Title Tales: Weird Censorship and <i>The No Asshole Rule</i> (Part 1)

I've been baffled, frustrated, and amused by the weird and inconsistent censorship rules (or lack of rules) applied to the title of my book. I have identified 13 different reactions.
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When I published The No Asshole Rule, I expected strong reactions to the dirty title. But I didn't expect them to be so time-consuming and baffling. I've had at least 200 conversations in the past year with (often nervous) journalists, booksellers, and hosts at speeches about "what to call your book." These exchanges are not only time-consuming. Many are disconcerting because they challenged my preconceptions about who would love, despise, or reject the title. And I've been baffled, frustrated, and amused by the weird and inconsistent censorship rules (or lack of rules) applied to the title. I have identified 13 different reactions. I will talk about the seven in this post and six in the next:

1. We like the book but are afraid to say anything about it. I think of National Public Radio as enlightened and courageous; but some of their people were wimps about the title. NPR's Morning Edition first booked an interview, and the producer told me how much she loved the book. But then she stopped returning my messages and eventually canceled the interview because "the title makes my bosses nervous." Other national NPR shows did display more courage, as I was eventually interviewed by Talk of the Nation and Marketplace, as well as by several local NPR stations. When I asked why Morning Edition pulled the plug, a producer from a local station speculated, "They were probably afraid that some politician will get mad and cut their funding."

2. We can talk about the book, but won't use one letter of that dirty word. The New York Times won't print even a single letter from the word "Asshole." They call it "The No ******* Rule" (even on their Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous bestseller list). My publisher responded with a full-page ad in The Times that pictured the cover with the word "asshole" blacked out, which proclaimed "The bestseller everyone is talking about. The title they won't print here."

3. We thought we couldn't say it, but we've changed our minds. The Wall Street Journal started in about the same place as The Times, but eventually printed all seven letters in Carol Hymowitz's column on "CEO Reading Lists." This represents enormous progress because, because just 10 months earlier, the Journal quoted me using the word "sucks" in a story on "yes men," but printed it as "s---s." This prompted emails from bewildered people who couldn't translate "s---s, including one who assumed the word was "shits."

4. We hated the title at first, now we like it. The editor of one business magazine reacted with disdain to an email about the book and shot back "What is next, the no dick rule?" When he actually read the book a few months later, he changed his mind and wrote a nice little piece about it.

5. A-hole is OK, not asshole. This is the tactic used by many newspapers (or the related a**hole), as well as most U.S. radio and TV stations -- ranging from KGO radio in San Francisco to NBC's Today Show (which flashed "A-hole" on the screen for a few seconds, almost like a subliminal message). I can't figure out why "A-hole" is less obscene than "asshole." Exactly who are fooling or protecting by banishing that "ss?"

6. You can use the word, but we can't. That's how Inc. magazine handled it -- they didn't want their writer to use the term "asshole," but was comfortable quoting me using the dirty word. They called it "The Bully Rulebook," and writer Leigh Buchanan poked fun at the censorship by using varied "clean" synonyms in the article, including "jerks," "brutes," "schmucks," jackasses, "antagonizers," "tormentors," "schmos," "browbeaters," and (my favorite), "rascals."

7. We will say the title, but will play loud music so people can't hear it. I was delighted when The No Asshole Rule won a Quill Award for the best business book of 2007. But some weirdness came out at the Quill awards ceremony in New York when former New Yorker editor Tina Brown was given the task of presenting me the award. She was apparently complaining quite a bit about having to say the title in front of the live audience and on TV. When she presented it, they played such loud music that no one could hear her say that nasty seven letter word. I am not entirely sure that the music was intentional, but if it was, I have to give them credit for creative censorship. Ms. Brown was otherwise completely charming and we had a nice chat offstage -- and she never mentioned her discomfort to me.

Next time I will talk about another six reactions to my title. I can tell you, however, that book publishers are one group that isn't deterred by the title. There are at least two new "asshole books" coming out in 2008, including Martin Kihn's (funny but also weirdly thoughtful) A$$HOLE: How I Got Rich & Happy By Not Giving About Anyone & How You Can Too.

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