Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

AmericanDirt

It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

NatTurner

Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Dear US Soccer – Please Shut Up and Settle

I practice criminal law, criminal defense to be precise. I’m glad I do, because there’s a clarity of focus in it that can be a bit hazy in other legal areas. My job is to do the best for my client in court, period – whether that means an acquittal, a better sentence, or (as in my practice, for the most part) a successful result on appeal. Very very rarely are the other considerations to worry about. That the public doesn’t like the process is irrelevant – I’m trying to keep my guy out of a cage.

Civil law is different, particularly civil defense. People who get sued are often really determined to prevail on court, to prove to the world that they’re right. But part of their lawyer’s job is to suggest that winning in court is not necessarily going to solve their problem. A criminal defendant is rarely made worse off by a bold defense in court. A civil defendant, by contrast, particularly a corporation without any real personality – well, sometimes the big machine gets it right:

WinningMove

That went through my head when I read about US Soccer’s pleading last week in its ongoing litigation with the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) over equal pay. I don’t know enough about employment law to know if the arguments made in it are legally sound or have a chance of success, but I’ll assume they do. Question is, what does US Soccer think a “win” would look like at this point?

This article at SI breaks down the federation’s latest argument, which basically has two parts. The first is one familiar to anyone who has brushed up against the legal system – non fregit eum, et emit eam (aka “you broke it, you brought it”):

Stolzenbach first asserts that the fundamental flaw of the players’ legal theory is that they compare a pay system that their own labor union, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association, negotiated with the pay of players who aren’t in their bargaining unit—players on the men’s team.

To that end, U.S. Soccer stresses that courts have consistently rejected attempts by unionized employees to compare their employment terms to employees who are outside of their bargaining unit.

This is the kind of procedural argument I’d expect any lawyer to make. It appears to be the equivalent to how plea bargains are treated in criminal law – once you sign one, you’re stuck with it. Assume A and B are charged in an indictment and A decides to get a good early plea bargain. B sticks it out and, later, either gets a better deal or goes to trial and is acquitted. Can A back out of his plea? Not a chance. Courts routinely hold that so long as you weren’t misinformed, mistaken, or misled into making a guilty plea then you won’t be able to back out of it later. Whether this is a winning argument in the context of the USWNT case I don’t know, but it seems fairly standard.

The other one, though . . . yikes. It has to do with whether the job of USWNT player is “roughly equal in terms of effort, skill, and responsibility” to that of US Men’s National Team (USMNT) player. It was bad enough to point out that in terms of “responsibility” that the USWNT may not have the same earning potential as the USMNT (while eliding the fact that the USMNT choked and missed out on its last big earning opportunity – the 2018 World Cup).

From there it got worse:

Stolzenbach attempts to supplement this argument, even wading into some territory that could be described as misogynistic.

He insists that men’s players face much more demanding working conditions and thus have fundamentally different—and, by implication, harder—jobs. He contends that men’s players encounter ‘opposing fan hostility’ in road environments, particularly in Mexico and Central America, that is ‘unmatched’ by anything experienced by women’s players. Stolzenbach stresses that the women don’t play in Mexico, Central America or the Caribbean when trying to qualify for tournament play. Further, Stolzenbach maintains that ‘science’ confirms there are different levels of speed and strength required for men’s and women’s players. He insists it is not a ‘sexist stereotype’ to recognize this distinction.

 

Now, if US Soccer was fighting to stay out of jail I might question this strategy, but you do what you have to do. But at the end of the day, US Soccer is going to have to continue to do business with the USWNT (and the USMNT, who have publicly supported the drive for equal pay) and, more importantly, the American public. Why on Earth would they want to denigrate about the only good thing coming out of American soccer at the moment?

Let’s recap. The women are undefeated in more than a dozen matches, just swept through the She Believes cup against quality competition, are the two-time defendant champions of the world (with two other World Cups prior), and are gearing up to try and win their fifth gold medal at this summer’s Olympics. By contrast, the men failed to qualify for the last World Cup (to be fair, so did traditional powers Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands), their furthest progression in the Cup came before the Second World War, and they’ve ceded the pole position in the region to Mexico. Oh, and the Olympics? The men haven’t qualified since 2008.

Whether those comparisons are apples to oranges or not is irrelevant. In the public eye, US Soccer has precisely one broadly loved group whom people outside of soccer fanatics care anything about – the USWNT. Building the game in the United States – at all levels, men’s and women’s – requires public support. Pissing off a large swath of the public with arguments like this – even if it’s a winner legally – is a long-term losing proposition. It’s not just my criminal law mind that thinks this is a bad play (in response to this tweet):

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Indeed, the backlash from this filing has been swift and fierce. US Soccer eventually apologized, but the players weren’t buying it. The president of the federation resigned and, apparently, the law firm responsible was fired.

Ultimately, as to what comes next, I think Alexi Lalas has it about right:

USSoccerTweet2

This really isn’t a legal fight. It can’t be won in a courtroom. It’s only going to be won in the court of public opinion and that’s going to require some serious groveling on US Soccer’s part. So, let’s get to it, US Soccer – shut up and settle this thing already!

Please-Shut-Up-Morgan-Freeman-Picture

What Censorship Isn’t

For a while, back when The Water Road was finished, I tried to shop is around to agents as a first step in trying to get it published. The entire process put me off (a topic for another day) and I decided to self publish, a decision I’ve been very happy with. Still, if I’d known I had some kind of Constitutional right to a publisher, maybe I would have stuck with it a little longer.

