Muzzling Moore

When Michael Moore's publisher insisted he rewrite his new book to be less critical of President Bush, it took an outraged librarian to get it back in the stores.

Topics: George W. Bush, Michael Moore, Books,

Muzzling Moore

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 accede 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 the Moore’s battle with HarperCollins on December 4th, when Steven Zeitchik of the publishing trade magazine Publisher’s Weekly broke the story. He confirmed the existence of the conflict with both editor Cal Morgan and Moore’s agent Mort Janklow. The New York Post followed up on the story the next day, and on December 14th, Sparanese’s message was quoted extensively in “Holt Uncensored,” a twice-weekly publishing industry e-mail newsletter issued by former book review editor and critic for The San Francisco Chronicle Pat Holt. Within days of the Library Juice posting and the Publishers Weekly article, a HarperCollins editor told Moore that they were receiving a lot of email 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.”

Kera Bolonik is a contributing writer at Salon. Follow her on Twitter @KeraBolonik

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>