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Do authors have ethical responsibilities beyond the book?

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Straight off the top of your head, do you think that authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities beyond the book?

I'm guessing that the vast majority of you answered this question the same way I did for a long time, with a fully articulated, deeply resounding NO.

As I said, this was my reaction for a long time, duly influenced, I am sure, by the paradigm of literary scholarship in which I still so often work, where everything is merely "interesting," and where social issues are examined without judgment. But purely as a reader, my view on this question has evolved in tandem with the emergence of numerous issues related to but not limited to the books themselves.

And things have gotten most complicated lately around the issue of appropriation, particularly in terms of white authors who write about people of color and straight women authors who write about gay men.

While I don't want to suggest these cases are identical, I think they share two essential characteristics: a) there is an issue of commercial profit based on the experience of historically marginalized people, and b) in both cases there is sometimes a falsity perpetuated in the process of selling the author's work (a male pseudonym or a white character featured on the book cover). And both of these larger issues have raised the issue of whether authors have any ethical or moral responsibilities outside the confines of their writing.

All art requires appropriation – whenever we imagine the experience of another we must embody that person to grasp the differences from our own experiences. I absolutely believe that the construction of alternative realities and personae in fiction charges both its diversity and creativity. And while I do not believe that art must have moral or ethical or social purpose, I do think that fiction can bridge the chasm of difference between people of different experiences and backgrounds, promoting understanding, compassion, and edification. Even those books any of us might find insulting, offensive, unworthy, whatever, have a basic right of expressive existence in the vast realm we refer to as creative freedom.

But what about outside the book; what about the author, as a person, as a name, separate from but attached to the book?

When it comes to pseudonyms, they are as old as writing itself, I daresay, especially these days when privacy is a concern for many public figures. But they’ve had other uses as well. Mary Anne Evans became George Eliot so that her writing would be taken seriously and even chided other women authors for being "silly” and writing silly books. Harold Lowry writes genre Romance as Leigh Greenwood, one of more than a handful of men who write pseudonymously in this female-dominated genre.   And increasingly, some female writers of m/m Romance are donning male pseudonyms, as well. On a superficial level, the reason for this is obvious: it creates a sense of confidence in the reader that the author knows what s/he is writing about. Which, as blogger Sparky argues, is exactly the problem:

HOWEVER when you use a MALE pen name (and, to a lesser extent, but still very telling, a gender neutral or initialled pen name) in the m/m genre you are doing so in a context where authors do try to fake being gay men for the sake of "authenticity". When you use a male name in the m/m genre you are implying that you are a gay man – you are implying knowledge and life experience you do not have, you have not suffered for and you have NO RIGHT to claim. This is an appropriation of our identity and is one of the most grossly disrespectful parts of the m/m genre. Women using pseudonyms in the Romance genre don't feel the need to suddenly use male names – so why do they in the m/m?

But all writing is appropriation, right? Didn't I just say that at the beginning of this piece?

Yes, I did. But I'm not sure all appropriation is created equal, especially if the appropriation extends beyond the writing and into the public face of the author. We all know about the various cases of fake memoirs, from Angel At the Fence to Love and Consequences to Forbidden Love, where the story itself is presented as authentic and the author a witness or participant. But authenticity attaches to fiction to a certain extent, as well, or pseudonyms aimed at a specific gender or cultural affiliation would be deemed unnecessary. Yet they persist.

And in some cases (especially with men writing Romance under female pseudonyms), the author does not try to hide the “real” person behind the pseudonym. But if, say, a female author publicly presents herself as a presumably gay male, if she hides her true gender in order to sell books, isn't that essentially an attempt to commercially profit off of someone else's life experience? But that's what all writing is, I said! And it's all a fantasy, anyway! It's about the story!

Okay, but we're not talking just about the writing here – we're talking about selling an identity, an experience in the form of a public authorial identity. We're talking about selling authenticity, which is where one holds out an identity for the purpose of getting others to trust in that identity in buying/reading a book. And, as Sparky suggests, when the group that constructs the author’s pseudonymous identity has been traditionally marginalized and oppressed, isn't an attempt to profit off of that group's experiences by publicly claiming that identity inherently exploitive?

I am asking this as an open question, by the way.

