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In a week of unprecedented events due to the coronavirus the staff walk-outs at Hachette US over the decision to publish Woody Allen’s memoirs Apropos of Nothing have almost been overlooked.  It is worth registering this particular moment in publishing history.  These walk-outs are unprecedented too.  This has not happened before.  It is impossible to name a book whose publication has been cancelled due to action by staff – and just a few weeks before publication too.  It has been as if Covid-19 itself has unleashed a pent-up energy.

But the walk-outs at Hachette’s New York and Boston offices have also raised some interesting questions about freedom of speech, setting some voices that one might have expected to be allies, against each other.

Jo Glanville, former director of English PEN which campaigns ‘to defend writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk’, commented:  “The staff at Hachette who walked out were not behaving like publishers, they were acting as censors. I have been watching Woody Allen films since I was a child and I would like to read his book. I would even want to read his book if he were found guilty, because I am interested in the man, his work and his life. I do not check up on the moral purity or criminal record of a writer before I read them. I would have to strip my bookshelves of many of the writers I love the most if I were going to start to apply the principles of the Hachette staff. TS Eliot and Roald Dahl for a start, as anti-Semites. In fact most of the English canon would have to be chucked on that basis.”

The author Stephen King, no fan of Woody Allen, also expressed his concern, tweeting: ‘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.’

Allen’s book was due to published on 7 April by Hachette imprint Grand Central.  On the day of the walk-out emails to staff received this bounce-back message: ‘This afternoon, Grand Central Publishing employees are walking out of the Hachette New York office in protest of the publication of Woody Allen’s memoir.  We stand in solidarity with Ronan Farrow, Dylan Farrow [Ronan’s sister], and survivors of sexual assault.’

The allegation is that Allen sexually molested his daughter Dylan when she was seven years old.  The allegations have been investigated twice and Allen has never been charged.

Glanville concluded: “As publishers, in fact, the conduct of the staff who protested is highly questionable. I do not want to read books that are good for me or that are written by people whose views I always agree with or admire. I am always afraid when a mob, however small and well read, exercises power without any accountability, process or redress. That frightens me much more than the prospect of Woody Allen’s autobiography hitting the bookstores.”

Hachette has now lost two authors as a result of the affair: Allen himself, and Ronan Farrow, whose Catch and Kill included allegations concerning Allen.  Hachette did not tell Farrow that it was planning to publish Allen’s book.  In a statement, Farrow said: “I was disappointed to learn through press reports that Hachette, my publisher, acquired Woody Allen’s memoir after other major publishers refused to do so and concealed the decision from me and its own employees while we were working on Catch and Kill – a book about how powerful men, including Woody Allen, avoid accountability for sexual abuse.”

At the very least Hachette must regret not telling Farrow – and staff – of the plan to publish Allen’s book.  Earlier clarification may have helped avoid some very bad publicity.  In the meantime, Hachette’s French imprint Stock, is going ahead with the title, which perhaps reveals something about that country’s historic belief in Liberty, part of the country’s guiding principles.