The book that tore publishing apart: ‘Harm has been done, and now everyone’s afraid’

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.

  1. Nobody owns stories, settings and characters except the author.
  2. Nobody has any legal rights to stories, settings and characters except the author.
  3. 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.

24 thoughts on “The book that tore publishing apart: ‘Harm has been done, and now everyone’s afraid’”

  1. EVERYONE should read this and especially PG’s take. Then everybody should leave everyone else the hell alone and stop trying to control how they think. The world is seemingly carpeted with egg shells. The only thing rightly within our control is what we allow others to do to us. Nothing else.

    • Try this:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5tu9JGK_yHo

      Too many think their needs supercede everybody else’s.

      Just a couple of days ago some SPACEX employees circulated a letter *demanding* the company take action against Elon Musk (y’know, the founder, CEO, chief scientist, and chief *funder*) because his tweets were offensive to their sensibilities. Lots of media attention.

      24 Hours later, the ring leaders were summarily fired. (Texas *is* an at-will state.)
      The COO and president effectively said they were shown the door for thinking they could tell management how to run their company. Lots of media handwringing over adults treating kids like kids.

      Maybe the word will finally get out that no, they are not special. And they are very much disposable.

      Rule number one in pretty much any business is “never embarrass the boss”. (Unless you’re working in today’s White House.)

      • The irony of this is just how childlike — as in “sixth-grade bully” — an impression Musk leaves.

        Legal? Probably (unless there’s a legitimate whistleblower aspect that we don’t know about, such as one of those ringleaders having reported evidence of sexual harassment by Musk or corporate security fraud before writing the letter, and I’m explicitly just stating those as examples of the kind of thing that might hypothetically make this an exception to “at will”). Intelligent on anyone’s part? Definitely not…

        • It wasn’t Musk who did the firings, but Gwynn Shotwell. The President and COO. SPACEX is her baby at least as much as Musk’s.
          (Musk would probably snicker and shrug it off.)
          Very much in her domain to maintain corporate discipline. The inmates don’t run the place, adults do. An important point in a privately funded start up.
          —-
          “Shotwell, in a companywide email Thursday, said SpaceX “terminated a number of employees involved” and called “blanketing thousands of people across the company with repeated unsolicited emails” unacceptable, according to copies of the email obtained by CNBC. ”

          “We have too much critical work to accomplish and no need for this kind of overreaching activism,” Shotwell wrote, adding the letter “upset many” within the company and “made employees feel uncomfortable, intimidated and bullied.”

          “The letter was addressed to company executives, according to media reports, and described the billionaire’s public behavior as “a frequent source of distraction and embarrassment” for SpaceX employees.

          Shotwell’s point being that it was the snowflakes who were distracting from tbeir 24×7 operations by using corporate IT for politucal activism. (Like, this weekend they are doing three launches and tbree booster recoveries, in three days.) No room for kiddies upset Musk said he is voting republican for the first time in his life.

          Also, these weren’t high level employees.
          Just entitled recent hires who were apparently unaware that SPACEX fires the bottom 10% every year.

          This was not too different from the other “scandal” last year when a paid intern corraled a high level exec to offer up unsolicited suggestions on how to do their job “better”. Then, when fired, she went whining to the media about how her ideas were ignored because she was a woman. Right.

          Odds are Shotwell just instructed HR not to hire anybody else from whatever school unleashed those whiners. They have trouble enough dealing with arbitrary FAA delays and conditions.

          https://www.wsj.com/articles/spacex-ocelots-and-the-mexican-war-elon-musk-republican-texas-11655407258

          Because writing a book report on the Mexican war is very relevant to SpaceX launching rockets, right? (How’s that for childish?) Or paying $5000 a year (in perpetuity?) for fishing supplies for “friends of tbe party”. (Isn’t tbat illegal?)
          75 conditions to be allowed to launch from the boondocks in Texas, most equally irrelevant to the FAA mission or SpaceX business. But its a non-union operation making Boeing, ULA, and NASA look bad a couple times a week…

          (Just this week the NASA IG reported that the price of tbe new ARTEMIS LAUNCH TOWER is already behind schedule and looking at 100% cost overruns raising total costs to $1B. Meanwhile SPACEX is building tbeir *second* “Mechazilla” launch tower in Florida for $2M. In six months, not six years.)

          Expect more drama in the coming months.

