An open letter to Carolyn Reidy, Simon & Schuster CEO

My publisher has been in the news lately, and the news is not good. Though I know many have argued that writing about Milo Yiannopolous gives him publicity and motivates more people to buy his book, I felt like my own silence on the issue was a form of complicity. And I wasn’t comfortable with that. So I wrote a letter to S&S President and CEO, Carolyn Reidy. I know I’m opening myself up to white supremacist trolling by posting this letter publicly, but on the eve of the inauguration, it feels especially important to be vocal, to do what I can to avoid normalizing hate and abuse disguised as “free speech.”

 

Dear Carolyn Reidy,

First, I’d like to thank you and everyone at Simon & Schuster—especially my amazing editor Marysue Rucci—for taking the risk of publishing a collection of essays by an unknown writer. When I got the call from my agent letting me know that Simon & Schuster had made an offer on How to Fall in Love with Anyone, I pulled over, got out of my car, and jumped up and down on the side of the road. I was so excited.

One of the things I liked about Simon & Schuster from the start was your obvious commitment to ideas that challenge the status quo and push the cultural discourse in progressive directions with book by authors like Rebecca Traister and Alain de Botton and Issa Rae and Justin Simien, just to name a few. I felt proud to be in such good company.

I read a summary of your end-of-year memo about resisting the censorship that looms on the political horizon and I felt proud again. As a publisher, you understand that ideas have power, that individual voices can change the landscape of our country, and that (as you point out) right now those voices matter more than ever.

Maybe you can imagine my disappointment in Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Milo Yiannopoulis’s forthcoming book. Many people in the media have conflated calls to boycott S&S over Yiannopoulis’s book deal with calls for censorship. But as you know Milo has a large platform and his ideas will continue to circulate without the company’s money and implicit endorsement. I’d love to see my publisher be the one who draws a line at hate speech, who acknowledges that online assault is often as destructive as physical assault, who continues to value the work of women writers, and people of color, and other marginalized voices, and who is bold enough to say no to people like Yiannopoulis who try to silence those voices with harassment.

I feel especially concerned for the writers without equally large platforms whose book sales will likely suffer as a result of widespread calls to boycott S&S. My friends and colleagues who have joined the boycott are the same people who prioritize buying books by women and writers of color. For these writers, the decision to publish Yiannopoulis is doubly destructive: S&S is promoting the work of someone who aims to undermine their basic rights, and enabling a boycott that may hurt their careers.

Personally, I find it difficult to argue with those who have decided not to buy or review my book when it is published later this year. I understand that now, more than any other time in my life, it’s important to act in ways that are in line with progressive values and in support of individual civil and human rights. I respect any thoughtful individual expression of those values, even if it impacts my career.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I am hopeful that in the future Simon & Schuster can find a way to “stand unequivocally for freedom of speech”—as you say in your memo—without endorsing hate and assault.

Sincerely,

 

Mandy Len Catron

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how to be famous

When I flew home last week, my mom reported how many views my TED talk had received and asked me if anyone recognized me on the plane. Ha. When I got back to town and told my chiropractor I had the worst seat on the plane (last row, middle seat–the one that doesn’t recline at all) he said: “Don’t these people know who you are?” Ha ha.

If jokes really are benign violations (this is my favorite theory of humor–a field I wish I’d known existed when I was in school), then I guess the violation is that famous people are sometimes entitled jerks and the thing that makes it benign is that I’m not actually very famous. But here’s the thing I’m struggling with, the part of the joke that doesn’t feel so benign these days: I’m not totally unknown anymore. No, no one has ever recognized me in an airport or on the sidewalk, but I get e-mails from strangers almost daily. Some even use the phrase “I’m a big fan.” (fan!) I now have a public persona that extends beyond my classroom and my friends. And I’ve spent the past month–and the past nine months before that–trying to come to terms with this persona, trying, in short, to figure out how to be just a little bit famous.

In all the years I spent writing without an audience, I developed an idea of who I would be as a writer. I imagined I would publish a book with a small press and it would be read by a few thousand people if I was lucky. In the wildest versions of this fantasy, I would go to conferences and sit on panels with other essayists. (Seriously–this is still a career dream, so if anyone wants an enthiusiastic panelist: call me!)

I imagined that I could keep my writing life and my personal life separate, that I could be honest and fairly unfiltered about the people I wrote about because no one who knew those people would ever read my books. None of this is shaping up to be true.

I got the call that I was going to be featured as the TED talk of the day the same week that my partner and I were trying to decide if we should stay together or split up. I told myself that, even if my relationship was a mess, at least this career thing was going well. But imagine this: 500,000 strangers watching you talk about your choice to love someone while you are at home with the dog watching comedy specials on Netflix to ward off the crying and wondering if it’s time to make a different choice.

I believe in personal agency but I also believe you get what you get from the world and you have to figure out how to live with it. To complain about the things that come with this newfound success would be disingenuous–I like getting e-mails from strangers. I like getting new Twitter followers. I even liked getting trolled (getting trolled is shitty–I do not endorse it–but it felt validating for someone to notice my work enough to loathe it).

troll

But these markers of success also make me uncomfortable. Those e-mails from strangers are sometimes difficult to respond to. People confess the most intimate details of their heartaches to me. Continue reading