The big literary news last week involved a new memoir by Woody Allen. Allen is, of course, a legendary director of such classics as Annie Hall and Sleeper. He’s also been accused of sexually abusing his daughter, Dylan. It doesn’t help perception that he wound up marrying a woman who was practically, if not technically and legally, his step daughter. Oh, and Manhattan, too. Suffice to say, in a #MeToo world, Allen has become a bit of a pariah.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Hachette Book Group announced the release date for Allen’s memoir Ronan Farrow, Allen’s son and one of the leading #MeToo journalists, decided to cut ties with the publisher. More surprising was that, a few days later, there was a walkout by a bunch of Hachette employees over the memoir. As a result, late last week, Hatchette announced it would not be publishing Allen’s memoirs after all. The rights revert to Allen, who’s free to find another publisher or jump into the world of self publishing.

When the news broke last Friday it was the talk of Twitter. In particular, there were lots of people complaining that Allen was being “censored” by losing his publishing deal. Comments like this (screen capped from responses to this Tweet):

AllenTwit1AllenTwit2AllenTwit3

Putting to one side any breach of contract action Allen might make against Hatchette, let’s make one thing very clear – this is not an act of censorship.

Here’s the thing – so long as you’ve got some kind of outlet for the speech you want to make, you’re not being censored. Everyone has a right to speak, but nobody has a right to use any particular platform or amplification for your talk. If the government swoops down and shuts you up, that’s censorship. If private individuals decide they don’t want to be in business with you, that’s just business.

I’m open to being convinced that actual censorship can be exercised by private companies, but I’ve yet to see an example that really went beyond a private entity wanting to not do business with a particular speaker – which the private entity has a right to do as part of its own free speech. In fact, usually when people complain about companies like YouTube or Twitter taking action against hate speech or what have you and wrap themselves in the First Amendment, they’re the ones demanding state action to compel speech (as well as generally showing a poor grasp of the First Amendment).

The bottom line is this –if Woody Allen has some sort of right have his memoir published by a major publishing house, than there are thousands (if not more) of writers out there who are being repressed daily by not being given publishing deals. One cannot be true unless the other one is, which should make things pretty clear.

Repressed

On Killing Other People’s Darlings

I’ve never really understood fan fiction. That’s when people who aren’t the creators of a work – book, movie, TV series – write stories in that world using those characters. Occasionally it’s done with the permission of the original creator (such as Eric Flint’s 1632 series), but mostly it’s done in the literary equivalent of under the table.

I get the idea of wanting your favorite characters to have continuing adventures and to have such an attachment to a created world that you want to play around in it. I think if I found out people were writing fan fiction about Antrey or Aton or any of the other character’s I’ve created I’d be flattered. But it takes a lot of work to write good, interesting stories (and don’t get me wrong – some fan fiction is really good), so why not take the time and effort and direct into original characters and locations? It seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

Still, if it makes people happy to do it and they’re not making money off the work of others, have at it. As I said, I can understand wanting to continue the adventures of favorite characters and my understanding is that’s largely what most fan fiction is about.

Then I learned about deathfic.

Deathfic is fan fiction based around the death, sometimes gruesome and involved, of a character. I initially thought it involved dispatching bad guys who maybe escaped the ultimate punishment in the original work. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine a gruesomely appropriate death for The Commander from The Handmaid’s Tale, for example. But, no, it’s something quite different:

deathfic, the kind of fan fiction in which a beloved character dies, typically in a way that is as painful for the reader as possible. ‘Sometimes I’m just in the mood to hole up and read the saddest thing I can find on the internet,’ Rachel says.

* * *

A baseline assumption of love is that a person you adore is not someone you would like to watch die. Presumably, you would also not like to be the sole architect of that person’s death. But to deathfic writers, the genre isn’t about having some kind of sick control over the life of someone else. It’s about a different kind of control entirely.

 

So, I guess that’s a thing? Again, seems like an odd thing to do to characters you care about, but whatever rocks your boat, I suppose. And I get, as the article points out, that sometimes writing fiction (even fan fiction) can be a way of working through issues happening in real life, including the deaths of loved ones.

Where things get a little creepy is when the people being killed off aren’t fictional characters at all:

There is deathfic for almost every fictional character and real-life celebrity you can imagine. You can find stories in which Rihanna dies and is reborn as a modern Messiah, and hundreds in which members of the K-pop supergroup BTS haunt one another as beautiful ghosts. These can be “crack” stories, in which writers are openly striving to make the strangest fictional reality they can imagine. BuzzFeed, for instance, has documented the rise of Justin Bieber deathfic, which includes freak accidents and maimings of all kinds.

That’s just fucked up. I mean the any celebrity “reborn as a modern Messiah” angle has some possibilities, but writing death scenes for famous people is just macabre as shit. Not saying you shouldn’t be allowed to do it, but if that’s your thing, maybe you want to get some help?

An old chestnut of writing advice is to “kill your darlings.” It doesn’t necessarily mean characters – it applies to any part of your writing not being so precious that it’s off limits from being cut – but it works that way, too. Killing someone else’s darlings, well, that may be a bridge too far. In the end, though, they’re only real on paper, so I guess there’s no harm.

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