          • BTW, try this bit of under-reported hijinks:

            https://arstechnica.com/science/2021/08/in-leaked-email-ula-official-calls-nasa-leadership-incompetent/

            “For example, in one email from April 23, Solomon thanked Sabathier for sending him an article from a conservative website, Townhall.com, that criticized Musk for his disregard of safety. After receiving the article, Solomon wrote to Sabathier, “This is very helpful!!!! I will be meeting with the White House Public Engagement staff next week & will raise our concerns with Elan Musk [sic] & his anti-labor company.”
            .
            .
            .
            Notably, this leak comes about five years after another ULA official, Brett Tobey, spoke candidly before a class at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Not realizing that his remarks were being recorded, Tobey addressed an Air Force launch contract ULA had not opted to bid for because it could not compete with SpaceX’s prices.

            “We’re going to have to figure out how to bid these things at a much lower cost,” Tobey said in March 2016. “And the government can’t just say, ‘ULA has a great track record; they’ve done 105 launches in a row with 100 percent mission success, and we can give it to them on a silver platter even though their costs are two or three times as high.'”

            “Since then, ULA, under Tory Bruno’s leadership, has sought to become more competitive with SpaceX in terms of price, and it has won industry kudos for doing so. But it is difficult for ULA, which is co-owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to make meaningful progress. One reason is that the parent companies seek to harvest profits from ULA rather than investing in innovation that might allow Bruno to better compete with SpaceX.

            “As a result, it appears that ULA is continuing to lobby the government about Musk and SpaceX, asserting that they have won government contracts through an unfair process. Most of these allegations are untrue. NASA has said time and again that SpaceX often offers the lowest price and timeliest service, such as with the commercial crew program.

            “Both SpaceX and Boeing were awarded multibillion-dollar contracts in 2014 to deliver NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX and its Crew Dragon launched its first NASA astronauts in May 2020. Despite receiving about 40 percent more funding from NASA for the same service, Boeing and ULA are unlikely to fly NASA astronauts until the second half of 2022 at the earliest.”

            As things stand SPACEX just completed their weekend hat trick in 36 hours, recovering all three reusable boosters, including the one that has already flown 12 times. Refurbishing for reuse is down to 21 days. And tbat is their *old* tech. It only costs half to launch as the competion. $60M for 16 Tons.

            The next generation that tbe FAA is blocking will loft 100Tons for $3M and is expected to (eventually) fly three times a day. The rocket engines, already the most powerful ever cost $250K to build, every two days, instead of millions over 6 months.

            The reason the unions are directing the feds to block STARSHIP is because it is expected to raise Spacex valuation to a trillion by 2025, at which point tbeir IPO (like Microsoft’s) will make millionaires our of tbeir thousands of vested employees getting stock options. Which is why the company is non-union.

            Turns out being politically incorrect pays off big time, even when the boss has Asperger’s.

            Oddly enough, nobody gripped about his earlier stunts (smoking pot on live video, calling a random guy he never met a pedo, etc, etc) but the moment he said he was now for tbe first time voting… republican… it was: “OMG! He is an embarrasment to humanity!!!”

            Fortunately, not all millenials are like that but tbe entitled snowflakes make them all look bad. As I said, more drama is due.

            • My initial point was that calling this an “adults versus kids” situation ignores that the source of the problem is at least as childlike as the kids who were punished by the adults. My secondary point was that this was not intelligently handled by anyone — not Musk himself, whether one is talking about “voting Republican” or anything else; the complainants, who should have learned a long time ago that criticizing the big boss to lesser bosses who (due to the very company culture of which they’re complaining) owe personal loyalty to the object of criticism is not going to end well; the lesser bosses, who essentially validated some (not all) of the publicly stated complaints and made all too clear that this is about “personal fiefdoms” and not anything else.

              And at least as to that, I don’t think we differ that much. I distrust and dislike Musk because I’m not a fan of “excusing the eccentricities of those who’ve done some Great Things” forever thereafter — I’ve been around fighter pilots and POWs and other single-incident heroes promoted well beyond their leadership capabilities, and I also saw much worse… but the means for expressing distrust and dislike of my “betters” available to me as an outsider are different from those available to an employee of whatever level.

              That letter was a publicity stunt, not a legitimate or appropriate means of seeking change (if that’s the delusion at issue). One doesn’t actually seek to change the publicity-seeking boss’s purported misconduct by a semipublic criticism of that misconduct, when the misconduct is neither criminal nor directly related to the organization’s mission.

              Plenty of stupidity to go around. Plenty of bad leadership to go around, too. And very much the same as to the OP.

            • “OMG! He is an embarrasment to humanity!!!”

              Reminds me of Bruce Jenner. I forget his new name. He was a courageous, ground breaking hero until he told an interviewer he was a republican.

              Then he said he would never compete in a woman’s golf tournament because of his far superior strength and ability. Said it wouldn’t be fair. Heresy!

        • I struggle to understand why you see firing these people as bullying. If these people were of value to the company, Shotwell may have simply “had a word with them.”

