MADISON, NJ — Black Lawrence Press last month withdrew its commitment to publish Elizabeth Ellen’s novella from a forthcoming anthology because it found an unrelated essay she had written on rape “objectionably pernicious.” I believe the Black Lawrence editorial board has every right to change its collective mind—and I certainly don’t see this decision as a form of censorship. A press is made up of a group of people who should be able to shape and, yes, “voice” their own opinion, stick by their principles, and even boycott a writer with whom they have an association.
On the surface Black Lawrence took an extremely unforgiving stance, particularly because it chose to ban the work of a person it had marketed as a “provocative” woman writer. It may seem hypocritical for a press to expect its writers to provoke thought on one hand, and then on the other, stop supporting them if they share an unpopular or misguided opinion and stray too far from the norm.
There’s something lousy and unsettling about this indie lit dust-up—atop all the recent wave of domestic abuse cases and sexual assault allegations surrounding athletes and celebrities. There’s something loud and unseemly—and insensitive or off too—about Ms. Ellen’s salty, meandering confessional. But writers are known to scratch scabs and the arts are a complicated affair. Artful expression is not meant to leave us in a comfortable place.
This sticky situation, however, is not about “us” vs. “them,” nor should we escalate it (as I sadly witnessed on Facebook) by opening the old or fresh wounds of those who have been molested. This is not about the importance of outing rapists and empowering rape victims so that we as civilized society may evolve. It’s also not about a war between writers and publishers, nor misogynists and feminists. This piece is about where we as members of the indie lit community stand when we observe the ugly underbelly of online life in full swing, with conscientious folks duking it out in real time on social media sites, trying to sort out right from wrong, and whether we’re on the side of a woman who wrote a cathartic essay that got under a lot of people’s skin, or on the side of a well-meaning publisher that excluded that same woman from a fiction project because it didn’t like the sound of her nonfiction voice.
In this leaky affair of the pen, I stand by the artist. I stand by her colorful rhetoric because as a word acrobat she doesn’t see boundaries or pay mind to opinion polls. I support her right to unleash a torrent of loosely organized, myopic thoughts on a complex subject (without fear of retribution by her publisher). I place this last part in parentheses because it puts me in the confounding reality of holding two opposing thoughts at the same time. That is, I also support Black Lawrence’s right as a press to condemn Ms. Ellen’s essay and “unaccept” her contribution to an unrelated forthcoming anthology.
I just don’t agree with it.
On the Atticus Books blog we encourage our book authors to send in a variety of content that allows them the latitude to riff on any subject they deem worthy. It essentially is a carte blanche arrangement with one unwritten caveat: AB staff, not the writers, controls what goes on the AB website. If we decide one day that the material submitted doesn’t fit the ethical and/or creative standards we’ve set for the press, then by no means—not morally or professionally speaking—are we obligated to publish it. That much seems reasonable, don’t you think?
Yet if an Atticus writer took to the cyber streets and published a scorcher of a controversial essay elsewhere (at Hobart, say), would I then take the high and mighty road and put his or her published novel out of print and relinquish all rights to it because I did not like his or her opinion? Or for that matter, if I had a two-book deal with said author, would I exit-clause my way out of that commitment to publish his or her second book, even if I thought the novel or story collection was terrific?
These are complicated matters and I’m not sure how I would react. It would no doubt depend on how the circumstances unfolded and just how disgusted I felt by the so-called filth he or she had written. I would be alarmed and disappointed, I’m sure, by the author’s poor instincts and lack of empathy. Another more financially shrewd publisher might see the negative publicity as a potential revenue driver, but I’m not bent on exploitation for commercial gain.
And yet there’s this other side of me that thinks maybe I should let the whole thing blow over …
Where we draw the do-not-dare-cross line in life is a conundrum, but should the same be true for life in the creative arts? The difficult decision Black Lawrence Press made, I know, did not come easy. But on the whole, after reading Elizabeth Ellen’s essay twice, I think if she were an Atticus author, we would have stuck to our guns and published her fiction because we believed in what led us to her in the first place: her craftsmanship, her story, her undeniable writing skills. We’d let her perhaps reckless opinion concerning a deeply-scarring sociological matter play itself out. We’d support her because a public shunning, it should not be, and a publishing house should be a haven for a writer.
As a publisher and supporter of the arts I almost by the definition of my role have to separate the individual from the artist. And as a publisher of wildly imaginative fiction that doesn’t always align with people’s conventional way of thinking (read the Lee Klein interview and/or novel, The Shimmering Go-Between and/or the Colin Winnette novella tandem, Fondly, for examples), I consider it my duty to make that distinction. I make that distinction because publishers are not arbiters of moral turpitude. I am not here to judge what a writer does outside the gates of the Atticus playground. I am here to discover and herald the mark of great writing. I am here because without small literary presses, like Atticus and Black Lawrence Press, fewer and fewer distinct voices will be heard.
As the owner of a fiercely independent press with no political agenda or editorial board, I oppose the idea of vetting the belief system of every writer who comes knocking. I embrace writers who deliver words with finesse and conviction, and I stand by the original mission of Atticus, that is, to discover bold, inventive writing and to advance the state of the art. If that means supporting a writer who comes under public attack for some controversial thing he or she spilled on, so be it.
Literary presses sometimes must be curators of unpopular culture. Art has no place for exclusion. No place for witch hunts or trials or corporal punishment. Debate, yes. Righteous omission, no.
If we as publishers begin thinking we are better off with only moral fiction and disallow the dissemination of works like Lolita and all artifacts of disgusting brilliance to exist … if we only start permitting safe and widely accepted musings and tirades by our writers to see the light of day, then we as publishers may very well be losing the fight to corporate interests.
We no longer will be seeking truth. We no longer will be serving the noble purpose of providing a platform to dissonant voices.
We will be entering a dangerous place.
We will be entering a dangerous place where a stark society of talking heads and hive minds reside, where corporate overlords ban civil discourse, and broadcasters and news reporters only speak in platitudes.
We would be asking our best and brightest creative wordsmiths to be sure and measure their words twice before they cut. To censor themselves.
Some publishing professionals may need to abide by organizational bylaws and policies. I’m not in such a constricted position with Atticus. I make the rules and I break them just as fast.
Others may not like to have their scruples messed with. I understand this aversion to moral dilemmas—our job is not easy. But let’s not forget that writers rely on editors to have their backs. And small indie publishers rely on our peers and role models to have a backbone. Otherwise, how else will we teach our readers to grow a spine?
Lolita cover design by Lyuba Haleva
Drawing (Goya’s Saturn) by Lee Klein