On Being Blacklisted

illustration (depicting mouthsoaping?) by David Scher

I recently wrote an essay for Arc Digital about agreeableness, “Self-Censorship in the Academy.” What follows is a short postscript, mainly about cowardice.

I was blacklisted by Chicago Review, a prestigious literary journal edited by graduate students at the University of Chicago. Last year, in November, one of the editors sent me a note to solicit an essay for a feature in an upcoming issue. Then, in January, the entire editorial staff wrote to say that they were withdrawing their invitation, and that they could not publish any of my writing because they did not want to be associated with my essay “Self-Censorship in the Academy” (which, as I said, appeared in Arc Digital, a completely different magazine). Here is what they wrote:

Dear Dr. Kunin,

We’re writing with regard to your Arc Digital article. The piece’s reception has made it logistically untenable for us to proceed with the dossier as planned, and unfortunately we have to withdraw our invitation. Some potential contributors have turned down participation because of the article, and while we have yet to communicate with current contributors about your participation, we are right now unable to get the range of contributors we need for the forum. We’ve discussed it and find we’re faced with a choice between disinviting you and discontinuing the dossier as a whole. As you probably know, we’re an underfunded publication run by grad students, so we have to bear our own precarity in mind.

We’re very sorry for the inconvenience, and hope you’re able to place your essay elsewhere.

All best,
Chicago Review Editorial Staff

I replied by asking them to be specific. What issues do people have with my piece?

They never answered this question. The best they could do was to say that “we believe the essay does not align with Chicago Review’s editorial and political agenda.” They did not say what their agenda was, or what they understood my piece to be saying.

“We believe,” they wrote. So timid. We believe that we have an agenda, and we believe that your agenda is different from ours, but we’re not sure.

Their message was: We’re scared. Please don’t ask us to say exactly what we believe. After all, “we have to bear our own precarity in mind.”

Their craven attitude is understandable. Blacklisting is a nasty business. As Glenn Loury says, blacklisting is characteristic of regimes of self-censorship, and it is enforced by the threat of secondary sanctions. In other words, the blacklist does not threaten me alone. The editors of Chicago Review reasonably fear for their own careers. If they were to publish my work in their magazine, the association with my essay in Arc Digital would apparently make it difficult to recruit other writers to contribute to their magazine. (They know this, because “potential contributors” are threatening to withhold their work.) Then they might find themselves shut out from other magazines where they would like to publish their own writing.

Blacklisting is an evil in itself, corrosive to the ideal of an open society, and to professional relationships in the small world of literary publishing in which this story takes place. When they engage in blacklisting, the editors of Chicago Review are doing wrong. They are being pressured by other people who, in applying the pressure, are doing something worse. The really contemptible moral cowardice in this episode is that of the “potential contributors” who put pressure on the editors.

Perhaps they were afraid of my essay. They might have been so horrified by some statement in my essay that they took steps to prohibit the publication of other essays in which similar statements might appear. Or they might have feared that publishing their work in a magazine alongside something of mine would put their names on someone else’s blacklist. It’s hard to say, since they are such cowards that they neither communicated their objections in a public statement nor in a private email. What seems clear is that they are helpless to avoid making the series of rational but contemptible choices that Loury identifies as the mechanism of self-censorship, and they wish to impose these choices on others.

I understand why writers exhibit cowardice. I understand why people make these calculations, but I don’t have much sympathy for them. They want to do their work and be left alone. They fear for their reputations. They fear that other writers and editors will turn on them. It seems to me that they have an inverted perspective on literary fame. If writers want literary fame, they should ignore the silly things their contemporaries say about them. Certainly they should not repeat those silly things and allow them to shape their lives, thoughts, and work. Maybe readers won’t notice the silliness in words written today, but they will notice ten years later; in one hundred years, the silliness will be unmistakable. (Assuming that we are ambitious enough and clever enough to produce work that will interest readers in one hundred years.)

***

Look. I’m a weirdo. I have worshipped strange gods. I have strange opinions about various subjects, and I have published some of these opinions in books, essays, and poems. My sexual preferences are unusual, and I have written about them extensively. There are lots of statements in my published writing for people to take issue with. However, I must admit with some embarrassment that the views expressed in “Self-Censorship in the Academy” are completely unoriginal and vanilla. It’s just liberalism.

What is everyone scared of?

Here are two possibilities:

1) My essay is mostly about second-order issues: self-censorship and academic freedom. Do potential contributors to Chicago Review deny the prevalence of self-censorship in colleges and universities in the U.S.? Do they deny that self-censorship is a problem?

2) In order to put a piece of my own skin in the game, and to provide an example of a topic where discussion is distorted because literature professors censor themselves, my essay gives a brief sketch of my position on first-order issues of literary history and literary pedagogy. (Incidentally, this part of my essay is adapted from the statement on diversity and inclusive teaching that I submitted as part of my recent promotion review at Pomona College, where I work.)

