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How Reader's Digest Became a Chinese Stooge
March 30, 2014 9:14 PM   Subscribe

How Reader's Digest Became a Chinese Stooge Larkin was delighted when Reader's Digest said it would take her work for one of its anthologies of condensed novels. Thirst would reach a global audience and – who knows? – take off. Reader's Digest promised "to ensure that neither the purpose nor the opinion of the author is distorted or misrepresented", and all seemed well.

One of Larkin's characters trapped in the station is Wendy Woo, a Chinese-Australian. Woo fled to Australia because the Chinese authorities arrested her mother for being a member of the banned religious group Falun Gong. Larkin has her saying that she had not "learned until much later of the horrific torture her mother had endured because she refused to recant".
...

The cost of printing makes up the largest part of the price of book production. Publishers have outsourced manufacturing to China, like so many other industries have done. The printing firm noticed the heretical passages in Larkin's novel. All references to Falun Gong had to go, it said, as did all references to agents of the Chinese state engaging in torture.

They demanded censorship, even though the book was a Reader's Digest "worldwide English edition" for the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore – not, you will note, for China. Phil Patterson from Larkin's London agents, Marjacq Scripts, tried to explain the basics for a free society to Reader's Digest. To allow China to engage in "extraterritorial censorship" of an Australian novelist writing for an American publisher would set a "very dangerous precedent", he told its editors. Larkin told me she would have found it unconscionable to change her book to please a dictatorship.

When she made the same point to Reader's Digest, it replied that if it insisted on defending freedom of publication, it would have to move the printing from China to Hong Kong at a cost of US$30,000.

People ask: "What price liberty?" Reader's Digest has an answer that is precise to the last cent: the price of liberty is US$30,000. The publisher, from the home of Jefferson, Madison and the first amendment, decided last week to accept the ban and scrap the book.

posted by modernnomad (38 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is Joe's disappointment.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:18 PM on March 30 [20 favorites]


Surely they could have just taken the 30K out their enormous pools of prize money that are just waiting for you, the winner, to collect.
posted by srboisvert at 9:21 PM on March 30 [32 favorites]


The best line in the linked article:
"When the Chinese Communist party was Maoist, Reader's Digest denounced it. Now it guarantees profits, Reader's Digest censors on its behalf."

For some reason, this just strikes me as so circularly humorous. An ouroboros, forever chasing itself, yet trapped by it's own dimensions.
posted by daq at 9:30 PM on March 30 [12 favorites]


Did Larkin pull the novel?
posted by tyllwin at 9:38 PM on March 30


This is silly. Imagine that a Chinese company contracted with an American company to sell something in Asia, but not Australia, the American company contracted with an Australian manufacturer to produce it, but this product contravened Australian law.

Does the fact that it's not going to be sold in Australia mean that Australian laws don't apply and that, therefore, there could be no restrictions on what's manufactured there? Of course not.

I don't like censorship anymore than anyone else. But this isn't about China somehow diabolically censoring the rest of the world, but rather that a lot of people want their globalization cake and to eat it, too.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:45 PM on March 30 [15 favorites]


The best line in the linked article:
"When the Chinese Communist party was Maoist, Reader's Digest denounced it. Now it guarantees profits, Reader's Digest censors on its behalf."


Things increasingly make me feel like I'm swirling a cocktail and enjoying a cigar as I hear the ship's hull being wrenched apart by an iceberg.
posted by codswallop at 9:45 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich, it isn't so much that China prevents the local production of literature it deems offensive, more that Readers' Digest would rather print a censored novel than spend $30,000 and have it printed elsewhere. We know that China has no commitment to freedom; we now know that Readers' Digest doesn't either. This isn't a Mo-toons issue; nobody's life was at risk; this is simply showing how cheaply principles may be bought.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:50 PM on March 30 [29 favorites]


Ivan, I don't think the point was whether or not it was "legal" for the Chinese government, under their own laws, to refuse to print the book. The point was the rolling over of Reader's Digest to agree to that censorship, in order to save US$30k.
posted by modernnomad at 9:52 PM on March 30 [7 favorites]


