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Morality clauses: are publishers right to police writers?

16 June 2018

From The Guardian:

When the American Libraries Association awards its Andrew Carnegie medals in New Orleans later this month, there will be no winner for excellence in non-fiction. Sherman Alexie, the poet and novelist who was due to receive it for a memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, has declined the award following allegations of sexual harassment.

Last month, the novelist Junot Díaz withdrew from the Sydney writers’ festival and from chairing the Pulitzer prize board after being confronted by his own accusers. As the allegations swept through social media, another writer, Mary Karr, joined the fray, tweeting of her distress that her testimony to DT Max, the biographer of her one-time partner David Foster Wallace, about Foster Wallace’s abusive behaviour had been marginalised. “Deeply saddened by the allegations against #JunotDiaz & I support every woman brave enough to speak. The violence #DavidFosterWallace inflicted on me as a single mom was ignored by his biographer & @NewYorker as ‘alleged’ despite my having letters in his hand,” she wrote.

Such high profile cases are far from rare as the #MeToo movement spreads across the creative industries. They come at a time when writers are facing increasingly draconian attempts by publishers to police their behaviour, calling into question centuries old assumptions about the desirability – or even the possibility in today’s networked world – of separating writers’ lives from their work.

. . . .

Morality, or morals, contracts have existed in the film industry since 1921, when Universal Pictures introduced them in response to Fatty Arbuckle’s trial for manslaughter, but they are relatively new in the publishing industry. One such clause, introduced by HarperCollins in the US, stipulated that the publisher could terminate a contract in cases of “conduct [that] evidences a lack of due regard for public conventions and morals”, or in the case of a “crime or any other act that will tend to bring the Author into serious contempt, and such behaviour would materially damage the Work’s reputation or sales”. Caroline Michel, a leading literary agent, said this week that the use of morality clauses had doubled in the US over the past year. In a recent speech, Royal Society of Literature president Marina Warner warned that “being good” should not be conflated with “good writing”. But where is that line drawn?

Clearly, reputation doesn’t matter to a controversialist in the way it does to literary authors such as Alexie or Díaz, who are facing serious damage to their careers. In the weeks since 10 women came forward with accusations against Alexie, the Native American author has been subjected to a cascade of punitive measures. His name has been stripped from a scholarship awarded by the Institute of American Indian Arts, all references to him have been “deleted or modified” in the blog Native Americans in Children’s Literature, bookshops and libraries are destocking his books and his US publisher has said that it will be postponing the paperback of his memoir (though his UK publisher, Penguin Random House, says it will continue to reprint his work as required).

. . . .

The high emotions surrounding the behaviour of writers are starkly exemplified by the case of Foster Wallace. Though Karr feels understandably aggrieved that her experience wasn’t taken more seriously by his biographer, she would be wrong to think it wasn’t noted. In a blog written at the time, Kristen Roupenian – who went on to write the New Yorker short story sensation “Cat Person” – described her dismay at discovering in Max’s book that the literary hero she worshipped as a student would probably have dismissed her as “audience pussy”.

She wasn’t looking for a boycott of his work, she wrote. “All I expect is a quiet, un-showy disqualification for the role of hero, mentor or saint. I would like the ‘statue’ (Wallace’s word) of his public image to be carefully dismantled, for the overblown ideas we have of him and what his life meant to slowly begin to deflate. I would like him to become just another writer, imbued with no moral authority beyond what is contained in his words on the page.”

. . . .

As the pressure has mounted, London-based authors’ agent Lizzy Kremer has taken pre-emptive action – drawing up a new, industry-wide code of conduct on behalf of a coalition of authors, booksellers, agents and publishers. The voluntary code was partly inspired by London’s Royal Court theatre, which constructed one in reaction to its own sexual misconduct scandal involving a former artistic director. Among the theatre’s first responses was a call out for testimony about sexual harassment to help it to identify “patterns and scenarios”. In a detail that chimes strongly with the publishing industry, the report drew attention to the dangers of a “blurred social context”: “13.3% of reported incidents happened at work parties … with alcohol.”

“Publishers feel an obligation to use their personal social media accounts to publicise books and to go out for drinks,” says Kremer. “People forget that these are not friendships, they are friendly business relationships. You have to understand what’s off limits.”

In a personal blog, she recalled meeting up with a younger woman who told her of several “small yet frightening liberties” that men in publishing had taken at parties and in offices over the years. “One of the things that interested me about the [Royal Court] report was its emphasis on the vulnerability of the creative person,” says Kremer. “Obviously it’s not the same in publishing – you don’t have to get changed in communal dressing-rooms – but it’s another industry with a culture of asking employees to give something personal of themselves.”

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Big Publishing, Contracts, Non-US, The Business of Writing

2 Comments to “Morality clauses: are publishers right to police writers?”

  1. “Morality clauses: are publishers right to police writers?”

    No.

    May s/he who has not sinned cast the first stone.

    Good thing that with indie/self publishing they are no longer needed/heeded …

  2. Cynthia Gilbert

    I’d say definitely no on the morality clause. Slippery slope right there.

    A part of me isn’t comfortable with an author’s work being erased from memory if that writer happens to be a womanizing/annoying creep. I haven’t read Junot Diaz or David Foster Wallace (not my kind of thing anymore) but some readers profess to having had their lives changed by reading those books. And from what I understand Diaz suffered some abuse as a child and Foster Wallace’s struggles with depression and addiction are well-documented. I’m not saying damaging childhoods and addiction or mental illness are excuses for crappy behavior towards women – but it does inspire some sympathy, maybe?

    I still love some of Hitchcock’s movies and he was quite possibly worse than any of the above mentioned artists. Charles Dickens wasn’t nice to his wife during their divorce and he’s still considered one of the best writers in the English language.

    This is something I struggle with quite a bit.

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