Publishing organizations imploding over racism and white gatekeeping. Authors of buzzy bestsellers fending off accusations of appropriation. Eminent men losing publishers over alleged (or admitted) molestation of children. Beloved literary icons openly dabbling with (or wholeheartedly embracing) transphobic beliefs.
2020 was a year liberally studded with publishing uproars, outcries and scandals — the sort of complex dramas that demanded multi-section explainer articles. And little wonder: The book world, like American society as a whole, has been squeezed by economic pressures, battered by the pandemic, swept up in the Me Too movement and forced to answer for its pervasive whiteness and racism. The book scandals of 2020 are not frothy bits of gossip, but complicated and unsettling controversies with sweeping implications for the power imbalances and forms of exploitation and exclusion that still pervade the entire literary ecosystem.
After a year of publishing turmoil, HuffPost revisits nine of the most notable literary controversies of the year.
The schism at the RWA and the end of the RITA Awards
Months before literary festivals and conferences around the world were snuffed out by COVID-19, the annual Romance Writers of America conference, scheduled for July, had already been reduced to a husk. The trade organization’s 2020 awards ceremony, the RITAs, had been canceled; publishers were withdrawing from the event. The RWA itself was falling apart.
At issue was the organization’s generally poor treatment of writers of color over its recent history, and specifically its decision to suspend popular novelist Courtney Milan for a year and to bar her from leadership positions permanently. Milan, who is half Chinese, is a vocal advocate for diversity in romance. After she critiqued a book by a white romance editor for trafficking in racist stereotypes, the white editor complained to the RWA that Milan used “terror tactics” to advance her views. The publisher of the press where she worked, also a white woman, complained as well. The organization responded in December 2019 with Milan’s suspension and lifetime ban.
As 2020 dawned, the organization was bitterly divided, with many members resigning and withdrawing their RITA submissions in protest of Milan’s draconian punishment. The complaints against her ended up looking like weak tea under closer scrutiny, and the process the organization went through looked sketchy. There were revelations of a secret backroom panel set up by RWA president-elect Damon Suede to replace the organization’s official ethics committee, and Suede himself was accused of being a serial liar. In May, the RITA Awards were permanently canceled (they will be replaced by a new award, the Vivian). The RWA was the first, but decidedly not the last, literary trade group to buckle like a Jenga tower in 2020.
The heralding of — and backlash against — ‘American Dirt’
Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, a story of Mexican migrants fleeing cartel violence, was poised to break through. It had sold to Flatiron for a reported seven figures, was blurbed by Stephen King, and had the full might of its publisher’s publicity arm behind it. Lauren Groff called it “propulsive” in a New York Times review. Oprah selected it for her book club in January.
It’s the sort of stereotype-driven, semi-literary thriller that once might have graced the bestseller list without significant public outcry. But this time was different. Times staff critic Parul Sehgal shredded the novel on Jan. 17. Back in December 2019, writer Myriam Gurba had posted a stinging critique of the book’s “overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes,” “toxic heteroromanticism” and “white gaze,” which was shared widely after Sehgal’s was published. (Cummins, who has identified as Latinx and cited a Puerto Rican grandmother in coverage around the book’s release, had identified as white in the past.)
The backlash seemed to keep unfolding. There were barbed-wire floral centerpieces at a promotional event; Cummins’ own cringe-inducing tweets and author’s note; a kerfuffle over the Times Book Review’s tweet of Groff’s review; a canceled book tour.
And of course, always looming, was the specter of that seven-figure advance. Amid growing recognition that the American publishing industry often throws money and acclaim at white-authored accounts of Black and brown people’s lives while locking out Black and brown writers, “American Dirt” became a flashpoint for discussion of these longstanding inequities. (Nevertheless, it also became a bestseller.)
The heralding of — and backlash against — ‘My Dark Vanessa’
The quintessential publishing scandal is a plagiarism accusation — and at first, that’s what seemed to be going on with the “My Dark Vanessa” controversy. Like “American Dirt,” “My Dark Vanessa” was a buzzy, well-publicized novel by a white woman that had snagged a seven-figure advance and reportedly been selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut tells the story of a teenage girl who is preyed on by a teacher, through the eyes of the girl as an adult.
