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Defend the Text
Reflections on l'affaire Clanchy
Like a batsman duck-diving for the crease and thereby narrowly avoiding a run-out, I’ve procured an electronic copy of Kate Clanchy’s Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Pan Macmillan (Picador) have already pulled hardcopies from retailers, but it seems to take longer to make ebooks disappear from Amazon or Apple.
All that is by-the-by, however.
Yesterday, I watched Clanchy’s interview on Unherd’s YouTube channel with mounting alarm. The article she wrote for the same outlet and news reports around the traps have not brought out just what this extraordinary and vicious cancellation involved, but the interview does. For those without 45 minutes to spare, a precis.
There were complaints to her professional regulator (she's a HS teacher with the usual 'working with children' & 'safeguarding' permissions). This included making up falsehoods about her teaching career with a view to getting her disciplined or sacked.
There were repeated attempts to identify the students whose identities she'd occluded in Some Kids I Taught (as one must do in a memoir).
There were repeated attempts to make connections between the named and published (student) poets in an earlier anthology Clanchy had edited and people described in her memoir. This was done with a view to flushing them out and turning them into separate news stories.
There were repeated attempts to out one of her students who is gay. He is now in his 20s. She had to contact him overseas and warn him what was coming.
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, deranged. It also comes on top of her publisher pulling all her books from publication and reverting the rights.
I should note that rights reversion can be a good thing. I had a bust-up with my first novel’s publisher, negotiated a rights reversion, and later sold those rights to someone else. It is, however, unusual to see it done to an entire backlist built up over many years, and taking in so many different genres.
On a personal note, I have experienced an attempted cancellation that also took in complaints to my professional regulator (the Law Society). The same people who did that would have dearly liked to get my books withdrawn from sale. Clanchy has kept her job as a high school teacher (so her regulator has come through, as mine did), but the publisher has dropped her like a hot rock (which mine didn’t).
Clanchy and I couldn’t be more politically different. She’s spent years teaching refugees to write poetry while I’m one of those foreign policy realists who happens to think, along with Thomas Hobbes, that “covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.” I would shred the 1951 Refugee Convention in a heartbeat. I’d fire the United Nations out of the solar system and convert its shiny building in New York into a giant McDonald’s.
Which means, once again, the reason I’m here is freedom of speech. I’ll write more about Clanchy in due course, something buttressed by reading Some Kids I Taught. In doing this, I’m following advice from none other than Salman Rushdie, who wanted not only support for his speech rights, but also asked people to defend the text.
“The most powerful way to attack a book is to demonise its author, to turn him into a creature of base motives and evil intentions,” Rushdie says in Joseph Anton, his memoir from the years he spent in hiding. He mentions how, when asked by friends what they could do to help, he often pleaded with them: “defend the text.” That is, he asked for a more specific defence of the literary seriousness of his novel, and the integrity of its author, than could be found in a generic free speech argument.
I’ll leave you with this extract:
One of the noteworthy features of contemporary cancellation is how often it’s directed at figures on the liberal left: J.K. Rowling being the most famous example. Yes, Wokies will take down a Tory if they can (think Sir Roger Scruton or Toby Young), but lefties of every stripe are vulnerable to deference demands precisely because they take the slurs seriously. If I’m accused of racism or some sort of phobia, I assume it’s in bad faith and ignore it. The only time I’ve risen to the bait was in response to an allegation of homophobia. I suggested “self-hating lesbian” was the phrase my interlocutor was after. Clanchy, by contrast, grovelled and promised re-writes.