In recent weeks, as smoke from mass funeral pyres rose across India, Penguin Random House India cranked up the publicity machinery for their most famous “author”, Narendra Modi. The cruelty and callousness of powerful men have been at the centre of many spirited recent debates within publishing houses across Europe and America.
Norton withdrew its bestselling biography of Philip Roth after sexual abuse claims against its author, Blake Bailey, came to light. In France, Gallimard pulled all the books by one of their most cherished authors, Gabriel Matzneff. Most recently, Jonathan Karp, the chief executive of Simon & Schuster, has been engaged in a vigorous conversation with his staff over plans to publish a book by Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s white supremacist consigliere. In an open letter, staff accused him of “legitimising bigotry”.
It’s fair to say that Karp, who dropped a planned book by the Republican senator Josh Hawley after the assault on the US Capitol in January, and has promised never to publish Donald Trump, is engaged in a difficult manoeuvre: to redefine, after several decades in which the pursuit of profit appeared the supreme good, the ethical responsibilities of publishers. As a recent headline in the New Republic put it, “What does book publishing stand for?”
This is an especially urgent question in India, where the mainstream media have earned the epithet “North Korean” for their devotion to Modi, and even social media companies based in Silicon Valley have assisted the Hindu nationalist assault on minorities and dissenters.
In this context, I was curious to know if the decision by Penguin Random House India to publish and promote Modi had been preceded by any internal discussion about the company’s role in defending the moral and intellectual values of their society. Certainly, Modi is an author like no other with his bloodstained and globally recognised record as chief Hindu supremacist.
My correspondence with the CEO of Penguin Random House India appears below. His response, or non-response, exemplifies a pattern of obfuscation and lack of responsibility that was seen initially in all the cases mentioned above, and has compelled me to make this exchange public.
Dear Gaurav Shrinagesh,
I hope you are well. I am writing because I came across last week, in the midst of the unfolding disaster in India, some extensive media coverage for PRH’s reissue of Narendra Modi’s Exam Warriors. Quoting from a press release issued by your office, reports describe the book as a “wholesome and inspirational guide”.
I am sure you know of the desperation with which parents and children have been beseeching the government to postpone exams. Nor do I need to tell you of Modi’s recent record in office: the list is long, from his brutal crackdown in Kashmir to his super-spreading election rallies. I am more concerned in this context, since Modi is now a Penguin “author”, with his government’s violent persecution of writers and journalists. The media organisation, Reporters without Borders, is not exaggerating when it describes India as one of “the most dangerous countries in the world” for people who write and publish for a living.
Publishers with international owners and affiliations are relatively immune to the government’s coercive tactics. And yet PRH has effectively chosen, in this bleak moment, to enlist in a flailing politician’s propaganda campaign by publishing and promoting Exam Warriors.
This publishing decision begs some large questions about how PRH perceives its role within the present political conjuncture? Is it planning to publish more works by members of the current regime?
As you may know, Penguin books were instrumental in the 1930s in alerting the reading public to the dangers of racial-ethnic supremacism. There was never any question of Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin, publishing the proponents of explicitly malign ideologies for the sake of “balance” and “diversity.”
As a Penguin author, both in the UK and India, I am appalled that the imprint should put itself, during an extensive slaughter of innocent lives, at the service of Narendra Modi. I look forward to hearing from you about the editorial process that led to this publishing decision and whether any conversations are taking place internally about Penguin’s ethical responsibilities. Certainly, as Modi’s mouthpiece, PRH seems a very unwelcome home for authors who see his regime as a calamity for India.
Thank you for your email. I hope you and your loved ones are safe in these very difficult times.
As you know, Penguin has been in India for over 30 years now and we publish a diverse range of voices across genres- children’s, young adult fiction and non-fiction, literary fiction, romance, thrillers, memoirs, biographies, self-help, business, wellness, to name a few.
I lead a team of talented publishers and editors who make independent publishing decisions ably backed by our strong sales and marketing teams. This decentralised, independent structure enables autonomous publishing decisions as is true for all of Penguin Random House companies worldwide. During these difficult times we continue to endeavour to make all our books available to our readers. We value every author’s views and opinions, as diverse as they may be and very much appreciate your note.
Republished with the author’s permission from The London Review of Books.