Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenæum has long been a staple in the local literary community prevalent in the Boston area. Its most recent panel was entitled “Letter from the Editor: Literary Tales, Trials, and Tribulations.”
The editors featured in this talk all work for publishing houses that “incorporate notions of social justice, the exchange of ideas, and respect for diversity into their mission statements.”
- Helene Atwan – Director, Beacon Press
- Ladette Randolph – Editor-in-chief, Ploughshares
- Michael Reynolds – Editor-in-chief, Europa Editions
Meghna Chakrabarti, host of Radio Boston and Modern Love: The Podcast, presided over the evening’s events. While Chakrabarti asked general publishing questions, a probing question came from the audience, “Who has the right to tell certain stories?”
In my opinion, the question was no doubt sparked by the controversy surrounding Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling, about a father sexually abusing his daughter. Published at the end of August, the novel’s release immediately incited criticism because the author is a white male. Electric Literature has explored the associated ire in-depth. Which returns us to the pertinent question: Who has the right to tell certain stories?
The three editors brought up a valid point: Censorship is a slippery slope. Any writer should be able to write about any topic they desire. Atwan invoked the example of a young black woman writing the character of a middle-aged white man. His characterization would be valid based on the author’s experience of middle-aged white men, but a middle-aged, white male reader may feel the representation was inaccurate. It is the reader’s choice to continue reading or to put down the book.
Tallent’s novel was never specifically broached and, perhaps, the three editors had not been exposed to it or the arguments surrounding its content. But for me and the asker of the question (I assume), the specter of sexual abuse and removal of a victim’s voice from their story hung in the air.
The tacit follow-up questions for the editors were, “What is the editor’s role when navigating an author’s relationship to a subject? Should the editor question a writer’s handling of a subject based on the author’s identity or trust them to their creative interpretation?”
Without a definitive answer from the panel regarding My Absolute Darling, the question became one of censorship, a practice universally frowned upon. So, the question is left up to each individual editor as they encounter a new project: Who has the right to tell this story and do I have the right to tell someone else their account may not be valid?