Another manifestation of the appropriation and authenticity conundrum we've seen lately is the cover debate, sparked by Justine Larbalestier's Liar and more recently by Jaclyn Dolarmore's Magic Under Glass, both books published by Bloomsbury and both undergoing cover renovations after representing white girls in place of the protagonists of color. In the midst of the debates about Dolamore's book, Larbalestier blogged that

Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don't randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

Blogger Editorial Anonymous said

And also for the record: those of us who objected to the cover were not objecting on the author’s behalf. We were objecting on the readers’ behalf. And especially on the minority readers’ behalf, because some of us understand how excruciating and demoralizing it is to children to be made to feel that they are the wrong color.

In both these cases, the darker-skinned heroine was being represented on the book's cover as light-skinned. Whether or not the context here is one of out and out racism, it is clearly one of race and one of commercial profit. However, unlike the female to male pseudonym situation, here we have something of the opposite: the commercially viable position is one of white, and the perpetrator is the publisher.

So why even implicate the author in this? She has no control over her cover art, right? Karen Healey went so far as to suggest that authors are "endangering" their careers by speaking out against a whitewashed cover:

But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it’s all the publisher’s doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

First, in response to the persistent employer/employee analogy Charles Petit of Scrivener's Error makes the following correction: "Bluntly, under the 1976 Copyright Act, there is no real question that the publishers’ rights are subordinate to those of the authors (excepting, of course, works made for hire… in which the patron/publisher is wrongly defined as the author)."   I don't know where this whole "employee" model of authors came from, but if authors are employees, then they would likely be producing works for hire, and not creative works over which they own the rights. They couldn't be complaining about piracy disrupting their copyrights, etc.

Rarely have I seen this employee analogy forwarded except in cases where the author is being asked by the reader to question or protest against the publisher on behalf of the reader (not on behalf of the author herself, as was the case during the protest against Harlequin). But I am willing to accept the idea that speaking out against a whitewashed cover may place the author in the position of "rocking the boat" and being viewed as "difficult."

My next question, though, is whether that means the author has no ethical or moral responsibility to take a stand against whitewashed covers, especially when the author in question is white.

I am a bit more ambivalent about this situation than the pseudonym case, in part because the author is not directly or initially perpetrating the whitewashing. However, if the author supports the whitewashing, either overtly or tacitly, is the author participating in the erasure of those very characters of color she created? And more importantly, is there an added responsibility in a white author writing about characters of color, in appropriating the experiences of non-white peoples in a commercial – hopefully, profit-yielding – work of fiction?

In an industry where authors of color – in Romance, at least – are shelved separately from other genre books, where being an author of color – especially a black author – can automatically land her books on a separate, ethically-designated shelf in the bookstore, white authors have much more mobility within the genre. Beyond the book, there is a definite privileging of whiteness in Romance, combined with a fetishization of race, that extends to the race of the author and the way the book is represented to the reader.

So why shouldn't the white author who appropriates racial otherness have some responsibility to represent those like her characters outside the book, too?

Again, an open question.

Personally, I am adamant about protecting an author's creative freedom. I generally do not believe that authors explicitly owe individual readers anything outside the book. And I have read numerous objections to this idea of authorial responsibility beyond the book with the admonishment that perhaps authors will stop writing about characters of other races, sexual experiences, etc. But you know, I don’t think it’s a bad thing for authors to think good and hard about what it means to write about people of color, about people of different sexual orientations and practices, about people of different cultural, ethnic, religious backgrounds. Just as I don’t think it’s a bad thing for readers to approach these stories mindfully. How can mindfulness be a bad thing, especially when we’re talking about commercial work aimed at yielding economic profit?

I do realize that, especially in the case of covers, there are some significant intersections between how characters are represented on covers and how they are represented within the books themselves, and how much more complex questions of authentic representation within books are. Also, I deliberately did not frame this inquiry in terms of what authors owe readers or what readers can expect from authors, because I’m not sure to whom I’d say authors specifically owe these ethical or moral responsibilities. I believe these issues are related to core community values, and by extension, to larger social values.

Even if an author does not believe that s/he has any responsibilities beyond the book, I would suggest that when an author endeavors to represent the experiences of another group, particularly a historically disenfranchised group, and further, if an author aims to suggest membership in that group through a pseudonym, then the author should be prepared to meet the criticism of readers who do believe that the author has some off-page responsibility, either to them, to the genre, to the marginalized group, or to society at large. And if authors do not respect that readers may buy the full implications of what authors are presenting to them for purchase, they risk losing the respect that those readers have for their work.

So back to the original question: should authors be held to a higher responsibility beyond the book when they choose to appropriate the experience of historically marginalized peoples? Should they be expected to deal with reader anger or protest (boycott, letter writing, etc.)? Beyond the creative freedom artists expect, what ethical or moral responsibilities, if any, do they have?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

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