In this part of the piece, I am mainly concerned to establish the existence of a disagreement among professors in literary studies. Do potential contributors to Chicago Review deny the existence of the disagreement? If they disagree with me, it would be odd for them to claim that there is no disagreement.

My account of the second-order issues is not particularly original. I rely on two classic accounts of self-censorship: H.L. Mencken’s “In the Rolling Mills” and Loury’s “Self-Censorship in Public Discourse.”

My position on the first-order issues is likewise unoriginal. It is quite close to what John Guillory argues in Cultural Capital and what Michael Clune argues in his forthcoming Defense of Judgment (both books published by University of Chicago Press, which may be a concern if contributors to Chicago Review want to avoid being institutionally associated with these arguments).

My essay identifies a disagreement among professors who express a commitment to diversity and inclusive teaching. There is also a legitimate disagreement in literary studies between people who are committed to diversity and people who are not. There are some powerful arguments against diversity. For example, there is a left argument against diversity (that the veneer of diversity in elite institutions conceals real social inequalities) as well as a conservative argument against curricular diversity (that western literature has a coherence of its own, and the curriculum should be designed to support this coherence). Kenneth Warren of the Chicago English department has a version of the left argument. I can’t think of anyone at Chicago who would make the conservative argument, but Allan Bloom was teaching at Chicago not so long ago. However, my piece does not make either of those arguments! My piece gives a brief sketch of what literary history looks like to me: a curriculum of writers and artists of diverse backgrounds, in which the selections represent aesthetic judgments.

If the current political agenda of Chicago Review is opposed to liberal values, and if the current editorial agenda is to reject work from any poet or writer who, in any forum, expresses a commitment to liberalism, I would be curious to see a copy of that agenda. In past issues, Chicago Review has published works by numerous writers whose liberalism is as mild and unoriginal as mine. In fact, the editorial choices of Chicago Review have been admirably pluralist. In the past twenty years, the magazine has featured poets with a wide variety of political leanings, including the fascist Ezra Pound, the famous scumbag Ed Dorn, and the neoconservative Barbara Guest. That is as it should be. Many of the past contributors to Chicago Review could not truthfully be said to have a political agenda of any sort. That is as also it should be. As Dorothea Lasky memorably put it, “Poets should go back to saying crazy shit all the time.”

Did the past editors of Chicago Review approve of Barbara Guest’s support of George W. Bush? If the War on Terror was not on their political agenda, why did they publish her poetry? If the answer is, “Well, Guest was a genius” — that sounds like an editorial agenda that separates aesthetic judgment from political associations, which is pretty close to my own thinking on this issue. If I edited a literary magazine, I would do the same thing.

The foregoing discussion assumes that the editors and potential contributors had a reason for blacklisting me other than their own cowardice. That’s a generous assumption, considering that no one ever told me what the reason was. They might not have a coherent objection to “Self-Censorship in the Academy.” They might not know what they think, which is to be expected from people who do not say what they think.

***

My transactions with Chicago Review are a small piece of the puzzle. If they had published my little essay on the work of an obscure poet, it would have been read by perhaps fifty people. A bigger piece of the puzzle is that blacklisting is becoming a way of life in the literary world and the academy.

The editors of Chicago Review did not have to tell me that they were blacklisting me. They could have received my essay, reviewed it, and rejected it. “Nice essay. Unfortunately we have something different in mind for this feature.” (I have received similar rejections many times. Rejection is a big part of the life of a writer.) They tell me that they are blacklisting me because they do not know that blacklisting is wrong. They may even view it as a virtuous action. Unsettlingly, they seem to expect my sympathy for their motives and their plight (their “precarity”).

To an extent, I do sympathize. This must be a tough time for grad students! I wish that I could protect them from this shadowy conflict between me and the unnamed potential contributors to the journal. But I can’t protect them from such conflicts, which are occurring everywhere, on the staff of every magazine, and in every academic department. Nor can I protect myself.

What I can do is suggest an alternative. The healthiest response to writing that you don’t like is to view it as competition. Try to write something better.

If I edited a literary magazine, and I received an alarming message from a potential contributor who did not want me to publish the work of another writer, I would say: “Worry about your own writing. Don’t worry about what other authors are writing for other magazines.”

If I received an alarming message from a potential contributor conveying vague rumors about the conduct or beliefs of another writer, I would say: “We are a literary magazine, and we do not have the resources to do factfinding. And, anyway, we are a literary magazine, and it is not our business to monitor the lives and opinions of our authors. Worry about your own writing.”

Blacklisting is a rotten thing for a writer to do to another writer. I wouldn’t do it. I don’t live that way. You don’t have to live that way either.

Poet, critic, associate professor of English at Pomona College, author of LOVE THREE: A STUDY OF A POEM BY GEORGE HERBERT and several other books.

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