          But they don’t. As a rule, they don’t. More and more companies are now figuring out that having toxic individuals like the petitioners is bad for business. There’s that “unwoke” jobsite that made a splash when it launched. The woman from Substack, Lulu Chang Meservey, told all the Twitter employees who quit over Elon Musk to not darken Substack’s doorstep; they won’t be hired. Netflix told a faction of their employees to get lost for their activism.

          It’s well past time for these crybabies to get the discipline their parents failed to give them. They can’t keep throwing tantrums every time they hear a point of view they don’t like. Well — they can. But as my mother would say, “I’m not moved by those tears.” If they have to grow up the hard way, so be it. But please, for the love of God, let them grow up at long last.

          • 1000%

            The school of hard knocks is a harsh teacher and hard times are *here*.
            Time to get our affairs in order for hurricane season. And not just the weather systems.

            When it comes to employment, many of the better companies are quietly implementing hiring freezes in preparation for the market contractions that are starting. Layoffs will follow in the typical last in, first out fashion. That should help the kiddie corps grow up.

            https://www.businessinsider.com/layoffs-sweeping-the-us-these-are-the-companies-making-cuts-2022-5#carvana-about-2500-people-5

            Or not.
            Bigger concerns will take precedence over their sensitivities.

            • In the “Hard Times Create Strong Men” meme, we are at the “Weak Men Create Hard Times” phase. A lot of people are going to grow up in the coming days.

              As for weather, this warning won’t apply only to the Midwest: U.S. Midwest in danger of rotating power blackouts this summer. Buy generators, back up drives, and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), flashlights, lanterns. People who live in hurricane-prone parts of the country are also going to need that stuff. Literally, and metaphorically.

              • I like how you put it.
                Yes weak leadership makes hard times for all.
                Weak ideologues even worse; they create their own enemies. Problem is it takes longer to undo messes than it takes to make them.

                Bad leadership also applies to tbe OP publisher that let the author sink or swim on tbeir own. For all the talk of a “need”for “sensitivity readers” they did nothing before or after. One less reason to depend on tradpub.

                As for bad weather/unstable power systems: two things that get glossed over is cash on hand (ATMs and bankcard systems go out in blackouts) and good phone-based Internet access. I would suggest STARLINK but it’s still a bit too pricey.

        • Sixth-grade bully? Irony? Poor arguments.
          Suggestions of sexual harassment. Worse argument.
          Security fraud. Serial argument failure.

  2. Read the entire article earlier today. A few observations:
    I think, in large part, the author brought much of both the genuine and confected ire down onto her own head. She ignored a basic (some would say, cardinal rule); which is don’t respond to reviews, other than to say, ‘thank you for posting a review’. Instead, as the article says, “Clanchy hit back.”
    A review is only an opinion. And, opinions can be ignored. All published writers, both fiction and non-fiction, should perhaps consider adopting the stance of ‘Never complain and never explain.’

    Secondly, the writer concerned was a teacher, writing a memoir, and is free to write/say whatever she wants. However, a legitimate caveat, I think, is that, for the most part, the cohort she was writing about (apart from asides about parents and colleagues) were minors, and not in a position to challenge her views, perceptions and opinions on their appearance, behaviours, relatonships and habits. An unequal relationship. Her subjects — the schoolkids — were never going to be offered, let alone paid, to write, let alone publish, their side of the story. As an aside, but pertinent — when aged 15/16 years old I edited and published an anti-school newsletter which revelled in scurrilous remarks and observations about certain members of the teaching staff. It was caricature; it was satire; but it was also cruel. But it was written in the knowledge that the teachers finally, and always, had the upperhand.

    Third: a memoir is non-fiction (or, is mostly taken in good faith as being such). I think this point is lost in the article. To conflate what is written, and by whom, in a non-fiction work with a work of fiction is to seriously muddy the issue. Recall the kerfuffle around James Frey’s, A Million Little Pieces? It was bought and sold by the publisher on the basis of its being a memoir, but the subsequently re-branded as ‘semi-fictional’. Whereas fiction — as the boilerplate disclaimer says: ’“This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” It is a fiction writer’s job to make stuff up — as Harvey above himself states in his strapline (from memory), ‘I will lie to you and you will enjoy it.’ It is the fiction writer’s prerogative to write from any character viewpoint he or she sees fit — it is the characters’ story, not the writer’s.

    Fourth: The villains of the piece, in my opinion, are not the writer, nor her detractors, but the craven, spineless publishers — who should have stood by the author, but, more importantly, could have readied the author for any blowback.

