It looks like Amazon throttled sales of a zine after its author publicly criticized Amazon

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of February 9, 2020.

  • In the wake of the American Dirt controversy, the literary-political group Dignidad Literaria has launched a “death quilt,” a collection of death threats received by marginalized authors. At the Guardian, Alison Flood talks to Myriam Gurba and Roxane Gay about why the death quilt matters:

Gay, who explained that she receives death threats every week, and pays for a security service to monitor and protect her, said that it was “important to acknowledge the death threats people receive for daring to have opinions, for daring to be black or brown or queer or disabled or women or trans or any marginalised identity”.

“People need to realise what real censorship looks like. They need to understand how unsafe it can be to challenge authority and the status quo,” she said. “These are not things that should be taken lightly, nor should this level of harassment be dismissed as mere trolling. You never know when one of those so-called trolls is going to take his rage from the internet into the physical world.”

According to a new study by the multicultural children’s publisher Lee & Low, the industry is around 75% white, and mostly female. No publisher who spoke to The Associated Press disputed those numbers, which were roughly the same as those in a Lee & Low survey released four years earlier.

“Even though there may be more awareness of diversity issues, the numbers on the industry side aren’t really changing,″ says Lee & Low publisher Jason Low. “It’s still a very homogeneous industry, especially in some of the executive and gatekeeping roles.”

An illicit book that I had to read in secret as a kid

Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews. I found it at a garage sale the summer after sixth grade and thought, based on the cover, that it would be a fun mystery like the Sweet Valley High thriller editions. It was not! It was a huge bestseller back in the ’70s, but it’s a very oddly written saga about child imprisonment and incest — I think about halfway through I gave it to my parents and said, “I don’t think I should be reading this,” and tried to forget about it. Years later my college girlfriend had a copy on her shelf, and I had this incredible moment where I realized I hadn’t just hallucinated this terrifying book, that it was real, and we took turns reading it to each other at night before we went to sleep, and it was a very satisfying way to revisit something that had scared me so much as a child.

Amazon’s decisions about what goes on their shelves are much, much more consequential than The Raven’s, and much harder to parse. Streitfeld’s article shows that Amazon’s transition from “we’ll sell anything!” to “we’re getting rid of inappropriate books” is vague and apparently capricious. It has disturbing free speech implications. With a company as big as Amazon, arguments like “private companies can sell and not sell what they want” don’t hold much weight. If Amazon is big enough to bend the trajectory of governments, it’s big enough to bend the trajectory of free speech. I know I’m paying close attention.

While few may lament the disappearance of these hate-filled books, the increasing number of banished titles has set off concern among some of the third-party booksellers who stock Amazon’s vast virtual shelves. Amazon, they said, seems to operate under vague or nonexistent rules.

“Amazon reserves the right to determine whether content provides an acceptable experience,” said one recent removal notice that the company sent to a bookseller.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been roiled in recent years by controversies that pit freedom of speech against offensive content. Amazon has largely escaped this debate. But with millions of third-party merchants supplying much of what Amazon sells to tens of millions of customers, that ability to maintain a low profile may be reaching its end.

When Black History Month came around, well-meaning teachers and librarians would haul out books related to the “celebration” of black history. Yet there was very little to celebrate in this pile. Often old and dated, the books skewed heavily toward distilling information, facts and figures about slavery and the civil rights era. They were concerned with the struggle — the burden — of being black in America, and often presented information in a way that was didactic and, well, boring.

He started with a series of lists: Reasons he had failed to write a novel (too concerned with inventing everything, problems with setting and time frame). Things he considered himself good at (tone, dialogue). Scenes he wanted in the book (a tennis match, a dinner party). He gave himself rules, setting a goal to write 10,000 words a day. “It began in this very mercenary place,” he said, “but it moved to a place of genuine artistic interest.”

Dorothy Parker lost her job as Vanity Fair theater critic on January 11, 1920, in the tea room of the Plaza Hotel. Parker must have known there was trouble brewing as she sat down across from editor Frank Crowninshield. She had been in hot water for months. Her latest column had been a particularly biting one. […] It is in dispute which complaint held more weight, but either way, [publisher Condé] Nast passed the buck to Crowninshield, who met Parker at the Plaza and fired her from the job she had held for two years. Parker promptly ordered the most expensive dessert on the menu and left.

His greater vision for Granthika is as a tool for building what he describes as “a rule set” for complex fictional or nonfictional universes. Once built, that rule set can then be shared with others, opened up for exploration, adoption, and adaptation by multiple collaborators or fan fiction writers or gamers.

Granthika may not be for everyone. There are likely plenty of novelists whose literary aspirations don’t involve elaborate world-building. There’s no getting around it: Chandra’s software is designed to help write the kind of big, complex novels that Chandra specializes in. Like many a startup entrepreneur before him, he is “scratching his own itch.” But the dream is still seductive: With Granthika watching from on high, guarding the internal coherence and integrity of any given universe, writers will be free to tackle the grandest challenges they can envision.


And here’s the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with all our books coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!