This is particularly rich if you know the history of RD. The founder/publisher, DeWitt Wallace, was unsurprisingly a Republican stalwart. He was also a funder of the group Americans for Constitutional Action, a lobbying group (today we would call it a PAC or perhaps SuperPAC) positioned just an inch to the left of the John Birch Society. The group was instrumental in securing the nomination of Goldwater. The magazine itself would frequently publish articles from CIA and FBI officials (it has been called "a CIA house organ", which seems close enough to be true), and eventually Nixon himself, as sitting President, was given a column. Etc. Etc.
posted by dhartung at 9:57 PM on March 30 [9 favorites]


A cursory google search for the author or her agent don't turn up any journalism to back this editorial. Is this something that's playing out in Australian or British newspapers? Or in publishing circles?

I'm not doubting this happened, just looking for something with more neutrally-stated facts.
posted by muddgirl at 10:04 PM on March 30


I'm not surprised by the censorship or Reader's Digest's actions, I'm mostly just surprised that there's enough of a market left for those execrable "condensed books" collections that they can justify an offshore print run. I thought those things had gone the way of paper encyclopedias, only with fewer lamentations.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:09 PM on March 30 [10 favorites]


I did sort of get a feeling of outrage against China in the article, but maybe I misinterpreted. ("How Reader's Digest became a Chinese stooge".) I see the point about Reader's Digest, except that...

"...we now know that Readers' Digest doesn't either."

RD is right wing, sure. But, I mean, is this such a surprise? A big corporate entity in a globalized environment is more concerned about profit margin than "freedom"? That's a surprise or something to be outraged about?

I guess I'd more expect to find this article and sentiment on some right-wing site than the Guardian.

Not to mention that neither Australia or the UK have anything remotely like the extreme freedom-of-the-press that the US has. What are we talking about here when we talk about "freedom"? Should Germany allow neo-nazi books to be printed and bound there because they're not to be sold there, not illegal elsewhere, and freedom-of-speech elsewhere is considered more important? If Reader's Digest "gave in" to Germany's complaints about something like this, would there be a headline about how Reader's Digest became a German stooge and people here would be shocked at the insult to freedom?

I feel like there's some suspicious knee-jerk things going on in this. Again, I want to emphasize that I don't like censorship and I especially don't like the craziness in China against Falun Gong — the particulars of this rub me the wrong way. But it's the particulars that are upsetting, not the principle, and the article and people here seem to be making the case that this is all about the principle of the thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:14 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


The Guardian is often on the leading edge of literature news so it's not surprising if they have a scoop on a good story.
posted by stbalbach at 10:14 PM on March 30


On the one hand, Ivan's right: this really isn't so much a free speech issue, any more than it was a free speech issue when record pressing plants refused to press the Sex Pistols' "God Save The Queen" because they thought it offensive. And this article slips into dudgeon several times.

On the other hand, it really is notable, and worth publicizing, if this sort of thing is happening, and if Reader's Digest as a publisher is demanding these kinds of ludicrous changes to please their printers. I know we can never hope to dent the broad and ubiquitous popularity which that august magazine now enjoys, but people ought to at least know what they're getting into when they're rushing to purchase subscriptions to the collections of condensed books.
posted by koeselitz at 10:14 PM on March 30 [5 favorites]


how much do the people who condense these books for reader's digest get paid? could i condense "finnegans wake" by stripping out every third sentence, submit it for publication and get my own stream of royalty checks without getting sued by the joyce estate?
posted by bruce at 10:45 PM on March 30


Wonder what they would have done with The Man in the High Castle...
posted by DinoswtfEd at 10:54 PM on March 30


A big corporate entity in a globalized environment is more concerned about profit margin than "freedom"? That's a surprise...

Not really.

... or something to be outraged about?

Yes, absolutely.
posted by IAmUnaware at 11:23 PM on March 30 [3 favorites]


A cursory google search for the author or her agent don't turn up any journalism to back this editorial. Is this something that's playing out in Australian or British newspapers? Or in publishing circles?

