February 4, 2020 § 12 Comments

CW: Non-graphic sexual abuse

Around the publication, fury, backpedaling, and consistent sales of American Dirt, another issue has arisen. Who gets to tell their story? Who gets to tell it first? Who gets to tell it with the support of the publishing industry?

Publishing’s whiteness is a problem. Publishing’s classism is a problem. These barriers deprive readers of color literary experiences similar to their own, as well as denying people of privilege the opportunity of discovery of other lives without burdening our friends with “please teach me to be better, person of color!” If we don’t publish, purchase and support books from marginalized communities, we are all poorer for it.

But springing from the issue of a previously-white-identifying author’s romantic thriller poorly marketed as a defining literary and cultural experience comes another problem: seeing a story like one’s own and assuming it’s been appropriated.

Responding to the American Dirt controversy, and expanding on her personal experience as a WOC publishing and marketing her memoir, Excavation, Wendy C. Ortiz wrote in Gay Mag:

When I learned of the book My Dark Vanessa, via synopsis online it sounded so much like Excavation I thought I was going to pass out. Stephen King had blurbed it, so I knew immediately it was a book that had been given a major book deal…I felt faint with disappointment and rage. Readers of my book reached out to let me know they saw it, too. The similarity of the stories, and how the book was being marketed, were too obvious to ignore. As much as I would like to avoid a book that fictionalizes an experience I lived, it will be difficult to… It will be placed, sponsored, touted, “dementedly praised” and more, because it has to — there was a seven figure deal.

Excavation, published in 2014, is an adult woman looking back on a five-year sexual relationship that started between her eighth-grade self and her adult English teacher, and trying to reconcile the youthful feelings of “a ‘relationship’ with a man I loved” with the adult realization that the relationship was abusive and harmful.

My Dark Vanessa, just published, is a novel about a woman who “suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life?”

Gosh, that sounds familiar. In fact, it sounds a lot like…

Tiger Tiger (2011) describes the relationship between author Margaux Fragoso, then prepubescent, who meets a 51-year-old-man who “tunes into her likes and dislikes with exquisite enthusiasm, with the result that she comes to see him as a soul mate. The unwavering laser of his attention makes her feel wanted and alive. In a prologue to her [memoir], the adult Margaux writes that spending time with a paedophile ‘can be like a drug high.’ In her own case, it was a drug she was unable to give up.”

Huh. Oh, wait, maybe the one I’m thinking of is a movie?

In The Tale (2018) Jennifer Fox is in her 40s when her mother discovers an essay, written when Jennifer was 13, about a “relationship” with her adult coach. Jennifer, played by Laura Dern, dismisses her mother’s concern, but after re-reading the essay Jennifer looks back on her life. While she remembers herself being older and sophisticated, she discovers old photos showing how small and childlike she was. The movie is based on the director (Jennifer Fox)’s own life.

Or that other movie, An Education, based on Lynn Barbor’s 2003 essay for Granta, her 2009 essay for The Guardian and her memoir about being seduced by an older man at age 16, and shown the sparkling life of cosmopolitan London before realizing her ‘boyfriend’ was a married con man?

Or maybe the plots of all these women’s stories just ring true for me, because ten years ago, I looked back and thought, Maybe that 28-year-old dating 15-year-old me did not have my best interests at heart…but I’m still friends with the 45-year-old who dated 18-year-old me, so what’s the difference?

It’s (sadly) not uncommon to look back as an adult and realize a childhood/very-young-adulthood relationship we believed ourselves an active participant in was not as subject to our own volition as we thought. It’s not uncommon to feel that we gained some positive things from unequal and abusive relationships. It’s less common to write a whole book about it, but I still wouldn’t call four books and two movies in the space of ten years (off the top of my head) rare.

It is not sour grapes to advocate for representation, or even to point out that a memoir by a woman of color was a harder sell than a novel about the same subject, seven years later, by a white author. Those are valid, important and necessary concerns. But when we look for the reasons one book was more embraced by publishing than another, it’s usually not “somebody stole my life.”

As memoirists, we are constantly mining our own experience to find an original telling of a universal tale. It is not our life’s singularity, but the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new. A truly one-of-a-kind story might not even resonate with readers, because part of the value of memoir is seeing ourselves in someone else’s world. True stories change lives because they show, You’re not alone. You’re not the only one who felt like that. You’re not the only one that happened to.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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§ 12 Responses to Copycats

  • […] via Copycats — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you. I just commented on an article by Red Newsom making much the same point. Tragically, these books and films do not tell a rare story possessed by only one person when it come to exploitation of young women by much older men. The bias that may support one person’s telling over another, on the other hand . . .

  • Thanks for this, Allison. I’ve had those moments of panic thinking my book had been stolen before it had a chance to live, mentally tallying the submissions and contests I had entered without copyrighting the manuscript first. You click send and it goes off into oblivion. But when we read a story that mirrors our own, fiction or non – because fiction is an easy label to slap on personal experience – it’s just that: a mirror. We are all in this together. #metoo is not just one thing, however. And we don’t all need to react the same way. If our positive experiences, for example, outweighed the negative, and if, upon such close examination as memoir, we find there really were no lasting repercussions, then that is a story, too. But I digress : I’ve come to understand that if you grew up in a certain decade as a young woman, you had this experience and it made an impression on you. You were not alone. Not by a long shot. That’s kind of a good thing.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      You make such good points. And yeah, none of us are alone.

      • Pamela Valencia says:

        On Tue, Feb 4, 2020, 7:50 AM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

        > Allison K Williams commented: “You make such good points. And yeah, none > of us are alone.” >

  • kperrymn says:

    Thanks for the reminder that it is “the individuality of our voice, our approach, and our personal revelations that make our memoir new.” It is unsettling to see stories like ours out there when we have finally “excavated” (what a wonderful title!) and written our own. Adding our voices, I believe, strengthens the message of those whose stories we share.

  • Thunder Woman says:

    You know a legit memoirist by their unique stories that also resonate with the majority of readers. A memoirist isn’t someone trying to control the media or what a person, town, or nation “should” think, feel or do.

  • Kelly S says:

    If we center this conversation on the idea of “copying,” we are missing the point. I think it’s most important that we focus on what Allison cites early on in this post, that publishing has a whiteness problem. In Roxane Gay’s review of My Dark Vanessa on Goodreads, she writes this: “Wendy Ortiz’s essay, published in Gay Magazine, does not accuse the author of plagiarism. It notes the similarities between the experience Ortiz writes about in her memoir Excavation and the plot of this novel. I suspect there are similarities anyone who has experienced this kind of predation might see because predators are everywhere. But that is a sliver of what her essay is about. What Ortiz is really talking about is who gets to tell what kinds of stories according to the whims of publishing’s gatekeepers. It’s an essay about the frustration of encountering closed doors, time and again, to a story about your lived experience, while those same doors open to a fictional version of a similar story and how all too often, whether doors are open or closed depends on your race/ethnicity. It’s an entirely understandable frustration and one primarily directed at the publishing industry.” I agree with Roxane Gay.

  • […] six other books today with that same idea. So little is original. And even if someone else tells “your” story, you haven’t lost your chance. Our voice, our bravery in telling the story, whether that’s a […]

  • SecurTel says:

    I love reading inspirational stories. Thank you for sharing a story. It made my day. I am glad I found it and read it after long, tiring work hours.

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