From The Guardian:
At the end of March, a book that had been condemned to die came back to life. There was no star-studded launch, and no great fanfare, although this book is now somewhat famous. The new publisher of the poet Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me felt it wrong to cash in on the controversy that has engulfed it. So the new editions – with some intriguing changes to the original text – were quietly resupplied to bookshops willing to stock them.
What follows is a tale that reverberates well beyond publishing. It’s about whose voice is heard, which stories are told, and by whom. But it has broader implications for working life, too, particularly in industries where so-called culture wars raging through the outside world can no longer be left at the office door.
When Some Kids first emerged in 2019, Clanchy was much admired for her work at an Oxford comprehensive, teaching children from diverse backgrounds to write poetry, with sometimes luminous results. A celebration of multicultural school life, coupled with candid reflections on her own flaws, Some Kids was lauded by reviewers and won the Orwell prize for political writing, with judges praising a “brilliantly honest writer” whose reflections were “moving, funny and full of love”. But then things began to unravel.
In November 2020, a teacher posted on the amateur reviewers’ website Goodreads that the book was “centred on this white middle-class woman’s harmful, judgmental and bigoted views on race, class and body image”, using “racist stereotypes” to describe pupils. The author, she said, wrote of their “chocolate skin” and “almond eyes”.
Clanchy hit back, initially on Goodreads and then in July 2021 on Twitter, claiming “someone made up a racist quote and said it was in my book” and urging her followers to challenge reviews she said had caused threats against her. Literary giants, including the 75-year-old children’s author (and president of the Society of Authors) Philip Pullman, rose to her defence. Yet it quickly emerged that those phrases (although not, as we will later hear from Clanchy, everything attributed to her) were in the book. Her prickly response not only sat awkwardly with Some Kids’ theme of a narrator open to learning about herself – one who believed, she wrote, that deep down “most people are prejudiced; that I am, that prejudice happens in the reading of poetry as well as everything else” – but had unintended consequences for her critics, too.
Three writers of colour, Monisha Rajesh, Prof Sunny Singh and Chimene Suleyman, who had challenged Clanchy on Twitter, endured months of racist abuse and sometimes violent threats, despite Clanchy’s own publisher, Picador, describing their criticisms as “instructive and clear-sighted”. An 18-year-old autistic writer named Dara McAnulty, who had questioned Clanchy’s description of two autistic pupils as “jarring company”, was forced off social media by abusive messages. Picador, having initially apologised, saying Clanchy would rewrite the book, then announced this January that it was parting company with her by mutual consent. (She has suggested Some Kids would have been pulped had Mark Richards, co-founder of the new publishing house Swift, not bought the rights.) Clanchy, who lost both her parents and got divorced in the same year her career imploded, meanwhile disclosed in December that she had, at times, felt suicidal.
The row erupted at an anxious time for publishing, following similar pushback at novels ranging from Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 book American Dirt – whose portrayal of a migrant Mexican family was critically acclaimed, until Latin American writers accused its author (who is of Irish and Puerto Rican heritage) of peddling stereotypes and inaccuracies – to the queer black author Kosoko Jackson’s A Place for Wolves, a gay love story set during the Kosovo war that was withdrawn in 2019 at the writer’s request after Goodreads reviewers attacked his representation of Muslim characters.
Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.
PG has had a million thoughts about the OP and several other similar stories. However, he will try to be brief.
- Nobody owns stories, settings and characters except the author.
- Nobody has any legal rights to stories, settings and characters except the author.
- Nobody has inherited exclusive rights to stories, settings and characters.
PG has never traveled to Austria and can say with confidence that he has no Austrian ancestors. If PG writes a novel set in Austria, is he stealing anything from Austrians?
Copyright law protects the creator’s expression of people, places and things real and imagined that a writer, painter, photographer, etc.
Just because an Austrian author writes a novel set in Vienna from the 1890s until the outbreak of World War I — a period when Freud and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, musicians Schoenberg, Mahler and Alton Berg, and writers Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, artists Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and architects Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos were living in the city and hard at work — doesn’t mean that another author or many other authors born and living all over the world can’t write about Vienna during its golden age of extraordinary creative and artistic activity.
To take a more concrete example, a woman named Harriet Beecher Stowe, a member of an old, distinguished and lily-white New England family and the wife of a white college professor, wrote a book, published in 1852, titled Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly.
Ms. Stowe’s express purpose in writing the book was to educate Northerners on the realistic horrors of the things that were happening in the South. The other purpose was to try to make people in the South feel more empathetic towards the people they were forcing into slavery.
This book is filled with material and written in a style that would never be accepted for publication had it been submitted to any American publisher in 2022. To say that the contents are politically incorrect would be an understatement.
However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a huge best-seller in a much smaller United States, appearing in a 40-week serial in a major anti-slavery periodical
When it was published as a book, it sold out its first printing in a few weeks. The publisher kept eight printing presses running constantly to try to keep up with demand.
After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to the capital, Washington, D.C., where she met with President Abraham Lincoln. Her son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, “so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the second best-selling book in 19th century America, with the Bible ranking first.