Bullen C (2020) ‘Your Bookshelf is Problematic’: Progressive and Problematic Publishing in the Age of COVID-19.. Bookshelves in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic, Online, 03.11.2020-04.11.2020.
Abstract In May 2020, U.K. Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, faced criticism and ridicule when books by Holocaust-denier David Irving were spotted on his bookshelf by the public. Sparking discussions about reading and authorship – such as separating the ‘art from the artist’ and consuming works containing prejudiced narratives and/or ideals – the Twitter campaign #Bookshelfgate was launched in response. Individuals taking part proudly displayed their bookcases filled with ‘problematic’ authors and titles, expressing anger at the concept of a ‘problematic’ bookcase. The sentiment reflects The Royal Society of Literature’s response to questions about author behaviours and prejudices in 2018, stating, "being good" should not be conflated with "good writing".
The debate about problematic authors and prejudiced works has been prominent in recent years, particularly in the wake of e-movements (such as ‘#MeToo’) and heightened societal awareness about social inequalities and prejudices. This awareness has had a profound impact on the publishing industry and reading communities; for example, resulting in curated Goodreads bookshelves filled with ‘problematic’ titles, publishers’ employing morality clauses to control the behaviour of their authors, and sensitivity readers to reduce prejudiced content in their titles. This talk explores how bookshelf credibility in the age of COVID-19 has brought the conflict between ‘progressive’ and ‘literary’ symbolic capital to light within publishing and its reader communities. It will examine what it means to be a ‘problematic’ or ‘progressive’ reader, publisher, and author, and why having our bookshelves on display has heightened this conflict.