In an essay on Roxane Gay’s Medium vertical, writer Wendy C. Ortiz claimed that the novel had “eerie story similarities” to a memoir she’d published with a small press in 2014. (She did not, as she later noted, use the word “plagiarism,” nor did she personally read “My Dark Vanessa” to assess the extent of the similarities.) Ortiz criticized Russell for profiting off of a fictional story of suffering she and others really experienced. Russell eventually made a statement revealing that the novel was based on her own teenage experiences, apparently having been pressured to reveal a history of sexual abuse she had planned to keep private.
In the aftermath of the “American Dirt” saga, it was easy to see “My Dark Vanessa” as another tale of a white woman profiting by ripping off writers of color and fictionalizing their trauma. As the controversy unfolded, however, the specifics proved murkier: No strong evidence of plagiarism emerged, and Russell seemed a poorly chosen villain for what was really a broader critique of systemic advantages given to white authors. In the end, Oprah never announced “My Dark Vanessa” for her book club, and, as with “American Dirt,” the book became a bestseller.
French publishing’s longtime support of a pedophile writer
The saga of Gabriel Matzneff’s long public life of pedophilia apologia, and his sudden fall from grace, was a bizarre and horrifying uproar in French publishing. One might think that when an acclaimed elderly author loses his publishers and honors and is charged with the promotion of the sexual abuse of children, his behavior must have just come to light.
Instead, Matzneff operated openly as a pedophile for decades. His glorification of child and teen sexual abuse and his admissions of committing the crimes himself were central to his literary oeuvre, which earned him admirers like former French president François Mitterrand, defenders among the French press and literary elite, and prestigious prizes. It wasn’t until Vanessa Springora, one of his past victims, published a bestselling memoir about his abuse of her when she was a teenager that the tide turned against Matzneff.
Like most of the publishing dramas in the U.S. this year, the Matzneff scandal isn’t so much something hidden coming to light as a sudden public reckoning with something morally disturbing that the industry didn’t even bother to hide.
Woody Allen’s lost (and found) book deal
Woody Allen’s dizzyingly prolific career has continued mostly unslowed by his daughter Dylan Farrow’s allegation that he molested her when she was a young child. In recent years, especially as the Me Too movement picked up speed, Dylan and Mia Farrow have spoken out publicly, and Ronan Farrow, Dylan’s brother and a prominent journalist who reports on sexual assault and harassment, has aggressively called out Hollywood and the entertainment industry for continuing to enable Allen’s career.
But when Hachette’s Grand Central Publishing announced in March that, months before, it had acquired Allen’s memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” employees of the imprint balked. Ronan, who had published his 2019 book “Catch and Kill” with a Hachette imprint, furiously announced that he would no longer work with the publisher. Hachette employees pushed management to drop the book and dozens staged a walkout in protest. Free speech advocates fretted about the onward march of censorship and cancel culture, but the dissenting employees prevailed. Just four days after announcing the book’s publication, Hachette jettisoned the title. (The book, which had been on the verge of publication by Grand Central, was quickly picked up by Skyhorse Publishing and, yes, became a bestseller.)
The implosion of the National Book Critics Circle
The wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd at the end of May shook the publishing world. Despite years of activism and critique by writers, editors and activists of color, the book industry remains profoundly, staggeringly white. But executives and board members at many literary institutions felt compelled to show support for the aims of BLM protesters, to take a vocal stand against police brutality and anti-Blackness, and to commit to internal change — and in several, public rifts emerged about whether to do so.
The most dramatic clash took place at the National Book Critics Circle, a professional organization of hundreds of critics, where board members composed a letter acknowledging the whiteness of the industry and supporting BLM. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the NBCC.) After a white board member, Carlin Romano, took issue with much of the letter in an email to the board and NBCC president Laurie Hertzl replied calling his points “all valid,” Hope Wabuke, a Ugandan-American author and board member, tweeted out the emails along with her resignation. Board members began to resign in waves, protesting Wabuke’s publication of the private emails, concerns about racism in the organization, or simply the fact that the NBCC seemed on the verge of total collapse. Soon more than half of the board, along with Hertzl, had stepped down. Attempts were made to remove Romano from the board, but they failed; a membership vote fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to oust him.
