OPRAH’S “OOPS!” MOMENT or… THE RIGHT TO WRITE

                                                 

        I’m writing this post on March 15th, the Ides of March. The 2020 version of Brutus’s dagger is the Coronavirus poised less than six feet from our lungs. The threat of Covid-19 compels us to wash our hands more frequently than did Lady Macbeth, and English’s newest oxymoron, social distancing, will have unknown effects upon the social abilities of humankind.

When I think about this month’s blog topic, I feel a twinge of guilt. Is the topic too disconnected from our health worries? Will it seem trivial to those who are hunkered down under virtual house arrest? Or, will this short essay be a distraction from the constant news alerts with which we spar every day and night?

Trivial or not, one fact is true. Although I have my own opinions about the topic’s issues, I’m more interested in the opinions of others than I am in sharing my thoughts. Briefly, here’s the story.

A writer, Jeanine Cummins, was given a seven-figure advance and a movie deal for her novel, “American Dirt.” Upon the book’s publication by Flatiron, a Macmillan imprint, Oprah Winfrey chose it as a selection for her book club’s readers.

The novel relates the story of a young mother and her son who witness a mass murder committed by members of a drug cartel, and then flee Mexico. They travel by train and on foot to reach America. There couldn’t be a timelier theme and plot.

According to “American Dirt’s” vociferous critics, the author has appropriated and marketed a story filled with stereotypes, insensitive images, and stilted examples of bilingualism. The story does not challenge its readers to think about what it means to be a migrant. It fails to convey Mexican sensibility, just as “Gone with the Wind” failed to convey the sensibilities of two enslaved maids in favor of displaying them as semi-comedic figures. To make bad matters worse, Cummins, who identified as white in a 2015 interview, now claims a Latina identity by virtue of one of her grandmothers who is from Puerto Rico.

Cummins’ publisher held a promotional event for the book and arranged for the tables to be decorated with barbed wire centerpieces. Stretching that motif to the max, Cummins decorated her fingernails with images of barbed wire.

 

american dirt pub dinner decor

 

 

The book’s latinx critics responded with angry tweets, op-ed articles, scathing reviews, and threats against the author. In an effort to avoid more controversy as well as anti-Cummins demonstrations, the publisher canceled plans for her book tour.

 

 

Then there’s the Woody Allen memoir debacle, during which Allen’s step-daughter, Dylan Farrow and son, Ronan Farrow tweeted their reactions to Little, Brown and Company’s contractual agreement to publish the book.

In 2018 Dylan Farrow accused her step-father of sexually abusing her when she was a child. Ronan Farrow’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Catch and Kill,” (published by Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group,) presented evidence of abuses perpetrated against women by powerful men in the entertainment industry.

Prior to Allen’s book’s publication date, angry employees of Hachette Book Group staged a walkout. Shortly after that, Hachette Book Group canceled the deal and returned all rights of the book to Allen.

The issues wrapped around “American Dirt” are representation and racial/ cultural appropriation. It’s a given that representation matters, whether it is between the covers of a book, exhibited on the walls of a museum, flowing from musicians’ instruments, or projected onto screens. The identity of persons who have the right to write about “the other” and the responsibilities inherent in that right remain points of contention.

The issue that engulfs Woody Allen’s book is one of suppression, if not censorship. Who possesses the right to shut down a book, a painting or a piece of sculpture, the performance of a music composition, or the production of a film?

What’s your opinion? Whether you’re a writer, reader, artist, or simply a consumer of others’ creativity, who has the right to write about “the other?” Who has the right to prevent the production of a creative work?

 

Breaking News: The Allen memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” was released on 3/23 by Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

 

© Renée Bess, 2020

 

Renée Bess is the author of five novels and the co-story collector of the Goldie Prize winning anthology, OUR HAPPY HOURS: LGBT VOICES FROM THE GAY BARS. She is a recipient of the 2019 Alice B. Readers award. Currently she’s doing all of her socialization from a distance.  http://www.reneebess.com

7 comments

  1. Woody Allen was not censored or suppressed. No one has a right to a book deal. He certainly could have selfpublished it if no publisher decided to take him on (and I’m disappointed with Skyhorse for doing so). He still is able to write what he wants and he could publish it without relying on one of the Big 5. Ditto for anyone who is a creator.

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    • Alyssa, I concur that Allen’s book was not censored. Could you consider agreeing that his first publisher did suppress the book when they bowed to the vociferous anti-Allen sentiments expressed from within as well as outside of their publishing company? While it’s true that Allen could have self-published his book, he chose to follow the traditional route. The contract was inked, the pub. date was set, the publisher shut down the process, thus suppressing (if only for the short term,) the book.

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      • Hi Renee,
        I would expect that Allan and his first publisher likely had various clauses in the contract to deal with the issues, and no doubt the first publisher had to pay some sort of penalty. I don’t agree that it was suppression — again, no one has the right to be published, and if Allan’s contract is anything like ones I’ve seen, there may be a morals clause.

        I applaud the employees of the first publisher for standing their ground.

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  2. Interesting questions you raise here, what about those who want to do right when they write about characters different from themselves?

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    • Hi Brendan. I support everyone’s right to write about characters who differ from the author. Wanting to write about those characters must entail learning about them. In the U.S. many of us never take the opportunities offered to get to know someone of a different race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, age, etc. We don’t seem to know how to do this because we don’t seem to realize that we all share some of the same qualities and behaviors. I don’t want to ramble here. My point is PLEASE write about “the other.” PLEASE get to know the other in order to avoid writing stereotypes, tropes, and untruths.

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  3. I have very strong feelings about the right to write and I don’t think that anyone should censor a book simply because of who wrote it. I posted a response to this issue on Goodreads.

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