  3. Being a member of a group of interest gives some initial credibility (deserved or not) and assimilated context to a writer. But the writer still has to do the work… and still has to be wary that in the terms of formal logic, “the personal” is an intersection with “the general,” not a union. If you don’t do the work to create a credible environment for empathy in the written product, you’ve failed as a writer no matter how credible your original position. And if you really want an example of how doing the work matters, try reading some of the nonfiction written by a white male Harvard graduate from a middle-class Midwestern family, like these:

    Poor Joshua! Victim of repeated attacks by an irresponsible, bullying, cowardly, and intemperate father, and abandoned by respondents who placed him in a dangerous predicament and who knew or learned what was going on, and yet did essentially nothing except, as the Court revealingly observes, “dutifully recorded these incidents in [their] files.” It is a sad commentary upon American life, and constitutional principles — so full of late of patriotic fervor and proud proclamations about “liberty and justice for all” — that this child, Joshua DeShaney, now is assigned to live out the remainder of his life profoundly retarded. Joshua and his mother, as petitioners here, deserve — but now are denied by this Court — the opportunity to have the facts of their case considered in the light of the constitutional protection that 42 U. S. C. § 1983 is meant to provide. (DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dept. Soc. Servs., 489 U.S. 189, 213 (Blackmun, J., dissenting, internal citation omitted)

    From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years I have endeavored — indeed, I have struggled — along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self[-]evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question — does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? — cannot be answered in the affirmative. It is not simply that this Court has allowed vague aggravating circumstances to be employed, relevant mitigating evidence to be disregarded, and vital judicial review to be blocked. The problem is that the inevitability of factual, legal, and moral error gives us a system that we know must wrongly kill some defendants, a system that fails to deliver the fair, consistent, and reliable sentences of death required by the Constitution. (Callins v. Collins, 510 U.S. 1141, 1143 (Blackmun, J., dissenting; footnote and citations omitted).

    There’s no “authenticity” there — just truth. The latter is what writers should strive for.

    • Writers can strive for whatever they choose. They are under no obligation to follow someone else’s standards. Don’t like a book? Don’t read it.

      Want to publish a book? OK. Hit the Kindle Upload button.
      Someone says they don’t like it? OK. Individual tastes and preferences will vary.

  4. Yet another reminder to never, ever, state an opinion or respond to a remark of any kind on Goodreads as an author. (Browse at will, if you can stand it.)

    The only thing an author should do is to make sure his/her books are properly listed, with proper series orders, and proper cover images. Never otherwise touch it. It’s like a deadly poisonous snake, and should be treated accordingly.

  5. I can’t believe JK Rowling had the audacity to write the POV of a boy. She’s not a boy. She never was a boy. She is not and never was a wizard either. How dare she.

  6. It always surprises me when people accuse writers of racial stereotypes. Why is ‘chocolate skin’ a racial stereotype? It is the color of someone’s skin. It is a fact. His skin is not white or pink, it is brown. Why is it offensive? It is the same kind of fact as to say that my hair is auburn and I have freckles. There is no stereotyping in it, just a bit of factual data.

    • I could ding her for imprecision, though. Baking chocolate? Mid-range milk chocolate? Very light, almost white chocolate? 🙂 (I will assume that actual “white chocolate” does not apply, nor does the rare but quite attractive “ebony.”)

      Myself, I would be accurately described in no such flattering way. “Rather bland pink, except where the age spots are appearing,” would be closest to truth.

      “Almond eyes” the same thing.

      Now, “jarring” might possibly be considered a denigration – but a truthful one. Autistic people can be quite jarring. Even those just slightly into the “spectrum” can be jarring – I know that I certainly was as a younger self, before many, many years of building a facade of sociability.

    • Everyone’s skin gets described as food, which is fascinating for other reasons. Some white people are described as: milky white, lobster red, olive-skinned, or “peaches and cream.” I especially saw the last one as a description in books for a little while in the 80s, after Barbie came out with the “peaches and cream” line. She wore an elegant gown and accessories with that theme, and I had the coloring book. Good times.

      If I had to guess why people reach for food as a descriptor, it’s probably because it sidesteps the “carmine or scarlet red, cerulean or azure blue” business of having to get the shade right. Food gets the point across quick and easy … but it’s also a cliche, so could bear switching out. My guess is that the word went out at some point to stop using food as a comparison. I don’t know if the food is “triggering,” but it is definitely a cliche.

  7. I suspect a subset of the people who consider themselves part of the book world are engaged in a great game of Dungeons & Dragons: Literary Edition. They concoct dire threats and build worlds where they have to stand up to overwhelming forces of evil.

    Ecosystems uprooted, publishing attacked, authors banned, slavering censors scour shelves of LGBTQRSTUV lore, and people of color dare not reveal their literacy. Still, the small band will not be stayed by any of the horrors the Dungeon Master throws at them. They are real. They are authentic. They carry truth in a small iron bound chest. They are better than the rest of us, and they know we know it.

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