The writer is a columnist for The Observer, the Guardian's sister paper. From the fact he refers directly to conversation with Larkin ("Larkin told me she would have found it unconscionable to change her book to please a dictatorship.") it sounds to me like he did his own reporting.
posted by gingerest at 11:27 PM on March 30


What an overblown story. A Chinese printing company refused to print a book they found offensive -- that's not censorship. Reader's Digest pulled the book rather than cough up an additional, unbudgeted, $30,000 -- that's not becoming a communist stooge. Now if the printer (or Reader's Digest) had silently edited out portions of the manuscript, then there'd be a story.

I run a small theatre and occasionally help folks stage indie productions. If someone came to me with a proposal for a play called "Zanni is a Dick," I'd probably decline. If they screamed CENSORSHIP, I"d tell them to take it across the street to the Hawaii Theatre. If theysaid, "but your prices are so much more reasonable than theirs," I'd laugh in their face.

I get that the author is disappointed. Of course she is. And this is an interesting, and unpleasant, consequence of globalization. But let's not make more of it than it is.
posted by zanni at 12:11 AM on March 31 [5 favorites]


The author Nick Cohen is an anti-censorship campaigning journalist who has written extensively about the growth of private censorship. His book You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom is excellent longer work on modern censorship.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:16 AM on March 31 [2 favorites]


Ivan, i don't know if that argument flies with me.

There are for instance, a lot of things from vehicles to radio transmission equipment that violates US laws but is produced here to be sold other places.

Lots of things are made for export in countries all over the world that don't meet some sort of regulation locally, but are a-ok to produce because they're not for local sale. Hell, this was in english.

This is of interest because it's specifically over the content of the book.

This is silly. Imagine that a Chinese company contracted with an American company to sell something in Asia, but not Australia, the American company contracted with an Australian manufacturer to produce it, but this product contravened Australian law.

Is not really a spot on example, because with a lot of that stuff the story would end with "and it gets made because it isn't for local sale".

You can't go "this isn't about censorship" when it kinda unavoidably is. This isn't some scooter that doesn't pass safety standards or something.
posted by emptythought at 3:27 AM on March 31 [4 favorites]


This reminds a lot of how you how structural racism persists. Sure technical hair splitting differences can be pointed at about things but the end result stays the same.

If the majority of publishers are getting their printing in China (I seem to remember that even Kevin Kelly's Cool Tools print run was as well) then China's censorship laws become the West's as well without much discussion.
posted by srboisvert at 5:19 AM on March 31 [9 favorites]


I'm mostly just surprised that there's enough of a market left for those execrable "condensed books" collections that they can justify an offshore print run.

That's a little backwards. It's the low cost of an offshore print run that justifies the continued printing. Plus, it helps to remember the base market for RD and its ancillary products, which tends to decidedly not be e-book owners. Tons of seniors. Tons of facilities that cater to seniors (think: Library in an assisted-living center) Churches. Etc.

Also, the particular print run in question was for the "Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore". I suspect, too, there's a lot more of a market remaining for real books there.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:43 AM on March 31


it sounds to me like he did his own reporting.

But this isn't reporting, it's an opinion post on Comment is Free. It doesn't answer the basics of Who, What, and When in particular before taking a stab at Why and How. It looks like Cohen has been doing a series of these so maybe it is building up to some more substantial reporting.
posted by muddgirl at 5:47 AM on March 31


RD is right wing, sure. But, I mean, is this such a surprise?

Yes, I was actually slightly surprised to learn that Reader's Digest will now only publish condensed books that are acceptable to the Communist Party of China.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:55 AM on March 31 [14 favorites]


As Colonel Flagg said to Frank Burns, "eliminate the third, fifth, and sixth letters, then it's Red's Digest, comrade."

more that Readers' Digest would rather print a censored novel than spend $30,000 and have it printed elsewhere.

