Lionel Shriver

Why Hachette were wrong to drop Woody Allen’s memoir

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

21 March 2020

9:00 AM

Even amid plague, economic apocalypse, and the cancellation of 2020, dumb stuff keeps happening. Besides, loads of us will now beeline for any column not about coronavirus.

Key words: Hachette, Woody Allen. See also: Douglas Murray. This isn’t the first time we’ve agreed on something.

American publishing has hardly covered itself in glory regarding Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing, which my New York editor read on the memoir’s submission last year. ‘It was really good,’ she emailed me. ‘We took an easier way out, that is for sure. Not to be repeated!’ The easy way out, which nearly the entire industry took, was not to bid on the book. Hachette acquired the memoir with no competition and no fanfare. As for whether such bandwagoning cowardice won’t be repeated, including at my own publishers, don’t bet the farm on it.

The memoir was slated for release next month, so the run was already printed when a fortnight ago Hachette employees staged a walkout to protest the publication. By successfully bullying the publisher to withdraw the book, they ensured that all those copies would be pulped.

Such as it is, the case against Woody Allen is three-pronged.

Although many minions who got Allen’s contract cancelled are too young to remember the supposed scandal in 1992, Exhibit One for the prosecution is the film director’s romantic involvement with the adoptive daughter of his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, whom he married in 1997. Now, Soon-Yi is not Allen’s daughter either legally or biologically, and he never even lived with Mia Farrow. But the optics, as we say compulsively now, were incestuous, and the moralistic public outcry was deafening. I recall raising an eyebrow myself.

Yet the marriage has lasted and produced two children, and it’s hard to credit that a husband of 23 years is shamelessly taking paternal, paedophilic advantage of a wife who’s 49. Even in 1992, Soon-Yi was of age, so to each her own, right? In my tolerant dotage, I’m content to allow people to fall in love despite the ick-factor of a 35-year age difference and the seemingly taboo-busting romance between a not-really-a-daughter and a not-really-a-father. If they’re happy and no one has broken the law, that relationship is none of our business. Though the very concept of anything not being the public’s business appears to have fallen by the wayside.

Exhibit Two is Allen’s filmography. Revisited, the likes of Manhattan are cited as proof that he’s a perv attracted to very young women. But Hollywood movies that portray very young women as sexually attractive are too numerous to list. The trouble being, perhaps, that very young women are attractive — to men of all ages, or even, like, to everybody. I used to be one, so I should know.

Exhibit Three is Allen’s adoptive daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusation, also from 1992, that Allen fondled her when she was seven. The allegation was exhaustively probed by two formal investigations, one of eight months and another of 14, which after interviews with all the principals present in the house that day found no evidence of wrongdoing and fatal inconsistencies in Dylan’s story. One such principal was her brother Moses, then 14, who now maintains at considerable familial cost that the molestation was his deranged mother’s fabrication. Yet Dylan revived the charge post-#MeToo, which ushered in the same crusading credulity with which the Met bought that a former prime minister raped and murdered little boys. Bingo, Woody Allen being a child molester became a feminist article of faith.

Did new evidence come to light? No. Subjective so-called reality now beats empirical fact, and all that’s changed is what the hoi polloi wants to believe. So getting Woody Allen’s memoirs pulped is ostensibly another resounding victory for #MeToo. Except it isn’t. It’s another contamination of a movement that from its early days has confused crimes that stand up in court with accusations backed only by rumour and innuendo.

As for the defence, never mind the director’s distinguished career, because Hachette should honour its contracts even with hacks. So we’ll skip the ludicrous ‘but the regular rules don’t apply to geniuses’ argument, which I seem to recall Fyodor Dostoevsky put summarily to rest.

The issues are two. First, due process. The three exhibits for the prosecution intermingle in the public imagination, as a result of which Allen doesn’t pass a vague social smell test. But the director has not been convicted of any legal infraction. Making Dylan’s dubious recollection even more far-fetched, no one who’s worked with Allen on his 50-plus feature films has ever accused the man of sexual misconduct, and that’s despite ferocious motivation since 2017 to tell sordid tales. I just got into a big argument with an esteemed colleague who observed that as a ‘libertarian’ surely I don’t put any store in Allen’s legal innocence. Yeah, I’ve nominal faith in the state. But what else is there?

Second, procedural precedent. Contracts mean nothing. Publishing is now a bottom-up, populist industry in which an army of 12-year-old editorial assistants enjoy a veto over the catalogue. They may jettison at will any author deemed to be a Bad Person, evidence to the contrary be damned. So the fate of my work rests with the wokies fresh from Ivy League re-education camp who post my proofs. I’ll have to start emailing: ‘Dear Biffy: I realise your favourite book is still The Gruffalo, but could you please check that nothing in the attached first draft offends you or your little friends? Meanwhile, I promise never, ever to wear a sombrero! And I apologise to the sisterhood for marrying a man seven years my senior. The marriage is obviously an abuse of power, and he’s been grooming me for 20 years.’

The employees who walked out of Hachette should all have been sacked. Plenty of surplus arts grads could fill those open-plan desks, and they’d get the message about who’s in charge. Instead the tweenies are emboldened. Good luck to management taking that authority back.

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