpopular opinions.

Given the tenor of the times, Moore had reason to assume that his publisher
would follow suit. After two months of uncharacteristic silence (“I spoke
to no one in the media. I didn’t want to upset anyone at News Corps
[HarperCollins' parent company] and tip the scales toward the decision of
pulping my book.”), the author discussed his struggle with a crowd of 100
during a keynote speech at a New Jersey Citizen’s Action private event on
Dec. 1. He even read passages from the book: “It may be the only time it’s
ever heard by anybody,” he explained at the time. “As far as I knew, there
wasn’t any press there, so I told people what had happened. They asked,
‘What do you want us to do?’ I said, ‘Don’t call the publisher, don’t call
the press. Let me deal with it.’”

But one person in the crowd refused to heed Moore’s request. Ann Sparanese,
a librarian at Englewood Library in New Jersey and a board member of the
American Library Association (ALA), returned to work that Monday and posted
a message on several ALA listserves — among them, Library Juice –
detailing Moore’s predicament. According to the ALA, libraries represent
big money to publishers, spending over $2 billion a year for books and
electronic information, and because of it, librarians have publishers’ ears.

“I thought these particular librarians would be especially concerned,”
explains Sparanese. “The ALA has this big conference coming up in
midwinter, and all of the publishers have booths there. At the very least,
I thought some of us would’ve gone over to the Harper booth and said, ‘What
gives?’”

In her posting, Sparanese explained, “This is NOT a question of the CIA or
the government demanding that a publisher stop publication for national
security or some other well-known reason. The publisher just decided to
walk away from the money — the book’s ALREADY printed and sitting in a
warehouse — because of the current war-inspired, anti-dissent atmosphere.
Even satire is biting the dust, by the publisher’s own hand.”

Publishing insiders caught wind of Sparanese’s message when Pat Holt, a
former book review editor and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle,
included it in her twice-weekly publishing industry newsletter. Within days
of the posting, a HarperCollins editor told Moore that they were receiving
a lot of e-mail from angry librarians about “Stupid White Men.” Moore
hadn’t realized Sparanese had attended the Citizen’s Action event (the two
never met), but he partly attributes the publisher’s shift in stance to her
mobilization of other librarians. “Librarians see themselves as the
guardians of the First Amendment,” says Moore. “You got a thousand Mother
Joneses at the barricades! I love the librarians, and I am grateful for
them!”

Lisa Herling, who says she was not familiar with the librarians’ e-mail
campaign, could neither confirm nor deny their impact. “From our
perspective, I don’t know if it has anything to do with our decision.”

Throughout it all, Moore insists he has kept his relations with
HarperCollins friendly and intact. “I have complete empathy and
understanding with HarperCollins and what they were going through — and
what everybody’s been going through — since Sept. 11. We’ve never been
through any of this, and everybody is reacting in various ways and some
people are behaving inappropriately.

“But I think we have to cut everybody a lot of slack because nobody has a
playbook here. They went with their first instincts, which were ‘Don’t
offend the president.’ They said to me, ‘We’re publishing four Sept. 11
books, and we don’t want to put this out and create confusion in people’s
minds.’

“This is a fascinating story because it shows what a free society does when
confronted with a crisis. Do we maintain our sense of freedom and liberty
and dissent and open discussion of the issues? Or do we start putting the
clamp down? I waited it out to see. And HarperCollins eventually did the
right thing. I’m really proud of this book, and I’m dying for it to get out
there.”
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About the writer
Kera Bolonik is a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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