Workshopping the Controversy about Dr. Seuss Enterprise’s Decision to Cease Printing of Select Books

There was big news in yesterday’s Read Across America Day. AP reported that six of Dr. Seuss’s books will no longer be printed due to racist imagery. This is a choice that Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that “preserves and protects the author’s legacy” (AP) made. I went to Twitter and looked for responses, and lo and behold, there was outrage. This is predictable. I’d just done a post about cancel culture and how messy it is (any kind of omission is cancel culture to some people it seems), and I wondered how many people would be decrying the choice.

The six books are falling out of print are And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer. Besides And to Think That I saw It On Mulberry Street, which is included in a much cherished copy of Six by Seuss!, I’ve never read nor heard of the other books.

One of my immediate thoughts was how Octavia Butler (my current author obsession) had declined to allow a fifth book in the Patternmaster series to be reprinted because she disliked it so. I also thought about how many other books have fallen out of print throughout the years that nobody acknowledges. This is key, I think.

The announcement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises may fall into what many might call virtue signaling. This is when a business makes some kind of announcement in support of something culturally relevant (a la all of the businesses that proclaimed Black Lives Matter) in hopes that their pubic support will boost consumer buy-in to their products. The thought process is, “This group of people really likes A. Let’s say we like A, too, so they’ll buy our stuff.”

I don’t know if this is what Dr. Seuss Enterprises is actually doing. I am very hesitant to say that any multi-million dollar business does anything for any reason other than making money. The reality is more likely this:

“Shelf space is precious and librarians do periodically cull the book collections and remove some titles. But they usually do so because no one is asking for that book anymore,” she said.

Pratt, M. AP. 2021.

The fact us that books go out of print all the time. Stephen King’s Rage and My Pretty Pony are out of print. Madonna’s Sex is out of print. Promise Me Tomorrow, by Nora Roberts is out of print. The film, Dogma, by Kevin Smith, is out of print. I could go further into music albums that have faded into obscurity to the point that the publisher decides it’s no longer worth it to print it as well. It seems that people are upset that these Dr. Seuss’ books are out of print not because they love these books, but because DSE said the reason was racism.

Can it be racism and poor sales?

I can’t speak to the quality of five of these six books, but I think anyone can make the assumption that they’re not Dr. Seuss’s best works. If they were, they would be on the shelf beside Green Eggs and Ham and The Cat in the Hat. If they were, I could go to my library and get a copy. If they were, there would be bad movies based on them. I think the foremost reason for these books fading into oblivion are ultimately poor sales due to poor quality.

Secondary to poor quality is racism. These books are deemed to be of poor quality and the racism just makes it worse. It’s like saying, “Man, this is a lousy book and it’s racist? Nah, I’m good.”

2019 study from the Conscious Kid’s Library and the University of California-San Diego researchers studied 50 children’s books and more than 2,200 characters created over decades by the children’s author. What it found: “Of the 2,240 (identified) human characters, there are forty-five characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters.” And of that fraction, 43 have Orientalist depictions, and two align with the theme of anti-Blackness, the study found. “Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles,” the study authors, Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, wrote. “This also remains true in their relation to white characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.”

Aspegren, USA Today, 2021

In my opinion, this is basic capitalism. A business recognizes a product isn’t selling. They try to figure out why. They receive feedback from its consumer-base that the books contain racist imagery. They realize that this product is not only failing, it is also “infecting” other products that are more successful. The business decides to stop selling said product in order to bolster their remaining product. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that the books contained racist imagery. What matters is they were underperforming and put other products at risk. With such a strong catalog that includes not only books but also movie deals, why keep such low-hanging fruit that will only infect that which is successful? In other words, the tree had a rot spot and they removed the rot to save the rest of the tree, which was flourishing. This should be the end of the story.

Artist Ownership

It irks me to see people say, “Well if they don’t want to publish it they should enter it into the public domain and let the people decide!” There are multiple problems with this. First, enough people already decided by not buying the books. Second, what a slap in the face to artists, writers, musicians, actors, producers, and the like. When a piece of art is created, it is up to the owner of said art to determine if and how it enters and remains in the public sphere. To say otherwise is to promote theft.

Clearly, Dr. Seuss is no longer alive and cannot make this decision himself. However, he and his family have placed their trust in Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and they get to make the decisions. Even then, the move has support from his family.

Seuss’ stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, told the New York Post on Tuesday there “wasn’t a racist bone in that man’s body,” but acknowledged she thought it was a “wise” choice “in this day and age.” She said Dr. Seuss Enterprises informed her Monday of the decision. “He was so acutely aware of the world around him and cared so much,’’ Dimond-Cates said. “I think this is a world that right now is in pain, and we’ve all got to be very gentle and thoughtful and kind with each other.” 

Yasharoff, USA Today

Is This Cancel Culture?

There was no campaign by consumers to “cancel” Dr. Seuss. The books are not banned from anywhere. You can buy them (at quite the mark-up!) on eBay or community marketplaces. As is the case with Kevin Smith’s Dogma, it’s no longer being pressed. This is not cancel-culture. This is a business making a decision that they’ve decided is good for their business. This is capitalism.

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