They don't call them "condensed books" for nothing, you know. Which reminds me of a funny condensed book title Glenn Horowitz tweeted recently: The Man Who Broke Things #spoileralert. (Which also reminds me how much fun it is to browse the Cumulative Paperback Index, where, in the 1939-1959 volume, The Man Who Broke Things sits side-by-side with The Man Who Came To Dinner, The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Man Who Could Not Shudder, The Man Who Didn't Exist, The Man Who Had Everything, The Man Who Had Too Much To Lose, The Man Who Held Five Aces, etc., etc.)

More to the point, while the whole episode is a sorry example of a perfect convergence of globalization, bottom-line-ism, and Chinese dictatorship, of course Reader's Digest wasn't going to spend 30k to print elsewhere. The whole model of the Condensed Books has always been to produce print as cheaply as possible.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:55 AM on March 31


RD is right wing, sure. But, I mean, is this such a surprise?

Yes, I was actually slightly surprised to learn that Reader's Digest will now only publish condensed books that are acceptable to the Communist Party of China.


Exactly. While there is no denying the fact that money can trump ideology, for a right-wing organ like RD, censoring something to protect the image of Chinese Communism is a surprisingly large bit of hypocrisy. Even if it does save them 30k. I have no idea how big a hit 30k is to Reader's Digest, so I don't know if this was a particularly greedy bit of cravenness, or something they had to do because they are teetering on the brink of ruin already.
posted by emjaybee at 6:56 AM on March 31


dhartung: "This is particularly rich if you know the history of RD. The founder/publisher, DeWitt Wallace, was unsurprisingly a Republican stalwart. He was also a funder of the group Americans for Constitutional Action, a lobbying group (today we would call it a PAC or perhaps SuperPAC) positioned just an inch to the left of the John Birch Society. The group was instrumental in securing the nomination of Goldwater. The magazine itself would frequently publish articles from CIA and FBI officials (it has been called "a CIA house organ", which seems close enough to be true), and eventually Nixon himself, as sitting President, was given a column. Etc. Etc.

Also, in the 80's, 90's and 2000's, they were mostly about "Middle American" values. Which meant tradition and nostalgia. Then in 2007, the publisher was purchased by private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings, and the magazine turned a lot more overtly Christian. (They had always had a "Religion and Spirituality" jokes and stories section.) The following year they signed a deal with Rick Warren of Saddleback Church to publish his magazine "The Purpose Driven Connection" but that failed after about a year -- as RD had declared bankruptcy a few months earlier.

In June 2009 before they declared bankruptcy, the NYTimes had an article about their right-ward shift:
“It’s traditional, conservative values: I love my family, I love my community, I love my church,” said Mary Berner, the president and chief executive of Reader’s Digest Association.
As conservative as the magazine was prior to 2007, they hadn't been emphasizing "church" quite that way.
posted by zarq at 7:50 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Larkin is very brave indeed for admitting to being excited about appearing in a Readers Digest condensed anthology.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:59 AM on March 31 [5 favorites]


There are some serious gaps in this reporting. No comment from RD, printer, or the Chinese Embassy? Everything from the besmirched author taken as fact? Its a plausible story, but its the stories that fit too neatly are the ones to be most wary of.

When the Chinese Communist party was Maoist, Reader's Digest denounced it. Now it guarantees profits, Reader's Digest censors on its behalf.

What led the columnist to conclude this company is owned wholly or partially by the CCP?


And last but not least, everyone repeat after me: Only governments censor. Everyone else just told you to make edits or take your business elsewhere. Did anyone see any mention of a political officer or politicians insisting on the change? No? Then its a private business transaction gone sour, end of story.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 2:26 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Only governments censor. Everyone else just told you to make edits or take your business elsewhere

This isn't untrue, but at the same time in any state lacking de jure and/or de facto norms of free and protected speech, the distinction between "government" and "everyone else" is never as clear as your sentence suggests.
posted by octobersurprise at 3:29 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


And last but not least, everyone repeat after me: Only governments censor. Everyone else just told you to make edits or take your business elsewhere. Did anyone see any mention of a political officer or politicians insisting on the change? No? Then its a private business transaction gone sour, end of story.