Like the RWA, the NBCC has managed to survive thus far, but at great cost to its reputation.
J.K. Rowling’s open embrace of transphobia
2020 was not the year in which the “Harry Potter” author’s transphobic views became common knowledge. (By 2019, when Rowling tweeted in support of a woman whose contract was not renewed after she was vocal about her opposition to trans rights, that much was clear, and Rowling’s apparent sympathy with TERFS, or trans-exclusionary radical feminists, had long been on the radar of trans journalists and activists). But this summer, after stepping back from public discourse on the issue for a while, she reentered the arena with vigor. On June 6, she retweeted an op-ed about people who menstruate, commenting, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” She later doubled down with more tweets and then published a nearly 4,000-word essay on her website that enumerated her “reasons for being worried about the new trans activism.”
Rowling’s lurch into transphobic advocacy came to dominate her public image with startling speed; she became an icon for opponents of trans rights and was reviled by trans people and allies — including many ardent “Harry Potter” fans — who pointed out that one of the most famous women in the world spreading transphobic talking points endangered trans people who already face discrimination and violence.
As The Cut’s Molly Fischer argued in a fascinating autopsy of Rowling’s nose dive into so-called gender critical feminism, Rowling’s heel turn was all the more dramatic because of the conception of justice Rowling depicted in the “Harry Potter” series: a noble battle against profound evil waged by the righteous few. For many of her fans, trans and cis, this meant standing up for themselves or in allyship with an oppressed group, even against their own one-time literary idol. As Rowling’s public statements on the matter make clear, in her mind this means absorbing the backlash in the name of “protecting” cis women and girls from unisex bathrooms.
The Strand’s plea for help
While the coffers of corporations like Amazon have swelled during the pandemic, many independent businesses have been struggling to scrape together enough revenue to survive lockdowns and social distancing. Indie bookstores, no longer able to rely on foot traffic and hand-selling, have been scrambling to fundraise, boost sales with branded merch, and pivot to online orders. So when the Strand, a venerable Manhattan bookstore, posted a plea for support on Twitter (#savethestrand), over 25,000 orders poured in. But the story of the little underdog bookstore looked a bit different to critics of millionaire owner Nancy Bass Wyden, who pointed out that Wyden not only owns the building, but she bought hundreds of thousands of dollars in Amazon stock this year and accepted Paycheck Protection Program loans to save jobs at the Strand while laying off unionized workers during the pandemic.
With many indie bookstores facing unabated rent bills, many in the bookselling world argued that concerned readers should do their holiday shopping at more financially vulnerable shops.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s support of J.K. Rowling
Rowling’s open embrace of transphobic beliefs eventually drew another widely beloved female author into the debate. Adichie, the author of “Half of a Yellow Sun,” “Americanah” and “We Should All Be Feminists,” had also made offensive comments about trans women in the past. “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’” she said in a 2017 interview, “my feeling is trans women are trans women.” She later apologized for seeming to suggest that trans women are not really women.
But in a November 2020 interview with the Guardian, she praised Rowling’s transphobic blog post as “a perfectly reasonable piece” by “a woman who is progressive, who clearly stands for and believes in diversity,” drawing renewed outrage. Fellow Nigerian novelist Akwaeke Emezi, who is nonbinary, responded with a Twitter thread calling out their one-time teacher and mentor; Emezi, author of the acclaimed novel “Freshwater,” had graduated from Adichie’s workshop.
“It’s been years and it still hurts that she’s transphobic,” they tweeted. “We were rooting so hard for her. So many people gently tried to educate her.” In the thread, Emezi revealed that because they had criticized Adichie’s 2017 comments, Adichie had asked to have her name removed from Emezi’s biography days after “Freshwater” was published.
“I’m very proud of debut me for standing by my beliefs, because the anxiety of knowing you’ve pissed off [Adichie] right in your publication week??” they tweeted. “You’re there calculating if the loss of her support will tank your career.”