The Backlash Over My Dark Vanessa

From Plagiarism Today:

Up until last week, My Dark Vanessa was one of the most highly-anticipated books of 2020. A novel by Kate Elizabeth Russell. It tells the story of a teenage girl who enters into a sexual relationship with her adult English teacher and how she is forced to deal with that past when she herself becomes an adult and another former student accuses him of sexual abuse.

Heralded by both the New York Times and The Guardian, the book isn’t even due out until March 10 but has been the subject of a mammoth press push and a reported 7-figure advance.

However, that excitement hit something of a speed bump on January 19 when author Wendy C. Ortiz took to Twitter to criticize the book, saying it was similar to her 2014 memoir entitled Excavation.

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Though this was the result of a brewing controversy among Ortiz’s fans, this brought the allegations to a new audience and prompted Ortiz not only to explain in greater detail but to follow up with an essay on Medium on January 29th.

In that essay, she said My Dark Vanessa was “eerily similar” to her book. The main difference was that Ortiz’s book was a memoir of her experiences when she was abused by a 28-year-old man when she was just 13 while Russell’s was listed as a work of fiction.

Russell, for her part, reached out to Ortiz after the initial Tweets. There, she admitted to having read Excavations as part of her research. However, this did not smooth things over with Ortiz, who posted on Twitter the next day.

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Russell has gone on to say that, though her book is a work of fiction, she has been working on it for nearly 20 years. In December 2018 she stated that it was moved from being a memoir to being fiction when she chose to make the teacher in her story a composite of the adult men that abused her.

However, the allegations of plagiarism are really only a small part of the story. Ortiz’s grievances deal less with the possibility that her story was coopted, but with the publishing industry itself.

. . . .

In Ortiz’s essay, she outlines the long path she walked to get her book published.

Despite initial interest from publishers and agents, she received repeated feedback from editors that it would not achieve the kind of “wide audience” success they were hoping for with a debut author. Others simply opined that memoirs were overdone, especially for new authors and writing about sexual abuse topics.

She ended up finding a home on a small press and, though the book did well on its initial run, she found no large publishers willing to take it up after it had proven itself.

This, understandably, made it sting all the more when she learned that Russell was becoming a press and media star with her very similar tale. While her book struggled to find a large audience despite a great deal of acclaim, Russell had praise and a significant advance before her book was even out.

For Ortiz, much of the difference could be attributed to race. Ortiz, a Latinx author, felt that at least some of the success of Russell’s work could be attributed to her being white and, thus, more acceptable to the publishing industry. As she said in her essay while discussing her editors’ notes, “‘Wide’ is likely code for white.”

This accusation is nothing new to the publishing industry, which has long been labeled as being “hideously middle-class and white” or simply not having diversity despite multiple attempts and efforts to become more inclusive.

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Though it is unlikely My Dark Vanessa was a plagiarism, it still raises difficult questions about the publishing industry. This is likely why Ortiz, when discussing the book, never uses the word “plagiarism” and, instead, focuses on the broader publishing industry issues.

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The question is: Why was Ortiz’s retelling so heavily rejected while Russell’s so quickly accepted and promoted? Race, ultimately, is just one factor in this story as there are undoubtedly countless other differences including the timing of the books, fiction vs. non-fiction and so forth.

Link to the rest at Plagiarism Today

PG suggests that media storms demonstrating the many shortcomings of traditional publishing pop up on a regular basis and everyone reliably condemns racism, sexism, classism, etc.

But publishing never changes.

PG suspects it doesn’t really want to change, but also accepts that publishing can’t change. It can’t hire the talented visionaries necessary to lead such a major change.

The other factor is that the major US trade publishers are far from independent organizations. HarperCollins, the publisher of My Dark Vanessa, is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s media conglomerate News Corp. If the executives at HC don’t make their numbers, their bosses at News Corp. will find others who will.

Striking a blow for diversity or another non-monetary good won’t save anyone’s job in Big Publishing if they don’t generate what the big boss expects in the way of cash.