Opinionista Ben Williams 6 May 2021

On the art of owning literary contraband

Ben Williams considers the hows and whys of owning books that you ought not to.

Ben Williams

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

The rumours (there are none) are true: I am the proud possessor of a book that, set to be a blockbuster and scheduled for mass production, never saw the light of day. One of the few unpulped copies found its way to my desk on a lucky Friday the 13th a couple of years ago. The tome is so rare, and the frisson of owning literary contraband of this type so pleasurable, that it travels with me, packed among a handful of other works whose nominal value is higher – signed first editions and so forth – but which will not cause any future collector’s eyes to pop quite so indecorously as when they first get a look at my book that never was.

You may think you know what this book is, but you’re wrong: It’s not that book. Further, what if I told you that there are in fact two books in my collection that answer, roughly, to the description above? My children can split them after I’m gone – if they have any inkling of their significance, that is: such anonymous-looking titles, jumbled together with much more impressive works. If I forget to mention them in my will, the books may end up as donations to a charity shop, where they’ll finally become the ghost editions they were meant to be all along.

Meanwhile, I keep them close, but to what end it’s difficult to articulate. The art of owning literary contraband is a subtle one, mainly because you have to find ways of elegantly hiding the works, so that they remain accessible, but only to you. Books are meant for reading, after all, even those that have no business in your, or anyone’s, library.

When a book is politically banned, the stakes are raised considerably. It is said that, in the 70s and 80s you could venture into a certain bookshop in Hillbrow and procure illicit titles – strictly political ones, get your mind out of the gutter – if you asked for them the right way. Keeping them was another matter. To be caught with The Communist Manifesto during apartheid – a thought to make one shudder.

Much less dangerous, but still fraught with dilemma, is keeping books that publishers themselves have banned. This happens more frequently than you might think: a new detail a publisher hadn’t counted on surfaces just as a book ships; or an author is suddenly discovered to have an unsavoury personal history. What’s a publisher to do? Keep the now fatally flawed title on shelves and hope for the best? Or withdraw the book and retreat behind a public apology to nurse one’s wounds? 

Such a scenario – the one in which an author is discovered to have an unsavoury personal history – just hit the great US publishing house WW Norton. It has withdrawn its new biography of Philip Roth by Blake Bailey, following sexual assault allegations against Bailey. An interesting facet of this saga is that Bailey’s UK publisher, Jonathan Cape, has so far declined to remove the book from shops. Thus, readers in the US who bought the book before its withdrawal now own a piece of contraband, while those in the UK own just another controversial work. What should the US readers do? Return their copies and seek refunds? Keep the contraband at the risk of social censure? Say you bought it – what would you do?

I imagine we’ll see more of this type of post-publication purging from publishers in the years to come. Skeletons will out, and they’ll send titles to their early graves. The phrase “publish and be damned” may fall entirely out of use. On the whole, I think that would be a pity.

On the other hand, Mike Pence still has a book deal, and I don’t mind damning his publishers for that. What a pleasure it would be to see a few skeletons push his memoir toward the pulping machine. That’s contraband nobody wants. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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All Comments 6

  • As others have pointed out, if creative works are banned or destroyed on the moral reputation of their creators the literary, art and music world will probably be unpeopled.

  • I dont think censorship as a control is beneficial for any society because it is always subjective. We need people to be open to think. We should not have the decision to pulp or any other form of censorship left to one mindset.

  • The more controversial the better. To remove a book from the shelves because the author is not lily white would have deprived us of books by Steinbeck and Hemingway.
    Down with wokeness and enforced censorship viva controversy and different viewpoints

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