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Was the publisher right to drop Woody Allen memoir?

The decision by Hachette has been described as censorship and an attack on free speech but others say it was the right response, as Tanya Sweeney finds out

Woody Allen

A year ago, Hachette imprint Grand Central books quietly acquired the rights to publish Woody Allen's memoir Apropos of Nothing. Yet when the book was finally scheduled for an April 7 release, all hell broke loose. Dozens of staff members in Hachette staged a walkout to protest against the company's decision to publish the controversial film director's autobiography.

Their decision comes after his now-adult daughter Dylan Farrow alleged that he molested her as a child. Allen himself has denied any wrongdoing, and after two separate investigations in the 1990s, he was never charged.

"It's a huge conflict of interest and wrong," one unnamed Hachette employee told The Guardian. Asked if they'd called for the book to be withdrawn, the employee added: "It's not up to us - it's up to the higher-ups if they want to hear our voices."

Dylan's brother, journalist Ronan Farrow, whose book on the #MeToo movement was also published by Hachette, also criticised the move. As someone who has long believed Dylan's account of events, he also threatened to cut ties with the publisher if the memoir was published.

In an eviscerating statement, Allen's estranged son Farrow also noted that Dylan had "never been contacted to respond to any denial or mischaracterisation of the abuse she suffered at the hands of Woody Allen".

Last Friday, the company cancelled publication of the book. "The decision to cancel Mr Allen's book was a difficult one," a statement from Hachette read. "At HBG we take our relationships with authors very seriously, and do not cancel books lightly."

Naturally, the moment has sent shockwaves through the entire publishing industry. Author Stephen King hit out at the publisher for the U-turn, noting on Twitter: "The Hachette decision to drop the Woody Allen book makes me very uneasy. It's not him; I don't give a damn about Mr Allen. It's who gets muzzled next that worries me."

In another Tweet, King continued: "If you think he's a paedophile, don't buy the book. Don't go to his movies. Don't go listen to him play jazz at the Carlyle. Vote with your wallet... in America, that's how we do it."

Hachette's decision to drop Woody Allen as an author certainly raises some interesting questions about censorship. Some have expressed displeasure that a company has kowtowed to the "outrage mob", noting that it sets a worrying precedent. Many note that where there is Dylan Farrow's highly credible account on one side, there's the fact that Allen was never charged after two investigations. Others point out that whatever his perceived or alleged crimes, Allen should be allowed a voice.

But what do people within the publishing industry on this island make of it all? Would they publish Woody Allen's memoirs, or pull it in the face of mounting criticism?

Sarah Davis-Goff, co-owner of Tramp Press, says that her independent publishing company wouldn't have published Allen's book in the first place.

"We at Tramp Press have a pretty strict no-******* rule," she says. "(Hachette) were wrong to sign the book, which was on the lookout for a home once other major publishers had turned it down. They were wrong to conceal from Woody Allen's estranged son Ronan Farrow, who they also publish, that they had acquired it: they were wrong in concealing from the majority of their employees that they were working on it until almost the last moment."

Of the idea that this is a move that constitutes a step backwards for free speech, Davis-Goff adds: "Being de-platformed is obviously not the same as censorship. Censorship is not the same as being held accountable for bad ideas, or bad acts. Free speech is about the right to communicate ideas and opinions without fear of being persecuted by your government. I would argue that Woody Allen has not even been de-platformed; it's very likely that another big publisher will buy up rights for a huge but undisclosed sum.

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Woody Allen's estranged son Ronan Farrow

Woody Allen's estranged son Ronan Farrow

Woody Allen's estranged son Ronan Farrow

"Obviously it's interpreted by many who are used to hearing the sound of their own voices as the right to go on imposing these voices on people, and the right not to countenance feedback from those who may disagree with them," she adds. "Nobody has a right to a certain platform; nobody has a right to be published by a certain company for a certain amount of money.

"I'm honestly not sure it's possible for even a relatively wealthy man to be censored."

Davis-Goff also notes that it's the powerless who actually struggle from the consequences of censorship, and lack of opportunity for free speech.

"We've had pretty good examples of that here in Ireland," she reveals. "The Catholic Church had the power to censor, and incredible writers like Edna O'Brien felt the harm of that."

Mariel Deegan, general manager at New Island books, observes that the decision is not strictly an attack on free speech.

"Publishers pass on manuscripts all the time - it's not censorship, it's a commercial decision," she observes. "(Hachette) have reverted rights to Allen and should he wish his voice to be heard, he could publish it online or independently. An attack on free speech would be if there was an injunction against publication."

As to how she sees the case as a whole, she adds: "Honestly I'm not sure how I feel. In principle I believe publishing should make space for diverse voices but in practice would I personally publish someone I felt was 'contemptible', to quote PEN America? Probably not.

"From a purely pragmatic point of view, I'm astounded Hachette acquired it in the first place - it must have been clear it would end in tears - or that there was such a shroud of secrecy around its publication and release," she adds.

"I think listening to moral outrage regarding unproven allegations is not a good thing, but publishers are businesses and if the moral outrage is going to mean no one is going to buy a book then it's not a clever decision to publish it."

Belfast Telegraph