Are you completely opposed to the argument that a business following draconian government regulations with relation to published words in print for something made in another language for export isn't just facilitating the exact kind of censorship you're describing?

It seems like you're moving the goalposts back so far you'd never score anywhere but north korea or something.

For instance, i don't think you could make all that compelling of an argument that something like say, this wasn't defacto censorship.(With the thought process that if not that major channel, who would publish it for fear of losing money? therefor it never happens).

This situation sounds less sympathetic because it cost money to do it, but how is that any different than things being pulled because the publisher would lose money?

I guess i would be willing to agree to disagree that this isn't outright censorship, in a sort of racism vs prejudice way, but that doesn't mean it's just some sour grapes story of a saddlesore dude who didn't get what he wanted. This is definitely a chilling effects kinda thing.

If there's that huge a price difference between printing in china and printing outside of it, then how is this not the defacto censorship of all authors who aren't back by idealistic companies that are willing to spend the extra bucks to escape this black hole?

The government regulations are at the root of it, even if there isn't some government official standing in the factory going "Oh, nope, cross out these lines or no dice". The company is refusing to print this for fear of those guys showing up.
posted by emptythought at 3:41 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


This isn't untrue, but at the same time in any state lacking de jure and/or de facto norms of free and protected speech, the distinction between "government" and "everyone else" is never as clear as your sentence suggests.

Are you completely opposed to the argument that a business following draconian government regulations with relation to published words in print for something made in another language for export isn't just facilitating the exact kind of censorship you're describing?

There is nothing in the article to indicate action by the state de jure or de facto. For all we know, the press owner hates Falun Gong. Without any comments or attempt to get comments from all parties, you would be too quick to jump in the conveniently packaged narrative that long shadow of the CCP touches all. That article is a confirmation bias trap, and you're walking into it.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 3:54 PM on March 31


That article is a confirmation bias trap, and you're walking into it.

I'm not making any specific claim about this particular episode (neither am I that outraged or that interested in it, really; it's pretty much what I'd expect of trying to do business cheaply in China), I'm merely asserting that where a strong commitment to free speech is lacking and where a state retains broad authority to police the ideological expressions of its citizens, then the line between what is or isn't "censorship" is much less distinct than simply "government" or "business." If we can't say with certainty that it was censorship motivated by fear of government censure, then we can't say that it wasn't, either.
posted by octobersurprise at 4:42 PM on March 31


I'm merely asserting that where a strong commitment to free speech is lacking and where a state retains broad authority to police the ideological expressions of its citizens, then the line between what is or isn't "censorship" is much less distinct than simply "government" or "business."

If government had a standing policy (public or private) prohibiting business from mentioning Falun Gong, there isn't a blurring of the lines. The business desires are immaterial to the law or policy, it would still be censorship. But that's a broader discussion (re: derail) of totalitarian governments and self-policing. You could point to the MPAA and Comic Code as a form of self-policing under threat censorship and regulation, if you're going to blur it to that extent, that form of 'censorship' happens in many so-called free democracies.

My point is, any article that doesn't have at the very least "calls for comment to [group or person framed editorially as the article's punching bag] were not returned by press time" should be huge red flag. I'm not a journalist but I'm pretty sure 'check your source' is pretty high on the list of must-do before submitting to an editor.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 5:29 PM on March 31


I don't think there could be any doubt that a publishing house in China would balk at printing a book that is critical of the Chinese government and supports Falun Gong, especially if the book would be distributed to a quarter of the planet's population.

It's a no-brainer.

Welcome to the Chinese Century. It's going to be a doozy.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:56 PM on March 31


The cost of printing makes up the largest part of the price of book production.

When there are discussions/complaints about the inexplicably high prices of e-books, someone from the publishing business always shows up to deny this very point.
posted by Western Infidels at 7:55 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


Another Bloomberg Editor Explains Why He Has Resigned, Over Its China Coverage

Bloomberg and China, TL;DR Version
posted by homunculus at 12:26 AM on April 1


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